The Slow Decay of Mexican Fathers Searching for Their Missing Children

Fathers of the missing do everything possible to give their families hope, normalcy, and closure

Adolfo López Ramírez always wears a tucked-in button-down shirt; he looks steady even though he must do the unimaginable.

He’s one of just a few men in Las Rastreadoras, a collective of mostly mothers. When they go searching for “disappeared” people in northern Mexico — victims of political, drug, or gender violence — he delivers equipment like shovels to dig or tools to trace odors from decaying human bodies hidden underground. Ramirez is the calming force of Las Rastreadoras: Whether it’s time to search or it’s time to wait, either at a meeting or outside government offices, he makes sure that everyone around him is okay.

Ramirez’s son, Adolfo de Jesús, was 5 feet 8 inches tall with light brown skin, dark hair and eyes, and bushy eyebrows. On February 28, 2015, he wore an orange T-shirt, dark denim pants, and a metallic crucifix; that was the day two men took him and his roommate from their house in the city of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa. He had an appendix surgery scar on the right side of his abdomen. He loved cooking, especially flans and desserts. He was 21 years old when he was last seen that Saturday afternoon.

“I carry my own pain as a father but also on behalf of my wife. Besides, I have always been very sentimental. If other men do not express it, I do. It hurts me.’”

Over the years, dozens of collectives and associations like Las Rastreadoras have sprung up across Mexico to search for the truth about their missing loved ones’ fates. While the mothers have been widely recognized as activists and advocates for truth, the fathers have moved into a more isolated and lonely realm — one where traditional fatherhood roles are constantly challenged.

“You could think that the mother hurts more because she gave birth to the child,” explains 53-year-old López, whose wife died of leukemia five years before his son’s disappearance. “Fathers are always colder, or they isolate themselves, or they don’t want to participate, or they don’t feel the same as the mother. But in my case, I carry my own pain as a father but also on behalf of my wife. Besides, I have always been very sentimental. If other men do not express it, I do. It hurts me.”

A few months after Adolfo de Jesús disappeared, López heard reliable rumors about his son’s death. He also saw a woman named Mirna Medina on TV and learned about the group she led: The mothers of Las Rastreadoras searched for their disappeared children in Mexico’s vast plains and arid hills. He immediately joined.

In Mexico, human remains are often found scattered on the ground or buried in clandestine graves. Unlike many parents who cling to the hope of finding their disappeared children alive, López has accepted a grimmer search. “What I want is to find my son and his remains,” he says, his voice breaking. “To give him a Christian burial and say, ‘Here, in this little piece of land, in this cemetery, here lays my son.’”

Between 2006 and June 2020, 3,978 clandestine graves were located across the country, and 6,625 bodies were exhumed; Sinaloa ranked second among states in the number of graves found. Officially, the Mexican government recognizes the disappearance of more than 73,000 people — the vast majority of them since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón announced military efforts to fight drug cartels.

Irma Claribel Lamas López disappeared in 2008 in the industrial city of Torreón in northern Mexico. She was 5 feet tall with a light brown complexion, dark brown eyes, and dark brown straight hair. She had a circular scar on her left arm near the shoulder and a surgery scar on her feet. She took a bus to a nearby city to attend a party on August 13; since then, no one has heard from her. She was 17 years old.

Her father, Jesús López Lamas, also known as Don Chuy, has searched for her in jails, psychiatric wards, red-light districts, mountains, and desert zones. But it wasn’t until 2014 that he joined his wife, María de la Luz López Castruita, searching for human remains in the state of Coahuila. “I could not go searching with my wife because my other two children were left unprotected,” he says. “When my children grew up, I began to search with her so that she would see that I do love my daughter.”

When a family member goes missing, there’s a loss of control and meaning. A father’s sense of himself as the main protector and breadwinner — a traditional role deeply ingrained in Mexican culture — can be completely shattered. Fathers of the missing often feel it’s up to them to maintain the facade of normalcy. “I have to be strong because if I decay, [my wife] decays,” Don Chuy says. “That’s why I had to assume the role that I’m a very cold person, and very strong. It’s not true. It’s just a shield, a barrier that you put up so the person you’re supporting doesn’t see you fall.”

But after a disappearance, any hope of normalcy is destroyed and never again attainable. “I used to cry alone at night or in the morning when I was working,” Don Chuy says. “I would cry, remembering my daughter, the things we did together. But I never showed that to Lucy.”

As the heads of the family, fathers whose children were victims of enforced disappearance often feel obligated to support their wife and restore family order. During the first year of his son’s disappearance, López felt that he neglected his other three children and believes they came to think that he didn’t love them as much as his missing son. As a widowed father, he had to learn to cope with the pain and, despite his sadness and despair, keep smiling and showing affection.

“It’s not that it doesn’t hurt,” he says. “But sometimes, I don’t know if it’s pride or our culture; men forbid ourselves to demonstrate our feelings, our pain. But that does not mean that we don’t feel. Of course, it hurts our souls, and of course, we cry inside although our face doesn’t shed a tear. Inside we are tearing down in pieces.”

Independent journalist investigating the enduring impact of enforced disappearance in Latin America and the Balkans. Also, escribo lo que mis ovarios dicten…

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