Thousands of Mexican families mourn the 'other disappeared'

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Thousands of Mexican families mourn the 'other disappeared'
This is an 84-photo composite of people, each holding an image of their missing relative. The photographs of the 84 were shot between April and August of 2015 in the city of Iguala and surrounding towns. The world, and even most of Mexico, paid little attention to Iguala until 43 students from a rural teachers' college disappeared on Sept. 26, 2014. Two months after the students disappeared many other families in the area began coming forward to tell their stories, emboldened by the international attention focused on the missing students. Their message was simple: there are many more missing. They called them “the other disappeared.” The AP interviewed the relatives of 158 of those missing. Only 84 agreed to be photographed because they are still very fearful. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this Aug. 19, 2015 photo, a child flies a kite as others look out from an observation point overlooking the city of Iguala, Mexico. Iguala was thrust into the national and international limelight on Sept. 26, 2014 when three students were killed and 43 others disappeared allegedly at hands of the local police who then handed them over to a drug gang that disposed of the bodies, according to a federal investigation. The focus on Iguala has emboldened hundreds of local families to come forward and speak up about their own missing relatives. The families’ message was simple: there are many more missing. They called them “the other disappeared.” (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this Aug. 19, 2015 photo, painted crosses mark the site where two college students were killed and 43 more kidnapped, in Iguala, Mexico on Sept. 26, 2014. According to a federal investigation, the students were taken by police and then handed over to a local drug gang that allegedly killed them and burned the bodies. The incident cast national and international attention on Iguala, emboldening hundreds of local families to come forward and speak up about their missing relatives. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this Aug. 18, 2015 photo, the day ends in Iguala, located in a poor region of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. The city was thrust into the national and international limelight when three students were killed and 43 others disappeared. At least 292 people have been added to the list of missing from the area since the 43 disappeared there on Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this June 30, 2015 photo, relatives of missing people gather at the San Gerardo Catholic Parish in Iguala, Mexico. Two months after 43 college students disappeared, hundreds of families began coming forward to tell their stories, emboldened by the international attention focused on the missing 43. The families’ message was simple: there are many more missing. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this June 1, 2015, 2015 photo, high school graduation gifts for Berenice Navarijo Segura gather dust, awaiting her return atop a cabinet in her mother's home in Cocula, Mexico. On Berenice's graduation day, July 1, 2013, seventeen people, including Berenice, disappeared from Cocula, more than a year before 43 students from a teachers college were detained by police in nearby Iguala and never seen again. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this June 1, 2015 photo, a framed photo of disapperaed Victor Albarran Varela is surrounded by religious icons on a makeshift altar, in his home in Cocula, Mexico. On July 1, 2013 the explosion of gunfire echoed from the center of this town in the predawn stillness. A convoy of armed men had arrived in town and once they had left, 17 residents including Victor, had disappeared, never to be seen again. They are among the 25,000 Mexicans who have disappeared since 2007, according to the government’s count. Victor was 15 years old when he was taken. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this June 1, 2015 photo, Rosa Segura Giral makes pizza in her home, in Cocula, Mexico. In the days that followed her daughter's disappearance, Segura Giral retreated to her bed inside a darkened house. For months, she did not go out. For more than a year, she refused to make pizzas. “One has to learn to survive. I tell you, I hope that my daughter shows up.” Segura Giral said, her voice fading to a whisper. “I feel like any day she is going to come back. I feel so much like she has been traveling.” (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this May 31, 2015 photo, Mario Vergara Hernandez, right, and another unidentified person look at a hand-drawn map that was sent anonymously to Mario's phone pointing to the possible location of a clandestine grave in Iguala, Mexico. A group of relatives of missing persons in the region has banded together to search for their disappeared loved ones. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this May 31, 2015 photo, a relative of a missing person pokes a stick into the ground to later pull it out and check for the scent of decaying flesh during a group search for a clandestine grave after receiving an anonymous tip, in Iguala, Mexico. Since the government began excavating suspected graves found by this group scouring the surrounding mountains looking for their loved ones late last year, more than 100 bodies have been exhumed though most still await identification. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this May 31, 2015 photo, a relative of a missing person smells a stick that was poked into the ground, checking for the odor of decaying flesh, during a search for a clandestine grave from an anonymous tip, in Iguala, Mexico. At least 292 people have been added to the list of missing from the Iguala area since the 43 students disappeared there on Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this May 31, 2015 photo, a group of relatives of missing people walk in a field as they search in vain for a site of a possible clandestine grave after they received an anonymous tip, in Iguala, Mexico. Since the government began excavating suspected graves found by this group scouring the surrounding mountains looking for their loved ones late last year, more than 100 bodies have been exhumed though most still await identification. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this June 1, 2015 photo, relatives of Victor Albarran Varela look at a photo of him, at his home in Cocula, Mexico. He is among the 25,000 Mexicans who have disappeared since 2007, according to the government’s count. Victor was 15 years old when he was taken on July 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this May 26, 2015 photo, Rosa Segura Giral holds up a photo of her daughter, Berenice Navarijo Segura, in Iguala, Mexico. On the morning of her high school graduation, 19-year-old Berenice left for a beauty salon appointment, less than a five-minute drive from home, and vanished into the ranks of Mexico’s missing. Segura Giral says she has not lost hope for her daughter. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this May 12, 2015 photo, relatives of missing people gather under a tree at the San Gerardo Catholic Parish, in Iguala, Mexico. Little attention had been paid to the many people who have disappeared or been kidnapped in this region until 43 students from a rural teachers' college disappeared in this city on Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, Guillermina Sotelo, who is searching for her missing son, Cesar Ivan Gonzalez Sotelo, leads a group of relatives of missing persons as they look for clandestine graves in the dry brush on the outskirts of Iguala, Mexico. At least 292 people have been added to the list of missing from the Iguala area since the 43 students disappeared there on Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this April 21, 2015 photo, snapshots with brief descriptions of missing people are tacked to a board in the San Gerardo Catholic Parish in Iguala, Mexico. Little attention had been paid to the many people who have disappeared or been kidnapped in this region until 43 students from a rural teachers college disappeared in Iguala, Sept. 26, 2014. Two months after the students disappeared, hundreds of families began coming forward to tell their stories, emboldened by the international attention focused on the missing students. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, Mario Vergara explains how the pigmentation of rocks helps him as he looks for clandestine graves amidst dry vegetation on the outskirts of Iguala, Mexico. Vergara says that some stones have the look of having been recently unearthed in the digging of a grave rather than always having been on the surface. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, a man inspects a sandal during a search for clandestine graves in the dry brush on the outskirts of Iguala, Mexico. Authorities are of little help, say residents who have seen local police escorting gangsters through town and consider them to be a uniformed extension of Guerreros Unidos. That relationship was reinforced by the government investigation into the case of the 43 students, which concluded that Iguala and Cocula police had turned them over to members of Guerreros Unidos, who then killed them and disposed of the incinerated remains in Cocula. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this April 19, 2015 photo, Maria Guadalupe Gomez Hernandez, accompanied by her mother, swabs the inside of her cheek to submit a DNA sample to aid in the search for her missing brothers, in Iguala, Mexico. The international outrage over the 43 missing college students of Ayotzinapa emboldened hundreds of other families from the state of Guerrero, and for the first time spoke of their misfortune, adding the names of their loved ones to the governmentâs growing registry of 25,000 people reported missing nationwide since 2007. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this April 19, 2015 photo, Maria del Carmen Arce Pineda weeps as she talks about her two missing daughters while waiting to submit a DNA sample to aid in the search for her daughters, in Iguala, Mexico. Her daughters, Karla Sany and Blanca Azucena Aragon Arce went missing on July 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
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COCULA, Mexico (AP) -- The convoy of gunmen fanned out across the southern Mexico municipality of Cocula before dawn. Some carried names and blasted their way into homes. Others simply swept up whoever crossed their paths.

Seventeen people vanished from Cocula on that single day, July 1, 2013 - more than a year before the disappearance of 43 college students in the nearby city of Iguala would draw the world's eyes to the mountains of northern Guerrero and to the issue of Mexico's disappeared.

The disappearance of the students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa on Sept. 26, 2014, gave hundreds of other families who had loved ones vanish the courage to come forward, many for the first time, to report the crimes. These, they said, were the "other disappeared."

Among them was Rosa Segura Giral, who waited more than a year to report the abduction of her 19-year-old daughter, Berenice Navarijo Segura. Berenice disappeared on that July day in Cocula, just hours before her high school graduation.

"What if I report it and my daughter is nearby and they know I reported it, they hurt her or something?" reasoned Berenice's mother, Rosa Segura Giral.

It was not until other families began meeting at a church in Iguala last fall to search the surrounding mountains for their missing that Segura Giral finally filed a report with authorities.

More than 25,500 people disappeared in Mexico between 2007 and July 31, 2015, according to the government's count. In recent months, The Associated Press interviewed the family members of 158 of those "other disappeared" who came to report their cases at the church, provide DNA samples and go into the surrounding mountains with machetes and steel rods to look for hidden graves.

Many were more than reluctant to be interviewed. Still fearful but also furious, they speak hesitantly of children, parents and siblings dragged away before their eyes, of those who left home for work or stepped out to buy milk and seemed to be swallowed by the Earth.

Men or boys accounted for all but 15 of the 158 disappeared and ranged in age from 13 to 60 years old, with the majority younger than 30.

The families have found 60 graves and, with the help of federal authorities, recovered the remains of 104 people. Six of those have been identified and returned to their families.

There are many possible reasons for the abductions: Recruitment to fill the cartel's ranks with young men. Attacks on competitors. Profit from ransom money, or punishment for failure to make extortion payments. Regardless, the abductions sow fear.

Fear and the silence it induces allow the cartels to operate unhindered. Their infiltration of the police was so deep that after the disappearance of the 43 students, federal authorities arrested 66 members of the Iguala and Cocula police forces. The government investigation said the local police had illegally detained the students and then turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos gang to be killed.

Iguala is an important way station for the opium paste that is harvested high in the surrounding mountains as it begins its journey north to the United States. This geographic distinction makes it a valuable prize for the several competing drug cartels that operate in the region.

On the morning of Berenice's graduation, her family heard the barrage of gunfire from 20 to 30 men shooting their way into the home of 23-year-old Luis Alberto Albarran Miranda and his 14-year-old brother, Jose Daniel. Cocula's police never came out of the station 100 yards from the house, even as gunmen blasted the door open and shouted that they were federal police looking for weapons. They took the unarmed brothers away barefoot.

Less than a kilometer (half mile) to the east of the Albarran Miranda home, over a small hill and across a short bridge, armed men also shot their way into the home of their cousin, 15-year-old Victor Albarran Varela. While some relatives hid in the basement, an older brother scrambled over the wall and across the stream. He was shot in the ankle, but escaped. Victor had the bad luck to be in the bathroom when his mother herded the others into hiding, and he came face to face with gunmen looking for another brother. When they couldn't find him, they took Victor instead, "as insurance," his mother, Maura Varela Damacio, said.

Berenice Navarijo Segura disappeared soon after. She waited 20 minutes after the shooting subsided before hopping onto the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle to go have her hair and makeup done downtown.

When her mother saw the convoy of pickup trucks rumble past her house on its way out of town hours later, she never imagined that Berenice and her boyfriend could be inside one of them.

"I never thought this could happen to me. Never, never, never in my life. I never thought that people wanted to harm you so much. Because it's hurt that they cause you," Segura Giral said softly. "A lot of hurt."

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Christopher Sherman on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/chrisshermanAP


The Disappeared: Thousands Missing in Mexico

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