Miriam Báez Murillo is a rarity in Mexico. The fact that her son was forcibly ‘disappeared’ isn’t rare at all—there are more than 37,000 people on the official register of disappeared persons.
What is rare about Murillo is that she is ‘lucky’ enough to have actually found the remains of her son, José Manuel Herrera Báez, who disappeared at the age of 26 on May 27, 2017.
Criminal gangs, police, and the army, sometimes at the behest of local authorities, have been abducting people with virtual impunity in frightening numbers since the country’s drug war was militarized in 2006.
Murillo is one of the less than one per cent of families of people on the ‘disappeared’ registry who have had the remains of their loved ones found and formally identified.
That’s 340 people, or 0.91 per cent, of the 37,485 on the official list.
Báez disappeared after he was allegedly arrested by municipal police at the home of his girlfriend, in the city of Mazatlán in the northwestern Pacific state of Sinaloa.
His remains were found about six months after he disappeared, in a field outside the city by a ‘colectivo’ on one of their búsquedas, or searches.
There are dozens of such groups across Mexico comprised of kin of the disappeared. They search for their lost family members, they say, while the authorities do nothing.
“The people who find their loved ones in this way, we cannot understand the immensity of it, because we always have hope of finding them alive,” Murillo said, recalling the day she heard her son had been found.
“The sadness is enormous and that’s something we have to cope with.”
On the afternoon of Dec. 20, 2016, she was working her stall at the San Pablito fireworks market in the town of Tultepec, about an hour north of Mexico City, when tragedy struck.
Explosion after explosion ripped through the dozens of stands at the market, where up to 300 tonnes of fireworks are thought to have been on sale.
Claudia, whose family has been making fireworks for four generations, ran for her life.
“I heard the explosion and I ran out, but when I did I saw a black cloud of smoke which had enveloped us and many lights,” she said.
“I didn’t have time to do anything and when I turned to look for my friend at the next stand, she wasn’t there.
“So I ran, and I ran, and I ran, until I came to the fence. But the smoke was everywhere, so I ran for the exit. I don’t remember how or when I got to the road.”
The cause of the initial explosion that afternoon, at the height of the firework-selling season just five days before Christmas, is still unknown.
That day, 42 people lost their lives, either killed instantly by the blasts or succumbing to their injuries later in hospital.
“It is a painful experience we still haven’t recovered from. It hurts us still,” Claudia said.
The tragedy was the worst to have ever struck Tultepec in terms of loss of life—but it is just one of 55 explosions connected to the town’s firework industry to have been recorded since 1998, according to a list compiled by the Mexican newspaper Excelsior.
These incidents have resulted in 119 deaths in a town with a population of just 120,000 people.
Pictured at the top of this post, Juventino Luna, Tultepec town hall’s representative with special responsibility for the fireworks industry, with some ‘bomba’ fireworks at one of the town’s regulated workshops, 01.10.18 (Tim MacFarlan)
Even in death, Sinaloa drug lords can’t resist showing off the enormous power and wealth obtained thanks to their murderous careers.
In a cemetery on the outskirts of Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa and home of the infamous cartel of the same name, some of the most elaborate and expensive mausoleums in the world mark the final resting place of dozens of former ‘narcotraficantes’ – or narcos.
Costing up to $500,000 each and featuring gold-plated domes, Italian marble and luxuries like wifi, air conditioning and satellite TV, many of the tombs at the Jardines del Humaya are like mini-mansions.
But the gaudiness at the cemetery 15 minutes’ drive from the center of Culiacán hides the grisly reality of the lives of many of their inhabitants.
I visited early in the morning with journalist and Culiacán native Miguel Angel Vega – early because come the afternoon and evening friends and family are known to hold parties for the deceased at their gravesides and some do not take kindly to visitors.