As she sat on her couch looking back at me, she wipes the tears from behind her glasses and tries to tell me about the night her youngest daughter of 18 years was suddenly and violently taken, never to be heard from again.
Her trembling hands and shaking legs speak volumes of the pain she suffers day-in and day-out, wondering about the fate of her little girl. “Is she alive? Is she dead? Is she cold and hungry? Have they hurt her? If they did kill her, where is her body?” These thoughts race through the grief stricken mind of this single mother a hundred times a day.
Consuelo (not her real name), a 49 year-old mother of four, can hardly speak her daughters’ name before her face flinches with pain and her eyes fill with tears again. “Today is my baby Paula’s 20th birthday [not her real name either]. It’s been over two years and we’ve heard nothing.” With a breath of exasperation, frustration, and more than a hint of resentment she exclaims, “And no one has helped us. No one.”
As horrific as this sounds, this story has been played out hundreds of times in the last five years all across the U.S./Mexican border. Sometimes it ends with the return of the loved one, in some cases alive but in most cases not. Sometimes, like in Consuelo’s case, it never ends.
I’ve interviewed over fifty families in the last four years, families living the same nightmare every day: “What has happened to my loved one in Mexico?”
My first encounter was with a man whose daughter and best friend became the center of attention in the mainstream media for a short time after their kidnappings in September of 2004. So compelled by their story, I made them the centerpiece of the kidnapping segment of my documentary, “Drug Wars.”
William Slemaker sat down with me and told me the frightening details of the night his daughter, Yvette Martinez, 24, and her best friend, Brenda Cisneros, 21, were kidnapped just a half-mile from the bridge crossing back into the U.S. by the local police in Nuevo Laredo, only to be handed over to a drug lord the next day. He told me that when he reported the two girls missing he was surprised to find out how helpless U.S. authorities were and how hopeless the Mexican authorities were.
After a grueling night of listening to William and five other families tell me their stories of pain and despair, I was emotionally drained to the point that I got up from the chair I had been sitting in for nearly six hours, walked into the adjoining room, broke-down and cried like a baby. As a father, I could not help but place myself in the shoes of these parents and feel for just a moment, the pain they have been feeling for years. I walked back into the room where they had gathered and as I embraced them all thanking them for talking to me, I thought to myself I never want to know what it would be like to be in their position. Their pain is what keeps me reporting on the border today.
I look at my bank account and see that I have literally broke myself and my family financially to get the word out to as many people as possible—then I think of them and suddenly my problems are not so bad after all. I stop feeling sorry for myself and start working again.
Not all of the kidnappings I have worked in the past four years have this never-ending pain attached. Some people do actually get confirmation of the death of their loved one, occasionally they even get the remains which they can bury, grieve over, and gain some type of closure through. And then every once in a while a happy ending comes—their loved one comes home, alive—not always well, but alive.
The last kidnapping I covered in Nuevo Laredo was just such a case. Two young girls 18 and 19-years-old were out late at night at a bar in Nuevo Laredo. At about 2:30am they were kidnapped and held without a ransom demand for a week. On the seventh day—their captors released them near a truck stop on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo. I spent most of that week with the mother of the older of the two girls, Gina (not her real name). Her grief, pain and suffering was all too familiar to me. Gina’s cry for help to the public and authorities exacted the same response I have seen over and over since hearing William Slemaker’s story in 2006.
Alas there were two silver linings in this story—the obvious one was that the girls were returned to their families, emotionally beat down and physically hurt, but alive and well enough to recover. But the one silver lining that had an even bigger impact on me than the girls being reunited with their loved ones, was the unconditional love and support this family received from one man. He was the same man that first called me on the phone to tell me about the kidnappings before the local news had even reported it. He told me “Rusty, you need to get down here and investigate this.”
This man stood by Gina and held her hand as she walked, held her head as she cried and helped her at every critical turn. This man stood there with a face of tears as the news of the safe return of this young girl was confirmed by the authorities and celebrated along with the family as they waited in anticipation for the teenage victim to walk through the doors of the Webb County Sheriffs office. When it was all over, Gina went on national television thanking this man for all he had done to encourage, help and support her and she thanked God for sending this man to her because she had no one else.
That man was none other than William Slemaker.
William has managed to take the pain he has endured for the past four-and-a-half years and turn it into a useful and powerful tool to help others faced with the same plight. I have taken William with me all over the country to speak at conventions and several venues where we premiered “Drug Wars.” Audiences from everywhere are drawn to his story but drawn even closer by his passion to help the hundreds of other people that have missing loved ones in Mexico. I pray for William and his family that though helping these other people and showing them unconditional love and support that the pain and grief they have suffered over Yvette’s disappearance will be removed—without a trace.