Two American sisters and a friend remain missing more than two weeks after they left the border town of Peñitas, Texas, late last month to sell clothes at a flea market in Mexico less than three hours away, according to U.S. authorities. Save for the FBI and Mexican officials actively searching for the women, law enforcement personnel have been tight-lipped about the investigation.
Their disappearance comes on the heels of an ordeal caught on video earlier this month, in which four other Americans were kidnapped by a drug cartel in the border city of Matamoros, and two of them were killed. But that case was resolved in a matter of days.
Now, with no signs of the three women since they left on Feb. 24, many are fearing the worst. Family members have joined the FBI and Mexican authorities in the search across the border, according to police.
“Their family members are in Mexico currently looking for them, and at the same time you have the Mexican agencies there, who are also investigating to determine where they're at and what happened to them,” Peñitas Police investigator Oscar Barron told Yahoo News.
The McAllen FBI office in Texas did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Instead of settling safety concerns among border travelers, with news of a probe and search underway, Barron says, the case has only caused more anxiety. While border crossings are relatively common for nearby Texas residents for everyday tasks, including shopping, eating and miscellaneous activities, Barron says he would caution against crossing the border right now because of the current threat of violence.
“People's lives are in danger whenever they cross over to Mexico,” he said. “Everybody just wants to stay safe.”
Since the kidnappings, U.S. officials have issued “do not travel” warnings for six states within Mexico, including a Level 4 travel advisory for the regions of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas.
But for many Americans with families in Mexico or other responsibilities that require them to go back and forth, experts say, it’s not that easy.
“Many U.S. border community residents and southwestern state residents go to Mexico regularly,” Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, told Yahoo News in an email. “They went to visit family, to shop, for medical and dental services, and to work.”
In fact, a 2018 survey for the El Paso Community Foundation that Heyman was a part of found that more than 62% of residents in the border town of El Paso, Texas, traveled to Mexico within the previous year and many of them more than once.
“Some visits are discretionary and people might reduce them (e.g., meals, recreation, shopping), but is it realistic not to visit close family members or to get medical services for people who lack health insurance or can’t afford co-pays?” he added. “Poorer Mexico actually is a safety net for the health care gaps in the richer United States.”
Absent immediate physical warnings, many critics have also been alarmed by the cartels' disregard for an “unwritten rule” to leave Americans alone simply because it doesn’t bode well for their criminal enterprise.
Because the cartels want to keep their profiles somewhat low and maintain their illegal drug operations while avoiding international pursuit, they have largely avoided American interference for nearly four decades. In 1985, Enrique Camarena, a DEA agent, was captured, tortured and killed for thwarting cartel operations. The killing prompted a wide-scale international homicide investigation that led to the arrest of several cartel members and forced others into hiding.
“When American citizens are targeted, it brings pressure from the U.S. government, they get their security agencies involved and then start putting pressure on Mexico to act,” Cecilia Farfán Méndez, a researcher of Mexican security at the University of California, San Diego, told the New York Times. “The worst thing for the cartels is that they have to dedicate resources to countering Mexican authorities that mostly leave them alone. It’s not good for business.”
Tony Payan, the director of the Mexico Center at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, called the timing of the kidnappings and disappearances “a difficult moment in the binational relationship”.
“There are growing calls in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to bear down on Mexico for its extreme tolerance of organized crime, which affects not only some Americans but also millions of Mexicans,” Payan told Yahoo News, accusing both Mexican and U.S. officials of handling it poorly thus far.
“In my view, this should be an opportunity to reconsider the entire framework of collaboration between the two countries on security, as well as other issues,” he said. “Unilateral action is not the answer; as denying that Mexico has a real problem is.”
While the safety concerns for many are real, some experts say it should be put in perspective.
“Millions of Americans visit Mexico every year,” Ernesto Castañeda, director of the Immigration Lab at American University, told Yahoo News. “Despite the recent headlines, American citizens getting kidnapped or killed in Mexico is very rare and unlikely. Nonetheless, the recent tragic events remind us of the impunity in many areas of Mexico and the common killing, kidnappings and disappearances of Mexican citizens and migrants from the global South.”
Heyman hopes the recent attention allows for others to understand the plight of those most affected.
“This situation should be a reminder that when asylum-seekers are blockaded inside Mexico, they are prime targets of criminal violence like this,” he said. “This should remind us of that fundamental moral consideration.”
Cover thumbnail: Penitas Police Dept. via AP