According to an investigative report by Wendy Fry and Alexandra Mendoza of the San Diego Union-Tribune en Español reported
BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO
When Karla Izquierdo’s ex-husband, Francisco Aguilar, disappeared in Rosarito, she reluctantly joined a group that no one wants to be part of: the tens of thousands of families throughout Mexico searching for their missing loved ones.
But the case is a relative rarity, in a sense because Aguilar, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, is an American citizen.
Every year millions of Americans visit Mexico without incident. However, 324 US citizens have been missing since 2006 and have not been found, according to the official Mexican federal government missing person count. That compares with more than 70,000 missing Mexicans.
The Aguilar case highlights some of the frustrations Americans face when forced to confront the weakness of the Mexican criminal justice system, in which even when criminals confess to violent crimes, they are often acquitted. Law enforcement officials in the United States say it can be frustrating for family members when they realize that the United States police have no jurisdiction in Mexico and have to rely on their Mexican counterparts to investigate cases of missing Americans.
“People may be surprised to find that the American law enforcement system does not exist in Mexico,” said Lt. Thomas Seiver, who works in the homicide unit of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.
Asked for comment, an FBI spokesperson said in a statement: “Although the FBI does not have jurisdiction over missing persons abroad, we are always ready to assist our international partners.”
The last time Aguilar was heard from was on August 20, when he sent his family a WhatsApp message from near his house on the beach in Rosarito, where he once lived.
It took weeks, Izquierdo says, before investigators began to take the case seriously and only after the case gained traction in the US press and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced at a press conference that the city would “work tirelessly” to ensure Aguilar’s safe return.
“This is a living nightmare,” Izquierdo said. She said it is especially difficult not knowing whether the father of her two children is alive or dead. “Since this happened, we have met with all these families in Mexico who have also been looking for their loved ones for years and have been left with no answers.”
Although two people have been arrested for Aguilar’s “enforced disappearance”, their whereabouts remain unknown. “I think that every hour after he disappeared was valuable … A lot of time was wasted with people who did almost nothing,” Izquierdo said this week.
Baja California investigators dispute that, saying they worked the case harder than most, not only because the missing person was American, but also because there were immediate and obvious signs of foul play at Aguilar’s residence, such as missing vehicles. , an apartment left in disarray and blood on the scene.
“They investigated day and night,” said Enrique Méndez, spokesman for the Baja California Attorney General’s office.
Two suspects were arrested on October 8, in possession of Aguilar’s stolen credit cards. A judge briefly released them from custody a few days later. Baja California authorities say the suspects – Santos “N”, 27, and Fanny “N”, 32 – are now back in custody, on suspicion of being involved in their “enforced disappearance.” (Defendants in Mexico are only identified by their first name, unless convicted of a crime, in order to protect their civil rights.)
“It is incredible how having the evidence, having the audios, looking at the photographs, seeing how these criminal groups do very severe damage to society, but only because of technicalities, because of details of interpretations and personal criteria, (the judges) leave them in freedom, ”said Isaías Bertín, a senior official in the Baja California federal police.
Oscar Armenta, a former San Diego police sergeant who worked extensively in Mexico on the SDPD’s border liaison team, says that in his experience Baja California investigators are very talented, although they often operate under very difficult circumstances, including resources limited and dangerous working conditions.
“I can personally tell you that they are outstanding at investigations,” said Armenta, who now works as a private investigator, often on cases with an emphasis on the border. “They are really good at doing investigations on the ground with the limited resources and the other challenges they face.”
US law enforcement officials say Americans who do not engage in criminal activity in Mexico are rarely targeted because their disappearances can attract unwanted attention south of the border.
Criminal groups “don’t want political reaction or reaction from law enforcement,” Seiver said. Armenta said that it is “very rare that American tourists who walk the streets of Baja California are randomly kidnapped on the streets.”
“Usually there is some reason or a connection,” he said. “The suspects who are going to kidnap you want to make sure you have something for them.”
Still, there have been several high-profile robberies and murders of American citizens in Baja California this year, such as the August murders of a well-known Solana Beach couple who owned a vacation home near San Quintín, a small coastal town just outside. about three hours south of the border, near Ensenada. Ian Hirschsohn, 78, and Kathy Harvey, 73, surprised a burglar in the home, investigators said. The thief later admitted to killing the couple and dumping their bodies in a well south of San Quintín, according to Hiram Sánchez, the prosecutor.
When US citizens go missing in Mexico, family members or other loved ones often start seeking help north of the border.
State law requires San Diego-area police agencies to immediately report someone missing, no matter where they live or where they disappeared. But the police will then forward the report to the agency that has jurisdiction over the missing person’s case. If the person is believed to be in Mexico, they normally work through their liaison unit at the border to alert Mexican authorities.
“We are not actively looking for people in Mexico,” said Chula Vista Police Lt. Eric Thunberg.
Local Mexican law enforcement agencies generally do not accept a case based solely on paperwork from another agency. Family members have to physically go to the jurisdiction where their loved one is missing to make a report in person in Mexico.
“We tell people all the time: If you think your loved one is in Mexico, go to Mexico,” Seiver explained. His unit, the Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Division, typically investigates missing-person cases that are more than 30 days old.
Cases of missing Americans in Mexico may attract the attention of the media, but their number is relatively low. The San Diego Police Department currently has 10 open missing person cases in which detectives believe the person may be in Mexico. Since 2013, the Chula Vista Police Department has documented seven unsolved cases in which the missing person is believed to be in Mexico.
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department does not publicly share its numbers of missing persons believed to be in Mexico for investigative reasons, but a homicide lieutenant said those numbers are also comparatively small.
In at least some of those cases, the missing person does not want to be found, police said.
“You’re talking about an adult person, so you know, the first question is always: Are they really missing or are they partying?” Armenta said.
But the alternative may be bleak. In some years, more Americans are killed in Mexico than in all other foreign countries combined. The United States Department of State classifies travel to various Mexican states as more dangerous than travel to Syria or Afghanistan.
Although Baja California is considered less dangerous than many Mexican states, more than a dozen Americans die there each year. (This year, from January to June, there were nine deaths.) In 2019, 12 U.S. citizens were killed in Tijuana, according to the data.
The disappearance of Americans can draw much-needed attention from law enforcement to specific criminal groups, helping other Mexican families search for their missing loved ones. When the remains of the missing Solana Beach couple were discovered in a well south of Ensenada, authorities also discovered other bodies at the same location.
“We have to wait until they find an American to search,” said Lupita, the mother of a missing Baja California woman, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her personal safety.
Lupita, who is still searching for her daughter, said the death of the American retirees was horrible and tragic. At the same time, he hoped that perhaps some valuable information would be obtained.
“At least now some other (Mexican) families might have some answers,” he said.