IGUALA, Mexico (AP) — In the two years since dozens of families in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero banded together to search for relatives who have disappeared, Maria Carmen Figueroa Acevedo has missed only one weekly gathering.
Without hesitation she says she believes her son Ricardo is alive. She dreams regularly of his homecoming.
Spending each Tuesday with other families like hers is a weekly dose of hope and why the group has made it to its second anniversary this month. "It gives me the strength to continue," Figueroa said.
The Other Disappeared collective stopped short of calling the milestone a celebration, given the tragedies behind the group's formation. But some 150 relatives turned out Tuesday at site recently occupied for their headquarters, a large property they cleared themselves with a concrete structure spruced up with paint to hold their meetings.
They grapple with a problem that is widespread in Mexico. Nearly 28,000 people were reported missing across the country from 2007 through the end of July, according to government statistics. The real total is believed to be significantly higher due to the fact that many families do not report their loved ones' disappearances out of fear, because many of the disappearances are believed tied to drug violence and reprisals by cartels.
The Iguala group gained notice in 2015 when The Associated Press interviewed relatives of more than 150 of the disappeared in and around Iguala. The vast majority of their missing were young men.
Since its formation two years ago, the group's members have had the remains of 18 relatives returned to them by authorities. Five more sets of remains have been identified and await transfer to their families, said Adriana Bahena Cruz, a representative of the group.
They plan to remodel the building on their headquarters site to have two training rooms and a multi-purpose meeting space. Eventually, they hope to partner with a genetics lab so they can have DNA testing done at the site. They would also like to attract a business, perhaps a factory of some kind, to provide employment for the families, especially the jobless female members left alone to raise children by the disappearance of husbands.
The site on Iguala's north side will be called Victims' City.
"The Victims' City is a place where people can come for help," Bahena said.
The Other Disappeared collective formed in November 2014, less than two months after 43 students from a rural teachers college were abducted by local police in Iguala and turned over to a drug cartel. The students' disappearances drew so much national and international attention that other families, many for the first time, came forward to say they had missing relatives, too.
They began meeting every Tuesday in a church to press their cases. And on Sundays they ventured into the mountains surrounding Iguala to search for signs of secret graves under a punishing sun.
Last month, when leaders of Mexico's Executive Commission for Victims Assistance held a public meeting in Iguala with the governor of Guerrero and representatives of the families, the agency said that up to that point they had assisted the families of 295 missing people in and around Iguala.
In spite of an intensive federal police and military presence since the disappearance of the 43 students, violent crime still sows fear in Iguala, a city that is a center of heroin trafficking. There were 130 killings in the city through October, which was already 24 percent ahead of the total for all of 2015.
Maria del Rosario Noveron Aguilar, who has been searching for her son and daughter-in-law since April 2014, said new members continue to join the Other Disappeared.
"There is a great need to find our relatives," Noveron said. "People continue disappearing."
In an interview with the AP, the Interior Department's deputy secretary for human rights questioned the concept of Victims' City.
"We said clearly that we did not agree with the proposal because it meant re-victimizing," Roberto Campa said, adding that the international norm is to try to reincorporate victims into society at large, not do something that "maintains them as victims."
But Bahena said the name came from the group itself.
"To us — the victims — the name doesn't bother us," she said. "Unfortunately, that's the label they have given us."