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Families of missing Mexicans take over a prominent space in Mexico City

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

There's a roundabout in the middle of a prominent boulevard in Mexico City. It used to be called (speaking Spanish), the roundabout of the palm. And that's because a majestic palm tree stood there for more than a century, but it died last year. That's when families of missing Mexicans decided to occupy the space with pictures of their loved ones. A tussle ensued, full of symbolism and mysticism. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I meet Jorge Verastegui Gonzalez at a cafe not far from the traffic circle. His brother and his nephew disappeared in January of 2009. So he says when he heard that the palm had died, it felt like an opportunity.

JORGE VERASTEGUI GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) The government constantly wants to hide their faces, so we wanted a reminder in the most important street in the country.

PERALTA: Within days, families hung a tarp with about 300 pictures of their missing relatives. But by the next morning they were all gone.

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The families, he said, took it as yet another disappearance.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) It was also a symbolic act, because they used the same tactics that the criminals use to disappear our families.

PERALTA: It was the same way his brother and nephew went missing. Verastegui says men wearing hoods took them at night. Neighbors saw it. They called the family. The family called the police.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) But the police never bothered to search for them.

PERALTA: A police chief, he says, told them a cartel beat them up, but that they were alive. Verastegui says those words, beat up but alive, have haunted him for 14 years. Part of him accepts that they're dead.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) But then there's always that hope.

PERALTA: That uncertainty, he says, becomes a form of torture. But it's also why they can't give up on this traffic circle.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) They take down the pictures, and we put them back up. They erect barriers, and we put the pictures over the barriers.

PERALTA: For a year now, it's been a cat and mouse game with the government. The palm dies. The families put up pictures. The government takes them down. The circle becomes known as the roundabout of the disappeared. The government plants a new tree, a huge Montezuma cypress. The families call it the guardian of the disappeared. But within weeks its leaves fall. As Verastegui puts it, the branches become brittle. They look ashen.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) Despite the clear evidence that this tree was likely dead, they kept saying it was alive, that it was just struggling to adapt.

PERALTA: And then one day, just like their missing loved ones, just like their pictures, the new tree disappears. The government said the tree was transported to a nursery south of the city. They insisted it was alive, but every time we ask to see it, we're rebuffed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW DRUMMING)

PERALTA: The following Sunday, I head to the traffic circle. A huge parade of Indigenous activists march across the boulevard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCH BEING BLOWN)

PERALTA: Some family members gather with photos and glue. Officially, more than 100,000 Mexicans have been reported missing. Most of them went missing during the war on drugs. Auria Rubia Reyes' brother disappeared when he was leaving work back in 2019.

AURIA RUBIA REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The government, she says, thinks they can cover the sun with a finger. She says that's why every time the government tears down her brother's picture, she comes and puts it back up.

REYES: (Through interpreter) It's like we're screaming that they don't help us. They don't back us.

PERALTA: These days, the traffic circle is just a hole in the ground. The government has placed eight-foot-high metal barriers all around it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The families gather in front of the barriers, and as they read the names of their missing loved ones, they paste oversized black-and-white pictures on the metal barricades. The city buzzes around them - glass high-rises, cyclists, runners, families enjoying their Sunday. It's almost too much for Rosa Icela Velazco Acosta. Her son went missing a year ago.

ROSA ICELA VELAZCO ACOSTA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Everyone, please wake up. You have a family."

ACOSTA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "This comes from a mother who is heartbroken, who is the walking dead - please."

ACOSTA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Please. I'm looking for my son. I want him dead or alive. Just give him to me." She cries, and yet no one stops to listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLING)

PERALTA: After a month of asking, the government's environmental agency says we can come to see the Montezuma cypress at a nursery called Nezahualcoyotl.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: But when we get there, the two arborists assigned to talk to us tell us that we don't have permission to see the tree. We still talk. Right now, says Roberto Quintero, they are still investigating what killed the 100-year-old palm that used to be at the traffic circle.

ROBERTO QUINTERO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The palm was afflicted with lethal yellowing and pink rot. One of those likely killed it. It's a fascinating scientific discussion, but I stopped them and asked plainly...

(Speaking Spanish).

...What about the Montezuma cypress that replaced the palm? What happened to that tree?

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: His colleague Isidro Recillas says the tree had a tough go of it. Just as it had adapted to its new home, he says, a car crashed into it and damaged about half of the roots.

ISIDRO RECILLAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: It's likely that the tree's interior tissue was also damaged. The tree was replanted here at this nursery. It's recovering, he says. It's alive.

RECILLAS: (Through interpreter) But it won't ever have the structure it had before. At best, a branch might sprout from the roots.

PERALTA: Beat up, but alive - we leave without ever seeing the tree, with hope that it's alive, but with a feeling that it might be dead.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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