Angelita Almeras helped locate the remains of several hundred missing Mexicans while searching for her own brother — a search that ended abruptly this week when a gunman killed her.
In the violence-wracked Latin American country, even locating one of the more than 100,000 missing people can be fraught with danger.
Almeras, a 27-year-old single mother of two, had asked the government for protection a week ago due to increasing threats by telephone and social media, people close to her told AFP on Friday.
But help never came. And on Thursday she was shot at the beauty salon where she worked in the city of Tecate, across the border from the US state of California.
Activists say she is one of eight people killed in searches for missing persons in Mexico since 2021.
“This should never have happened,” said Paula Sandoval, a friend of Almeras who is also looking for a brother who was kidnapped in 2020.
“If the authorities had done their job, this would not have happened. Neither she nor her family deserved this,” she added.
Almeras’ brother Jose disappeared along with his girlfriend in 2018, when Tecate faced an escalation of violence related to drug trafficking.
As part of their effort to find him, Almeras and her mother founded a group called “Union and Strength for Our Disappeared.”
Sandoval remembered her as a “warrior” with a big heart who was committed to the cause.
“She always helped the victims… She always ran to them when she was called,” she said.
– Threats, intimidation –
Almeras — who was initially identified by a local human rights commission after her death as Angelica Leon based on her middle name — filed three complaints about threats she received, her friend said.
“They told her they were going to come after her, they asked her why she was uncovering graves. They told her she would end up like the people she found,” Sandoval said.
The threats came from unknown phone numbers and social media accounts.
“The authorities have done nothing to identify them,” Sandoval said.
Almeras had become a “prominent figure” in the defense of the missing and their families, “putting her in a vulnerable position in a state and country embroiled in violence,” according to rights group Elementa Derechos Humanos.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday that Almeras was receiving protection from local authorities and that the alleged perpetrator had been identified.
“Everything indicates that there is no connection” with her work in search of the missing, he said, referring to Almeras’ ex-partner who voluntarily went to the prosecutor’s office after her murder.
“There may be another reason, but I can’t say more than that,” Lopez Obrador added, in comments that were met with skepticism from people close to Almeras.
“It’s unfortunate that the authorities are looking for a scapegoat… to close the case as quickly as possible,” Sandoval said.
“But this really has to do with her search,” she said, adding that Almeras “got along very well with her ex-partner.”
More than 114,000 people have gone missing in Mexico, especially since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon’s government deployed the military to fight drug cartels.
Since then, a spiral of violence has killed more than 420,000 people.
Despite the risks, Sandoval said she plans to continue her own search, although each grave found “reveals things that make certain people uncomfortable,” including authorities.
The family members of Almeras must cope with the devastating loss of two of their loved ones.
“Now her mother is in twice as much pain because she still hasn’t found her son, and she has lost her mainstay, her daughter,” Sandoval said.