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Bringing Laredo's missing home

The FBI hopes to use DNA samples to find the bodies of missing Americans.

An officer patrols a street in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in early June 17, 2005, amid an escalating drug war. Dozens of Americans have gone missing along the border, and the FBI is now collecting DNA samples of unidentified bodies in Mexico. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

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.