The body of Debanhi Escobar, 18, found last Thursday in the cistern of a motel in the suburbs of Monterrey after a week of searches, and that of María Fernanda Contreras, 26, discovered on April 9 just a few kilometers from there, uncovered a new wave of femicides and disappearances in northeastern Mexico. The outskirts surrounding this thriving city in the industrial heartland of Nuevo León state have become a grim corner of Mexico for half the population: at least 41 women have disappeared from the suburbs of Monterrey since the start of 2022 and more than 1,700 people were reported missing across the state, according to official figures. In a series of crimes that reignited the darkest period of femicide in Mexican history, The Deaths of Juarez (the dead women of Ciudad Juárez) are now the dead of Nuevo León.

The increase in disappearances of young women in Nuevo León – mostly teenage girls and almost all under the age of 30 – has put Samuel García’s state administration in crisis. The discovery of Contreras’ body north of Monterrey sparked a series of protests, fires at the state government headquarters and media pressure that led to García, who took office late last year, to set up a task force to search for Debanhi Escobar. García hinted, amid the crisis, that the disappearances of so many women may have been “compounded by Covid-19, with mental health issues and a lack of opportunity”, while seemingly ruling out the involvement of organized crime gangs and attempting to downplay an emergency that has strained relations between the state government and citizens more than ever.

The potential discovery of Escobar’s body last week just yards from where she was last seen getting out of a taxi, outside the Nueva Castilla motel, has sparked anger across Mexico . The facility was raided by police at least four times during Escobar’s 13-day search and his body, according to the prosecution, was there the entire time, in an open cistern. Nuevo León State Security Secretary Aldo Fasci called the failure to find the young woman’s body a “massive human failure”.

A member of the security services during the search for Debanhi Escobar in an area where other bodies were found. Julio Cesar AGUILAR

The Nueva Castilla motel was the focus of the investigation from the start: it was the last place she used her mobile phone and the last place she took a photo, at 5 a.m. on April 9. Search teams, which included dozens of volunteers, dogs and drones, met at the motel every morning to plan the day’s raids on other locations. Escobar’s family had also moved into a makeshift camp there, with a picture of their daughter. “Thirteen days here!” How many times have you searched here? her father yelled at authorities to remove the body from the motel the night his daughter was found.

Another woman still missing is Yolanda Martínez, 26 and mother of a three-year-old girl, who disappeared on March 31 in the municipality of San Nicolás Garza, which is also in the Monterrey metropolitan area. Her father, Gerardo Martínez, told the media that she left her house that day in search of work and never returned. There are many more. Allison Campos, 12, missing since March 28. She was last seen in the San Gilberto neighborhood of Santa Catarina, in white sneakers and a gray sweater. Within a radius of just a few miles, Paulina Solís and Celeste Tranquilino, both 16, Karen Valencia, 24, Diana Cardenas, 28, and Yolanda González, 32, all disappeared. Police also found no trace of Sofía Sauceda, 15, who disappeared on March 16 in Ciudad Terán, less than 60 miles from Monterrey.

So far in 2022, 52 women have disappeared in Nuevo León, according to the latest figures. Of these, 41 were reported missing in the Monterrey metropolitan area, which includes the state capital and a dozen satellite municipalities. Over the past 50 years, 1,790 women have disappeared in Nuevo León, according to the National Missing Persons Registry. Of this number, 90% have disappeared since 2010.

As happened in Ciudad Juárez during a wave of feminicides in the 1990s, families were left to pressure authorities from the start, which laid bare a litany of inaction, lethargy and even irregularities, as in the case of María Fernanda Contreras. Her father, Luis Carlos Contreras, spent hours driving through the area where he believed his daughter had gone missing while authorities told him to wait, the family said on social media. Mario Escobar, Debanhi’s father, said shortly after his daughter’s discovery last week: “I made a mistake: I believed the prosecutor. They never gave me the files [of the investigation]. I asked for copies, as is my right as a victim. I never had them in my possession because they didn’t do their job. I demand justice.

Mexico is locked in a spiral of violent crimes against women that is claiming 11 lives a day. The international scandal caused by The Deaths of Juarez has spread to other cities, such as Ecatepec, in the state of Mexico, where a wave of murders reached 600 total victims in 2016. In Mexico, 95% of crimes are never solved, according to a report based based on official data from the independent public watchdog agency México Evalúa. In the case of women who go missing, impunity is “virtually absolute”, the UN Human Rights Committee has said.

“What is obvious is that they continue to make us disappear because they can,” says Angélica Orozco of Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos de Nuevo León (United Forces for our Disappeared in Nuevo León), the main state research organization. “No one has been held accountable and there have been no penalties for those who have committed these crimes before, nor for those who have obstructed justice. Under these conditions, they can continue to kill us, be it the drug cartels or anyone else.

Orozco adds that the disappearances crisis in Nuevo León cannot be interpreted as “isolated incidents”. All of the victims are young and disappeared in the Monterrey metropolitan area, which reminds the activist of another case in the rural municipality of Sabinas Hidalgo, about 60 miles from the state capital. In three months, from August to October last year, at least 11 young women disappeared in Sabinas Hidalgo. Of these, the authorities found only three, all of them killed. “Some of them knew each other. We told the authorities that they had to investigate a possible network of traffickers. But they did nothing. They wanted to investigate the deaths as individual cases,” Orozco said, warning that something similar could happen with the recent spate of disappearances in Monterrey.