SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – Haydee Posadas has been waiting eight years for his son's return. The last night of her long sleep, she was too restless to sleep.
His son fled Honduras to the United States in 2010 partly because of gang threats, as do thousands of people in migrant caravans heading north today, including men. from the same neighborhood. But during his trip to Mexico, again like so many others, Wilmer Gerardo Nunez disappeared in the whirlwind of drug-related violence he was trying to flee. Left in limbo, her anxious mother prayed for an answer.
"I am between the hammer and the anvil," she asked God over the years. "I do not know anything about my son, whether he's dead or alive."
The story of Nunez is part of the hidden tribute of migration to the United States through Mexico: in the last four years alone, nearly 4,000 migrants have died or disappeared along this road, says Associated Press . That is 1,573 more than the number previously known, calculated by the United Nations. And even the number of APs is probably low – bodies can be lost in the desert and families may not report missing loved ones who migrated illegally.
According to the AP, these Latin American migrants are among the 56,800 people worldwide who have died or disappeared in the same period.
Migrants from all over the world face risks, but the road to Mexico poses the additional risk of drug trafficking and gang violence. More than 37,000 people have disappeared throughout Mexico because of this violence, the largest number being in the border state of Tamaulipas, crossed by many migrants. The sheer number of missing people, along with the overwhelming bureaucracy and gang fear, make it difficult for families to trace what happened to their loved ones – as Posadas discovered.
Ciudad Planeta in San Pedro Sula looks like an ordinary working class neighborhood, with one-storey concrete houses with metal roofs. Only the bars that line almost every porch indicate that it is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
This is the neighborhood that Nunez left for the first time in the 1990s to travel to the United States at age 16, when her mother lost her job in a factory.
"He did not say anything. One day, he just left, "said Posadas, a tiny 73-year-old grandmother known in the neighborhood as" Mama Haydee ".
Nunez was not the eldest of the 10 children in the family, but it was he who was watching over the others. He sent money home, some of whom had the habit of building metal bars around the porch. And he called his mother almost every day.
Nunez was deported twice but returned to the United States each time. In 2007, he fell in love with a Mexican, Maria Esther Lozano, now 38, and they had a child, Dachell. When Lozano was about to give birth to another child in July 2010, Nunez was deported a third time.
Posadas was happy to have him at home. He was having lunch with her, cooking meat, kneading tortilla flour and cooking ripe bananas.
"He cooked better than a woman," Posadas said, his face lighting up in memory.
But the neighborhood had become more dangerous, with organized crime entering and frequent bloody raids. All the children of Posadas left except one who stayed and one who died of illness.
Once, Posadas's daughter was handcuffed to the bars of the house, while men who said they were police entered and shot her grandson because they suspected his involvement in gangs. On other nights, there were shootings in the streets. Sometimes Posadas woke up under the thunder of someone's footsteps running through the tin roofs of the houses.
Posadas has for manteta a survival mantra: "If you saw her, you did not see her. If you heard it, you did not hear it. And everyone is silent.
The third time Nunez was deported, in 2010, things were so bad that he was barely out of the house.
"He seemed very thoughtful," Posadas said. "I'm scared," he said. "
He was also looking forward to returning to California and meeting his new daughter. After a few days in San Pedro Sula and an apparent threat from gang members, he left earlier than planned.
"I have to leave here now," he told Lozano, without further explanation.
Nunez, his nephew Joao Adolfo and two neighbors boarded a midnight bus that drives scores of migrants daily to the Guatemalan border.
In the past, Nunez had crossed the US border into California. But this time, he injured his ankle by fleeing the Zetas gang in the state of Veracruz, Lozano said. He has therefore headed for the Texas border, a shorter but more dangerous route.
He called Lozano every day, sometimes from the smuggler's phone who took them across the border. He liked the guide but feared that the group was too big, with dozens of migrants in two trucks.
About a week after leaving Honduras, he spoke to his mother for the last time, asking him to pray for everything to go well. A day later, he spoke in Lozano for almost an hour. Rula – Nunez's nickname – seemed relaxed and made jokes, she said.
They were in Piedras Negras, opposite Eagle Pass in Texas. Lozano was supposed to wait for a call to pay the smuggler half the money, about $ 3,000. She then needed another call from Nunez's sister to confirm her arrival safely before paying the remaining $ 3,000.
The calls never came. Lozano has never heard of Nunez. She spoke several times with the smuggler, who told him that they were still waiting to cross. Then the phone went unanswered.
At first, Posadas and Lozano were not too worried. They had the habit of losing contact with Nunez, then 35, for a few days during his travels, for example when his mobile phone broke down.
But about two weeks after his departure, when Posadas gave the newscast, fear suddenly overrode him. Authorities found 72 bodies of migrants at a San Fernando ranch in Tamaulipas, just across the border from Texas, the report said.
"I started crying like crazy. There were no names, but I was shaken, "Posadas said.
It turned out that gang members aboard vehicles carrying the letter Z – the Zetas drug cartel's appeal card – had arrested two semi-trailers carrying dozens of migrants in the north of Mexico. They were taken to the ranch and invited to join the cartel. Only one accepted.
The others were blindfolded, tied to the ground and shot. An Ecuadorian managed to escape and alerted the navy.
A list of victims released a few days after the massacre included the names of Posadas's grandson and two neighbors who traveled with them. But there was no trace of Nunez, and the authorities told Posadas that if he was not among the dead, he could be alive.
Posadas interviewed local prosecutors, the Honduran Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mexican authorities about his son, but no one had any information about him. Her ex-husband, Nunez's father, offered a DNA sample to compare with the dead bodies that had not yet been identified. Nunez was not among the pictures of these corpses.
Hoping against hope, Posadas and Lozano worked to find Nunez. They tried prisons, detention centers and hospitals. Nothing. Lozano gave the Honduran consulate the names, photos and descriptions of Nunez's tattoos, including one of Dachell's and the other of No. 8. She went there every day.
They then learned that the Ecuadorian survivor had stated that another man – a Honduran – had also escaped the massacre and helped him to get away from the ranch. The Honduran and Mexican authorities have refused to give Lozano more information, as the man is under protection. They would not even have confirmed it was Nunez's case.
The Ecuadorian Embassy was also unfortunate when Lozano asked to send a photo of Nunez to the Ecuadorian survivor.
"I did not want to see him, or even talk to him, just so he would look at the picture and tell me if it was the same person who had helped him," sobbed Lozano.
In Honduras, Posadas also faced obstacles. She went to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to consult Honduran and Mexican officials, but no one could tell what had happened to her ex-husband's DNA sample. She called and called for a year, until they finally stopped responding.
The only thing left was to go to Mexico. But how could a sick old woman do that? Lozano was in no better position to do so, with five dependent children and no legal residency in the United States.
Lozano has hired a lawyer to help his relatives search the Tamaulipas prisons. That's when they thought they had a breakthrough: the lawyer said he saw a Nunez-like man in one of the prisons. Posadas wondered, "Did God hear my requests?"
But this advance has also disappeared. They heard nothing more from the lawyer, and Lozano's brothers had to give up the search because of threats from the Zetas.
Posadas said that if his son was alive he would have called him. Yet, without information or body, she still held hope.
After three years of research, it started to decline. She spent her nights awake in her small living room adorned with trinkets and pictures, including that of Nunez in adolescence. The days were also desperate.
"I had the impression of falling into a terrible depression," Posadas said. "I was walking down the street and people saw that I was smiling, but it was outside … nobody knew how I was inside."
Posadas had no way of knowing, but she could have had her answer a few days after the massacre.
The official report on the massacre indicated that the No. 63 body was a tattooed man, including "Dachell" and number 8. The document notes the discovery of a Honduran driver's license in the name of Wilmer Gerardo Nunez Posadas, with a picture of a man with a mustache and a beard. Yet no one has made this information public and the No. 63 body was finally buried in a mass grave.
In September 2013, the Argentinean Forensic Anthropology team and other groups reached an agreement with Mexican prosecutors to identify more than 200 bodies of three massacres, including that of San Fernando. All the bodies of the mass grave were exhumed for further autopsies. In March 2015, Mexico's Attorney General's Office sent a letter to the Supreme Court of Honduras asking for help to find relatives of two men, including Nunez.
When the Argentinean team became aware of Nunez's identity card, she tried to find the family but did not want to visit Planeta.
"I clarified that I could not enter this area," said Allang Rodriguez, a psychologist on the Committee of Families of Missing Migrants from El Progreso, a group working with the Argentines.
The Catholic Church participated in the research and spoke to nuns who were working with migrants. A woman, Geraldina Garay, knew a taxi driver who lived in Planeta. He offered to leave a piece of paper with a phone number that Posadas could call in one of the neighborhood's oldest stores, behind his house.
A neighbor saw the message and brought it to Posadas at the end of last year. Confused, she called the number. The voice on the other end wanted to meet to talk about his missing son.
"Today, I finally have hope," she thought.
When they met, the forensic experts told him about driving license and tattoos. They organized DNA tests for her and for Wilmer Turcios Sarmiento, 18, who was supposed to be the son of Nunez, born of a romantic relationship before leaving for the United States.
In May, Posadas learned that DNA testing had become positive again – one of 183 matches for dead migrants found with the help of the Argentine team since 2010.
"My heart suffered so much … especially because of the death that he suffered, not even knowing who killed him, blindfolded, tied hands …" Posadas says, his voices extinguishing, tears in their eyes.
DNA tests also proved that Nunez was Turcios's father. It was like finding and losing a father at the same time, he told his grandmother.
A question continued to arise in Posadas' mind and that was what hurt him the most: "Why? Why, having the proof, did they hide so long?
The report at its disposal revealed errors and inconsistencies in the handling of the case and called for an investigation into the delay. To date, no one has yet been convicted of these murders and nine people have still not been identified. Mexican officials have not commented.
On October 31, Wilmer Gerardo Nunez returned to Honduras.
The coffin arrived at the San Pedro Sula airport, packed in a cardboard box with a thin black ribbon and bearing the Nunez name, and was transported to the morgue. When it was opened, a smell of death invaded the room, softened by chemicals.
Posadas, holding a small red towel to wipe away the tears and sweat, approached her husband, sister and a psychologist. A forensic expert unpacked the corpse. Now, the head was no more than a skull, but there was still some of the skin on the arms, as well as tattoos. The Posadas no longer needed to see.
About twenty people attended the wake of Planeta's house, where the coffin occupied most of the living room under a blazing sun. After eight years, the last farewell lasted about two hours. Posadas feared that if he continued, the gangsters who control the neighborhood would show up.
Then a bus from the Planeta Baptist Church led the family into a small cemetery with a motley collection of poorly maintained graves.
"I'm finally sure. That's him. That's him. I give thanks to God, "sobbed Posadas before collapsing next to the coffin.
Several mourners have filmed a video on their mobile phone for parents in the United States, but the children of Nunez in Los Angeles still do not know he's dead. Her youngest daughter, Sulek Haydee, now 8, talks more and more to her online grandmother and often asks, "Where is my dad? Why does not he come to see us? "
"He can not, mamita," Posadas answers with a knot in his throat. "He works."
Nunez's son in Honduras dreams of going to the United States to look for a better life. "Everything is better than that," said Turcios.
Eight years and three months after her son's last hug, Posadas claims to have felt peace for the first time, even though she still wants justice done.
In her prayers, she now asks her grandson not to emigrate.
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