MONTERREY, Mexico — On the 13th day of the search for his missing daughter, Mario Escobar stood outside a gas station in the stifling heat, flyers clutching her photo and the remains of a desperate, lingering hope.
Hours later, in a wash of red and blue police lights, that hope was shattered.
The body of Debanhi Escobar was found Thursday evening in an abandoned underground water tank on the property of a motel in northern Mexico, where authorities have searched four times.
“I’m devastated,” Mr. Escobar said of his daughter’s disappearance. “My life has completely changed.”
The case of Ms. Escobar, an 18-year-old law student who disappeared on April 9, has sparked outrage and protests over a phenomenon now horrifyingly common in Mexico: the disappearance of women and girls across the country.
In the past month, at least nine other women and girls have gone missing in the greater metropolis of Monterrey, one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Nationally, more than 24,000 women are missing, according to government figures, and about 2,800 were reported missing last year, an increase of nearly 40 percent from 2017.
The rising number of disappearances is linked to the general increase in violence in Mexico in recent years, security experts say, in addition to the increase in organized crime, such as sex trafficking, as well as the high rate of domestic violence forcing many women to flee their country. houses.
But security analysts and human rights groups are also pointing to a wider failure by state authorities to conduct thorough investigations into missing women or prosecute femicides, fueling a culture of entrenched impunity.
As a result, desperate families are forced to take searches and investigations into their own hands, seeking justice for loved ones who disappear into the wilderness of an increasingly lawless nation.
“The state has just completely turned its back on its responsibility to investigate disappearances,” said Angélica Durán-Martínez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “It’s an environment that makes it easier for these practices to keep spreading because there’s no punishment or justice.”
A spokesman for the Nuevo León State Prosecutor’s Office, which also includes Monterrey and which was responsible for the search and investigation efforts into Ms Escobar’s disappearance, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
In a report released this month, the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances called on Mexico to address the crisis, noting that more than 95,000 people have been registered as missing. 8,000 people have disappeared every year in the past five years. Although most are men, the committee highlighted a “significant increase” in the disappearances of women, children and teenagers.
“Imunity in Mexico is a structural feature that promotes the reproduction and cover-up of enforced disappearances,” the UN commission said in a statement, noting that since November last year, only 2 to 6 percent of disappearances had led to prosecution.
In response, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who made tackling Mexico’s violence a central campaign pledge, said the commission’s recommendations were being followed. At a press conference last week, he pledged to support the federal government in solving the murder of Ms. Debanhi and vowed that injustice in Mexico is a thing of the past.
“Besides corruption, Mexico has hurt the most because they go hand in hand, the impunity,” said Mr López Obrador. “That is why we are talking about zero impunity, that the crimes that are committed are punished. †
But in Nuevo León, the authorities are more dismissive of the crisis. Just last week, prosecutor Gustavo Adolfo Guerrero cited a “lack of communication” between families and “rebelliousness” among teenagers as the cause of most of the disappearances of women, adding that most went missing as “a voluntary” decision.
Before Ms Escobar disappeared, there had been public outcry for weeks after a series of disappearances of young women in Monterrey, which seemed to underline the negligence of the authorities.
Yolanda Martínez, 26, went missing on March 31. According to her brother Jesús, it even took authorities two weeks to visit their home. She hasn’t been found yet.
“It’s starting to fuel our despair,” said Mr. Martinez. “I can’t tell you they’re not doing anything, but I can’t tell you what’s being done either.”
Three days after Mrs. Martínez disappeared, María Fernanda Contreras, 27, went missing. Through a family contact, Ms. Contreras’ father, Luis Carlos, obtained cell tower records showing the approximate location of her phone the last time it was turned on.
mr. Contreras searched the area and passed the information on to the prosecutor’s office. But he said it took authorities three days to seal off and search the area. By the time they found her, Mrs. Contreras had been dead for days.
“With all the information I had, I almost found my daughter, and these guys couldn’t do anything,” said Mr. counterras. “It is ridiculous.”
The Nuevo León Attorney General’s office has denied they were slow to act, noting that Ms Contreras was murdered the night she disappeared.
Then came the case of Mrs. Escobar, which only heightened the anger. The uproar sparked a rare flood of public support, with people offering everything from drones to sniffer dogs to aid in the search.
The night she went missing, Mrs. Escobar had been to a party on the outskirts of town. According to the prosecutor’s office, Ms Escobar left the party in a private car, but in the early hours of April 9, she got out of the vehicle on the side of a highway, where the driver had apparently left her.
The driver had been questioned twice by detectives, said a prosecutor who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Despite the staggering numbers, cases of missing women are often downplayed or ignored by the media and local authorities, according to security experts, with officials often involving women in their own disappearances or treating them as isolated incidents, not a systemic problem.
But with the increasing media coverage of the cases of missing women in Monterrey, authorities almost immediately launched an investigation into Ms Escobar.
A photo of Ms. Escobar, taken by the driver who left her on the highway, also went viral, thanks in part to the family’s efforts to draw attention to the case. She is shown standing alone along a highway, arms crossed and staring into the darkness.
For nearly two weeks, her family and friends searched desperately, sometimes walking through barren fields, searching the earth for signs of a buried body.
Finally, complaints about a foul odor by the motel employees tipped the authorities to check the water tank.
Nuevo León’s top security official, speaking to reporters last week, acknowledged that the search for Ms Escobar had been flawed.
“It’s a huge human failure,” said Aldo Fasci, the secretary of state for security. “They’ve been there four times and haven’t found anything.”
The cause of death was a head injury, according to prosecutors, Mr Guerrero. In an interview with Reforma newspaper, he said she was dead before her body was dumped in the cistern.
“We will use all available means to establish the facts,” Mr Guerrero said in a video message published on Facebook. “If these indicate that a crime has been committed, it will be prosecuted with the full force of the law.”
But the actions of the state authorities have already been called into question.
On Monday, Karla Quintana, the head of the National Commission for the Search of Disappeared People, pointed to several missteps by the prosecutor’s office, including failing to inform Ms Escobar’s parents that a body had been discovered, which they learned about on the news. They were then denied access to Ms. Escobar’s remains and were only given photographs, Ms Quintana said.
The day after the death of Mrs. Escobar was confirmed, hundreds of women took to the streets to protest, shutting down traffic across Monterrey. Many held the missing person flyers with the dead woman’s photo.
On Saturday, the body of Mrs. Escobar drove about three hours south of Monterrey to the town of Galeana, where her mother grew up. As the convoy of cars drove into town, dozens of residents lined the road, waving signs and white balloons.
After mass at a bare yellow church, the coffin was wheeled out of town, followed by a procession of dozens of people to the local cemetery, which sits on a hill overlooking soaring mountains.
“We are destroyed inside, our hearts are broken,” said Mr. Escobar. “We are sick and tired of everything that is happening in Mexico.”
Mrs. Escobar’s coffin was lowered into a cinder-block-lined grave. Wet cement was poured onto it, followed by dozens of flowers. Then women in the crowd began to sing a terrifying hymn, their words tossed away by the wind.
Chantal Flores contributed reporting.