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Mothers searching for their disappeared children in Mexico are "being killed by drug cartels"

Mexico Mother's Day Protest
A protester carries images of disappeared people on Mother's Day during an annual march by mothers of missing people to demand the government help locate them in Mexico City, May 10, 2022. Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Mexico City — Another mother searching for her disappeared child has been killed in Mexico, the fifth murder of a volunteer search activist in Mexico since the start of 2021. Members of her search group called on Tuesday for justice in the killing of Maria Vázquez Ramírez, which they called "cowardly."
Prosecutors in the violence-wracked state of Guanajuato said Vázquez Ramírez was shot to death Sunday in the city of Abasolo. She had been searching for her son Osmar, who disappeared in Abasolo in June.
The motive in the mother's killing remained unclear. Most searchers say they are looking for the bodies of their children, not evidence to convict their killers.
There are over 100,000 missing people in Mexico, and police often lack the time, expertise or interest to look for the clandestine grave sites where gangs frequently bury them.

Hunting for hidden graves in Mexico 02:45

Much of that effort has been left to volunteer search teams known as "colectivos," made up largely of mothers of the missing. 

Vázquez Ramírez's group posted a tribute to her on Monday, showing a photo of her with her missing son and the words: "I didn't live long enough to find you."
It was the second such killing in just a month. In October, attackers in the central city of Puebla shot to death Esmeralda Gallardo, who led efforts to find her missing 22-year-old daughter.
"The searchers are being killed by drug cartels," said Guanajuato security analyst David Saucedo.
Two cartels — Santa Rosa de Lima and the Jalisco cartel — have carried out a years-long turf war for control of Guanajuato state. They kill and kidnap rivals and innocent people and often hide their bodies in mass graves or body dumping grounds.

Armed kids shine light on Mexico's drug cartel violence 06:40

"The cartels ... are burying the bodies in narco pits so they won't be found, so they won't be charged with kidnapping or murder," Saucedo said. "If there is no body, there is no crime."
"But the work of the search groups has been finding bodies, and that puts the narcos at risk," Saucedo said.
The volunteer umbrella group Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico decried the fact that searchers often lack adequate protection.
"It is the government's responsibility to guarantee the security of searching relatives, and it is also the government's responsibility to search for all the missing people," the group said. "Violence against searchers should not become the norm."
Faced with official inaction or incompetence, many mothers are forced to do their own investigations or join search teams that, often acting on tips, cross gullies and fields, sinking iron rods into the ground to detect the telltale stench of decomposing bodies.

Mexico Disappearances
Members of the Solecito Collective, who are seeking their missing loved ones, look for signs of clandestine graves at a municipal dump in the port city of Veracruz, Mexico, March 11, 2019. Felix Marquez/AP

The searchers, and the police who sometimes accompany them, usually focus on finding graves and identifying remains. Search groups sometimes even get anonymous tips about where bodies are buried - knowledge probably available only to the killers or their accomplices.
In one case in Guanajuato, the location of a clandestine burial site was reportedly given away by a stray dog that dug up part of a human leg and was seen running off with it.

In 2018, CBS News' Haley Ott spent a day with the members of a colectivo in the western Mexican state of Nayarit. Every member of the group had lost someone. They met twice every week to hunt for burial sites.

One of the group's members, whose name was also María, told CBS news the group had received a tip about a possible gravesite on the edge of town. She was looking for the remains of her son, whom she had seen grabbed off the street and thrown into a van months earlier. She said she ran to catch the vehicle, but by time she got there it was too late.

"They had taken him. He was in a truck a street away," she said. "Like I have my son, others have their children, their siblings, their spouses, their parents. There's every kind of person. That's why we're here; to search."

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