Interview with Xitlali Miranda Mayo, coordinator of the The Other Disappeared of Iguala Search Committee
Xitlali Miranda Mayo is a psychologist in Iguala, Guerrero. She coordinates the The Other Disappeared of Iguala Search Committee, founded after the disappearance of 43 students from the teachers college in Ayotzinapa on Sep. 26, 2014. The search for students alive uncovered a dramatic situation: the area is littered with unmarked graves and human remains of missing persons in the context of the ongoing internal conflict triggered by the militarization of the territories, the infiltration of organized crime within the state and the so called “war on drugs.”
Fabrizio Lorusso, Latinamerica Press collaborator, spoke with Miranda Mayo regarding the search efforts for those disappeared, and what led the relatives to organize themselves to find their missing loved ones. According to the National Register of Data on Lost or Disappeared Persons, there are currently 27,659 people that are considered disappeared in Mexico; with the states of Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Veracruz having the highest number of victims of enforced disappearance in the country.
When was The Other Disappeared of Iguala Search Committee formed?
The search for the disappeared was started by students from Ayotzinapa, and that made many people reflect on the situation. Members of UPOEG (Union of Peoples and Organizations-State of Guerrero) arrived here when the students disappeared because several of the students are from communities where the organization works: in Costa Chica and La Montaña regions. They decided to travel to Iguala to find the students alive; but when they walked the hills they discovered graves; they even dug some of them up and found some human remains. The news caused a national outcry, but they turned out not to be the students from Ayotzinapa. So the question came up: “Who are they?” And no one cared. The authorities and the prosecutor’s office came, they saw the graves, and the response was just as absurd, “Well, they are not the students.” We could not overlook something like this the same way they did.
How did you get organized?
UPOEG summoned the families of Iguala who had missing relatives to meetings, but few of them attended. There was a sense of solidarity there; food and supplies were given away, but they did not participate in searches on the hills. My friends and I brought essential supplies, and a friendship was born with social leader Miguel Jiménez, who was unfortunately killed last August. He said: “You have to see it for yourself, because this is how you will fully understand the magnitude of the problem; it is not enough to tell it, we will leave at some point and you need to be aware that Iguala is a cemetery.” At first I thought he was exaggerating, but when I went there I realized that indeed the hill was littered with graves and it was a hard blow to take; before then, I had not realized the extent of the problem that many families lived.
So we held meetings with Father Óscar Prudenciano and we asked for help. We called families to the church with a clear purpose: “If you have a missing relative, come to give a sample of your DNA and let’s look for your family.” So they came; the fact that they could be tasted for DNA attracted them. The organization Citizen Forensic Science [made up of relatives of missing persons, and who make the use of forensic technology], directed by Julia Alonso, offered to perform these tests and the family committee, called the Search Committee, was born.
Let’s consider the fact that we are poor people here, without any resources, and we had fliers made with what we could save up; we also used the social networks, and we asked journalists whom we knew to attend. On Nov. 11, 2014, there was a big surprise, the basement of the church was full; there were 150 families in attendance. It was scary. The members of UPOEG did not arrive that day as one of their companions had been kidnapped, but something amazing and unexpected happened when the people began to speak and got on their feet and told their stories on the microphone, one after another. Everyone cried because the stories are tragic, of pain and impunity, of helplessness, of not being heard and not knowing what to do.
How did you start with the searches?
This happened spontaneously; we arranged for another meeting and the following Friday we conducted the first search with the families and that is when we found seven human remains. On Sunday we returned to the grave sites accompanied by the PGR [Attorney General’s Office]. It was like a snowball that swept away everything for the need of many families that had never been listened to before by the indifferent authorities. So they were given the chance to search, dig and find their relatives. This happened quickly and later the PGR did the exhumations. With some difficulty, but we did make progress.
There are several search groups in various parts of the state; but when UPOEG came, it taught us how to spot graves and we realized that it was something that had been missing from all our organizations. It may be the case that you have pending issues with the authorities, and if they feel like it, they will do something, if not, they will not act. So the movement of Iguala is the same as saying that something can be done because here we lack everything; we are in a deplorable economic situation, but still, the parents climb the hills, we figure a way to move from place to place and buy whatever is needed, or we ask for it. The idea is to share with other organizations, which in some cases have a lot more experience and are more advanced in other areas, the fact that sometimes results are obtained just by walking on the hills and in the roads is like when the fire spreads. We are proud to have contributed with our grain of sand.
What type of support and obstacles have you encountered?
With PGR it was all luck. A journalist got us in touch with Mrs. Eliana García, an activist who is responsible for the Office of the Assistant Attorney General for Human Rights of the PGR. They attended the meeting held with the families and promised to work with us. It is difficult because they have internal machinery that does not function by itself. As it is the case in many institutions here, it is hard for them to just go and do something they know it is their job. Without the participation of the families, this would have already been over. If the PGR goes searching unaccompanied, they do not find anything, but the pressure from the families something moves in its machinery, prodded, reluctantly, but it moves.
We now go out searching with protection provided by the Federal Police and, sometimes, by the Navy. However, it is limited protection; it may be a patrol with three or four federales [federal agents], but we pretend that we are protected. If it were not for that, we would have already suspended the search. Since more than two months ago now, the state government has been sending a van to transport the families. We have requested other support to the state and municipal government, but they seem mostly indifferent. The families need not only to search for their relatives but they also need to be provided other support because they are very poor, economically disadvantaged. When a person disappears, it is almost always who is in charge of the economy in the household, and as a result the family collapses in many ways.
Formal request for support have been made to the state government. In 2015, the daughter of Rogelio Ortega came when he was interim governor, and support was given, but we have 400 families, 200 used to come to the meetings and they sent a total of 18 production projects. Only 300 provisions [food and water] arrived at the meetings for 400 families. The state’s response has been lacking.
How many graves and remains have you found?
Some 145 human remains have been exhumed; 24 have been identified and 15 of these remains have been returned to their families. The other remains are still waiting [to be identified]. I do not have the exact figure of “positive graves” [clandestine graves containing human remains] and neither do the authorities have a precise number, but they are more than 100 or 120. There are also other clandestine graves with multiple bodies, up to six bodies.
Have you received any threats?
Personally I have never received a threat or harassment, neither by the criminal groups or the authorities, but Mario Vergara [member of the Committee who participated in the National Brigade of the Search for the Disappeared who in April gathered for the first time groups from across the country in Amatlán, Veracruz] has denounced the death threats he and his family have received. Then there was the murder last February of Norma Angélica Bruno Román, who had a missing relative and who participated in the searches. But we do not know the reason for that murder; an investigation has not been opened on this case. The group that goes searching has been declining: we were 70 at one point, then 40 and lately we are only about 20, but we do not always know the motives of why those persons give up the search.
Mario [Vergara], who is searching for his brother, showing a lot of courage and energy, learned many things about finding graves and was one of the main drivers of the National Brigade for the Search of the Disappeared [made up by searchers from Guerrero, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Baja California and Veracruz].
What lasting impact does the search have on the families?
In Iguala the problem is ignored, society ignores the movement for the missing, and there is no real solidarity towards the families. Rather, they are criminalizes not only at the level of institutions, but on a social level as well because society mistakenly thinks that the families are linked to organized crime just because they have a missing loved one. I have witnessed that for these families it is a relief when the remains of their loved ones are returned to them. It is too complex for me to think about how they feel because in my case I would wish they were alive and I would feel great pain, but they do not. The wear on them has been so great, and their entire journey and their pain so unbearable that when a family member is returned to them, all they feel is relief, especially a sense of peace.