On March 16, 2017, Albino Quiroz Sandoval popped out of the house around 5 p.m. for a little trip to the shop. The 71-year-old lives in Tepoztlán, a small colonial town with little crime, a weekend getaway from hectic Mexico City. Quiroz had been a public school teacher for 48 years. Everyone knows him.
By 8 p.m., he wasn’t home. His family grew worried. His son Juan Carlos Quiroz, who was a 90-minute drive away in Mexico City, got a frantic call from his sister.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Juan Carlos recalls. “My sister and I thought it could be a kidnapping.”
It is a reasonable assumption. More than 37,000 people have disappeared in the country since 2007, according to a Mexican government database. Independent monitors say the number is even higher.
The family quickly found Albino’s car just a few blocks from his house but saw no sign of him. Juan Carlos kept digging. He questioned neighbors and reported the disappearance to police. But searching for people who’ve disappeared isn’t easy in Mexico.
“People are afraid to speak out because they don’t know the consequences, who might be behind a certain action or if they might become implicated,” says Juan Carlos.
He pushed on and soon learned his father had been lending money to a local lawyer. More stories emerged about the lawyer: He was allegedly a con man, targeting retirees with sob stories of mounting medical bills for a sick daughter. The retired schoolteacher, who had lost a son in a tragic house fire years earlier, would have been a perfect target.
Juan Carlos later found an eyewitness who said he saw Albino in the lawyer’s office and watched the lawyer hit him, knocking him to the ground the night he went missing. No one knows what happened after that.
His disappearance, like that of thousands of Mexicans across the country, has left a trail of emotional trauma.
“It’s like this house has been left without its soul,” says Albino’s wife, Maricela Peñaloza Flores, as Juan Carlos gently strokes her arm. “I don’t know what happened to my husband. I don’t know where he is, if he’s alive, if he’s scared, if he’s hungry, if he’s cold.”
Each night for decades, Maricela and Albino settled into the shared peace of being close together. Now that peace has vanished.
“I can’t sleep in the bed anymore,” Maricela says. “I sleep on top of the covers. I used to get in and feel his warmth. Now, I try to hold a pillow, or two or three, but they don’t do anything.”
More than 15 months after Albino went missing, the Quiroz family still has no idea what happened to him. An investigation is ongoing, but no one has been tried for his disappearance.
Violence is a top election issue
The pain and anger of the Quiroz family is duplicated across Mexico. On top of disappearances, 2017 was Mexico’s most violent year since data collection began in the 1990s, with more than 29,000 homicides. Through May 2018, homicides are up by another 21 percent compared with last year, according to the federal government.
More than a decade after launching a military-led drug war, and with at least 130,000 soldiers and marines deployed annually in the fight each year, Mexican security is in crisis.
While more than 110 of the country’s top drug kingpins have been captured or killed under the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, drug cartels have splintered, leading to bloody fights over territory to produce and traffic narcotics. They co-opt local governments and security forces and extort anyone they can.
With presidential, congressional and local elections set for July 1, violence has been a top issue this cycle, heightened by the fact that there have been at least 120 political killings in the electoral process, according to the Mexican political consultancy Etellekt.
Presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, running for a third time, has loudly called for changing course.
“You cannot fight violence with violence. We must attack the problem at its roots,” he told a massive crowd during a recent campaign stop in Mexico City. “The most humane and efficient way to deal with violence is by combating poverty.”
Carrying double-digit leads in almost every poll, López Obrador’s vision is likely to govern Mexico for the next six years.
“We see a contradiction: As police and military have grown, so has insecurity,” says Alfonso Durazo, the top public security adviser to López Obrador. “Our plan is to train and professionalize police forces around the country so that we can gradually pull soldiers and marines off the streets.”
But López Obrador’s most controversial proposal has been amnesty as a path to ending the drug war. He suggests that farmers growing poppy, young people who are used by traffickers as lookouts and drug mules could be candidates for amnesty.
His opponents say it will let kingpins off the hook, but Durazo says that is not true.
“What we’re proposing is a process of national reflection, in which Mexican and international groups will participate … and the consensus from that will be brought to victims, who will have the final word,” he says.
“We have to be the force moving it forward”
But there is no easy answer behind crimes like that one that made Albino Quiroz vanish.
He was most likely not disappeared by a powerful network of organized crime, but rather by a common criminal, enabled by a country with extraordinary levels of impunity and a weak criminal justice system. According to the Global Impunity Index, 93 percent of crimes in Mexico go unreported. Of those that are reported, fewer than 4 percent result in judicial action. It also says the criminal justice systems in 26 of Mexico’s 31 states and Mexico City are on the verge of collapse because of a lack of police and judges.
And so it is often left to family members like Juan Carlos Quiroz to lead the investigation into loved ones’ disappearances. In his father’s case, he found witnesses. He presented documents linking his father to the lawyer. He tried to get morgues in neighboring states to let him do DNA tests on unidentified bodies.
His efforts paid off: The lawyer whom the family suspected of conning Albino Quiroz was arrested for the “false imprisonment” of Quiroz two weeks after he disappeared. But there has yet to be a hearing on the case. The lawyer maintains he is innocent and is challenging his detention.
“We have trusted the system over these past 15 months,” says Juan Carlos. “We have done everything the right way. We have tried to strengthen the investigation. And still, we have to be the force moving it forward because at every turn, we get responses that are so discouraging.”
He feels let down by police and prosecutors and judges. And he doesn’t see presidential front-runner López Obrador as the answer.
“This has been a very disappointing election because despite the violence, despite all the tragedies in Mexico, my feeling is that no one has presented a serious alternative,” Juan Carlos says. “My feeling is that everything will just continue as it has been for the last 20 years.”
His mother, however, believes in López Obrador and plans to vote for him.
While Juan Carlos may not have faith in politics, he hasn’t lost his drive to fight.
“If this case can become just a small example that the system can work and we can put pressure on different parts of the system, we can slowly improve the system so that it works for everybody,” he says.
His mother, Maricela, isn’t so hopeful.
“My son still believes in the law,” she says. “I don’t.”
The audio version of this story was produced by NPR’s Peter Breslow and Samantha Balaban and edited by Jordana Hochman.