In the deadly Mexican town of Chilpancingo mothers are taunted by evil gangsters who have kidnapped their children then refuse to return them – even though the ransom demand has been paid.
The lawless citadel is in the grip of narcotic mobsters who peddle heroin on the street fresh from the drug labs dotted around the town. The menacing dug cartels also run a kidnap ‘business’ snatching hundreds of people a month.
MailOnline travelled to the dangerous southern Mexican state to speak to a mother of three who has lost every single one of her children to the kidnap gangs – two of them snatched from their beds.
Eudocia Gonzales lost her three beloved children within the space of nine months to drug vigilantes who demanded huge ransoms for their return, then simply laughed in her face after she paid up.
Now all she is left with is the only picture she has of her once happy family – daughter Medari, and sons Abel Gallardo and Fausto – which was taken 15 years ago.
This is the reality of life in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, where people are kidnapped a rate of two every single day.
‘There’s no pain like losing a child, but to be left agonising about all three is a fate worse than death,’ she told MailOnline as she clutched the photo, sitting in the slum where she now lives in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero State in southern Mexico.
‘At this point all I want to know is what happened to them; to have their bodies back just to see them one last time.’
But she and her husband Ernesto are unable to turn to help from the authorities, threatened with death by the gangs.
It was Eudocia’s middle child Abel Gallardo, who was 20 when he became the first to disappear.
‘He left his job driving a taxi on October 23, 2013, and never came home,’ said his father Ernesto Gallardo, who had to sell his successful bakery business in the town centre to pay the ransom that was demanded three days later, alongside photographs of his badly beaten son.
‘They demanded £25,000 within three days,’ he said, ‘but when we paid them they just laughed and said we’d never see our son again.’
It was then that the family began to fight back. Eudocia filed an official complaint with the state attorney, while Ernesto and his eldest son Fausto began to search the rougher areas of the state capital for Abel and his abductors.
‘We came too close to finding out what happened to him,’ said Ernesto, who now refuses to leave his house after dark for fear of further retributions. ‘We started receiving death threats and warnings to stop searching, but we kept trying to find our son.’
Nine months after Abel went missing, 12 armed gangsters broke into the family’s house and abducted Eudocia’s other two children, Fausto and Medari, from their beds. This time there was no ransom demand, nor has either of them been seen since.
‘I’m living a nightmare,’ says Eudocia, whose health has suffered severely in the two years since the event. The grieving mother has gained four stone, contracted diabetes and now struggles with a hernia she can’t afford to attend to.
‘I can’t go to the police for fear of the death threats,’ she told MailOnline as she kissed the picture of Abel that she wears around her neck.
The Mexican government registered 27,659 reports of forced disappearance over the eight-year period between 2007 and 2015.
‘We estimate that only around half of the forced disappearances in our state are actually reported,’ says Javier Monroy, the founder of the Guerrero Committee for Families of the Disappeared. ‘Which would put a more realistic figure for forced disappearances at over 50,000 countrywide.’
Guerrero state has the highest rate of forced disappearance in the country, averaging over 650 disappearances annually, as well as 247 cases in which the state authorities were directly involved over the eight-year period.
In January of this year, a total of 60 people were disappeared across the mountainous southern state, where Acapulco is now considered the most dangerous beach resort in North America.
In one town five secondary school teachers were disappeared with a ransom of 3million pesos (£115,000) demanded, while in another Guerrero city 30 armed and masked men crashed a wedding and abducted 16 guests including the bride and groom.
‘Forced disappearance and kidnapping has become the one of the largest industries in the state,’ says Javier, whose organisation seeks to start a national movement dedicated to putting an end to the phenomenon. ‘Today there’s no part of Guerrero state that is not affected. From the sierras to the coast, everyone knows someone who has been disappeared.’
Guerrero’s state capital Chilpancingo is a gritty town half an hour inland from Acapulco. Away from the pedestrianized centre the streets are deserted after dark, where only the prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers are visible, selling fresh heroin directly from the production laboratories dotted throughout the town.
‘More than 100 teenage girls have gone missing in the past six months,’ says Judith Tapia, a member of Javier’s support group. ‘Discos and bars in the town have become danger zones for women, who get kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking.’
Guerrero is a mountainous and verdant region of Mexico, much of which is inaccessible other than on foot. This fertility, coupled with abject poverty in areas inhabited by indigenous farmers, has turned the state into the country’s largest producer of opium, which is subsequently refined into heroin and sold.
Of the total 56 active drug cartels recognised as threats by the Mexican government country-wide, 24 are active in Guerrero state, and the fight for territory has resulted in many gangs turning to the kidnap and extortion racket for a guaranteed source of income.
‘All the smaller cartels here have their roots in the two or three major organised crime groups of the 70s and 80s,’ says Javier. ‘We have Los Rojos, Guerreros Unidos, Los Ardillos, La Familia, the Knights Templar, New Generation, Los Tequileros, SIDA, the Cartel de las Sierras and many others. They’re all fighting each other for our land, and innocent people have ended up suffering.’
Victor Cruz, who fled Iguala after his parents were disappeared by the same Guerreros Unidos cartel that abducted the 43 Ayotzinapa students in 2014, now occupies the entrance to the state congress building.
The students from a local teachers college have not been seen since 26 September 2014, when they were detained after clashing with municipal police in the city of Iguala in Guerrero state.
International experts for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission said yesterday that they have run into serious obstacles in their investigation, with the authorities blocking attempts to get to the truth.
‘Our state is rotten to the core with organised crime,’ Cruz told MailOnline, as he pointed out the victims pictured on his activist group’s banners. ‘The narcos have become too powerful here and the value of civilian life has been reduced as a result.’
‘We want to see accountability from our authorities.’
The president of Guerrero’s section of the National Commission for Human Rights, Fernando Esteban has few answers for combatting the problem. His organisation’s statistics show that 2015 saw just six incidences out of over 500 in which municipal or state authorities were involved in the forced disappearance.
‘We rely entirely on society to help us in our work,’ he told MailOnline, speaking from his office in Chilpancingo. ‘And we have found that there is often a stigma attached to those who have been disappeared, people want to distance themselves from the victim’s relations.’
‘After Abel disappeared, people began to accuse him of involvement with the narcos,’ said Eudocia. ‘We became social pariahs on top of everything else that had happened to us.
‘In the end we had to move to the city’s slums where people don’t know our story, but it’s worse here. We regularly hear shootouts at night and find dead bodies in the morning.
‘It’s awful,’ she said. ‘It feels like only yesterday that my children were growing into young adults, and now I find myself living in hell.’