Liliam stared out the window of the bus as it rumbled down the highway. She had come to Mexico for three weeks to look for her sister, Jaqueline. Eleven years ago, Jaqueline had tried to immigrate to the United States. She never made it. Like so many Central Americans before and after her, Jaqueline vanished into the desert.
Jaqueline offered a smuggler $6,000 to get to Texas. Her husband had left for America years earlier. Two weeks after her departure, according to an immigrant who traveled alongside her, Jaqueline twisted her ankle while they were crossing the Sonoran Desert. Liliam received a call stating that the group had left her by a road with some water and a few cookies, which seemed like small payment to save their own skins.
Liliam is barely five feet tall, whispers the punchlines of her jokes, and wears wire-rim bifocals that make her look even more demure. But she dusts herself off when accidents occur and prays to God that all will be saved. She became part of an annual caravan run by the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, which helps people from Nicaragua and the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—search for relatives who have gone missing.
“I pray to God that she went out onto the road and someone found her,” said Liliam. “Her sons asked for her almost every night.”
The Northern Triangle is the epicenter of bloodshed in Latin America. But it’s in Mexico that people who travel undocumented disappear. Since 2014, when the US started to help increase border security along the Mexico-Guatemala border, migrants have gone looking for more remote routes, placing them are at the mercy of roadside criminals and traffickers. Nobody knows how many have gone missing, but according to an informal estimate from shelters, in 2015 alone, the number of disappeared migrants reached 7,000.
Liliam’s three searches, the last of which was in 2016, included morning shuffles to showers in migrant hostels, visits to churches and hotels, and cramped-leg afternoons on the bus watching music videos of Latin American pop singer Juan Gabriel. At every stop, across eleven states of Mexico, she helped put out hundreds of photographs of missing loved ones to see if passersby, who skirted around the plazas, recognized them. It’s an old-fashioned way of finding someone, but one of the few methods left to families looking for the undocumented.
The problem of migrant disappearances is not a new one. In 2007, at the time of Jaqueline’s disappearance, Mexico’s death count was hurtling skyward. It was the first year of the military’s war against the cartels. But the situation in El Salvador was no better. Gangs have had de facto rule of the country since the 1990s, when the United States began a major program of deportations aimed at immigrants convicted of crimes. El Salvador was recovering from a decade-long civil war, and the influx of these deportees filled a power vacuum. The gangs’ extortion tactics have since strangled small businesses, leaving families like Jaqueline’s with few dollars in their wallets.
When Jaqueline set out for the US, she left her two sons in Liliam’s care. For Liliam, every hiccup of news, every cut-off phone call, every tectonic shift that came afterwards seemed like a warning. Their lives remained unstable. During the caravan, she received information that an earthquake had hit off the coast of El Salvador, and she sank down onto a set of stairs and tried to dial home. It was a knee-jerk reaction honed over many years. To live having lost a family member somewhere in the US-Mexico borderlands is to live forever in that moment of panic, the phone still ringing, the fate of your loved ones still unclear.
Forensics labs in Mexico function at a snail’s pace. The Mexican government established the Unit for the Investigation of Crimes for Migrants and began allowing Central Americans with missing family members to submit police reports remotely at the end of 2015. When Liliam’s group arrived at the government offices in Mexico City the following year, they checked boxes next to eye color (dark brown, light brown, green, blue, or honey) and for hair (straight, wavy, or curly). They listed birthmarks, scars, and tattoos.
The investigative unit was established after a series of massacres in northern Mexico. Seventy-two migrants’ bodies were found in the city of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010; another 193 in the same city in 2011; and 49 in Cadereyta, Nuevo León, in 2012. But the unit has a small annual budget, currently $55,000, and the vast majority of cases are never reported. If the person’s body was illegally cremated, if it has skeletonized, or if is never recovered, the official reports that Liliam’s traveling group filled out would not be of much use.
The caravan’s strategy has to do less with forensics, in order to identify the dead, than with spreading the word throughout Mexican cities where many migrants have stayed, even if they were originally planning to go to the United States. The premise is that, in a small number of cases, people are alive, but either too distressed to contact their families or unable to reach them.
“The DNA tests do not work if you do not have a database to compare them with. They’re a symbolic gesture,” said Martha Sánchez Soler, one of the founders of the caravan. It’s the informal sleuthing, organized with the help of families’ collectives, that has given the Central Americans a shot.
When Liliam’s group was at the shelter Casa de La Caridad, in San Luis Potosí, a buzz ran through the crowd. One of the five hundred migrants who had lined up for breakfast had recognized a face in one of the photographs strung up on a line in the cafeteria. It was not of Liliam’s sister, but the nephew of a woman who had cracked jokes next to Liliam on the bus.
“When did you see him?” asked Anita Zelaya, a sharp-tongued spokeswoman who had coordinated the families from El Salvador, her pen at the ready to note the details. She knew that migrants often invent names to conceal their identities, and that they do not look identical to their old photographs, which narrows the possibilities of identifying them correctly.
“Thirty-two days ago,” said Amilcar Antonio Amaya. He opened a map, marked with thin red and blue lines, to show how he had gone north. But it was unclear whether he had confused the man with another middle-aged migrant with a white t-shirt, a receding hairline, and a case of blistered feet. Was it a false alarm? Or would the man turn up in another shelter?
María Gloria Cabrera, whom Liliam called “Grandma,” said her nephew had lived with her in El Salvador after his mother was killed in the United States. He was a jokester like his aunt; his friends nicknamed him “Cantinflas,” after a Mexican comic. He had last called from the northern state of Baja California.
Cantinflas’s story spoke to what Liliam most feared. She and Jaqueline used to buy burgers for Jaqueline’s sons on their birthdays. They lifted them onto a carousel’s wooden horses on weekends. Liliam wondered what might happen if those kids set out one day in their mother’s footsteps; wondered if they, too, might not make it.
Liliam’s aim on the last caravan had been to get as far north as she could, close to the border with Arizona, because that was where her sister had last called. The Mesoamerican Migrant Movement bought her a plane ticket to get close to Altar, in the state of Sonora. She allowed the Colibrí Center, a non-profit that works with the local medical examiner’s office in Arizona, to swab her mouth for a DNA sample.
The wall was not what she expected. Local boys told her that they had seen migrants fall while climbing over the metal bars, breaking bones when they hit the ground below. People tied hand-made crosses to it to commemorate those who had lost their lives in the crossing. Afterward, Liliam was gripped by the nighttime desperation that comes only when everyone else is asleep. She saw what might have happened to her sister.
She had listened as Sánchez Soler accused the authorities of taking part in the “business that has turned migrants into merchandise” instead of “imprisoning the true kidnappers, who hold people against their will and force them to pay for their liberty.” She heard of people registered under false names in jail, where they languished for years; working under pseudonyms in brothels; in hiding after escaping forced recruitment into the cartels. She was tired of people’s tentative optimism. She dreamt of flying home.
In the weeks that followed, Liliam began to send around dire chain messages about what happens if one loses faith: “The owner of the Titanic said, ‘Not even God could sink this boat,’ and look what happened to him. Marilyn Monroe said, ‘I don’t need Jesus,’ and three days later they found her dead.”
Liliam is the middle child of seven. Her father was the boss of a truck drivers’ union, and he went to Mexico nearly forty years ago. He took her brothers with him, so they would not be recruited to fight in El Salvador’s Civil War, leaving a household of women behind. Liliam’s family has enough land on Espíritu Santo to sow some seeds and keep a few horses, but they have often been hard up for cash. Liliam had been named after a late aunt, Lilian, the “m” a typo on her birth certificate. But changing the final letter cost 100 colones (after Cristóbal Colon, known in the US as Christopher Columbus), half a month’s groceries, so the family kept her name.
Liliam and Jaqueline lived in San Salvador, the capital, nearly two decades ago. They used to sell fish and shrimp caught by the fisherman on the island they came from, but when their business caught the attention of local gangs they began producing homemade tortillas instead. In 2010, a handwritten note slipped under their door informed them that they would have to pay a tax to the gang to keep up the business, but they were only making $300 each month. Their situation was not unique: El Salvador’s central bank estimates that Salvadorans are extorted out of $756 million each year.
So they moved back to the island, where Liliam worked part-time for a coconut cooperative, one of the main employers there. In 2014, according to one of the business managers, the company slashed production after a severe drought and a harsh winter, leaving Liliam without a full-time job. Liliam turned toward other forms of makeshift employment. She carries pictures on her phone of the heart-shaped earrings she carved out of coconut shells when she was not measuring fabrics for handbags or clearing weeds from her family’s field.
It’s not just the economy that has pressured people like Jaqueline to leave; the threat of violence lurks in every corner. Liliam heard stories of migrants held at gunpoint or tumbling across the freight trains after losing their grip in the middle of the night, but even she started to doubt whether her family could keep living in El Salvador.
Early one morning, in December, 2016, Liliam’s telephone rang. No strangers from El Salvador ever called her in Espíritu Santo. Half an hour later it rang again. At 2 pm, once more. The calls came again in the mid-afternoon and again at 5 pm. In the United States, they would be a sign of a fast-talking telemarketer. But for Liliam, it was much more than an annoyance. She had previously received a call telling her that one of her nephews had been kidnapped and demanding money. It had been a false alarm, a faker, but she began to think there was a bullseye on her family. “Sometimes the walls have ears,” she said.
In January 2017, she said, the gangs started demanding more payments from small business owners on the island, and temporarily halted the ferry service that brings people to the mainland. In March, she received another text message from someone threatening to kidnap her older nephew and force him to join a gang. Gang members had developed a presence along the road from the boat dock to her nephews’ school, so Liliam told the boys to stop attending.
She started trying to sort through the paperwork to get out of El Salvador: letters from the Salvadoran organization for migrants’ families, letters from the boys’ school. She became paranoid someone would find out they were trying to leave for Mexico, where her brother lives. Then, in June, her nephews’ father called to say that he had found them a smuggler. Since they were almost adults, she was not going to prohibit them from going to the United States. Instead, she went with them, thinking she would return later to be with her mother.
A couple of days after the boys’ father had called, Liliam was standing with them at a bus stop in Guatemala when three men walked up asking for one of her nephews by name. She followed them, thinking they were the coyotes, as contracted smugglers are called. They took the few dollars Liliam had, then escorted her and her nephews into a series of dingy rooms. They told her they would take one boy in the morning, and her and the other one in the afternoon. She heard the men talking about how San Pedro Soloma, the town to which they were headed, was known for trafficking of drugs, weapons, and organs, and started to doubt their intentions.
“Please just tell me how I can find a bus to Huehuetenango,” Liliam said. The boys’ father had only paid $4,500 to his contact in Houston—not nearly enough for three people.
“Don’t even think of leaving,” said a woman who was ironing sheets outside one of the rooms.
“These men are going to kill us,” Liliam remembers one of her nephews whispering.
Liliam thought of her sister, who, a decade before, may have found herself in a similar room. She may have remembered Juchitán, Mexico, where the caravan had stopped to plant flowers for the unidentified migrants buried outside the cemetery. How the concrete wall separating the sea of headstones from the unassuming dirt patch was painted with yellow footprints. The portrait of the Virgin Mary, a green shawl draped over her head, staring at the ground.
In the middle of the night Liliam heard a disembodied voice. “It’s time to leave,” it said. The door was open, so she grabbed her nephews and bolted. They raced back to Espíritu Santo, where Liliam’s mother would end up in the hospital, having imagined that they were all dead. They would continue to dream of leaving, to Canada, to Mexico, to anywhere they could make a life for themselves.
“When we were closed in that last room, I said to God, ‘I don’t want my nephews and myself to go through the same thing my sister went through,’” she said. “The psychologist says that we have to talk about it, so that we can eventually get over what happened. But the boys don’t want to remember.”
Liliam regularly shares a photo of her sister on Facebook: Jaqueline in a plaid sleeveless shirt, her bronze lipstick shining in the camera’s flash. The two boys, in neat button-downs, each have a hand on her shoulder. Neither of them is smiling. They are looking at the lens with a soberness that does not match their age.
“Where are you? I’ve looked for you where God has wanted me to go,” Liliam wrote in December. In May, one of her nephews shared the same photo, and wrote: “You’re not with me, but I wish you the best wherever you are. #TeamoMami.”
Having a disappeared family member is often not enough to deter another generation from attempting to leave. The average Central American cannot qualify for a tourist visa to come to Mexico, so they continue traveling without documentation under cover of darkness, or packed into the backs of trailer trucks.
“It’s not a decision that they make freely, nor do they want to migrate. I have more than five cases of people who said, ‘I am afraid, because I am going to confront what my husband, my brother, my son went through when he crossed the border. But I don’t have any another option,’” said César Contreras León, a lawyer for the Fundación para la Justicia y El Estado Democrático de Derecho, which provides legal aid to missing migrants’ families.
The circumstances in which people find one another are always serendipitous, which maintains the faith of families like Liliam’s. The Mesoamerican Migrant Movement has managed to reunite about 300 families in the past thirteen years. They have heard from immigrants who first read about the caravan in a newspaper, find reports of it from local radio, or stumble across it by chance when walking back home at the end of the workday.
Liliam thinks about what she told her sister when Jaqueline asked whether she should leave the country, about those moments of uncertainty before it all fell apart. “If I tell you that you should stay and you can’t manage with your sons here, you’re going to say it’s my fault. If I tell you that you should leave and something happens, you’re going to say it’s my fault. So the decision is yours, but if it were up to me, I’d tell you not to go.”
The loss of Jaqueline has made the boys grow up fast, and following in their mother’s footsteps made them grow up faster. Liliam has not tried to take her sister’s place. Instead she dreams of a woman, her face more deeply lined, her hair just beginning to turn grey, approaching through a crowd. She imagines her asking if, all that time, they’d been looking for her.
*The last names have been excluded for the safety of people in this story.