The year has been a year fraught with political turmoil for much of the United States, with major changes on the horizon for many families and communities across the country. What better place to uncover and tell those stories than the epicenter of American policymaking. This year’s Reporting the Nation/Reporting New York students trekked to our nation’s capital to do it. Join us in our Washington, D.C., journeys as we confront the issues facing America’s most vulnerable communities, from sex trafficking to healthcare to the opioid crisis. Read our stories here.
You probably saw the hashtag. You might have retweeted a link from Viola Davis, Andy Cohen, Gabrielle Union, or any of the other celebrities sending out appeals to find over a dozen missing teenagers. In March, #MissingDCGirls went viral, alongside the story of 14 teenage girls who all went missing in a 24 hour period.
But during a March 16th press conference, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said there was no sudden spike of missing teens. The number of people reported missing in the city each year has stayed the same since around 2014 and 99 percent are found.
But there was a story here.
“A fake news story helped us expose a real problem,” said Angela Rye, political strategist and the CEO of IMPACT Strategies.
Across the country, girls and women of color go missing at a disproportionate rate and get less news coverage.
Nearly 800 juveniles were reported missing in D.C. this year, with the vast majority of those children coming home on their own or being located by police. There are currently 18 open cases for juveniles who have gone missing since the start of the year, all of whom are Black or Latino.
On April 26th The Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls hosted a town hall after a call for more federal funds to find the estimated 64,000 black women reported missing since 2014.
Rye served as the moderator of the town hall, which challenged the notion that all missing teens are runaways.
Every year from 2012–2016, there have been more than 2,000 juveniles reported missing.
The lines blur between kidnappings and runaways. Once missing, some end up in the hands of pimps and sex traffickers. Teens and young women and even boys are sex trafficked. Many other girls runaway and then begin a cycle of leaving home only to be sent back by law enforcement, over and over.
Advocates say the struggle is to keep eyes on this issue long enough to make some real, positive changes. In the weeks since, they have focused on keeping the story from being forgotten.
Derrica and Natalie Wilson are sisters who founded Black and Missing Foundation nine years ago. The story of the 14 missing girls is hardly news for them.
“We’ve been sounding the alarm for years,” said Natalie Wilson. “Our black teenagers continue to be missing. Sex trafficking is happening now.”
One distinction that advocates for missing teenagers tend to emphasize is the difference between choice and force.
“Even for runaways, we have to ask, what are they running from?” Natalie Wilson said. “Most young girls don’t choose prostitution, or to runaway from home. They’re missing children.”
According to Natalie Wilson, escaping abuse was often a factor in missing girls.
The threat of abduction became a reality for the Scott family.
The teenage daughter of Linda Scott, the owner of a hair salon in Baltimore, Maryland, was almost abducted Her daughter, Kaniya, 16, called her, frantic and crying from a Baltimore public bus one afternoon. Three men had just tried to grab her and then cut off the bus with their vehicle when she got away from them. The three men had been plotting to take Kaniya. They scoped out the salon days earlier, pretending to be clothing vendors, and tried to talk to Kaniya, Scott said.
“I recognized the individuals and they asked for my daughter,” Scott said. “My daughter is 16-years-old, she doesn’t know these grown men.”
Scott immediately turned to the police, but has been disappointed with their response. She tracked down surveillance footage from a local business within eyeshot of the incident, and handed it over to the police. The police never contacted Scott to identify the suspects, though she knows what they look like.
“I’ve gone to the police station six or seven times in the last two weeks and nothing,” she said.
Scott said her daughter is scared, but doing okay. In the weeks after the near-kidnapping Kaniya is now monitored closely by her parents.
“As a teenager, she can’t go outside,” Scott said. “Now, her idea of having fun is me driving her around, or her dad.”
Some missing teens just need a safe place to run to.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork helps teens trying to flee pimps and get off the streets.
The organization tries to help kids reunite with their families when they can, but they know that in situations with abuse that’s not always possible.
“The systems are set up to blame somebody,” said founder Debby Shore. “You don’t want to blame the kids, but you don’t want to blame the parents either. We want to work with them if we can, to help people recover.”
Teenagers who can’t be reunited with their families can stay at one of their live-in facilities.
Advocates also encourage the policy of, if you see something, say something. Red flags to look for are teens out in public during school hours, and houses with “revolving doors”—a constant flow of multiple adults and teens coming in and out.
“We have instincts. Follow them,” said Natalie Wilson. She encouraged citizens to call 911 or the tip line on BAMFI.org her foundation’s website.
Derrica Wilson intends to push forward on the heels of this added media and public attention.
“What happened in D.C. four weeks ago did not just become and epidemic,” Derrica Wilson said. “But now it has a voice.”
Antonio Tizapa, from Iguala, Guerrero chants “Vivos se los llevaron, Vivos los queremos!” at a protest aimed at Mexico’s president who was staying at the St. Regis Hotel. In his hand he holds a photo of his son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, who is one of the 43 missing student teachers from Mexico’s Ayotzinapa’s Rural Teacher’s College . Photo by Cora Cervantes
Antonio Tizapa’s son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, would be 22 this year. Jorge Antonio was one of the 43 student teachers from Mexico’s Ayotzinapa’s Rural Teacher’s College, that disappeared in September, two years ago.
With tears in his eyes, Tizapa said that his son is alive. He said that his reason for speaking up is his son, but his drive also comes from the indignation he feels toward larger issues of corruption and impunity that have distorted Mexico’s rule of law.
Yesterday evening, Tizapa, stood across the street from the St. Regis New York Hotel in Midtown, clutching in his hand a poster size picture of his missing son. He joined dozens of protesters with raised Mexican flags and fists in the air who began to chant in Spanish, “Vivos se los llevaron, Vivos los queremos!” (They were taken alive, we want them alive!).
The protesters gathered to express anger and frustration towards Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto’s New York visit and to remind the president of the 2nd anniversary of the mass disappearance of 43 students that took place in Iguala, Guerrero.
“We are asking for international support so that our children can be found and so that those that are responsible are held accountable,” he said. “We are not here because we want to be here. We are here because we are the product of a bad government.”
Outside of the hotel, parents, students, and activists expressed the frustration they felt about poor policy reforms and the alleged corruption within Peña Nieto’s administration. When the protesters were told that Peña Nieto was arriving, they loudly counted up to 43 in remembrance of the missing students.
The story of the 43 missing students received media attention last week, when Mexico’s Official Chief Investigator, Tomás Zerón, resigned amidst accusations of incompetence and a lack of transparency.
The crime statistics in Mexico are staggering. Reports say 151,233 people were killed between December 2006 and August 2015. At least a third of the murders are connected to organized crime. At least 26,000 people have gone missing and are believed to have been kidnapped since 2007 and thousands of women are sexually assaulted. There are very few convictions.
The disappearance and government’s reaction to ongoing protests has drawn criticism from the international community. In April of 2016, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights strongly urged the Mexican government to take into consideration the recommendations made by the GIEI, an independent committee appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The GIEI’s report highlighted obstruction and inconsistencies in the Mexican government’s account of the disappearances. The report also made recommendations that included the need to strengthen the Attorney General’s office and the police department. The Mexican Government stated that they would comply with the GIEI’s recommendations, but no action has been taken.
Peña Nieto who was in attendance at the Foreign Policy Association 2016 World Leadership Forum Dinner to speak on U.S.-Mexico relations, was not available for comment. His office did not reach out to protesters, who had requested to meet with him.
The protesters drew a small crowd. Among them were tourists and immigrants from Mexico, who noticed the Mexican flags.
Not all agreed with the protestors.
“We try not to get involved with political matters,” said Diana Contreras, 25, who was visiting from Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico “There is a lot going on in Mexico, but there are different ways to respond.I don’t think these protesters represent the reality we live in Mexico.”
Oscar Gonzalez Castillo, 27, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, who has been living in New York City for eight years noticed the protest on his way home from work.
“I feel that it is fair that the protesters are here,” he said. “I feel bad. It is unjust for so many killings to go unanswered. I have family in Mexico. I feel helpless and sad… but I can stand here in support of the protesters,” he said.
TUCSON, Ariz. — Wedged in a back corner of Tucson’s historic Evergreen Cemetery, a 15-by-40-foot stretch of barren gravel hides 200 unidentified bodies. Next to it, two metal boxes hold numbered drawers filled with cremated remains.
No headstone dare tell the story of the dead, immigrants killed by the ruthless desert sun as they trekked toward new lives in the United States. Since 2000, an average of 180 bodies have been found each year in the Pima County, Ariz., desert.
A silent humanitarian crisis, their deaths traumatize loved ones and all who encounter their remains.
“I just want to know where he is, even if he is not alive,” said Denia Corral from her home in Hermosillo, Mexico, where her brother Armando left July 7 to find a job in America.
After a year of unemployment, Armando left Hermosillo on foot as part of a larger group trying to make it 160 miles to the border. But days later, the group returned, dehydrated and defeated by the record heat.
Insisting he could make the journey, Armando continued alone. Then his two daughters, sisters and mother stopped receiving his text messages and began to worry.
Armando disappeared in July, a month infamous for its deaths. The same month he vanished, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner recovered 59 bodies from the desert. In addition, it received 80 missing person reports this summer.
Only two of those cases have been resolved. The Mexican Consulate has received even more missing person reports, but hasn’t given them to OME since July 15, according to Reineke.
“The Mexican Consulate is doing their own investigating, but they don’t have forensic training,” said Robin Reineke, who works at OME matching missing person reports with forensic information gathered from bodies by physicians.
Reineke doesn’t have Armando’s name in her database, a giant spreadsheet of 787 unsolved cases.
The Consulate can examine faces of people that still have flesh, but bodies lost in the desert in July usually decompose too fast for facial recognition.
In other words, even if Armando’s body is at OME, there is no way to identify it.
OME and the Mexican Consulate coordinate and share information, including DNA tests they intend to store in a database, but holes in communication can sometimes cost families their chance at finding closure.
“We’ve looked for him in the desert,” Corral said, her voice trembling. “We went everywhere, but we don’t tell my mother, because when she found out we were looking, she was very upset. My sister even went to the U.S. to talk to the Consulate, but she found out nothing.”
“Maybe she was sold into sex slavery,” and, “Maybe he was drafted into the U.S. Army,” Reineke has heard families say as they speculate about the whereabouts of loved ones.
According to Reineke, families of the missing experience “ambiguous loss,” an unresolved loss similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, “but the traumatic event occurs every day because the person is lost every single day, and your mind is going through these horrible scenarios every day.”
While the families are left to their imaginations, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Parks tries to ignore the tragedies in front of him as he examines bodies on a daily basis.
“You just have to numb yourself and focus on trying not to think about the human — the personal loss — to do your job,” said Parks, who has worked at the office since 1986.
One DNA test costs $3,000, and more than 600 bodies have accumulated since 2000.
Stoic and neat in his starched blue shirt, Parks, who speaks in cold numbers and scientific terms like “specimen,” opened a giant refrigerator that reeks with bodies in plastic pouches on racks.
“Careful, if you go in the stench will get on your clothes,” said Parks, standing outside the gleaming metal door. “It’ll stay there all day.”
For years, bodies with slight hope of identification may stay in storage, before they go to the cemetery for unidentified persons. Since 2007, the county has cremated bodies to save money and space.
Border crossers are only one-eighth of the OME’s cases, Parks said, but the grueling challenge of identifying them takes most of his time. Parks and five other physicians compare teeth to missing persons’ dental records and take DNA samples of bodies with probable identities.
Parks inevitably encounters deeply personal stories. On one recent lunch break, he and Reineke watched a video of Nelson, a missing 13-year-old Guatemalan boy who tried to cross the border to join his mother working in Phoenix.
“He was so cute.…We were trying to pause the video right when his mouth was open because we don’t have dental records or a smiling photo…and we’d found a skull (of a 13-year-old) that has one of two front teeth that didn’t grow,” Reineke said.
But Nelson’s image in the video didn’t match the skull in the office.
“That means we have a missing 13-year-old boy and a dead one, and they’re not the same person,” said Reineke.
Policemen also confront deaths as they scour the desert for what they call “UDAs,” or “undocumented aliens.”
“I recover 10-7s, or ‘out of service’ — well, I guess I should call them deceased persons,” said Officer Gerardo Salazar of the Tohono O’odham Nation police. In his high pickup truck, he sped down dusty roads of the Native American reservation, where 44 of the 59 bodies were recovered in July.
“It gets pretty hard to deal with, especially the smell,” he said, pathos creeping into his voice. “Like marijuana has its unique odor, this has its unique smell. It’s just overwhelming. You know that person was alive before.”
The last time he recovered a body, one sweltering August morning, the Border Patrol called him to a remote precipice where two seized immigrants said their friend had died.
Salazar shuddered, recalling the image of the dead man.
“I’m connected to it as being Mexican. I know how hard it is to come to the U.S.,” said Salazar, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, where he still has family.
It is harder to come this decade than ever before, said Julian Etienne, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate.
“We have fewer people crossing and more people dying,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. government developed “prevention through deterrence,” increasing the number of Border Patrol officers in border cities.
But the “natural deterrent” of the desert became a new treacherous obstacle migrants tried to overcome.
With the “funnel effect” of immigrants crossing through Arizona, deaths shot up, according to University of Arizona Professor Rachel Rubio-Goldsmith.
In the 1990s, an average of 14 bodies were found each year in the Pima County desert. With the “funnel effect,” that number jumped to 180 this decade.
But, desperate for work, migrants still attempt the crossing every day. Rubio-Goldsmith says the problem is systemic.
“The responsibility of the worker is to feed his family,” she said. “People all over the world are saying, ‘I’m not going to sit here and die. I’m going to go out and find a way to survive.’ Those people are the way to the future — they’re tackling the human side of globalization. The future is (that) we have to find a new way to control borders.”
The unmarked bodies in the cemetery are more than nameless individuals, she said.
“The deaths are something we’re all responsible for. Personal choice is always involved,” she said. “But we can’t place sole responsibility on the individuals when we have structures in place that make this happen.”