By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
Blanca Jarama has been searching for her brother for the six years since she last received a call demanding a ransom for his life. José Jarama disappeared in 2012 crossing the U.S.-Mexico border near Reynosa, Mexico, a region where cartels are known to kidnap northbound migrants. He was 22 years old.
His sister, who lives in New York, still holds out hope that she will find him alive and, if not, that at least his remains will be found and brought back to the family home in Ecuador.
José Jarama was hoping to join his family in the United States but never reached his destination. His sister received repeated ransom demands in return for José. The kidnappers told her that if she didn’t send the money, they would send pictures of his body cut up into pieces, she said.
“I kept sending them money but we still knew nothing of José,” she said in an interview, moments before she stepped on stage Saturday afternoon to share her testimony before a crowd of about 50 people at a Battery Park vigil for migrants who have disappeared trying to cross the U.S-Mexico border. “These have been some of the most painful years for my family. The heartache of a sister who lost her brother never stops.”
The vigil, put together by advocacy organizations including the Colibiri Center for Human Rights, No More Deaths, and Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate featured testimonies from mothers, sisters and daughters of migrants whose whereabouts are unknown.
The organizers displayed the names of 3,000 migrants whose remains have been found near border crossings and another 3,000 who still remain unaccounted for.
Pictures of the some of the vanished men and women lined the stage, surrounded by electric candles. Behind the memorial, the Statue of Liberty was backlit by the afternoon sun descending on the ferries making their way to and from Staten Island.
The event unfolded as recent U.S.-bound “caravans” of Central American migrants have been denounced as an “invasion” by President Donald Trump, whose hard-line immigration policies have put a spotlight on the U.S.-Mexico border region and the plight of migrants.
For organizers, Saturday’s event represented a culmination of the work they’ve been doing on the border for years.
Luis Osuna, 24, who works for Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate, a migrant rescue and advocacy group in San Diego, grew up in Tijuana and moved across the border to San Diego when he was nine years old.
“I feel this cause deeply in my heart, this could be any of us,” he said, referring to those missing. “These are forced disappearances due to violence and governments that have forced people to leave their countries, and the increased [U.S.] Border Patrol is funneling more people into more dangerous parts of the desert.”
Human rights activists say that the U.S. Border Patrol buildup in major crossing points like San Diego, Nogales, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas, has pushed migrants to follow more hazardous paths through isolated desert terrain, where thousands have perished.
With his organization, Osuna walks 10-15 miles every weekend combing the desert of Arizona for any remnants of migrants who have disappeared. Relatives of the missing, shelters and others provide the names of the missing. More often than not, the searchers come up empty. The desert, the heat and scavenging animals make quick work of any cadavers.
“The only thing that they found was her skull,” said Elena Gonzalez, speaking through a megaphone to those assembled at Battery Park.
Her mother, Othelia Munoz, 36, disappeared on the Mexico-Texas border in 1998, Gonzalez said.
“For…years I cried and I prayed and I thought God didn’t exist for those who are poor,” said Gonzalez, choking through tears. “I still don’t have her ashes, but my heart is more at peace now that a part of her was found.”
Gonzalez clutched the megaphone tightly as light snow started to fall. Then she looked up to the sky.
“I finally found you, my dear mother,” she said. “I promised I would find you, and I finally did.” As Gonzalez stepped off the stage, friends and organizers hugged her.
Between 2000 and 2017, human rights organizations say, an average of 372 people died along the U.S. border every year. According to U.S. authorities, a total of 7,216 remains, believed to be those of missing migrants, were found on the north side of the border between 1998 and 2017. But human rights groups such as Colibri say the number of remains found vastly underestimates the scope of the problem.
On the south side of the border, they note, Mexican authorities and civilian searchers have found a number of mass graves believed to hold the remains of migrants, likely victims of cartel violence. Most of those victims also remain unidentified.
At the vigil, a little girl, clutching a bouquet of roses to pay homage to the uncle she never knew and other missing migrants, stood in the audience. She wore a purple hat to shield her from the cold. She looked up at the stage toward her mother, Blanca Jarama.
“Until this very day, we don’t know where José is,” Jarama told the other family members of those who were missing. “But let’s not be scared because there are organizations and there are people who can help us.”
As she stepped off the stage, her young daughter waited with outstretched arms. Blanca Jarama squeezed the girl tightly and scooped her up into her arms, wiping the tears away from her own cheeks.