TELOLOAPAN, Mexico—Carlos Sanchez and his family had nearly completed the harrowing drive, hurtling along a dark and dangerous highway out of the mountains to a hospital when they collided with a state police truck parked across the highway lights out.
Before they knew what was happening, they were dragged from the car by uniformed police. Sanchez’s wife, sister and cousin were loaded into the back of a police patrol truck. They would not see Sanchez, who hours earlier had been shot three times outside his home in Teloloapan, until they arrived at a walled compound in the mountains.
They had been kidnapped by police.
In April 2013, Sanchez and his cousin Armando de la Cruz Salinas became two more of Mexico’s nearly 26,000 recorded disappearances since 2007. The abduction of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in the southern Mexico city of Iguala on Sept. 26, 2014, by local police drew attention to a remarkable fact of life in Mexico: Police are responsible for many disappearances.
Mexico’s deputy attorney general for human rights, Eber Betanzos, told The Associated Press in August that municipal police had participated in scores of abductions around Iguala during the term of Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who faces charges in the case of the 43 students.
Members of the extended Sanchez family agreed to speak about their missing on condition of anonymity. They wanted to tell the story of the violence that surrounds them like the air they breathe, and of police responsibility for many of what are now called “the other disappeared.” But they are deathly scared of the captors and cops who still live among them and operate with impunity, returning at times to abuse or threaten those who might talk.
Sanchez, a 36-year-old taco vendor and father of three, had just returned home with his wife from the grocery store on the evening of April 2, 2013, when a white car pulled up. Two young men got out and confronted him. They tried to force him into the car, but he resisted, and they shot him three times before fleeing.
At the hospital in Teloloapan, a city of 55,000 high in the mountains of Guerrero’s Tierra Caliente, staff bandaged Sanchez’s wounds, gave him oxygen and an IV, but told his family there was no surgeon to operate. They said he had to go to Iguala for surgery and wrote a letter to that effect to ensure his passage through three military and police checkpoints on the highway between the two cities.
But the ambulance would only agree to carry Sanchez with an armed escort. Soldiers refused to provide one.
So after a private clinic in Teloloapan also refused Sanchez care, his cousin, Armando, volunteered to drive. They were en route to the hospital in Iguala when they fell into the hands of police.
At the abductors’ compound, lit only by cellphone lights, the family quickly realized they were not alone. There were 15 to 20 other people sitting on the floor of a room blindfolded and tied at the wrists and ankles.
The police took their shoes, belts and anything of value, and pulled their shirts over their heads to obscure their vision, but the cellphone light shone through the thin material and so they saw when Sanchez was dragged in. He was naked except for the bandages, his paper hospital gown lost along the way.
They were surrounded by 10 to 15 men armed with rifles, most wearing the same dark state police uniform.
One kidnapper approached Sanchez with a notebook. He asked his name, where he was from, how many children he had, what he did. Sanchez answered every question. They beat him anyway, kicking and punching.
The man accused Sanchez of stealing horses from a ranch in Teloloapan. He said he had been to that ranch only to sell tacos to the masons who were building stables. He rattled off his list of taco varieties.
About six men pounced on Sanchez kicking him furiously. When they paused, he turned his face toward his wife, breathed deeply and said the name of his youngest son, Santiago. Then he closed his eyes.
The gunmen stuffed the taco vendor into an army green sleeping bag and carried him outside. The others heard his body land in the back of a truck. His cousin, Armando, was beaten too, and then led out of the house; he was never seen again. The two women were released after 10 days.
After news of the 43 disappeared students ignited the national firestorm, a neighbor who was searching for her son told the Sanchez family that relatives were gathering at a church in Iguala to file reports with federal authorities and give DNA samples. They agreed to join hundreds of other families putting names on a list, many of whom also revealed stories of police taking their loved ones.
The families organized to go into the hills around Iguala to search for bodies of the disappeared. Over many weeks and months, government crews dug up the remains of at least 104 people from unmarked graves found by the families, only 13 of which have been identified by DNA and telltale bits of clothing—or by other articles.
In January, the Sanchez family was told that the gravediggers had unearthed a green sleeping bag with a skeleton inside. Next to it, they found an IV and an oxygen tube.