the summary of a year of living with the unknown after a disappearance on the U.S.-Mexico border
Eddie and Monse have asked that their last names be withheld for privacy and safety concerns. By permission of his family, this piece includes Andy’s full name, Andres Venzuela Cota, which is visible on his dental records and missing persons flyer.A year ago, through his brother-in-law Eddie, I learned how a Mexican national and Los Angeles area hair salon owner named Andres Valenzuela Cota had gone missing along the U.S.-Mexico border, trying to return home after burying his mother in Sinaloa. A few weeks after his disappearance, Andres’s large family of brothers and sisters, spouses and cousins, nieces and nephews-in-law were scared and anxious.
They turned to each other and individually they turned to outside sources including friends, hospitals, law enforcement and psychics on both sides of the border, even questioning the potentially dangerous coyote smugglers paid to safely guide Andres home – but they weren’t finding answers.
One year later, they know barely anything more than they did when Andres first went missing.
Born in Sinaloa in November 1965, Andres came to the United States in the 1980s. Eddie said Andres came on a visa and tried to apply for a green card*, but “something went wrong with the lawyers.” By the time Eddie met Andres’ sister Monse in 2007, Andres was running an established hair salon and employing eight people in the Los Angeles area.
But in December 2009, Andres and Monse’s mother fell ill. A broken hip developed nasty complications including internal bleeding. Andres was determined to return to Mexico and settle her affairs.
The family urged Andres to stay in the United States, telling him, “Don’t go, you’re in the process of fixing your papers.”
But Andres was determined.
Eddie recalls him saying, “You know, I wasn’t there for my dad’s funeral – I’m gonna go for my mom’s. No matter what, I’ll be able to go.”
After the funeral, Andres faced dangerous decisions about coming back to the United States.
Eddie said that concerned family members urged Andres to wait until they could find a legal way – but that might take years and Andres was anxious to return to his business. In his absence the business was being managed the only family member who’s yet to begin school at the college level, his niece Nid.
A family connection offered to use his smuggling connections to help Andres cross through Arizona. He even offered a discount – $3,000, half paid upfront and half after the successful crossing.
Andres left Baja California for Sonora in mid July 2011. He left most of his possessions, including most of his documents, with relatives in Tijuana and the rest with relatives in Nogales before he arrived in Cananea carrying next to nothing.
Andres’s last contact with his family was July 16th, 2011. He was scheduled to cross in the next few days, July 21st at the latest, he told them, and that the coyotes required him to leave his cell phone so that no one could track them. Andres also asked for $100 to be wired to him through Western Union so that he could buy supplies – but he never picked the money up.
Two weeks after the 21st his family began to get calls from unknown numbers. The callers claimed to have “someone you were waiting for who was crossing” – but hung up when asked questions about who or how. A niece traveled to Nogales but was told to stop asking questions.
At some point in his research, Eddie found a report I’d written on the dangers faced by border crossers and what the families of missing border crossers go through trying to find out what happened.
An email appeared without warning:
Thu, Aug 11, 2011 at 2:31 PM
My name is Eddie and we need your help for missing person, which is my brother in Law Andres. He is 45 years old and was trying to cross the border about three weeks ago from Arizona and he is missing since then. If possible please call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx to provide you with more information and hopefully find him. I will appreciate your help in this matter.
Over the next week, Eddie and I spent hours on the phone. He went over the dates of Andres’s trip and added updates as information came in from other family members.
“We have an idea about the footprints from what place he started to where he ended,” Eddie said.
Andres was supposed to travel with a group from Cananea toward a pickup point on the highway to Sierra Vista, crossing near Naco or Douglas.
But something had gone wrong. Andres had not arrived and when Monse’s family contacted the coyotes who were supposed to guide him they got contradicting information.
“Each one gives us a different story, you know?” Eddie said. “One said that he was separated, one said he was arrested.”
And the more Eddie learned about the situation the more concerned he grew.
“I didn’t know it was this bad until I started searching,” Eddie said. “It’s a hundred miles walk; miles of walking through mountains, desert and all that. How can somebody walk in this hard weather without food and water for hundreds of miles?”South to search (or: Benson)
In late September 2011 Eddie told me that he and Monse would drive to Arizona themselves to look for Andres and they agreed to stop in Phoenix on their way south on Sunday the 25th.
We met in a downtown restaurant.
After eating and going over a list of the dates and places Andres had traveled, I followed Eddie and Monse’s vehicle in my own car to Tucson. They planned on Monday to go to Derechos Humanos where they had been told to bring Andres’s dental records, photos and any other documents that might be helpful in identifying or locating him. The records would also be shared with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner to be compared against possible matches from the unidentified John Does there.
With no offices open on Sunday, Eddie and Monse decided to drive east towards Sierra Vista, perhaps stopping along the way at local law enforcement or hospitals, just in case.
I wondered if they had any idea how big southern Arizona can be to a single person crossing on foot.
I parked my car and rode along with them.
We reached Benson shortly before dusk and located police station closest to the highway. It was closed, but the lobby was open and Eddie used the phone to call dispatch and explain their search and after a short wait, an officer arrived.
“We come from California, I’m looking for my brother in law,” Eddie said. “He is missing for two months. I want to see if his name would come up in the system because we did everything possible online and calling to jails.”
The officer carefully looked over Eddie and Monse’s driver’s license and Andres’s paperwork to verify their family relationship.
“I’ll have to kind of prove that you guys are definitely here to looking for him, so that I can run it through our system,” he said.
The officer listened carefully to a description of Andres and his route then disappeared down the hallway with Andres’s name and date of birth.
“Give me one minute,” he said. “I’ll see what we can figure out for you.”
He disappeared down the hall, then returned to tell Eddie and Monse there was no information in the department’s database.
“Have you guys reported him missing with your local police department?”
“Not in California,” Eddie said. “I called many state prisons, hospitals in Arizona and they said that they’re not sure who’s behind the phone and because of personal information – that’s why we were coming here this weekend.”
The officer explained that without a missing person’s report, no one who ran Andres’s information like an officer checking a license at a traffic stop would know that anyone was looking for Andres.
“That is all we are going to get there, unless he has some sort of warrant,” the officer said. “It won’t tell us if he is in jail somewhere, it won’t tell us if he’s been picked up by Border Patrol or anything”
The officer urged Eddie and Monse to file a report when they returned home.
“The city is you are making the report from, you make the report there and then they put him into the system as a missing person and then gets put to every city within the states, the United States basically,” the officer said. “If we come across a person or we run his information it’ll pop up for us to say, ‘Okay, this guy is a missing person, can you contact so on and let them know that you are ok. So, at this point we don’t have anything, no record found.”
The officer also suggested contacting Border Patrol directly.
“The sector is the general area in southern Arizona, they cover from the border of New Mexico, Cochise county, lower Pima county, out towards the reservation, out that way,” he said. “The Tucson sector would probably give you most information.”
The officer shook hands with Eddie and Monse.
“Sorry I can’t help you guys out,” the officer said. “Good luck.”
Next Eddie and Monse followed blue traffic signs to Benson Hospital.
We entered through an empty waiting room and found the outpatients services desk. Eddie once again showed his identification and Andres’s paperwork as he explained their search to the two women in hospital scrubs seated there.
While one watched, the other ran a check that turned up nothing under Andres’s name.
“You guys already filed the missing person report?” she asked.
“No, not yet,” Eddie said. “But how the file for missing person will help us?”
“I can’t say really for Benson, but I see a lot,” she said. “When people do missing persons report, a lot come from Phoenix; we get a fax of the the picture of the person, how old they are, any appearance, features.”
She explained that the reports are given to admitting and also posted in the hospital’s emergency room and break rooms in case anyone recognizes a face or a name. Thanks to the reports, hospital personnel may even recognize a missing person outside of work.
“Then we can call and say we’ve seen this person, they’re here, or we’ve seen them,” she said.
“He’s a California resident,” Eddie said. “And he was coming from Naco, from the border.”
“On his way back to California?”
“Gosh, that’s so long, a big area to try to cover – I’m so sorry,” the woman at the desk said. “It must be hard.”
“There’s a national missing persons bank too, find out how they distribute that information, ’cause that’ll help you guys a lot,” she said. “But I don’t have information for every patient that has been in this facility, either as an outpatient they just come in for five seconds, or as ER patient and I don’t have a patient by that name.”
Throughout the drive back, Eddie seemed to have high energy with bursts of questions about Arizona and the desert – then lapse into thoughtful silences; Monse seemed to have withdrawn into herself as she watched the immense pastel landscape roll past.Fidel’s arrest
The fall of 2011 was filled with leads that led nowhere.
But then it got even more quiet.
Even the arrest of the person Andres went to for help crossing the border, Fidel, failed to lead to any answers.
Mexican law enforcement arrested suspected cartel member Mancinas Fidel Franco near Cananea on Saturday, January 21, 2012. He was then transferred to Mexico City and may face extradition to the United States on human trafficking charges in part related to the deaths of 11 immigrants killed in car accidents in 2009.
Fidel is described as a leader in the Pacific Cartel, also known as the Sinaloa cartel and using the alias Labrador Roberto Lopez. Most reports included Fidel’s arrest as a minimal addendum to high-ranking Sinaloa aide Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia’s death in Durango gunfire a day earlier – but on these details, they all agree.
Eddie called later that week to tell me the news and discuss his family’s reactions.
“We don’t know the details of how he was arrested, what happened, was he caught crossing more people?” Eddie said when we spoke again a few days later. “We’re thinking that if we can somehow contact the law enforcement so they can ask this guy where is Andres.”
Eddie said that Fidel, who is loosely connected by a relative’s husband’s relative, was the person Andres went to for help crossing the border. Since Andres’s disappearance, Fidel had told family members seeking information that he wants nothing to do with them.
I asked Eddie what effect the arrest could have.
“What I’m seeing, what happens when people like him get arrested, the Mexican government and law enforcement, they’re very tough on that. And they will get a lot of things,” Eddie said. “These people are in comfort, they have good life and they never see torture in their life probably. And once they get tortured, they will give some information out.”
The family, Eddie said, was hoping that they can reach law enforcement to have them ask questions about Andres too.
It had been over six months since the family last heard from Andres, who said he was in Cananea, Sonora and would cross soon.
I asked Eddie what they’re hoping to find out.
“Hearing some news, good or bad, would be some relief.”Filing the report
The family traced Andres’s journey, recovering his backpack and other belongings from Tijuana and Nogales, and debated whether or not it was safe to file missing persons reports with law enforcement in Mexico or the U.S. Eddie gathered documents, visited humanitarian volunteers and filed reports with local law enforcement and with NamUs. Monse and other family members went to psychics known as brujas.
At the end of March, Eddie called to give me report numbers.
Monse had filed a missing persons report with NAMUS, a national missing persons database. After we talked, he forwarded me the response from NaMus’s Regional Systems Administrator. The response asked for more information and more records: a police report, a DNA sample from a blood relative, fingerprints and dental records if available. The Administrator writes that a DNA kit can be sent to the law enforcement agency working with the family.
I knew Eddie had already obtained dental records and the family was considering the DNA samples.
But the police report was more complicated – it involved family politics and complicated dilemmas that reach back far past Andres’s disappearance.
Eddie told me that Andres and his large extended family are spread between his original home in Sinaloa and the California coast. It also spans a range of legal statuses – and comfort levels when it comes to dealing with both criminal elements and law enforcement. There’s Eddie, a legal resident from the Middle East who has a brother in law enforcement. There’s also nieces and cousins married to members of the cartels.
When it came to looking for Andres, everyone was uneasy with someone.
Eddie told me that he first spoke to law enforcement unofficially – and was advised that the family should file a missing persons report.
Other family members resisted. The conversation was ongoing.
When Eddie and his wife drove south to look for Andres in person last September, he said he was still unsure if a report had actually been made. Arizona law enforcement told him to get one filed, and that a report filed in LA would be accessible to anyone who looked up Andres’s information if they found him, triggering a notification of the family.
Eddie said he would work on it when he got back home. Shortly after he said a niece had finally agreed to make the report.
But Eddie said he learned in March that she never did it.
“She told the family she went to file, and they said they cannot file it because he’s illegal,” Eddie said.
Eddie didn’t believe that she actually tried to file the report, adding that there’s “no evidence that she went there or evidence that they even told her that.”
Eddie said he contacted the Los Angeles sheriff’s department through their Santa Clarita station and that the only record they had of Andres was his old address.
“They said that regardless of being legal or illegal doesn’t matter,” Eddie said. “It’s a person who’s missing, it doesn’t matter who the person is, we have to report it.”
“So guess what? We went two nights ago and filed the report.”
Eddie emailed me the report number, which I used to file a public records request.
There is an oft-repeated slogan for missing persons cases about the critical nature of the first 48 hours after someone disappears.
Andres had been missing over seven months.
But the reporting issues didn’t stop there.
When I filed a request at the Santa Clarita Station to get a copy of Eddie’s report, I received a surprising response.
My request and uncashed check were mailed back because the report had been voided.
When Eddie filed the report, the sheriff’s department ran a search for Andres and located records of his detention and November 2010 release documents from the failed attempt to cross the border from Tijuana that September. Therefore, without telling Eddie, the report was canceled and the case closed out.
Two brief, handwritten sentences on my records request response stated: “MP was legally deported to Mexico. RP needs to contact Mexican law enforcement.”
Andres couldn’t be missing in the United States because as far as the United States was concerned he was in Mexico.
Barrio brujas: turning to the other side
In June Eddie described what he considered troublesome developments when it came to how his family was handling Andres’s disappearance, now nearly one year ago.
“The family of Monse, they’re going to these people like card readers, they are like, you know, what you call this…?”
“Like psychics?” I asked.
“We’re dealing with those those brujas, you call them, brujas,” Eddie said. “Brujas are the people like psychics. They’re telling the family things.”
Monse’s niece, sister and brother have all gone and there are at least two psychics between them. Monse’s gone at least once now too.
“This is really depressing, you know, they went yesterday to this psychic lady, and said he’s dead, and they will find his body. He was tortured. He was starved. You know, bullshit like that.”
Eddie hadn’t gotten far expressing his skepticism to Monse.
“I’m telling my wife, but she doesn’t believe me. She thinks those things are true, and [the bruja]‘s telling them to go to the cemetery, put some bread, some water, his soul is floating around the earth, so he can go to heaven.”
Eddie said he wanted to confront the psychic, “you know, stop telling my family like that,” but Monse would not give him the psychic’s Los Angeles area address. No one would tell him how many times they’ve gone, he thought they were paying between $60 and $100 a visit – and if they stayed away too long, the bruja contacted them.
“She calls after a couple months and says, ‘oh, I have some news for you, come on over,” Eddie said.
“And they’ve been telling her family that Andres has been kidnapped, has been tortured, he’s been killed from starvation and killed two months ago and they should look for his body in Mexico,” Eddie said. “The family is very depressed. They’re crying. They’re upset.”
I asked if the bruja has at least given any hint of where to find him.
“No, she didn’t say the location,” Eddie said. “She said, ‘go to Mexico, to where he was disappeared, then go south’ – but it’s like, it’s not one street, but in the whole world.”
Now Eddie think thinks Monse may keep listening to the bruja too.
“She’s going to go see them again, and say, ‘oh, you will be able to find him in the south,’ and then she’s telling her to go to the cemetery in Nogales where the unknown people are buried’ – all kinds of stuff.”
He desperately wanted to do something about the situation his own way.
“I really want to be able to see what we can do to – if he’s dead, to find the body. If he’s somewhere, you know, to find him.”Voice of experience
While the challenges of crossing southern Arizona were unfamiliar to Andres, Monse, Eddie and the rest of their family, those along the U.S.-Mexico border know all too much about the risk that border crossers face.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, who’s campaigning for reelection this fall, grew up in Nogales and has been in office since 1993 and the whole department is aware of the dangers border crossers face after years of being involved in emergency rescues – or body recoveries.
“They’ve got a myriad of problems,” Estrada said. “You’ve got really, really rough terrain – there’s mountains, there’s valleys, there’s canyons. It’s very difficult to walk through these terrains and then there’s predators.”
Estrada said he’s referring not just to the snakes, big cats and scorpions but also the potentially brutal smugglers and robbers whom he refers to as “human predators.”
“Then they also run into the dangers of the weather it being too hot or too cold or they’re not familiar with it, they’re not prepared; they don’t have the proper shoes, the proper clothing, water,” Estrada said. “These people unfortunately, and I have a lot of compassion for them, they’re pioneers – they’re out there and they go out there and they have no idea what the dangers are and yet they’re so desperate and helpless that they find no alternative but to take those risks and those chances. In a lot of cases it’s not till they face that reality of all those dangers, all those things that can happen to them, that it kind of sinks in, you know it’s difficult, very, very difficult.”
In the last few years, Santa Cruz and other border counties have begun to see a shift.
“The numbers have been reduced, there’s less people coming through,” Estrada said. “Obviously there’s a lot of factors involved in that – the economy, better border protecting security, more technology, things of that nature and so that has cut down the numbers and that has cut down the numbers of incidents as well.”
But lower numbers don’t lessen the effects of each individual case.
Estrada said he’s familiar with hearing from the families of those who try to cross the border when that crossing is unsuccessful.
“Relatives on both sides of the border, relatives that probably were expecting them here and the ones that saw them leave, are very concerned when they don’t hear from them,” Estrada said. “It has a tremendous impact on the whole family unit, it’s a very tragic, it’s a very sad situation that these people face.”Questions not results
On the corner of my desk sits a manilla envelope.
The envelope has two copies of Andres’s dental records. Eddie mailed them, an extra set like the ones he’s taking to aid groups, medical examiners and law enforcement at every opportunity.
“I sent two copies,” Eddie said. “So keep one copy for yourself and one copy out. I have an extra copy here.”
But since the closing of the Cochise County Office of the Medical Examiner Office, I’m not sure where they could be sent to be used that Eddie hasn’t already delivered them.
“They talk about it,” Eddie said.
Between Eddie and Monse, there are differences of opinion over issues like talking to law enforcement, the brujas and other family members responses that are difficult to talk through.
“She’s very quiet and to herself,” Eddie said. “With her own family she’s not but anyone else, she’s very reserved.”
He and Monse still find ways to deal with the situation together.
“We pray much about it,” Eddie explained.
But as the anniversary passes, marking a year of searching, Eddie admitted, “I’m really exhausted by now.”
* Eddie has not described the details of Andres’s case. However, there is considerable general evidence that immigrants as a group are notoriously vulnerable to fraud when trying to get legal help. The situation can be exacerbated by advertising that plays on cultural and linguistic differences related to the term notarios which means a full fledged lawyer in Mexico but not in the United States. Illegal immigrants are less likely to report scams and fraudulent legal advisors because of their own precarious legal status. This may or may not have been the case with Andres.