Mexico City - Painted in large white letters on the street outside the windows of Mexico's National Palace, is both a question and a plea: "Where are they?"
About a dozen families, along with their supporters, have set up camp outside the residence of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for nearly two weeks to demand the government take their search for the country's estimated 61,000 disappeared seriously.
Already struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the families fear the fight to find Mexico's disappeared is being further derailed by austerity measures announced by Lopez Obrador in April, which they say will end vital funding and support to families of the disappeared.
The Commission for Assistance to Victims (CEAV), a government body, faces cuts of up to 75 percent of its budget and has warned its operations will be "paralysed" and that the National Victims Registry, which contains information on more than 34,000 people, will be lost.
Among the families' demands is a meeting with Lopez Obrador, who has so far not obliged. In Veracruz on Monday, families protested a visit by the president, saying "you only meet with El Chapo's mother", a reference to Lopez Obrador's controversial handshake with the mother of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Lopez Obrador has previously denied that victims will be left without support, instead, arguing that austerity measures are needed to end "mismanagement" and to "impose order" on the state's finances.
Activists and relatives of missing people play drums during a protest outside the National Palace, in Mexico City, demanding answers from the Mexican government on the whereabouts of their loved ones [Pedro Pardo/AFP]
But the comments ring hollow for the families and friends of those disappeared, especially as people go missing despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has also hurt the search efforts.
"COVID hasn't stopped the murders," said Angelica Ramirez, who has dedicated her life to searching for those gone missing since the disappearance of her friend and friend's daughter in Tijuana. The body of her friend, 24-year-old Jasmin Gopar, was later found, and Gopar's 11-month-old daughter Valeria was rescued from a couple who had kidnapped her.
"The executions. It hasn't stopped any of this," Ramirez told Al Jazeera.
At the end of March, Ramirez and others found a hidden mass grave in Valle de San Pedro, between the cities of Tijuana and Tecate on the border with the United States. over three days they recovered eight bodies. But the site now lies abandoned, with Ramirez's collective unable to access it to try to recover others.
"Now we can't work there and everything's at a standstill. They [the government] withdrew our security so we can't go there," she said, referring to the Mexican government's lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Without protection, usually by troops from Mexico's National Guard, searchers like Ramirez face considerable risks.
A soldier wearing a mask amid the coronavirus pandemic watches a protest by relatives of the disappeared in front of the National Palace in Mexico City [Eduardo Verdugo/Reuters]
Despite Mexico's COVID-19 crisis showing no signs of abating - with more than 150,000 confirmed cases and at least 17,500 related deaths - the country began to ease certain restrictions on June 1. With non-essential activities ceased, however, families of those disappeared say their efforts to find their loved ones are taking a severe hit, and without action, they fear the disappearances, by organised crime groups and state actors, will continue unchecked.
"For the bad people who carry out the disappearances, there's no quarantine. There's no COVID. There's no government. There's not a situation which will stop them," Ramirez said.Ground searches suspended
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 2 the Movement for our Disappeared, made up of more than 60 collectives of families from 22 Mexican states and El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, announced the suspension of search activities during the health emergency, but called on Mexican authorities to commit to continuing its efforts.
The vast majority of the forced disappearances have been committed since former President Felipe Calderon launched his "war on drugs" in 2006, by both organised crime groups and elements of the state. That is in addition to the more than 250,000 people who have been killed.
Motives for disappearances have varied, but have included efforts to terrorise civilians or rival criminal groups; sex trafficking; organ harvesting; repression of journalists or activists; and forced labour.
A woman wearing a mask amid the coronavirus pandemic holds an image of a person who was disappeared, during a protest in front of the National Palace in Mexico City [Eduardo Verdugo/AP Photo]
Until the coronavirus crisis hit, groups would search for bodies and remains in unmarked or open fields and morgues. Others searched in prisons, hospitals and other institutions for those who may still be alive.
The field operations have largely stopped and other efforts have slowed, but Karla Quintana Osuna, the head of the Mexican federal government's National Search Commission (CNB), which coordinates the government's role in search efforts throughout the country, said her office was still searching databases and responding to immediate disappearances. Families worry, however, that is not enough.
Their stress is only compounded by the isolation and financial difficulties felt during the coronavirus pandemic itself.
"For all of those with disappeared people, this compulsory isolation means lost days until our loved ones return home," said Virginia Garay Cazares, founder of the Warriors Searching for our Treasures collective.
Garay Cazares is searching for her son who disappeared in February 2018 as he walked the three blocks from his home to the hamburger stand where he worked in Tepic, the capital of the state of Nayarit. He was 19 years old.
"He never arrived at work or came home," she said.
"We still don't know what happened. Nobody saw anything," she added. "The last comment made to me was from one of his friends, who said he'd been picked up by a police patrol. But we don't know anything."
Garay Cazares said despite the pause in on-the-ground searches, she and others are finding innovative ways to keep their efforts active.
"We need to stay active. We can take this as a physical break, but not mental. We're continually thinking about how we can create new ways to search, for example using social media and all the media possible," she said.
Twitter, Whatsapp, Facebook, Zoom and other social media platforms have become vital for families of the disappeared to communicate and organise among themselves, but also to keep the scandal of disappearances in the public consciousness.
"For us families, facing this tragedy and pain of disappearance, we've turned our pain into a struggle," Garay Cazares said.
"We need them to see us. To hear us. So that the disappeared don't disappear permanently during this emergency," she added. "We're clear that in this moment, life is a priority for everyone. If we're not healthy we can't go out to search for the more than 61,000 people who are disappeared."The call for forensic cemeteries
Families also worry that the COVID-19 crisis could overwhelm Mexico's already-saturated morgues, and possibly lead to the destruction of the unidentified bodies. In 2019, the National Human Rights Commission said there were more than 30,000 unidentified bodies or remains in the country's morgues.
"In Mexico - due to the crisis of disappearances, the forensic crisis and the law regarding disappearance and victims - it's very clear that you can't cremate anyone who is unidentified, or who has been identified but unclaimed, even if they died, or are thought to have died, from COVID," said Quintana Osuna.
"We have to preserve these bodies in order to have the possibility of identifying them afterwards," she added.
A relative of a missing person bangs a pan during a protest to demand the Mexican government take the search for those disappeared seriously [Pedro Pardo/AFP]
In response to those concerns, and after advocacy by the CNB and the families of the disappeared, the Mexican government promised not to cremate victims of COVID-19, removing a previous stipulation in the Guide for the Management of COVID-19 Corpses that said the bodies of coronavirus patients should be cremated.
Still, families fear unidentified bodies will be placed in mass graves as the body count continues to climb.
"There are going to be many more people going to mass graves, due to both COVID and bullets," Ramirez fears.
While it is possible to later recover and identify bodies from mass graves, it is a difficult task, CNB head Quintana Osuna added.
For this reason, and with an added impetus in the face of COVID-19, the National Search Commission has been pushing for the establishment of forensic cemeteries, with individualised internment and detailed records of cadavers, allowing for easier future identification.Disappearances continue
That call comes as the violence in Mexico continues to escalate. March had the highest homicide total - 2,585 - since records began in 1997, adding to pressure on President Lopez Obrador. The total number of homicides were slightly down in April and May, but June 7 saw the most homicides in 2020 with 117 recorded.
As the country's health emergency has steadily deepened over the last months, both Ramirez and Garay Cazares have dealt with new cases of disappearances, including the alleged escape, and subsequent disappearances, of four young girls from an orphanage south of Tijuana. The two eldest girls are 16 years old, the youngest 10 months. At the time of publication, only one girl, 12 years old, has been found.
That reality is one of the reasons why the families camped out outside the president's residence have promised to stay put until their demands are met.
On Saturday, the group of mostly women directed their songs and chants of justice at an open window of the National Palace, in the hopes that their words would reach Lopez Obrador.
Noticing an open window, the women began singing Sin Mieda (Without Fear), a protest song by Vivir Quintana, which rails against Mexico's intertwined scandals of impunity, state violence, disappearances and femicide.
"Every minute of every week, they steal our friends, they kill our sisters, they destroy their bodies, they disappear them, don't forget their names, please, Mr president!" the women sang out.
As they finished, the window closed and they started singing again.