2017 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

A Search for Life on Roads of Death

Aaron Nelsen, Julysa Sosa and Nan Keck

San Antonio Express-News

Feature, Medium Newsroom


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Every year, tens of thousands of Central American migrants embark on a dangerous journey through Mexico in a desperate bid to reach the United States. An untold number never make it.

Their undocumented status, and the routes they navigate through hotly contested drug­ trafficking corridors, makes them an easy — and profitable — target for kidnapping and extortion. By most estimates, at least 70,000 Central American migrants have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico over the past decade. Others say the number of disappeared is well above 100,000.

When their loved ones don ‘t reach their destinations, families endure heartbreak and disappointment trying to find out from afar what went wrong. Most of the time, too few details are available, with no reports or records filed anywhere.

Despite the absence of information, a group of mostly mothers have refused to sit still. Each year, dozens make an annual trek across 3,000 miles of Mexico with the XII Caravana de Madres Centroamericanas (Caravan of Central American Mothers) on a seemingly impossible mission: retracing the footsteps of the missing.

The group visits prisons, brothels, hospitals. They march through cities, question officials endlessly in a mostly vain attempt to find clues. Last fall, an Express-News reporter and photojournalist accompanied the caravan for two weeks, riding in packed vans, sleeping on shelter floors and worn sofas, recording as the group searched across a land of clandestine graves and brutal drug wars. The result was a compelling narrative, with immersive graphics, maps and videos to complement and contextualize the story.

Since publication in December, elected leaders and organizations have reached out to the group. Forensic anthropologists are establishing a database of remains to both identify and connect the missing to their families.

Though the caravan tested the emotional stamina of its members, one mother quietly lamented, as she traveled back toward home, no closer to the truth: “We’re almost at the end and I don’t have a single lead on my son. But I feel like I’ve left behind a seed. Someone has to have seen his photo. Soon that will bear fruit.”