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Buscadoras: Women at the Forefront of Mexico’s Search for Victims of Enforced Disappearances

| 7 Minute Read
Democracy and Governance | Human Rights

Victims collectives have made significant strides in advocating for and finding their missing relatives, but they continue to face challenges in knowing their rights and threats to their physical and emotional well-being.

Hands in the shape of a heart alongside the words Women's Month

“I am a searching mother, a brave mother, full of courage, bravery, anger… but at the same time, I face all the dangers that may come my way.”


These are the words of Rosalía Castro, aged 68, a member of the Solecito de Veracruz victims’ collective and the mother of Roberto Carlos Casso, who was forcibly disappeared at the age of 38 in 2011 in the southern Mexican state of Veracruz. Rosalia’s story mirrors that of thousands of women looking for 114,553 people officially registered as missing or disappeared in Mexico from January 1962 to February 29, 2024.

While the National Search Commission and the General Prosecutor’s Office, along with their state counterparts, are tasked with the responsibility to search and investigate missing persons in Mexico, many of the victims’ relatives, driven by love, hope, and perseverance, have stepped forward to lead these efforts, becoming advocates, legal experts, and forensic specialists. There are at least 234 victims’ collectives in Mexico, predominantly made up of women known as buscadoras. They are mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the disappeared, compelled to act amidst this overwhelming crisis, often risking their safety, families, and lives.

Rosalía’s story represents the many buscadoras – women who tirelessly comb through Mexico’s fields, deserts, and secluded areas, uncovering thousands of bone fragments and remains, often in mass and clandestine graves, as part of their quest to find their loved ones.

"Hasta Encontrarnos" is written in black on a white wall
The phrase “Until We Find Each Other” (“Hasta Encontrarnos”) features in a mural in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, honoring the disappeared. Including photos of the missing, located in a busy public area, it aims to alert the public to the disappearance crisis and urge authorities for prompt action. This mural is a component of “This Search of Yours That Will Not Stop! Until We Find Them!” initiative, supported by USAID through RED-DH. Photo credit: USAID RED-DH Activity

Mexican authorities have counted 5,698 clandestine graves throughout the country between January 2007 and April 2023. The exacts number of graves found by the buscadoras is unrecorded and their discoveries have led to tragic revelations. Notably, the Colectivo Solecito, to which Lucy and Rosalía belong, located one of the largest clandestine grave sites in Latin America, with 156 clandestine graves in 2016, uncovering 298 bodies, as well as numerous bone fragments across more than 24 acres. More recently, in July 2023, the Madres Buscadoras de Jalisco (Seeking Mothers of Jalisco) discovered clandestine graves containing at least 20 bodies in Tlajomulco. The following month, in August 2023, Buscadoras por La Paz found charred remains in Sonora, highlighting the grim reality these searchers face daily. These findings underscore the critical and dangerous work undertaken by these women, who tirelessly seek justice and closure for their missing loved ones, underscoring the daily occurrence of locating clandestine graves.

For me, the meaning of being a woman in the search for my brother is resistance, strength and love to know where he is, because so far the authorities have not done anything to look for him and I had to do that work.

Jannette O'Relling Carranza, Buscadora

In this context, USAID initiated the five-year Promoviendo la Rendicion de Cuentas por los Derechos Humanos (RED-DH) Activity in August 2020. This program aims to improve the Mexican Government’s capacity and commitment to address serious human rights violations, including forced disappearances and torture. In addition, it provides forensic assistance to manage the backlog of unidentified remains and supports victims’ families. USAID, through RED-DH, recognizes the critical role these women and their collectives play, making them central to the Activity’s strategy. This includes the joint development of a comprehensive approach forging partnerships with local human rights organizations, academia, and governments to effectively address the pressing human rights and gender equality challenges faced by these women.

Fostering Women’s Technical Capacities

A key strategy advanced by RED-DH involves providing the buscadoras with practical and theoretical knowledge to demand effective searches and investigations of crimes within the Mexican justice system. To this end, RED-DH collaborates with victims’ collectives, civil society organizations, and academic institutions to design capacity-building workshops. These workshops focus on creating practical tools, guides, and a website for accessing learning materials. Moreover, RED-DH has developed workshops to impart specialized forensic knowledge, using new technologies for the investigation, search, and identification of remains, in collaboration with USAID’s grantee Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF), who uses forensic anthropology techniques to help locate disappeared persons.

RED-DH has also partnered with grantee Centro de Colaboración Cívica (CCC) to execute capacity-building workshops for groups of women and relatives of disappeared persons in Sonora. Through these, fifteen victims’ collectives were able to deepen their knowledge on the laws and regulatory frameworks regarding forced disappearances. As a result, women and their families are empowered to become more effective advocates for their cause, collaborating with other stakeholders to ensure that authorities uphold their obligations to the highest standards.

In this way, RED-DH builds communication channels between families and decision-makers to improve attention to victims, as explained by Cecilia Delgado, member of the Buscadoras por la Paz Collective in Sonora: “the accompaniment of [USAID’s] RED-DH during these three years has meant a lot to us, since they have supported us and helped us to confront the disappearance by providing us with legal tools to defend and demand our rights as victims. They have shown us that there are organizations with empathetic people who listen to us, support us and guide us in meetings or worktables with authorities. Today we no longer feel alone and there is nothing but infinite gratitude for what they have done from their hearts for this collective.”

Over the past three years, RED-DH has trained 267 relatives of disappeared persons (223 women and 44 men) from 95 victims’ collectives across six Mexican states (Coahuila, Jalisco, Estado de México, Nuevo León, Sonora and Veracruz).

Providing Psychosocial Support to Help Women Face the Complexities of their Roles as Advocators and Caretakers

USAID, along with its allies, provides psychosocial support to help women manage the effects of their advocacy work. Notable collaborations include those in Veracruz with Centro de Derechos Humanos Toaltepeyolo A.C., Ibero Puebla in Puebla, and CCC in Sonora. These programs aim to improve communication and emotional expression skills, supporting women as they navigate their grief and the complexities of their roles as caretakers within their families. This support is of particular relevance given that, while undertaking search activities, women continue to be caretakers of other their children (or to the children of the missing member), their partners, and the elders, and take on a disproportionate share of domestic tasks. This context easily results in the deepening of inequalities between men and women, and a cause for serious effects on their physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

Beyond identifying psychosocial impacts, RED-DH has also offered practical and targeted recommendations for search and victims’ attention commissions. Examples of the work can be found for the states of Veracruz (in collaboration with Toaltepeyolo) and Sonora (in collaboration with the CCC).

Advancing Justice and Memory

Upon request from the victims’ collectives, civil society organizations supported by USAID’s RED-DH have been working on memorials and gathering testimonies to advance initiatives deemed important by the women. Documenting these testimonies highlights the tragedy of enforced disappearances and contributes to efforts for justice and remembrance.

Two women stand in front of a poster of a missing person in Mexico.
Lidia Lara and Susana García stand in front of Osvaldo Julián García’s photo, missing since October 2, 2020, on Cuauhtémoc Avenue’s retaining wall. Displayed with 55 other disappeared individuals’ images from Veracruz-Boca del Río, the exhibit calls for heightened disappearances awareness and quicker investigative actions. Part of “This Search of Yours That Will Not Stop! Until We Find Them!” campaign, supported by USAID through RED-DH. Photo credit: USAID RED-DH Activity.

For example, Toaltepeyolo has produced 29 documentaries telling life stories narrated by those closest to the victims and produced 286 photographs and photo-illustrations in four public spaces Veracruz, Poza Rica, Coatzacoalcos, and Xalapa, shedding light on a personal aspect to foster empathy and recognition for the missing. These stories include a video from the Colectivo Familiares en Búsqueda María Herrera Poza Rica discussing their recovery of over 40,000 bone fragments from an abandoned ranch known as La Gallera. The documentary detailing this case was an official selection at the International Short Film Festival in Mexico.

Tools to Support the Search for Justice

Providing legal support, conducting contextual analyses, and strengthening institutions are crucial for advancing enforced disappearance cases. These measures are vital for justice and closure for families, meeting victims’ needs, and enhancing the government’s work.

“The progress we have achieved is evident: we have been able to digitize files; we have been able to get lawyers to review cases that require a more exhaustive review; we have been able to get support in order to better balance the agenda we carry. It has been a formidable job for us, it is a real blessing.” – Lucy Diaz, Colectivo Solecito


A crucial tool for families to hold authorities accountable is the case file, which should ensure their involvement in the investigation. Yet, access to these files is often denied, with authorities citing confidentiality. This leaves families uninformed about the search and unable to contribute to the investigation. To overcome this practice, USAID’s RED-DH Activity partnered with grantee I(dh)eas, a non-governmental human rights organization, to develop strategic legal materials that allow families to request copies of their case files. Among the materials is a legal mechanism known as the “Amparo” that families can present before a judge to order prosecutors to provide a free copy of their file and any evidence.

For me, the meaning of being a woman in the search for my brother is resistance, strength and love to know where he is, because so far the authorities have not done anything to look for him and I had to do that work.

Jannette O'Relling Carranza, Buscadora

Another relevant aspect of RED-DH’s comprehensive support to women has been the development of tools to help the families of disappeared persons understand their rights and to ensure those rights are recognized and respected. The publication No One Deserves to Disappear focuses on dismantling the stigmatization suffered by victims of disappearance and their families and avoid their re-victimization. The guide  “What to do in the Event of a Disappearance? simplifies complex legal procedures and lists the initial steps that women, families, and friends can undertake when faced with a disappearance.

RED-DH’s comprehensive dissemination strategy has been implemented through various channels to ensure that the families of disappeared persons are aware of these essential tools. Public events have been organized with the participation of the families of disappeared persons, local authorities, and the media to directly promote the available guides and resources. Additionally, extensive use of social media has been made to reach a broader audience and ensure the material is accessible to everyone. Those interested can download the guides from the ITESO website. Furthermore, over the next year, workshops with victims’ collectives in the state of Jalisco are planned, aiming to encourage the continuous use and dissemination of these critical materials.”


We need to honor the resilience and commitment of women who are at the forefront of the fight against impunity, injustice, and oblivion. Let’s stand in solidarity with these women, support their efforts, and amplify their voices, making a collective difference to ensure no family faces the pain of disappearance alone.

Click here to learn more about the work of RED-DH.

Banner image caption. Julia Correa and Gisela Perez, members of the Justice and Dignity victims’ collective, hold hands at the Port of Veracruz beach. They are part of a memory recovery photo series by the Toaltepeyolo Human Rights Center under the initiative “This Search of Yours That Will Not Stop! Until We Find Them!” supported by USAID through RED-DH. The photo was taken by the USAID/RED-DH Activity. 

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