By Christine Murray
(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When a worried parent calls for help finding a missing child, Norma Ledezma says she often immediately has a sense of whether they are likely to be found alive.
Seventeen years after her daughter Paloma disappeared in northern Mexico, Ledezma has helped hundreds of families cope with the psychological and legal aftermath such cases, and experience has taught her how to react.
“You have to learn to understand human behavior, the victim’s environment, the possible perpetrator’s environment,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We’ve found a lot dead and unfortunately most are still missing, that’s the reality.”
The former factory worker, who left school at 11 but has completed a law degree since becoming a campaigner, is one of three finalists for the 2020 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
The 53-year-old founded her organization Justice for our Daughters in 2002 and has had some success.
She succeeded in getting the government to name a justice center for women was named after Paloma, who was 16 when she went missing. She has also helped locate some victims alive, including several who were being trafficked.
Most, however, are never found.
Mexico’s president has promised justice for the more than 40,000 people who disappeared in the country, many in the last decade of corruption and violence fuelled by drug gangs.
But civil society groups have said the government is yet to implement the measures it promised.
They have often stepped in to do the job of authorities – particularly where investigators are unwilling or unable to take on organized crime.
Collectives of mothers who have lost children have scoured the Mexican countryside armed with shovels following tips of where mass graves might hold their loved ones.
About one in four of those listed as missing are women, though the government said earlier this year it was reviewing the data.
Ledezma said the government had no strategy to fix the issue.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this year it said it would allow the United Nations to review reports on cases of disappearances.
Paloma left the house for school in March 2002 and never came home. Her killer was never found.
When her body was found, authorities did not run DNA tests on her, instead relying on clothing samples and the color of her nail polish. Ledezma could not bring herself to go into the room where her body lay.
“I saw very concretely, very clearly the impunity and the lack of justice…that unfortunately is still missing in Chihuahua and Mexico,” she said.
It was on the day of Paloma’s funeral that Ledezma decided to help those who seek justice for similar cases and she has pressed on despite threats from organized criminals.
“I haven’t left the country because I have a debt to my daughter… I’ll be here until the last day”, she said.
The 2020 Martin Ennals Award, named after the British activist who ran Amnesty International, will be given to one of the three finalists on Feb. 19 in Geneva.
(Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)