As It Happens

She lost her brother 9 years ago. Now she's trying to forge peace with Mexico's cartels

Fed up by a lack of action from the government or law enforcement, a Mexican woman with a missing brother has taken her plight directly to the people she says hold the real power in Mexico — the cartel leaders.

Delia Quiroa calls on crime bosses to end the grisly pratice of killing people and making them disappear

A faded family photo of a woman and two small children.
Delia Quiroa and her brother Roberto with their grandmother when they were children. Ricardo, now a father of two, has been missing for nine years, and Quiroa, now an activist, believes he was 'disappeared' by Mexican cartels. (Submitted by Delia Quiroa)

Warning: This story contains graphic content.

Delia Quiroa hasn't seen her brother Roberto in nine years.

The father of two is one of hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico who have simply disappeared, leaving no trace behind for desperate family members. Quiroa strongly suspects he was killed by gang members — but she may never know for sure. 

"My brother was a good person…. He was a good man," Quiroa, the president of a national victims' advocacy group in Mexico City, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "I look for him every day."

Fed up by a lack of action from the government or law enforcement, she's taken her plight directly to the people she says hold the real power in Mexico — the cartel leaders.

'They are human beings too'

Quiroa has published an open letter, addressed to the bosses of the country's most notorious organized crime syndicates, calling on them to sign a pact to promote peace and end the practice of killing people then making their bodies disappear. 

"They are human beings, too," Quiroa said. "People in cartels are missing, too. And their mothers are looking for them."

The letter plays up that shared humanity, noting that people in Mexico join gangs not out of malice, but out of a lack of opportunities. 

"We have something in common," reads the letter, roughly translated from Spanish. "We are abused by our government — you when you are detained, and us as victims, who are looking for our relatives, having no one to defend us," it reads. 

A faded photograph of a man looking over his shoulder and smiling.
Roberto disappeared on March 10, 2014, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. (Submitted by Delia Quiroa)

Cartel members, the letter notes, love their families and mourn their dead like everyone else, as evidenced by their participation in traditions like Mother's Day and the Mexican Day of the Dead. 

"I have decided to speak directly to you through this document and remind you of your origin," Quiroa wrote. "Our collective longs for our disappeared relatives to return, dead or alive, as well as for this practice to be eliminated."

If the cartel leaders don't sign on, Quiroa says she and the other members of the victims' collective will travel to the states where the gangs are based, and appeal to them in person. 

'Your family will never have closure'

Nathan P. Jones, author of Mexico's Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction, says the cartels are unlikely to end what is, for them, an important tactic for wielding power.

"Organized crime, by its very nature, relies on credible threats to get cheap compliance from people. And one of the ways that they can do that is by … killing and disappearing people," Jones, an associate professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University, told CBC.

"This has been a common tactic for, you know, the better part of a decade now. There are places in Mexico where the threat actually is: 'They will not even find a single one of your ashes when we disappear you. Your family will never have closure.'"

And it's grisly work, he said, carried out by people known colloquially as "soup makers."

"That's actually a euphemism for dissolving bodies in acid, among other mechanisms, including industrial-scale graves," he said. 

A group of people, many in matching T-shirts, stand in the dessert, their heads covered from the sun. Several of them point in the same direction direction.
Relatives of disappeared people take part in a collective search in Valle de las Palmas on the outskirts Tijuana, on April 28. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations reported last year that Mexico had registered a record 100,000 missing persons cases, but Quiroa's victim advocacy collective estimates the real number is three times as high. 

Of the official missing persons cases recorded last year, the UN said only 35 had resulted in conviction of perpetrators — something Jones attributes, in part, to government corruption, and in part to poorly funded law enforcement made primarily of former soldiers who lack any real investigative chops. 

Jones says Quiroa is putting herself at great risk by speaking to, and against, the cartels. It's not uncommon, he said, for activists in Mexico to disappear. 

But while a cartel peace deal is unlikely, he says Quiroa's work — and the work of other Mexican citizens fighting for peace — has real merit. 

"I think that it is part of a broader civil society effort to draw attention in Mexico to these issues," he said. "That does play an important role … which is putting pressure on the government."

President signals support

And the government has taken notice. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — better known as Amlo — publicly declared his support for Quiroa's proposed peace deal during a news conference earlier this week, reports Mexico News Daily.

"I agree [with the proposal], and hopefully peace will be achieved — that's what we all want, for there to be no violence, no homicides, no aggression because it affects everyone," he said. 

A gray-haired man in a suit with a solemn expression on his face.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says he support Quiroa’s proposed cartel peace deal. (Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

But Quiroa says nobody from the president's office — or any other level of government, for that matter — has reached out to her. 

"The government don't do nothing, nothing, nothing…. The cartels are free to do whatever they want to do," she said. "That's why I decided to talk to the cartels."

She says she knows brokering peace is a long shot. But since nobody else will help her find her brother, she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands. 

"It's like a dream. I know that it's very, very, very, very difficult, impossible, to happen," she said.

"But my wish is [to] live in peace here. I want to go to the supermarket in peace. I want to keep my children, my daughter and my son, [safe]."

Interview with Delia Quiroa produced by Kate Swoger.

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