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Immigrant rights activists join hands across the border – strength in unity

Created: 04 September, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
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4 min read

Jessica Rodriguez holds crosses during a rally in a busy Tijuana intersection to raise awareness of missing persons and in conjunction with Amnesty International's Day of the Disappeared. Rodriguez' husband has been missing for two years. Photo - David Maung
Jessica Rodriguez holds crosses during a rally in a busy Tijuana intersection to raise awareness of missing persons and in conjunction with Amnesty International's Day of the Disappeared. Rodriguez' husband has been missing for two years. Photo - David Maung

  They say power is in the numbers, and that is exactly the hope for family members of kidnapped and disappeared in Tijuana, who have signed a cooperation pact with the immigrant rights group and the search and rescue team of Desert Angels.

 The pact was sealed between the Citizen Committee against Impunity lead by Fernando Ocegueda in Tijuana and San Diego based Desert Angels founder Rafael Hernandez.

 It might be a strange mix, but their struggles are quite similar, because both groups are trying to find missing persons and face hardship in the legal responsibility “gray zone” created at the border.

 The Citizen Committee against Impunity has just recently celebrated the International Day of the Disappeared, a date observed by many in Argentina, Colombia and Chile.

 But last Sunday it was Tijuana’s turn, and over a hundred family members of those kidnapped or disappeared made a white cross fence around a ground where Santiago Meza AKA “El Pozolero” confessed after his arrest to having dissolved over 300 bodies, as part of his job with organized crime.

 There, association leaders condemned Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, claiming he has failed to fulfill his promise of a full investigation of the site along with top technology to pin-point places where human remains are still found underground.

 “Medina Mora meet with us 3 months ago and confirmed authorities have found human remains” Ocegueda explained, “but every time we come here we found the place virtually untouched, so despite it being illegal, if they don’t start digging up the bones in a month, we, the citizens whose loved ones might be there, will try to go in and dig them out ourselves. That’s all we have left.”

 That same sentiment of little support by the authorities is shared by Hernández, and his group of volunteer rescuers, who often take on the risk and expenses associated with a search party to find immigrants lost in the mountainous regions of the border.

 Many times, their efforts are met by the gruesome finding of a body, dried by the sun, a small consolation for grieving families.

 According to Hernández, over a hundred people have been reported missing to the Desert Angels in 2009, most of them made their last phone call at border towns like Tijuana, right before trying to get to US territory illegally.

 In recent months, Desert Angels have rescued 15 immigrants who where in danger in their journey, but another 11 are still reported missing, most could have already died in the harsh Arizona Desert where the walk to a near by town can be as far as 70 miles long fighting with 120 degree heat.

 Many immigrants who are reported as missing by their relatives might just be lost in a border town or might be crossing the dessert with no cel signals, but a growing trend or immigrants are abducted or robbed by their own smugglers, who then extort their relatives into giving them ransom.

 “New smuggling gangs are less ethical; they are formed by violent drug addicts or young men linked to organized crime” said SDSU professor and human rights activist Victor Clark Alfaro.

 This trend also binds the crimes and victims together, because impunity seems to touch upon all regions, across the border fence. And that’s where collaboration comes in.

 “We get at least a phone call a day from a family member looking for a relative” said Hernández, “we find it difficult to file a formal missing persons report in Mexico because we don’t know the system. And this step is important so that authorities are on the look out and actually investigate these cases in Baja California and not in their places of origin where no crime was committed.”

 And that’s where Ocegueda and other family members can help, because after 3 years of struggling with the Mexican law enforcement to investigate over 280 missing person cases, -including Ocegueda’s own son-, they have become paper-work experts and navigate the complicated judicial system.

 “We needed to join forces like we did, because immigrants are suffering from the same type of crimes other border residents are facing, and they also face the complication of authorities not willing to help, but we can help with the cases from Dessert Angels, so we have honest numbers and we can paint a real picture about these type of crimes.”