By Andalusia Knoll Soloff
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The #10YearChallenge meme, where Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users upload a photo of them back in 2009 next to a 2019 one, has gone viral across the globe. In Mexico, it’s taken a somber, even heartbreaking tone, as parents who have lost their children to violence, corruption or enforced disappearances share photos that reflect their loss.
In the 2009 photos, the parents are next to their children, sometimes smiling or embracing them. In 2019, they have forlorn faces and are holding an image of their child, who is no longer with them.
“Looking back hurts, to see the difference from ten years ago and now is heart-wrenching,” said Graciela Pérez.
Pérez said she cried as she posted a picture of herself and her daughter, who was 13 in 2009 next to a subsequent picture of her holding her missing daughter’s photo. The picture was taken for a project, Geography of Pain, by Mexican photographer Mónica González, who documents the anguish of enforced disappearances.
Pérez is from San Luis Potosí, but her daughter Milynali was born in Atlanta, Georgia and was returning from a weekend trip to the U.S. in 2012 with her uncle and three teenage cousins. They were kidnapped on the highway in Tamaulipas, one of Mexico’s most dangerous states and nothing has been heard from them since.
Together with 300 other families whose loved ones went missing in Tamaulipas, Pérez formed the collective Milynali Red CFC. They do the work the government doesn’t always do, following anonymous tips, digging in clandestine graves and becoming citizen forensic experts, matching the bones they find with the DNA of family members.
However, as is the case with many of the family members of the 40,180 people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2006, she still has hopes that her daughter may be alive and speaks about her in the present tense.
Her daughter’s absence has left an enormous void.
“I no longer have a life, it’s just surviving, to be able to look for her,” said Pérez speaking to NBC News from one of the collective’s search missions in Tamaulipas.
Mexico’s “War on Drugs,” launched in 2006 under former President Felipe Calderón with billions of dollars and cooperation from the U.S., has had devastating effects on civil society including thousands of killings and disappearances — as well as high rates of extortion and femicide. Meanwhile, drugs still steadily flow north.
Former president Enrique Peña Nieto continued with Calderón’s strategy and his administration was stained by the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college in Guerrero, which were taken by a local gang acting under order from the town’s mayor and local authorities.
Martina de la Cruz shared a photo of herself with her son, Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz at a school graduation, and later of herself with a banner of her missing son, one of the students from Ayotzinapa.
These #10YearChallenge reflections come at a time when Mexico has a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has pledged to do away with the failed security strategy of his predecessors. He proposed a 60,000 strong National Guard, a proposal which just won the majority vote in the lower House.
Some critics of the plan worry it would further militarize the country and continue with the failed low intensity war that has provoked frightening levels of violence over the past twelve years.
Abraham Fraijo participated in the #10YearChallenge by sharing a photo of himself with his daughter, who was 3 in 2009 and one of him protesting with an enormous banner of her. Emilia died along with 48 other young children on June 5th, 2009 in a massive fire at the ABC childcare facility in Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora.
The facility had just passed a government inspection the week before even though it lacked emergency exits, proper ventilation, and fire extinguishers. No one is currently serving a prison sentence for their involvement.
Fraijo’s post on facebook was shared more than 2,500 times and messages of support came pouring in.
“I believe in the power of social networks and the participation of everyday citizens,” said Fraijo in an interview with NBC News.
Fraijo never imagined that his post would have so much impact and now hopes that it serves “to nudge the new president, Lopez Obrador, into meeting with all of the parents of the ABC Nursery,” he said.
For him it goes beyond punishment; Mexico’s president should guarantee this never happens again.
“I want those politicians to think twice before they decide to play with people’s lives,” said Fraijo.
In the past decade Fraijo has transformed from a person who previously criticized protestors to a human rights activist, sympathizing with those who struggle for just causes. What saddens him is that he can’t imagine what his daughter Emilia would look like today, at age 13.
Below Perez’s post about her daughter’s disappearance, a few others shared family photos with and without their missing loved ones.
María De Vecchi, an academic researcher, also responded by presenting a new challenge, on Facebook, “Our #TenYearChallenge is that in ten years no mother will be searching for her disappeared child.”