The state where 900 women have vanished in a year


When her mother's body was found decapitated on her town's main street, Ahilin Quiñones became another one of the countless orphans in Mexico's Guerrero state, whose lives have been destroyed by a surge in female kidnap and murder. Her mother, Aidé Nava, was a mayoral candidate in their cartel-infested Mexican mountain village of Ahuacuotzingo.

After vowing to rid the town of its opium-cultivating gangsters, she was kidnapped by the cartel who tortured, raped and decapitated her.

On March 11, the ruthless gangsters left her body out in the open and covered it in a spray-painted sheet which read: 'This will happen to anyone who doesn't get in line.'

'The police told us they couldn't identify the body without the head,' Ahilin told MailOnline, 'I was forced to recognise my mother's corpse by a birthmark she had on her forearm.'

Ahilin, 19, has lost everything to the gangsters who terrorise her home town of Iguala.

Her father, town mayor Fransisco Quiñones, was murdered at gunpoint nine months earlier. Her elder brother was 'disappeared' by the gangsters in 2012.

Locals say Ahilin and her sister Vanessa could be the cartel's next targets.

'Women go missing every day from this region,' Ahilin said, cradling her six-month-old daughter, whom she hopes to spare from a life of perpetual terror by moving to the United States, 'My mother is just one among thousands.'

Six women are murdered in Mexico every single day, according to the National Citizen Femicide Observatory, which claims only a quarter of the 3,892 murders it reported in 2013 were actually investigated.

And the southern Guerrero state, where Acapulco is a popular holiday resort, is the most dangerous place for women in North America.

Forty-three protesting students were disappeared at the hands of the local police in Iguala last year. The audacity of the kidnapping made headlines around the world and still does. But there are many more cases that receive little or no attention.

An average of 14 women per 100,000 are murdered annually in Guerrero - four times the national average.

The most recent official statistics saw an astonishing 343 per cent increase in femicide on the previous three years, with more than 500 mothers, sisters and daughters being murdered annually.

Female defence organisations say that this year's statistics are already exceeding previous averages

'The murderers aren't even trying to hide their crimes anymore,' said Maria Luisa Garfias, the last remaining founder of Women Allied for Justice, a pressure group that represents murdered and disappeared women.

'The criminals enjoy total impunity,' she told MailOnline from her office in Guerrero state capital Chilpancingo, where she has death threats are often plastered to the windows.'

Garfias' organisation estimates that more than 600 women in Guerrero have disappeared so far this year and 1,249 rapes were reported in 2014, though the true figure could be much higher.

Disappearances do not count as deaths in official statistics, even though the corpses of many women show up in remote or wooded areas eventually.

Garfias said an even darker reality lurks behind these horrifying statistics.

She said: 'Women are terrified of the authorities. We had one rape victim who reported the crime to the police but ended up being disappeared because she had sought justice.

'We think that only about 40 per cent of rape victims even report the crime for fear of retribution.'

Guerrero state daily newspaper, Vértice, regularly publishes graphic photographs of the previous day's murders on its back page.

'We've been amazed not only by the increase in female victims, but also the terrible ways they are murdered,' said the paper's 'Red News' editor Jorge Pacheco.

'Thrown from bridges, hung beside busy motorways, horrifically mutilated. More and more of these photos arrive every day. Things are going from bad to worse.'

Many experts and human rights groups fear that Mexico's femicide problem is spiraling out of control.

Isarve Cano Vargas, 19, from the city of Tehuacan, is just one of around 4,000 women and girls who are kidnapped and murdered every year.

The daughter of a former politician was found dead in May, around a month after she went missing, even though her family paid her captors' demanded ransom of around £83,000.

In January, the decaying body of aspiring actress Carmen Yarira Noriega Esparza, 27, was found inside a water tank in the Mexico City apartment block where she lived.

Psychology graduate Esparza vanished in February 2014, and friends and family feared she had been kidnapped by human traffickers and sold as a sex slave.

Maria Santos Gorrostieta, the mayor of Tiquicheo, was driving her young daughter to school when she was ambushed by a group of armed men.

The body of Gorrostieta, who had already survived two assassination attempts, was found stabbed, burned, battered and bound by a roadside in San Juan Tararameo, Cuitzeo Township.

And high school student Lupita Perez Montes, 17, who was last seen on January 31, is among 18 young women who have disappeared from the northern city of Ciudad Juarez in just over a year.

Guerrero state recently launched an online database for the state's disappearance victims, but locals complain only the rare cases that are formally investigated by the authorities actually appear on it.

Garfias said: 'Our women's defence organisation has taken over 900 cases of murder, disappearance and rape to the State Attorney's office in the past twelve months.

'Yet only 9% of all of those complaints have been investigated. Why aren't the other 91% visible?'

When approached by MailOnline in person and subsequently via telephone, the Guerrero State Attorney's office declined to comment.

At a meeting of Guerrero's Committee for the Murdered and Disappeared, MailOnline heard the testimonies of many families left in uncertainty by the disappearance of loved ones.

Primary school teacher Noé Velasquez had taken out a loan of £12,000 – over three times his annual salary – to pay for his daughter's ransom earlier this year.

His daughter, 18 year-old Jimena Vasquez, disappeared in March after meeting a man she had met online for coffee.

Although he gave the full ransom of 300,000 pesos to her kidnappers, his daughter never returned. Jimena Velasquez remains on Guerrero state's disappeared list.

'I've got enormous debt', he told MailOnline, 'but I'd pay ten times that if I could just have my daughter home and safe.'

Maria Velez, 15, disappeared in 2010 from Chilpancingo after getting into an unidentified black car outside her school.

It is the second time that her mother, Lilia Juarez, had lived through a forced disappearance. Her partner Jesus Moreno disappeared in 2008 in similar circumstances.

'My loved ones have been taken from me', she said, 'and I can't know if they're alive or dead. I'm living through hell.'

Maria Rodriguez and Atanacio Molina's eldest son Josué Molina disappeared last year when three armed men kidnapped him from outside his school.

He had been overheard plotting revenge over the kidnap of his cousin just a week before. He has not been seen or heard from since.

It was the first time Maria and Atanacio had spoken to the media about their missing son.

'It's not a good idea to tell the newspapers about a kidnapped relative, as the criminals invariably take the unwanted publicity out on their victim', said Maria with tears in her eyes. 'But it's been over a year and we've heard nothing.'

Nearly every member of the committee has had to conduct their own investigations into the disappearances of their loved ones, and most have received death threats as a result.

'They (the narcos) called and told me that if I kept investigating then my daughter would become an orphan', said Haydee Cortes, whose husband disappeared at the hands of armed men in 2007.

'They've threatened me continuously but I'm not scared', said Maria Rodriguez. 'If only I could know he was dead for certain then I could leave this terrible uncertainty behind and grieve for my son'.

As many as 38 per cent of all forced disappearance cases in Mexico occur in Guerrero. 20 per cent of these disappeared victims are women, nearly double of that in the second-worst affected state, where females make up just 12 per cent of the disappeared.

'It's an insipid form a terrorism,' said Federico Mastrogiovanni, author of Neither Alive, Nor Dead, an investigation into the recent surge in nationwide forced disappearance in Mexico.

'When the families aren't sure whether a kidnapped family member is still alive they are less likely to go to the police for fear that by denouncing the crime they will anger the criminals, who may then take it out on their loved one.'

Guerrero is one of Mexico's most impoverished states, and gender inequality is a serious issue. Women earn on average just 38 per cent of what their male counterparts do, and state-wide literacy among adult females is just 77 per cent.

'Strong women are turned into social pariahs here,' says Maria Luisa Garfias, 'The patriarchal society here is enforced by the narco culture that has developed in recent years.'

Guerrero is an important state for the drug cartel industry. The state's fertile land, poverty, lack of roads, semi-tropical climate and inaccessible terrain make it perfect for the clandestine cultivation of marijuana and opium poppies – used to manufacture heroin.

It's considered the most fought-over state by narcotraffickers in Mexico.

'Here we've got the Rojos, the Pelones, the Templars, New Generation, the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel and Sinaloa all fighting over control of narcotics production', said Ahilin's uncle Pedro Nava, who campaigns for the region's local population.

'We have shootouts in the hills around us every night', says Pablo Nava, whose daughter Aidé was brutally murdered earlier this year. 'When things don't go one side's way they take it out on the local women.'

Around 41 hectares of opium poppy fields surround the town where Pablo's granddaughters have been left parentless as a result of the violence.

Read the original story on the Daily Mail