Where 3 Dead Tourists Were Found Fast, Thousands Remain Missing

When two Australian brothers drove down to Mexico’s northwest coast from San Diego last week with their American friend, they were looking to catch the crisp waves that make Baja California a popular destination among travelers from across the world.

But soon after arriving to the Mexican city of Ensenada, Callum Robinson’s Instagram posts of his surf adventure ceased. The group stopped answering calls and texts.

He and his brother Jake never showed up at an Airbnb they had booked, their mother said in a social media post, pleading for help from anyone who had seen her two sons.

On Sunday, Mexican authorities announced that the bodies of the three tourists, found at the bottom of a well with gunshot wounds to their heads, had been identified by their families.

The men had been killed in a carjacking gone wrong, the authorities said, and suspects had been detained within days of the men’s disappearance. More people are being investigated.

It was a tragic yet somewhat fast resolution to a case that had drawn international attention.

For many local Mexicans, however, the quick response from the authorities to locate the Robinson siblings and Jack Carter Rhoad, the American, and make arrests seemed to be an exception in a country where tens of thousands of missing-person cases have sat for years without ever being solved.

The government said in March that about 100,000 people are missing in Mexico, though the United Nations says that could be an undercount.

“It is very difficult, except for high-profile cases like the one that just happened, for the authorities to immediately trigger the search,” said Adriana Jaén, a sociologist based in Ensenada who provides legal, emotional and logistical support to people searching for their missing loved ones.

Federal and state officials in Mexico tend to claim that violence levels have dropped even as official data contradicts them. The local authorities have themselves been involved in disappearances — in Baja California, municipal police officers from Ensenada were recently accused in the disappearance of one man. And then there’s also a lack of resources to investigate.

So it’s noticeable when a case appears to receive special attention.

“The message those of us who work on these issues get is that there are lives that matter,” Ms. Jaén added, “and there are others that don’t.”

There are more than 17,300 active disappearance investigations in Baja California state, according to government data provided to Elementa DDHH, a human rights group that has studied the disappearances in the state.

In many instances, it’s unclear whether the missing person was found; if they were the victim of a crime; and, if so, whether anyone was arrested. Some cases even lack even basic information for beginning a search, a government recount of the disappeared found last year.

“We don’t know exactly how many people are missing and how many have been located,” said Renata Demichelis, the Mexico director of Elementa DDHH. “The authorities don’t tell us.”

The available data, however, offer a hint of the problem’s magnitude.

In 2017, state prosecutors opened about 760 disappearance investigations in Baja California. In five years, the number jumped more than threefold, according to Elementa DDHH.

“This is an ongoing phenomenon, and it’s increasing exponentially,” said Ms. Demichelis, adding that several factors are contributing to the worsening disappearance crisis in Baja California, such as drug trafficking, internal displacement, migration and gender violence.

The state’s attorney general, María Elena Andrade Ramírez, said in an interview that prosecutors have so far ruled out the possibility that the killing of the Robinson brothers and Mr. Rhoad was linked to organized crime groups.

Those responsible had tried to seize the tourists’ pickup truck, she said. When they resisted, a man took out a gun and killed them.

“This aggression seems to have occurred in an unforeseen, circumstantial manner,” Ms. Andrade Ramírez said. “They took advantage when they saw the vehicle out in the open, in that remote location, where they knew that there were no witnesses.”

In a news conference this weekend, a reporter asked Ms. Andrade Ramírez if one needs to be a foreigner in Baja California to have state authorities act as swiftly as they did in the case of the missing tourists.

“Every investigation has its own process,” the attorney general answered. “And there are times when we have to take care of every detail, which takes a certain amount of time, to achieve a good result.”

On Sunday, after the victims’ families identified the bodies in the morgue, Adriana Moreno, a local resident, said she felt conflicting emotions.

“I’m so glad they found them so quickly. That’s my joy, my satisfaction,” said Ms. Moreno, 60. She has been looking for her son, Víctor Adrián Rodríguez Moreno, since 2009, when he and two of his co-workers — employees of an import business — were abducted in the northern state of Coahuila.

“But 15 years after the disappearance of my boy, there’s nothing,” Ms. Moreno said. “They make me feel like missing people come in levels of importance.”

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