Angelita Almeras helped to locate the remains of several hundred missing Mexicans while looking for her own brother — a search that ended abruptly this week when a gunman killed her.
In the violence-plagued Latin American nation, even trying to track down one of the more than 100,000 people who have disappeared can be fraught with danger.
Almeras, a 27-year-old single mother of two, had asked the government for protection a week ago due to intensifying threats by telephone and social media, people close to her told AFP on Friday.
But help never arrived. And on Thursday she was gunned down at the beauty salon where she worked in the city of Tecate across the border from the US state of California.
According to activists, she is one of eight people killed since 2021 while searching for missing persons in Mexico.
“This should never have happened,” said Paula Sandoval, a friend of Almeras who is also searching for a brother kidnapped in 2020.
“If the authorities had done their job, this wouldn’t have happened. Neither she nor her family deserved this,” she added.
Almeras’s brother Jose disappeared along with his girlfriend in 2018, when Tecate suffered an escalation of violence linked to drug trafficking.
As part of their effort to find him, Almeras and her mother founded a group called “Union and Strength for Our Disappeared.”
Sandoval remembered her as a “warrior” with a big heart who was committed to the cause.
“She always helped the victims… She always ran to them if called on,” she said.
– Threats, intimidation –
Almeras — who after her death was initially identified by a local human rights commission as Angelica Leon based on her second surname — filed three complaints about threats she received, her friend said.
“They told her that they were going to come after her, they asked her why she was uncovering graves. They told her that she was going to end up just like the people she was finding,” Sandoval said.
The threats came from unknown telephone numbers and social media accounts.
“The authorities did nothing to identify them,” Sandoval said.
Almeras had become a “prominent figure” in the defense of the missing and their families, “which put her in a position of vulnerability in a state and a country mired in violence,” said rights group Elementa Derechos Humanos.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday that Almeras had protection from the local authorities and that the alleged perpetrator had been identified.
“Everything indicates that there is no connection” with her work looking for the missing, he said, alluding to Almeras’s ex-partner who voluntarily attended the prosecutor’s office after her murder.
“There is possibly another reason, but I can’t say more than that,” Lopez Obrador added, in remarks met with skepticism from those close to Almeras.
“It’s unfortunate that the authorities are looking for a scapegoat… to close the case as soon as possible,” Sandoval said.
“But this really has to do with her search work,” she said, adding that Almeras “got along very well” with her ex-partner.
More than 114,000 people have gone missing in Mexico, mostly since 2006 when the government of then-President Felipe Calderon deployed the military to fight drug cartels.
Since then, a spiral of violence has left more than 420,000 people dead.
Despite the risks, Sandoval said she plans to continue with her own search, although with each grave found “things are uncovered that make certain people uncomfortable,” including authorities.
Almeras’s relatives are coming to terms with the devastating loss of two of their loved ones.
“Now her mom has twice the pain because she still hasn’t found her son, and she has lost her pillar, her daughter,” Sandoval said.