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The women creating culinary acts of remembrance for Mexico’s missing

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Verónica López Álvarez sinks a long, T-shaped rod into the soft earth, pulls it out, smells it and screws up her face. Six other women flock around to sniff too, reeling back in horror at a stench like rotting fish.

Then it’s action stations. “We’re going to dig here,” says Delfina Herrera Ruíz. “It’s a body.”

With their shovels, the women — mostly housewives in their forties and fifties, some manicured and made-up in the sticky morning sun — start sifting the earth with shallow, careful movements. The banter en route to El Teroque Viejo, in Sinaloa in north-west Mexico, has given way to a grim focus.

Alejandra Aragón
Verónica López Álvarez at a site where remains of loved ones were found. The 120-strong Rastreadoras del Fuerte are dedicated to finding relatives and friends lost in the war on drugs

Mirna Medina Quiñonez, the group’s leader, hits a bone with her spade. Among butterflies fluttering in the breeze and birds singing, these mothers and sisters are hunting for their dead — what Medina calls their missing “treasures”. Their group is known as the Rastreadoras del Fuerte (the Searchers of El Fuerte) — a reference to the place where Medina’s son disappeared.

Their “treasures” are among the more than 82,000 people recorded as having disappeared and not been located in Mexico since 2006, when the government declared a war on drug cartels, unleashing terrible, seemingly unstoppable violence. Notwithstanding Covid-19, 2020 may prove to have been the deadliest year on record. As of November there had been 31,871 murders, compared with a record 34,648 in 2019.

Ant holes at sites can be a sign of buried remains. According to offical data, Mexico has exhumed 6,900 bodies since 2006
Ant holes at sites can be a sign of buried remains. According to offical data, Mexico has exhumed 6,900 bodies since 2006 © Alejandra Aragón
Mirna Medina Quiñonez, the leader of Rastreadoras del Fuerte — the group’s name refers to El Fuerte, in north-west Mexico, where Medina’s son was last seen
Mirna Medina Quiñonez, the leader of Rastreadoras del Fuerte — the group’s name refers to El Fuerte, where her son was last seen © Alejandra Aragón

These women have been rescuing their loved ones’ memories in more ways than one. Together, they have created Recipes to Remember, a book of favourite dishes of some of the missing. Each dish has the name of the person it was made for and the date they disappeared. It was the idea of Zahara Gómez Lucini, a Spanish-Argentine photographer who has documented the group since 2016.

The book has only recently been published and when I show it to Herrera, it is the first time she has seen it. It gives her goosebumps just to hold it, she says. Turning to the recipe for shrimp ceviche that she contributed in memory of her youngest brother, Luis Reinaldo Herrera Ruíz, she smiles. Then sorrow clouds her face: Luis Reinaldo disappeared in 2016, aged 51. With her baseball cap bearing the message “Where are you, you old bastard?”, she has been looking for him ever since.

Reyna Rodríguez Peñuelas (left), whose son went missing in 2016, and Ofelia Flores Moreno, who with the Rastreadoras’ help found the body of her husband. The photograph on the wall is of Mirna Medina Quiñonez’s son
Reyna Rodríguez Peñuelas (left), whose son went missing in 2016, and Ofelia Flores Moreno, who with the Rastreadoras’ help found the body of her husband. The photograph on the wall is of Mirna Medina Quiñonez’s son © Alejandra Aragón
Rodríguez Peñuelas looks through the book ‘Recipes to Remember’. She says of the idea of asking the authorities to aid the Rastreadoras’ search for the disappeared: ‘They won’t help us — they’re the same ones who are involved’
Rodríguez Peñuelas looks through the book ‘Recipes to Remember’. She says of the idea of asking the authorities to aid the Rastreadoras’ search for the disappeared: ‘They won’t help us — they’re the same ones who are involved’ © Alejandra Aragón

The women’s shovels have unearthed some shredded orange plastic, sometimes used to tie victims up. At the sight of the bone, the mood becomes tense. Medina expertly teases it free. A heady stench hangs in the air. More bones emerge.

But it is a false alarm. These are the ribs of an animal — they are too big, and the smell is not that of a decomposing human body, she says. “Still, we have to rule everything out.” The women fill in their hole, pack up their shovels, and set off to search somewhere else.


According to official data, Mexico has counted 4,092 clandestine graves and exhumed 6,900 bodies since 2006. Sinaloa is notorious as the home of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, once Mexico’s most powerful drug baron, now locked up in a maximum-security jail in the US. The city of Los Mochis, where the Rastreadoras are based, is currently in the grip of Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, known as El Chapo Isidro.

The Rastreadoras give short shrift to the idea that they could turn to the authorities for help, rather than searching for victims themselves. As shown in the mass disappearance of 43 Mexican students in 2014, which rocked the country, municipal police have a terrible reputation for being infiltrated by cartels. “They won’t help us — they’re the same ones who are involved,” scoffs Reyna Rodríguez Peñuelas, whose son, Eduardo González Rodríguez, disappeared in 2016.

Artemisa Escalante Ayala, whose son, Johan Manuel Vega Escalante, has been missing since 2014 © Alejandra Aragón
A photo of Johan Johan Manuel Vega Escalante on his mother Artemisa’s backpack © Alejandra Aragón

Since taking office in 2018, the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has stepped up efforts to locate missing people and identify bodies. It says the number of reported disappearances for 2020 was trending down. But the government acknowledged in November that in 2019, a record 8,804 people had been reported missing and not been found.

Worse, says Karla Quintana, head of the National Search Commission, a government agency spearheading efforts to find Mexico’s missing, “there have only been 25 sentences passed for forced disappearances in Mexico … and we’re still missing more than 82,000 people”.

Many, like Rosa Elvira Cervantes Meza, whose son Víctor Ulíses Acosta Cervantes has been missing for “four years, two months”, count the time with the precision of a new mother measuring her baby’s age to the week.

Ofelia Flores Moreno succeeded in finding the body of her husband, José Candelario Espinoza Ochoa, a month after he disappeared in 2017, but not thanks to the police. “They say they’ll investigate, but do nothing. If I went there now, they’d say the same thing,” she says, speaking in the Rastreadoras’ offices where the walls are plastered with missing-person notices.

The women have gathered to be presented with copies of the book. Jessica Higuera Torres speaks of her son Jesús Javier López Higuera, who disappeared in 2018, in the present tense. For the book, she prepared a soup with pork rind because “he loves it — when I was cooking, I felt as though he was by my side”.

On the other hand, Esther Preciado no longer cooks chilli ribs, her recipe for her daughter’s father, Vladimir Castro Flores, who has been missing since 2013. “That one’s just for the memories now,” she says.

Rosa Elvira Cervantes Meza holds the portrait her son Victor Ulises Acosta Cervantes missing since 2016. She brings the photo with her to every search. She explains is a way to always remember her purpose. © Alejandra Aragón

A former nursery-school teacher, Medina, 50, talks fast, fuelled by “about 20 cups of coffee a day”. She founded the Rastreadoras after her son, Roberto Corrales Medina, disappeared in 2014, leaving three daughters and another child on the way. “I kept looking for Roberto because they left him somewhere,” she says simply. Three years to the day after he went missing, she located bone fragments that proved to be his. Having found him, she sports a green shirt with “Promise Kept” on the back. Those still hunting wear white ones that read: “I’ll look for you until I find you.”

“You get addicted to searching,” she says. The 120 or so Rastreadoras have found 68 people, but only about a quarter of those are their missing loved ones. She acknowledges many victims may have got into trouble because they sold or used drugs; others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Despite being the driving force behind the Rastreadoras, Medina says she almost didn’t meet the deadline for the book. Her recipe for pizadillas, meat and cheese-filled tortillas, was the last to be included and, she says: “I’m terrible at cooking.” Yet preparing it, she felt her son’s eyes on her “and that relieved some of the pain”.

A recipe from the book for aguachile – shrimps pickled in lemon juice, salt and serrano chillies with cucumber
A recipe from the book for aguachile – shrimps pickled in lemon juice, salt and serrano chillies with cucumber © Alejandra Aragón
‘I said when she comes back to see me, this is the first thing I’ll make her,’ says Erika Acosta González of her missing friend’s favourite dish
‘I said when she comes back to see me, this is the first thing I’ll make her,’ says Erika Acosta González of her missing friend’s favourite dish © Alejandra Aragón

For the Rastreadoras, food strengthens community — and, as Gómez says, “the book is a tool for building ties”. After coming back empty-handed from today’s search, the women pull out a table and share a meal.

“This recipe book is very important because it’s an exercise in collective memory and that’s very necessary,” says Enrique Olvera, the chef and restaurateur behind Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York and a sponsor of the book. “It enables the Rastreadoras to connect with the memory of their loved ones through food and brings us, the readers, closer … It weaves empathy.” Olvera donated proceeds from dinners organised with two other Mexican chefs, Lalo García and Óscar Herrera, to help fund the book’s publication. Half of its proceeds go to the Rastreadoras.

Demonstrating her friend Susy Atondo Gastélum’s favourite dish, Erika Acosta González de-veins shrimps, chops cucumbers and squeezes lemons. She sprinkles the seafood with coarse salt — “Susy said it doesn’t pickle properly otherwise” — and follows her friend’s preference for red, not white, onion, plus green serrano chillies. “I said when she comes back to see me, this is the first thing I’ll make her,” she smiles, although it has been more than seven years. “I dreamed she’d died and I’d find her. I dreamed of her eight days in a row. But she’s never told me where she is.”

Jude Webber is the FT’s Mexico and Central America correspondent. ‘Recipes to Remember’, recetarioparalamemoria.com

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.





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A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged

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As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

amy.kazmin@ft.com



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Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation

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India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”



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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China

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America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.



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