Nearly 600 Americans Missing in Mexico
Police corruption, bureaucracy complicate hunt for missing Americans as cartels fume over bad publicity from kidnappings
On July 22, 2016, Frederick Henry Bell Mix IV, a 32-year-old American living in Mexico’s Caribbean resort town of Puerto Morelos, called his mother in Savannah, Georgia, to ask her to send him a new bank card and cell phone. After a short conversation, he rang off, saying he'd call again as usual in a few days.
That was the last time Mix’s mother ever heard from him. According to Christeen Mix, her son, an avid scuba diver and fisherman who went by his nickname Beau, never returned to his rented apartment in Puerto Morelos or took delivery of the Fedex package she had sent with the items he requested. Day after day, week after week, Christeen’s calls to Beau and the voicemails she left for him uncharacteristically went unanswered.
Christeen Mix reported Beau’s disappearance to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which handles reports of Americans who’ve gone missing abroad. But neither U.S. consular officials in Mexico nor the FBI could unearth any information on what had happened to him. Family members traveled to Puerto Morelos to distribute missing person flyers with photos of the bearded, hazel-eyed Beau, along with contact information. Meanwhile, Christeen posted Beau’s photos on the website of The Missing Americans Project, which helps families searching for disappeared relatives.
“Please help us find him, share his flyers, ask questions and relay any information back to us.,” her posting pleaded. “All details matter no matter how small.”
After four agonizing months, Christeen told me, she learned that Beau was dead. She wouldn’t talk about who informed her of his death, how he died, or who arranged the return of Beau’s remains to Savannah for burial. “I must, in order to survive, keep that part of this deep, dark hole of heartache and never-ending grief closed,” she wrote in an email. “I hope you can understand and respect my need not to relive any part of that horror.”
But Christeen Mix was not reticent about one key detail of her ordeal that clearly still rankles seven years later: “I will tell you,” she said in an email, “that I did not receive any help from the State Department from start to finish.”
Ms. Mix is not alone. Advocates for relatives and friends of Americans who’ve gone missing abroad claim the State Department provides them with little support, leaving them largely on their own to try to learn what befell their loved ones.
Almost 600 Americans have gone missing in Mexico, according to its Interior Ministry. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 112,000 Mexicans themselves who remain missing, the Associated Press reported in March.
“Families of Americans who disappear in foreign countries should not have to invent the wheel,” says The Missing Americans Project, one of several private initiatives that have sprung up to help families find missing relatives and friends.
“Unfortunately, this is what too often happens: people in deep distress have to learn how to run an international search and rescue operation, raise funds, cultivate relationships with nongovernmental organizations, and work with the media—all within hours of learning their loved one is missing,” its website says. “The absence of clear standard operating procedures within and among U.S. embassies and a lack of State Department support leads to an unconscionable waste of time when time is of the essence.”
The State Department bristles at such charges, insisting its embassies and consulates have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. “Whenever we receive a report of a missing American citizen, our team on the ground, the team back here, springs into action to support the family, to support the loved ones in every way we can,” outgoing State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in March.
The State Department does have a specialized unit to find Americans reported missing overseas. Tucked into its Bureau of Consular Affairs, it’s called the Office of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management, or, ACS. It’s headed by Kimberly Furnish, a career State Department officer who previously served as the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Attaché at the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan.
“There’s a process,” says Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. “When ACS learns a citizen has gone missing in country X, they task the embassy or consulate in that country to query local law enforcement if that person was arrested, robbed or killed. In cases involving kidnapping, the FBI will be called in, as well as other government agencies, depending on who has the best intelligence.”
In fact, the FBI usually turns to the Drug Enforcement Administration for help. The DEA has the most detailed and accurate intelligence on all criminal activity in Mexico, not only drug-related crimes. Much of it comes from their sources in the cartels.
“They go to the DEA first,” says Jerry Brewer, who now trains Latin American law enforcement units under a State Department program. “They’re the ones who are there, on the ground, who know who the corrupt people are,” he told SpyTalk. But he hastens to add: “If they don’t have the intel, then nobody has it. Then the FBI can’t do very much. They’re looking at a cold case.”
The State Department will not say how many American citizens remain missing overseas, citing privacy concerns. But consular officials say Americans abroad disappear in accidents or die from natural causes; young American women traveling overseas have disappeared after they’ve been kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery; in rare instances, these officials say some Americans have been dismembered for the sale of their body parts. To be sure, officials note, some Americans intentionally disappear overseas for personal or legal reasons. Many others are naturalized Americans and dual citizens who go missing in the countries of the birth.
Jacobson and other former officials say the State Department’s search for an American who’s disappeared in a foreign country adds an inevitable layer of diplomatic complication to the challenge. This can include such issues as the U.S. government’s trust in that country’s police and courts; the degree to which the United States and that country share criminal intelligence, as well as the overall tenor of U.S. relations with that country.
In Mexico, where 578 Americans remain missing, a spokesman for the Mexican embassy in Washington told SpyTalk, citing the latest Interior Ministry figures, the State Department’s procedures for finding missing citizens run up against some particularly crippling obstacles, Jacobson says. For example, the FBI can’t open an investigation into an American who's been kidnapped there without a green light from the Mexican government—which lacks the expertise to conduct its own thorough investigation. Meanwhile, many consular inquiries into missing Americans are routinely mishandled by Mexico’s underfunded and corruption-riddled local police, with their poor record of solving crimes.
“When somebody disappears, the logical place to go for help first would be the local police, who have the best eyes and ears on the ground,” said Jacobson, a career Foreign Service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018. “Unfortunately, Mexico’s 400,000 local police tend to be the most corrupt.”
Christopher Landau, a Republican lawyer who succeeded Jacobson as ambassador to Mexico, says the corruption goes much higher than the local police. He says the drug cartels offer hefty bribes as a carrot—and the threat of deadly violence against anyone who refuses to accept—to suborn police, judges and government officials at the state and federal levels.
“In Mexico, corruption is part of the edifice,” Landau told SpyTalk. “It’s everywhere. People there know how things work, that if they don’t do what the cartels ask, they’re putting their own life and the lives of their spouses and children at mortal risk. They know the state cannot protect them.”
Ironically, it was the Gulf cartel, not Mexican authorities or the FBI, whose information led to the rescue and repatriation of two Americans who survived a kidnapping in March that left two of their companions dead in the Mexican city of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The kidnappers reportedly were low-level Gulf cartel foot soldiers who mistakenly suspected that the Americans, who had traveled to Mexico in a rented minivan from North Carolina so one of them could have cosmetic surgery, were members of a rival gang.
A bystander videoed the daytime kidnapping on a cell phone and posted it online, where it went viral. As the dramatic footage played over and over on American TV newscasts, the White House committed to a major push to rescue the victims and punish the kidnappers. In Mexico City, U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar met with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to demand government action. Meanwhile, the FBI offered a $50,000 reward.
Bad for Business
Mexican authorities turned to the Gulf cartel for help. Within days they found the Americans in an abandoned house on the outskirts of Matamoros. The cartel apologized for the incident and even handed over the kidnappers to the authorities—not because kidnapping is immoral, but because it’s bad for business.
“The Gulf cartel controls that stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border, not the Mexican government,” says former Tucson police chief Brewer, who knows the border area well. “They operate tunnels that run under the border to bring drugs into the States and cash and firearms back into Mexico. They know you don’t knowingly kidnap or kill American citizens, because it brings heat to their area. That’s why they turned them over so fast.”
To be sure, the 578 Americans who remain missing Mexico represent a tiny fraction of the millions of Americans who travel to Mexico every year to tour, vacation, work and visit family. But the threats of kidnapping for ransom and violent crime facing Americans in Mexico are serious and growing, State Department officials say.
Since last year, two American women remain missing after having been kidnapped in Mexico. In April, a U.S. tourist was shot in the leg in Puerto Morelos. Over the following weeks, police found a total of a dozen dead bodies on or near the beach in nearby Cancun. Police said four were Mexicans who died in a gunfight between rival drug gangs. The nationality and circumstances of the deaths of the other eight remain unknown.
State Department travel advisories now warn American citizens not to travel to six of Mexico’s 31 states—Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa Tamaulipas and Zacatecas—and to either reconsider travel or exercise extra caution when traveling to nearly the rest of Mexico, including popular beach resorts such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen. The only two states with no travel warnings are Campeche and Yucatan on the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula.
On Capitol Hill, the combination of the kidnapping and crimes against Americans in Mexico, the cartels’ shipments of fentanyl (responsible for two-thirds of overdose deaths in the U.S.), and the growing problem of migrants crossing illegally across the U.S. southern border has prompted some former Trump administration officials and Republican lawmakers to call for military strikes against the cartels and other armed gangs.
Four Republican senators introduced legislation in March that would officially brand Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and set the stage for the use of military force against them.
"I would tell the Mexican government, 'If you don't clean up your act, we're gonna clean it up for you,'" Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News.
Such bellicose grandstanding has only attenuated the already strained U.S.-Mexican relationship. “We’re not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a [foreign] government’s armed forces intervene,” President Lopez Obrador said.
The heightened diplomatic tensions also don’t encourage future Mexican cooperation with U.S. consular, law enforcement and intelligence officials the next time someone like Beau Mix, or any other Americans, disappears south of the border.
No Help There
“The United States keeps pushing Mexico to take a more militarized approach to crime because that’s how we think about our problems,” says former Ambassador Landau.
“The truth is,” he says, “Mexico is dysfunctional …”
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