Water Will Speak – Podcast on forced disappearance and search in bodies of water in Mexico
El agua hablará
Relatos de búsquedas en lo profundo
El agua hablará is a research podcast on disappearance and the search for people in rivers, dams, wells, and other bodies of water in Mexico.
Each episode is a story of those who search even underwater for disappeared persons, in a country where there are 73,000 official reports of disappearance.
1. Everything flows except the search
by Perifónicas and Bajo Tierra
Josefina de León, mother of a young disappeared woman and director of the Network of Disappeared Persons of Tamaulipas, participates in the first search opperative undertaken with a deep diving chamber in the dam of Vicente Guerrero. In the process, Josefina discovers the technical and human challenges of searching for people underwater.
Transcription: (Español aquí)
Narrator (Celia Guerrero): On a sunny day at the shore of the Vicente Guerrero dam, the enormous water mirror, with no end in the horizon, reflects the blue sky and a few clouds that hover over the surface like ghost ships.
This body of water, surrounded by a dense vegetation, is one of the most important dams in Tamaulipas and it is among the top 10 largest dams in Mexico.
Located at 60 km from Tamaulipas capital, Ciudad Victoria, this dam and its surroundings became a touristic attraction for sport fishing enthusiasts since the 80’s and up until the late 90’s.
However, from those better times, only the still waters, a few hotels and rest houses in ruins remain on the shores today. The rest was stricken by the wave of violence haunts the state since 2008.
Josefina de León: When we received the information from the dam Vicente Guerrero, we knew that there were people, families, that talked about corpses being thrown in there. How did they throw them? They used steel nets, the one they would use for fishing. They wrapped them in it, tied a big brick so they would sink, and they threw them off the boat.
Narrator (CG): Hello, I’m Celia Guerrero
Narrator (Mayela Sánchez): And I’m Mayela Sánchez
Narrator (CG): We are both investigative journalists, creators of The waters will tell, a podcast about the disappearing and searching of people in the rivers, lakes, dams and other bodies of water in Mexico.
Narrator (MS): In this first episode, we will tell the story of Josefina de León, a seeker of missing people in Tamaulipas, who has devoted herself for years to learn and decipher how to seek for them in the water.
Narrator (CG): It is hard to imagine but this story develops in this idyllic and apparently peaceful landscape that we mentioned at the beginning.
Josefina de León: We are in the municipality of Padilla, Tamaulipas, where the Vicente Guerrero dam is located and there is a search operation being conducted. This is a water search operation.
Narrator (CG): The voice we just heard is Josefina de León´s. It may be necessary to clarify that her search did not start here, at the Vicente Guerrero dam.
Josefina de León: Well, my name is Josefina de León and I am Cinthya Mabel Pantoja de León´s mother. She disappeared on April 22nd, 2012 in Ciudad Victoria.
Cinthya´s case is one of those cases where she disappeared without a trace. Nobody knows anything, nobody saw anything.
Narrator (CG): The very same day Josefina files the missing person report for Cinthya, she began to drive on all the possible routes around Tamaulipas´s capital. She drove day and night, hoping to find a clue of her daughter, a 25-year-old woman, or her car, a blue Chevy.
Josefina de León: Cinthya went out to a party, a Saturday night with a group of friends. We had agreed that if it was too late at night she shouldn’t be on the street, and her friends were in for the long haul and yes, she stayed there until sunrise. She came out of the party, or reunion, because by that time it was a reunion, a chat among friends around 6 in the morning. That was it, nobody has seen her ever since.
Narrator (CG): Josefina reported the disappearance to the local prosecutor’s office. However, she had the certainty that, if she didn’t search for her daughter, no one would. In Mexico there is a big lack of trust in the work of the authorities that are in charge of procuring justice, which is aggravated by the thousands of unresolved disappearance cases.
Narrator (MS): Her search was not limited to the highways. She followed roads across wastelands, fields and hills.
Josefina de León: It was on the internet where I began exploring with the intention of seeing or hearing something that would shed a light over this darkness; something that would tell me “Come this way, go that way”. That was the moment I found there were a lot of missing people, and I asked myself “When did all this happened?”.
Narrator (CG): By 2015, after 3 years of being alone and facing many difficulties to get the investigation to move forward and get the authorities to look for Cinthya, Josefina registered the Tamaulipas´s Missing Persons Network, an organization focused on trying to amend these problems for others who are also looking for their relatives.
Narrator (MS): From that moment, her Network has supported the relatives of missing people with legal counseling and filing requests for missing persons in order to locate and identify them.
At a national level, a number of groups perform similar efforts, mostly focused on searching in clandestine mass graves.
Narrator (CG): However, in Tamaulipas, unlike other states in Mexico, the violence associated to the militarization was so overwhelming that very few dared to go out, searching for missing people.
Even more so, very few denounced the disappearances, because they were afraid of the collusion between the authorities and the organized crime.
Narrator (MS): Josefina describes this wave of violence as a hurricane that struck the hardest in Tamaulipas, it swept everything and did not allow people to go out of their homes for many years, we all looked for shelter. However, once the worst had passed, even though the damages from the storm remained, a few people started to go out. Little by little, they started to look for those who had disappeared.
(Men voices providing instructions. Car engine starts)
Narrator (CG): It is February 21st, 2019 and Jorge Ernesto Macias, State´s commissioner for the search, and the Tamaulipas Justice General Attorney, lead the first search operation requested by Josefina, which will take place at the Vicente Guerrero dam.
Narrator (MS): The operation is not related to the Cinthya Mabel case, Josefina´s daughter, but to a relative of one of the members of the Network.
Narrator (CG): In addition to the Attorney´s search team, military personnel, federal and state police, civil protection, Josefina and one of the missing person´s relatives will be searching in the water. Due to security reasons and to avoid interfering with the case, the name will not be mentioned.
Once they are all gathered and ready, they leave the Attorney’s office in caravan, heading to the dam.
The location they are heading to is one of the places across Tamaulipas that Josefina has flagged as potential places for the existence of missing persons´ remains.
Josefina de León: There is a list of 85 places that were delivered directly to us; not all at the same time, but little by little. The dam was among them, so we said “Let’s go to the dam, it is on the list”.
Narrator (MS): But knowing where to look is not enough, you must have the tools to do so…
Josefina de León: What do you need? The underwater camera… enough boats, batteries, fuel, flashlights.
Narrator (CG): Because, if clandestine mass grave searching is challenging already, locating human remains under water has its own unique difficulties.
Narrator (MS): The corpses are not only submerged, but they are purposely thrown into the water to hide them and erase all traces. This is the reason that conducting an underwater search requires certain weather conditions and the technology that enables exploring this environment.
Narrator (CG): We arrived at the naval station, barely built in 2018, at the shore of the dam. With the arrival of the navy force, that area recovered certain accessibility.
There, the Civil Protection team starts to set down the boat. Then, the members of the Attorney’s search team prepare the underwater camera, which will be their eyes below the surface. A second boat with marines shows up, they are there to oversee the operations.
(Policemen exchange directions over radio)
Narrator (CG): An agent of the Public Prosecutor office, a forensic expert, a policeman to operate the underwater camera, the boat skipper and the missing person´s father get on the boat. The rest of the party will have to catch up to that boat from land.
Josefina de León: Nobody wants to get in the water because it is always easier here on land, am I right? Or behind a desk.
Narrator (CG): …claims Josefina and confesses that she did not get on the boat because she does not know how to swim.
Narrator (MS): This type of search, in a dam and with an underwater camera, has never been tried before.
The depths are spaces that we do not belong to and that represents a series of vicissitudes Josefina has been discovering little by little…
There is the effect of nature: the current flows, the predatorial wildlife, even the wind can be a challenge for the boat.
On land, the Attorney´s canine team is trained to sniff and flag the place where human remains may be found however, underwater, their sense of smell is of little help. Humans cannot identify if the lake floor has been recently removed, as we do for the mass graves, or detect any activity at all, such as steps, remains, hints that there was someone else there.
Narrator (CG): A good indicator is to spot the places where there are animals prowling. Also, if the corpses were tied to an object to avoid them from floating, it may generate bubbles on the surface.
This is explained by the chief while we travel on a police car to the place of the river where we will meet with the team that performs the underwater search.
When we get to that place, one of the policemen yells from the boat, they need to mark the spot. Someone from the shore hands him an improvised stick. They lack the necessary equipment to flag the place in the water over a hint.
From the shore, we could not confirm that the stick, no longer than 3 meters, successfully marked the spot.
With the finding of this place, the search team concludes the day´s work and we all go back to the place where we first offloaded.
During the drive back, Josefina receives a call from the Public Prosecutor’s Office agent, the camera managed to capture something that resemble bones and the team recorded a few seconds of this image, so the forensic anthropologist could determine if they are indeed human remains.
Josefina de León: As of now, there is no absolute certainty, because we are not experts on the subject. The expert is the one that determines whether they are human remains or not. Which they are (she laughs).
Celia Guerrero: Do you believe they are human remains?
Josefina de León: Hopefully… Hopefully they are.
Narrator (CG): We will continue after this break.
Host: The waters will tell. Stories of search in the depths is a podcast about the difficulties of searching for missing people in bodies of water in Mexico. We are an independent project and we need your help to keep going. Look for the Donation button in our website: bajotierramedia.com/sonar/elaguahablara. Your support will allow us to continue our investigation and bring these stories to you.
Narrator (CG): Before the break, we heard what took place during the first day of search at the Vicente Guerrero dam: The underwater camera used for deep searches captured something that, at first sight, seemed to be a bone. That day, the operation ended with the finding of a “hint” -as called in legal terminology. The team left without retrieving it, they just marked the spot.
Narrator (MS): During 2019, Tamaulipas´s Attorney general took part on 14 underwater search operations for corpses, according with information provided by that institution. Four of them took place at the Vicente Guerrero dam.
When new requested the reports about those operations through public information requests, we expected to obtain details about how the look for human remains that have been purposely hidden under water.
What we obtained were reports containing vague descriptions about the public servants who took part on the search operations, the vehicles used, the working hours and the starting point to start the search route. Also, in the middle of lines plagued with legal jargon and template phrases, there were badly written descriptions of the practices observed during the search operations.
We realized that those reports will be useless to learn about the protocols and methodologies followed for this type of tasks.
Narrator (CG): However, during the days we accompanied the search operation at the dam, we confirmed that they lack the necessary equipment and, if they have it, they don’t know how to operate it; they are not prepared to react to changing weather conditions such as the water level and current, which can modify the visibility and, when they face of emergencies or eventualities, they improvise.
(Romantic music on a car´s radio. Policemen talk to each other)
Narrator (CG): It is the second day of the search and this time the operation will take place at a new spot of the Vicente Guerrero dam. In order to get to this place, we must go through a ranch called Campo La Isla. However, this is private property, and the road to our destination is closed.
(Conversation between policemen continues, they are trying to solve the challenge of accessing the ranch. In the meantime, Josefina de León is upset and questions a policewoman)
Josefina de León: Well, what is the plan? Are we going in with the boat too?
Policewoman: No, we have to go through…
Josefina de León: First we need to go that way, am I right?
Policewoman: He is the one that has to let us know if the conditions are right to go in with the boat… We cannot go on boat until 3 or 4 p.m. because then we will be just like yesterday.
Josefina de León: Right…. It is getting late… we should be in the water by now. It is about to be 11 a.m.
Narrator (CG): It would seem like no one anticipated this situation. The policemen called the owner of the ranch in that very moment so he could grant them access. However, it is Josefina and other members of the Tamaulipas´s Missing Persons Network who explain that they are looking for their children and convince him to let them in his property. By the time they finally reach the place where they are supposed to start searching, they have lost hours.
None of the members of the Network agrees to get on the boat, they are upset because, by then, it is late.
Only the Attorney´s team and I are on the boat. We have gone far enough from the shore to stop hearing those who stayed on land, when the Public Prosecutor’s Office agent asks about the forensic expert. They realize he never got on the boat, so we go back to pick him up.
Once the Forensic expert is onboard, the search finally starts and… after a few minutes, the camera goes off. The battery runs out and they did not bring any backups. We go back to the shore for a second time, unable to perform the search at the dam, the agents improvise a land search operation. Again, the relatives of the missing people refuse to participate. It has been a day lost and they are angry.
Around dusk, the failed search operation is ended. Back at the General Attorney’s Office, Josefina looks angry rather than disappointed.
Josefina de León: That was make-believe. I am not doing something that I have not planned.
Narrator (CG): Despite the challenges during the search, on the first day the camera managed to capture what seemed to be bones remains in the lakebed.
Josefina de León: On the video you can see the whole spine. The entire spine and then, the sacral bone. Then the lower extremities. I mean, you can clearly see it.
Narrator (CG): …claims Josefina about the image recorded by the underwater camera.
Narrator (MS): However, the reports provided by the Attorney’s Office are contradictory, as the description from the agent in charge of operating the camera does not detail the finding; it only includes screenshots of the video with captions referring to the sighting of “silhouettes contrasting with the environment”. Other document, produced by the same Attorney’s Office, does mention bone remains.
Whatever the case, it was a hint, so the next step was to take it out of the water as soon as possible, since the current might drag it out of place.
Josefina de León: Yes, it could be moved, so it is urgent. On Monday, today is Saturday, but on Monday first thing in the morning I will be there to speed things up so, if possible, this same week of early next week we will be able to go back for the bones.
Narrator (MS): Unfortunately, things don’t go as Josefina expected. Not only she was not able to go back the following week, but also the remains have not been retrieved from the depths of the dam.
Of course, after that first search operation and with the motivation of finding what could be human remains, Josefina did not just cross her arms. In fact, quite the opposite, she requested the Attorney’s Office for a new inspection at the same sire but this time, with the specific purpose of recovering the remains.
The operation took place on April 8th. Unfortunately, the visibility underwater was null and the scuba divers from the Navy, who assisted during those efforts, were not able to find the remains.
Josefina de León: I wish I had a vacuum, take all the water and flush it somewhere else, then I would say “There, it is clean, now it is land”. I cannot do it, I cannot stop the rain, I cannot avoid the natural cycles to take place, as out of time as they are with all this climate change. There are things I cannot control.
Narrator (MS): During a third search, also with scuba divers and the underwater camera, nothing was found. By the it was June and four months had passed since the first search operation at the dam.
After three attempts and the realization that the Attorney’s Office did not have a methodology for underwater search operations, Josefina started investigating who could have the necessary experience for this task.
After a lot of thinking, asking and reaching out to different institutions, Josefina learned that there was a government office that could help them: The National Institute of Anthropology and History has a branch of underwater archeology, which purpose is, precisely, looking for underwater vestiges.
It was through the National Commission of Search that they first established contact with this team of archeologists.
Josefina de León: Oh surprise! I arrive at the Institute and “Oh, it hurts my heart, but I cannot help you”. “You can’t? Why?”. “It is just not within our area of expertise. Yes, we are experts, you are right, but in anthropological aspects about history, about time, objects, ships, bones too but in a historical context. We do not look for corpses, it is not our area of competency”.
Narrator (CG): When Josefina met the man in charge of this team, archeologist Roberto Junco, she showed him the photography of the missing person that started this whole operation at the dam.
Josefina de León: Look, among other missing people there is this man, he is here, searching.
Narrator (MS): Even after Junco reaffirmed that Josefina´s request was out of his scope, a possibility opened: the underwater archeology team would assist the search operation during their free time.
Narrator (CG): That way, the scuba divers specialized in underwater research assisted for three days during October 2019 to find the bone remains that had been spotted by the Attorney´s underwater camera almost eight months earlier.
Josefina de León: I tell myself “I hope is hasn’t been moved”. It took me so long… maybe I should have pushed harder or put on a naked protest so I could achieve things faster. I understood there are things that I cannot control though, right?
Narrator (MS): With the team of experts, consisting of a physical anthropologist, a historian and three archeologists, the operation was more exhaustive and following a clear methodology.
Narrator (CG): Two of the scuba divers delimit the research area, and track their way by digging their hands into the sediment, since the visibility is null. They repeat this procedure moving forward in straight lines, forming an imaginary grid.
Narrator (MS): Even though, this time the search efforts were more thorough and systematic, the team did not find any hint on the site.
Josefina de León: I did get frustrated because I told myself “This whole mess took me a year”, but I also thought “I had not done it before”… It had to… It had to happen to me, just as it did at the beginning, when I was on land; when I started reaching on land, I did not know how to do it”.
Narrator (MS): Josefina thinks that the rain cycles during those months made the visibility underwater difficult. However, other factors such as the wildlife and the high and low currents of the nearby river, could have also change the location of the remains.
Narrator (CG): It has been over a year since Josefina found out that, there might be a hint of the whereabouts of a missing person there, underwater.
Narrator (MS): Weeks and months of learning from both her and other people’s mistakes, of knocking on doors, of pushing those who have the obligation of searching for missing people.
Narrator (CG): During that time, Josefina understood that her experience looking in mass graves would only be useful to some extent.
Narrator (MS): Because, at least in the ground, the corpses remain still (hidden, yes, but lying still). On land, her feet and hands are enough to explore. On land, even the authorities have learned what to do.
Narrator (CG): However, everything vanishes underwater. For now, Josefina holds on to the fact that she can get help from the underwater archeology experts.
Josefina de León: I am going to reach out to whatever I need to reach out to until I run out of options. I am also working on getting in my head the fact that, there are things at the Vicente Guerrero dam, that I will not be able to find.
Narrator (MS): What does a relative of a missing person expect when we tell these stories?
Narrator (CG): We consider that it is important that not only we know it but also our audience, this is Josefina´s answer.
Josefina de León: My expectations are very big, finding out where she is; that somebody can finally tell me where she is, to find out once and for all.
I want someone to help me because I am tired, I am so tired, physically and morally I am so exhausted.
I thought about putting on a daily naked protest in front of the National Palace, maybe that way I would be on international TV: “Look at her, naked. Will somebody tell her where her daughter is so she … (cries and laughs). That is what I want.
Narrator (MS): From the time we completed the interviews for this story, and we began the production stage, in February 2020, many things have changed.
Nowadays, the world faces a COVID-19 pandemic and the search operations for missing people in Mexico are one of the many activities that are halted due to the health emergency.
On top of that, budget cutbacks and an old crisis at the Executive Commission for Victims Assistance threaten the continuity of the institution, in charge of assisting and guaranteeing amends for the victims of crimes and transgressions to human rights, among them, the relatives of missing people.
Narrator (CG): Thank you for listening to the first episode of The waters will tell. Stories of quests in the depths.
We are aware these stories may be harsh, but we also believe the need to be told. If you consider these stories should reach a wider audience, you can support our podcast by:
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The next episode is coming soon at Bajo Tierra or on your favorite podcast outlet.
Narrator (MS): We would like to especially thank Josefina de León, Cinthya Mabel´s mother and Operations Director of Tamaulipas´s Missing Persons Network, for her trust, willingness and patience. Also, to all the people that contributed in any way to make this project thrive, with your suggestions, your listening, good vibes and support to move forward. To all of you, Thank you.
Host: The waters will tell. Stories of quests in the depths.
Investigation, script and narration: Celia Guerrero and Mayela Sánchez.
Design and production: Guillermo Tapia.
Voice: Natalia Luna.
This podcast is a coproduction of Perifónicas and Bajo Tierra.
Thank you for listening.