Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo road is now known as the “Highway of Death”

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Family of Ricardo Valdes, who disappeared on the road on May 25, placed missing posters during a protest in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, Mexico, Thursday, June 24, 2021. As many as 50 people in Mexico are missing after they set off on simple highway trips between the industrial hub of Monterrey and the border city of Nuevo Laredo; relatives say they simply disappeared on the heavily traveled road, which has been dubbed 'the highway of death,' never to be seen again. (AP Photo/Roberto Martinez)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — As many as 50 people are missing after setting out on three-hour car trips this year between Mexico’s industrial hub of Monterrey and the border city of Nuevo Laredo on a well-traveled stretch of road local media have dubbed “the highway of death.”

Relatives say family members simply vanished. The disappearances, and last week’s shooting of 15 apparently innocent bystanders in Reynosa, suggest Mexico is returning to the dark days of the 2006-2012 drug war when cartel gunmen often targeted the general public as well as one another.

“It’s no longer between the cartels; they are attacking the public,” said activist Angelica Orozco.

Family members wear T-shirts with photos of disappeared Jorge Arevelo and Ricardo Valdes, during a protest in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, Mexico, Thursday, June 24, 2021. As many as 50 people in Mexico are missing after they set off on simple highway trips between the industrial hub of Monterrey and the border city of Nuevo Laredo; relatives say they simply disappeared on the heavily traveled road, which has been dubbed ‘the highway of death,’ never to be seen again. (AP Photo/Roberto Martinez)

As many as half a dozen of those who disappeared on the highway are believed to be U.S. citizens or residents, though the U.S. Embassy could not confirm their status. One, José de Jesús Gómez from Irving, Texas, reportedly disappeared on the highway on June 3.

On Saturday, the FBI office in San Antonio, Texas, issued a bulletin seeking information on the disappearance of a Laredo, Texas, woman, Gladys Perez Sánchez, and her 16-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, who were last seen setting out on the highway June 13. They had visited relatives in Sabinas Hidalgo, a town on the highway, and were returning to Texas when they vanished.

Most of the victims are believed to have disappeared approaching or leaving the cartel-dominated city of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas. About a half-dozen men have reappeared alive, badly beaten, and all they will say is that armed men forced them to stop on the highway and took their vehicles.

What happened to the rest remains a mystery. Most were residents of Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located. Desperate for answers, relatives of the missing took to the streets in Monterrey on Thursday to protest, demanding answers.

Orozco, a member of the civic group United Forces for Our Disappeared, said the abductions seem to mark a return to the worst days of Mexico’s drug war, like in 2011 when cartel gunmen in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas dragged innocent passengers off buses and forced them to fight each other to the death with sledgehammers.

Then, as now, politicians and prosecutors have given the families of the disappeared few answers.

“Now, more than 10 years after the disappearances in 2010 and 2011, they cannot continue to use the same pretexts,” said Orozco. But “they’re using the same lines. … In the last decade they were supposed to have created institutions and procedures, but it’s the same old story of authorities doing nothing.”

The Family of Ricardo Valdes, who disappeared on the road on May 25, put up posters with their photography during a protest in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, Mexico, Thursday, June 24, 2021. As many as 50 people in Mexico are missing after they set off on simple highway trips between the industrial hub of Monterrey and the border city of Nuevo Laredo; relatives say they simply disappeared on the heavily traveled road, which has been dubbed ‘the highway of death,’ never to be seen again. (AP Photo/Roberto Martinez)
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United Forces for Our Disappeared sent out a press statement on May 19 warning people about the dangers on the Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo highway, even though by mid-May the group had received only about 10 reports of people disappearing there. More reports poured in in June, and now amount to about 50.

The government of Nuevo Leon state acknowledged 10 days later that it had received reports of 14 people who had disappeared on the highway so far in 2021, along with five more in neighboring Tamaulipas, where Nuevo Laredo is located.

But Nuevo Leon didn’t warn people against traveling on the highway until almost a month later on June 23.

That was too late for Gómez, and for Javier Toto Cagal, a 36-year-old truck driver and father of five who disappeared along with three employees of the same trucking company on the 135-mile (220 km) stretch of highway on June 3. They were driving to Nuevo Laredo in a car.

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