Mexico’s Search Brigades for the Disappeared: Rebuilding Society from the Ground Up

The images have become almost a cliché – the pick and the shovel, the rudimentary tools used to search for bodies, buried with no goodbye, in fields and forests throughout the country. Mexico, turned into one big clandestine graveyard.

But the images and the phrases repeated at every march and demonstration–- “They were taken alive, we want them back alive!” “Where are they, our children, where are they?” “We´ll search until we find them” –have deep meaning for families that are searching for disappeared relatives. They’re signs of identity and belonging, a way to turn pain into action. They’re also proof that the most profound personal grief can forge one of the most important social movements in the country today.

The pictures of the citizen search brigades show relatives of all ages in white t-shirts, setting out to dig up bodies, determine who they are and who’s looking for them. The photographs are compelling because they touch fundamental human sensibilities. They break through the taboo on death by exposing what society does not want to see. They refuse to normalize the ignominy of thousands of men, women and children buried in secret, without so much as a marker or a tear.  They use the wrenching force of a mothers’ loss to demand the truth.

Between January 18 and February 1, the 4th National Search Brigade excavated clandestine graves, in the hillsides of the state of Guerrero. More than 180 people, mostly family members organized in collectives from 19 states of the republic, made the Brigade the largest in the history of this innovative form of grassroots organizing.

The model began at the national level with the First Brigade in the city of Amatlán in the violence-plagued state of Veracruz, in 2016. But it began evolving long before. The first seeds were during the caravans of the Movement for Peace and Justice in 2011.

Mexican victims’ organizations went through stages marked by mobilizations, political and personal learning, internal and external obstacles, progress, mistakes and achievements. In short, the construction of an authentic social movement.

The searches are organized by Enlaces Nacionales—National Links—a national coalition of grassroots organizations made up of families directly affected by the violence and lack of justice in the country and founded by María Herrera, mother of four disappeared sons. Allies strengthen the movement by bringing in specialized skills and solidarity. The circle has broadened to include psycho-social support groups, human rights and peace activists, universities, communities of faith, specialists in forensic and search techniques, and individuals whose hearts were stirred by the grim reality of disappearance on a massive scale. In the Guerrero search, the group worked directly with the Guerrero Front for Our Disappeared.

The idea is to build out from the individual to socialize the pain and indignation and turn it into an active, collective response. Together they’ve created a larger family, one that offers solace and organization as a tool to defeat despair. The. brigades present a direct challenge to the system of death that disappears people and refuses to acknowledge the families’ grief. Some 70 percent of those who dedicate their lives to organizing, searching and advocating for disappeared loved ones are women. They’ve become the frontline of resistance against a society that not only kills, but also dehumanizes the living.

When the brigade finds a corpse or human remains, it’s cause for celebration. One more family anxiously searching for signs of their son or daughter can hold the rites that mark the transition from life to death and bury their loved one. The discovery of bones or bodies also exposes the terrible human cost of the war on drugs in Mexico. The 4th Brigade uncovered seven bodies and almost 100 skeletal remains in clandestine graves in Las Terrazas, Chilpancingo, Iguala, Cocula and Tetelilla, Guerrero. In one place, they discovered remains in wells that had already been examined by government agents who had strung up yellow crime tape and left important evidence on the site. The brigade denounced, once again, the negligence and indifference of the authorities.

But the search involves much more than looking for bodies to identify them and take them home–although in a country with somewhere between 40,000 (recognized by the government) and 100,000 (estimated) disappeared people, this is a very important task and remains the core of the organization’s work. For the first time, the 4th National Search Brigade formally added community activities in the areas where they carried out the searches.

Every day that a team went out to the hills with picks and shovels, other teams went into town with balloons, music, performances and talks. It’s part of what they refer to as “reconstruction of the social fabric” and building a culture of peace. To do that, they have to find ways to break through the fear to speak openly of the tragedy of disappearances, and at the same time begin to envision safe and happy communities that can heal themselves. Children laughed at the clowns and then opened up to talk about their missing brothers or fathers.

As the first citizen search brigade since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, the families of the disappeared noted that “there were many successes, but many mistakes”. The Undersecretary of Human Rights, Alejandro Encinas, joined a search in the field one day and committed the federal government to restructure the programs that, according to the victims, have been an expensive effort to pretend to do something about the problem.

There were also critical moments when the authorities did not comply with their commitments on security for the brigade and follow up on the search results. The organizations of the disappeared  have criticized the government for the drug war policy that sparked the violence, for the dysfunctional justice system and for the re-victimization that relatives of the disappeared encounter from the authorities. To a large extent, the formation of an autonomous movement was the result of frustration with the endless negotiations with government officials who were inept, indifferent and in many cases  in collusion with the criminals.

The announcement of new programs to combat disappearances and carry out effective searches opens a new phase of work. However, the groups are very clear that the government cannot replace the work that they  have developed from the grassroots. Although the state has the obligation to act, it does not have the capacity, knowledge and especially the level of commitment of family members.

The biggest reason the families will not stop organizing even if the government begins to do what needs to be done to resolve disappearance and forced disappearance in the country is that their movement of families who search doesn’t seek only human remains: it seeks the transformation of society from below. It seeks a transformation that humanizes  society, a society so broken that thousands and thousands of people lie hidden in clandestine graves, and every day the number grows.

The 4th brigade faces this horror with the only instruments it has: organization, solidarity, love and, yes, the pick and shovel.



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