‘The disappeared’: searching for 40,000 missing victims of Mexico’s drug wars

As he set off into the wilderness under a punishing midday sun, Jesse Barajas clutched an orange-handled machete and the dream of finding his little brother, José.

“He’s not alive, no. They don’t leave people alive,” the 62-year-old said as he slalomed through the parched scrubland of tumbleweed and cacti where they had played as kids. “Once they take someone they don’t let you live.”

It has been six months since José Barajas was snatched from his home near the US border, for reasons that remain obscure.

“I think he was working so hard that he forgot his own safety, you know?” Jesse said as he recounted how his 57-year-old brother was dragged from his ranch and joined the ever-swelling ranks of Mexico’s desaparecidos – now estimated to number at least 40,000 people.

Jesse, the eldest of seven siblings, said US-based relatives had implored José to join them north of the border as the cartels tightened their grip on a region notorious for the smuggling of drugs and people.

“We told him how big a monster is organised crime. It is a huge monster that nobody knows where it is hiding,” he said.

But José – who had built a successful business making decorative concrete columns for ranches and was in the process of erecting a new house – was adamant he would abandon neither his workers nor his homeland.

“He was a man that believed in Mexico,” said Jesse, who left Mexico as an undocumented migrant aged 14 and is now a US citizen. “He chose to stay here because he thought that he could change things, you know?”

The disappeared are perhaps the dirtiest secret of Mexico’s drug conflict, which has shown no sign of easing since leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power last December promising a new era of peace.

Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

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