Families of Missing Migrants Find Few Answers, Only Anguish

[Lee esta historia en Español.]

Fear racked Wendy Guevara as her 14-year-old son traveled on his own by foot and bus from Honduras, their homeland, to join her in Newark. Her mind dwelled on the perils she knew he would face as he headed toward the Rio Grande.

Her son, Marvin, was set to cross into the United States near the Mexican border city of Piedras Negras in 2014. He was on a path similar to the one that her brother, Edwin Giovanni Guevara, had tried eight years earlier. But her brother never made it. He disappeared, and his remains have never been found.

“My son could get lost,” Ms. Guevara, 42, said in Spanish, recalling her anxieties. “I didn’t know if I would ever speak to him again.”

Wendy Guevara, 42, talking about her brother, who went missing 13 years ago after leaving Honduras and attempting to cross the U.S. border. Keren Carrion/NYT Institute

Eventually, Marvin arrived safely. Yet Ms. Guevara is still plagued by the anguish of not knowing her brother’s fate. It is a sense of loss without closure that afflicts the loved ones of thousands of migrants who have vanished en route to new lives in the United States.

Experts warn that the buildup of border guards and barriers in recent years along the almost 2,000-mile frontier has pushed migrants to test more isolated and riskier terrain. As illegal border crossings escalate, there are fears that the number of missing migrants may also rise, leaving relatives to face the torment of unresolved cases. For some, the pain is intensified by extortion attempts by scammers who claim to have the answers families so desperately want.

“They are not going to just stop crossing the border,” said Agnès Callamard, a prominent researcher of migrant deaths and the director of Global Freedom of Expression, an initiative at Columbia University. “Usually they will move to more dangerous points. This may increase the potential for disappearance or death.”

From 1998 to 2018, the United States Border Patrol recorded 7,505 deaths along the Southwest border — an average of about 357 deaths each year, almost one per day. Ms. Callamard said law enforcement agencies directed a limited amount of resources into investigating these deaths and disappearances.

“If families decide to file a disappearance report or a missing person complaint, it is so hard for them to be taken seriously,” said Ms. Callamard, who is also a United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Of the remains that are found, experts said, the cause of death is seldom determined.

On a recent evening in Corona, Queens, about 60 people packed into a room at a community center to remember those who died at the border or have never been found. Photographs of migrants were spread across tables and a man strummed his guitar.

A woman holding an image of a missing migrant and listening to the opening prayer during a vigil in Corona, Queens. Gabriella N. Báez/NYT Institute

At the end of the vigil, the audience stood, holding pictures of the dead and missing, as an Ecuadorian organizer read their names. Maritza Jacqueline Punin was one of the dozens of names called.

“Presente!” The audience responded for those who could not.

Jacqueline Punin, a native of Gualaceo, Ecuador, who went by her second name, crossed the border with the hope of sending money to her two daughters at home. Her sister, Andrea Punin, kept in touch with her through Facebook as Ms. Punin headed toward Arizona.

“When do you leave for the border?” Andrea Punin asked in a message on May 2, 2012.

“Tomorrow at 9,” her sister replied.

She asked Andrea Punin to check on her two young daughters. “Okey ba bay besitos,” Jacqueline Punin wrote in Spanish. “O.K., bye bye. Kisses.”

Those were the last words the sisters exchanged.

The Punin family holding hands. They said they grew stronger and closer while they searched for what had happened to Jacqueline Punin. Gabriella N. Báez/NYT Institute

“I never deleted these messages,” Andrea Punin, 37, said in Spanish, reading them again on her phone. “I always dream of her. In the good times, in the bad times, there we are in my dreams, sharing moments together.”

It appears that Jacqueline Punin reached Arizona, near the border city of Nogales. In September 2012, the authorities discovered human remains west of Nogales. The remains were not confirmed as Jacqueline Punin’s until six years later, through DNA testing. The Punin family then received a postmortem examination report from the medical examiner’s office in Santa Cruz County, Ariz. “A human skull was received in a brown paper bag,” the report said in Spanish.

Earlier this year, her father, Edilson Punin, 61, collected the cremated remains and brought them to Long Island, where the family now lives. “I touched the ashes,” he said, “because I wanted to hold her again.”

The family said that they were nearing closure. “I feel more at peace now that I’ve left her in the tomb where she can finally rest,” her mother, Maria Punin, 52,  said, her words trailing off, muffled by her own sobs.

Maria Punin, 52, the mother of the disappeared young woman Jacqueline Punin, with the image of her daughter’s tombstone in Ecuador. Gabriella N. Báez/NYT Institute

Some families, after growing impatient with law enforcement officials, started investigations of their own. Karen Flores’s grief and anger propelled her to search for her missing mother.

She was 19 when her mother, Nancy Lucia Ganoza Córdova, disappeared in October 2009 while trying to cross the Arizona desert on foot.

Karen Flores, now 29, and her sister, Jhoana Flores, 28, had left Peru for the United States five years earlier. Their mother had to find a way north through other means after she had trouble entering the United States legally.

Karen Flores and her father grew frustrated by the seemingly nonexistent investigation, so they started searching the Mexican towns Ms. Córdova might have passed through. Karen Flores printed out fliers with her phone number and her mother’s picture, handing them to anyone who would take one.

She started getting phone calls. “I have your mom, she’s here,” she said anonymous callers told her. “If you send me $5,000, I can return her back to you.” The extortion calls, at first, gave her false hope. Before long, she stopped answering.

A phone call in December 2017 from the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, an organization that helps the families of missing migrants find their families, ended their search. The family’s DNA had been matched with remains that had been found years earlier in a small Arizona town 40 miles north of the border, Karen Flores said. Only a skull remained. It had been in a medical examiner’s office for six years.

Now, sitting in her home in the North Jersey suburb of Bloomfield, Ms. Flores described how her emotions evolved over years of waiting. At first, as months passed with no word, she withdrew into her college dorm room. She did not want to speak to anyone.

“I noticed I had abandonment issues,” she said. “I had depression. I had insecurities.” Her voice softened and her eyes welled up with tears. “All that I feel would relay back to my mom.”

The sisters said that life has gotten more bearable.

“We know that she’s resting in peace,” Jhoana Flores said. “We can live now. Right, Karen?”

“Yeah,” Karen Flores replied. “I feel much more alive than before.”

Still, they keep her pictures stowed away. Seeing their mother’s face, even a quick glance, can be too painful.

On a recent gray, rainy evening, they pulled photographs from a brown briefcase and laid them out on the kitchen table. In one picture, the sisters, younger and dressed in school uniforms, nestled close to their mother.

Karen Flores and Jhoana Flores keep photographs and a list of facts about their mother, Nancy Lucia Ganoza Córdova, in a briefcase. Mrs. Córdova disappeared in October 2009. Photos courtesy of the Flores family

“I feel regret for not talking to her as often,” Karen Flores said. “She was my best friend.”

The sisters do not know how their mother died, and they likely never will. They cannot help but fill the void with speculation.

“When you see those pictures of people being in a massacre,” Jhoana Flores said, looking at her sister, “we were like, ‘Oh my God. That could be her.’”

“Anything could have happened to her,” Karen Flores replied. “I don’t know if one of those coyotes took advantage of her or something.”

They could see their life with their mother in the photographs scattered on the table. There were shots of her with her friends and at a beach, with blackened sand and the ocean on the horizon. There was also a handwritten list of “Nancy Facts,” describing their mother’s dedication to hard work and unrelenting hope.

Karen Flores helped her sister collect the pictures. Her eyes were glazed over and puffy from tears as she scanned each of them one more time. She stopped when she recognized her younger sister in her mother’s face. Then, the two of them tucked the photographs back into the briefcase.