LAREDO, Texas — On Jan. 2, 2003, Laredo resident Sergio Ortiz told his wife that he'd be back home in an hour. The 49-year-old former deputy sheriff was working as a private investigator on traffic accidents and divorce cases, and he had a meeting with a prospective client in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just across the river.
“I’m still waiting,” his wife, Daniella, said last month.
So are dozens of other families in South Texas. Together, they form what might be the largest cluster of U.S. residents with relatives who have gone missing in Mexico. These families organized as "Laredo's Missing" several years ago, when drug violence in Nuevo Laredo was at its peak. The group has since grown to include more than 30 families. Their goal is to pressure Mexican and American authorities to find their loved ones across the Rio Grande.
For the most part, their efforts have been to no avail. Now, there's a chance that some of these families may not have to wait much longer.
As the U.S. government announced it is increasing security along the border and with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visiting Mexico March 25 and 26, the FBI is trying a new strategy, with help from Mexican authorities. Prosecutors from the neighboring Mexican state of Tamaulipas are letting FBI technicians collect DNA from the remains of more than 100 unidentified bodies found in Mexico. As the samples are collected — along with DNA from relatives in the U.S. of those who are missing — the FBI has been looking for matches using its DNA database near headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Click here to read more on the U.S.-Mexico relationship.)
“We’ve got to find a way to resolve this,” said John A. Johnson, the assistant special agent in charge of the McAllen, Texas FBI office. “I mean these are American citizens. If your loved one’s been missing for four years, for God’s sake, that’s a long time, a very long time.”
So far, no matches have been found. But, with Mexico's drug war producing ever more unidentified bodies, the FBI's grim work will go on.
No single agency in the American government keeps an exact, up-to-date tally of how many Americans are missing in Mexico, although U.S. victims of kidnapping or murder have been logged from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California. The numbers — some of which are tallied by the U.S. State Department, while others are kept by various FBI field offices — constantly evolve as cases are resolved but are not always communicated among the law enforcement agencies, FBI officials concede.
The FBI has reported 75 open cases involving kidnappings in Mexico of Americans from Texas to California. But FBI officials admit the number is much higher. Some go unreported by families who prefer to handle ransoms or searches privately.
The McAllen, Texas FBI office — which is responsible for the area in which Sergio Ortiz lived — has 35 open cases of Americans who have gone missing since 2003.
The FBI's DNA program has not been tried anywhere else along the shared U.S.-Texas border. It made sense to try the program in Texas first because it's the only state where families of the missing had organized themselves.
Johnson, of the FBI, said that he came up with the idea of checking DNA after other efforts failed. When Johnson broached the subject with counterparts in Tamaulipas, he found state officials willing to lend a hand.
“If we can’t get them back safely, the next best thing is to bring the body home,” Johnson said.
Unidentified bodies are buried in unmarked graves in Mexico. Before burial, hair and tissue samples, fingerprints and detailed photographs of each victim are taken and stored in prosecutor’s offices in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo.
Helping the FBI is just the right thing to do, Tamaulipas State Attorney General Jaime Rodriguez Inurrigarro said in a telephone interview with GlobalPost. And, he said, there's always the chance that the FBI’s DNA database will help identify a missing Mexican citizen or two as well.
Officials on both sides of the border say finding a DNA match is a long shot.
A sad fact of Mexico’s drug war is that many bodies are never recovered. Cartel gangsters are fond of leaving their victims unrecognizable — using acid baths for example, so that they can’t be found.
Not all of the families of Laredo’s Missing greeted the news of the FBI’s work in Mexico with enthusiasm. Johnson said at least several families have refused to provide DNA samples.
But not William Slemaker, the founder of Laredo's Missing. Slemaker's stepdaughter Yvette was kidnapped, along with another young Laredo woman, four years ago. Several months ago, Slemaker's relatives provided blood samples to the FBI.
“I’m still hoping they find our loved ones alive," he said.
As for the family of Sergio Ortiz — who's now been missing for more than five years, and who was one of the first on the Laredo's Missing list of those who have disappeared — the years have dragged on with miserable inconclusiveness.
For years, his wife, Daniella Ortiz, pressured officials on both sides of the border to search for her husband.
But now, she said, she would be relieved if human remains in Mexico matched hair samples taken from her missing husband’s hairbrush.
“I don’t want to know who did it, who’s involved, who’s responsible. I don’t care,” she said. “The only thing is if someone could confirm for me that these are my husband’s remains. I want them to bring them to me and have a proper burial and ... just know those are my husband’s remains.”
Read more about Mexico's violent drug wars:
A tale of two Laredos
The cross-border bullet trade
To live or die in Mexico