Food is perhaps one of our earliest memories. It transcends time and boundaries connecting us with each other: a mother to her son, a father to his daughter, a wife to her husband, a brother to his sister. Growing up, the little joys of eating together as a family around the table and relishing our favourite food remain the greatest happiness of our lives. It is this very attachment and bond that is translated through a unique and powerful recipe book, “Recetario para la memoria” (“The Memory Recipe Book”), capturing the lives of those who search for their loved ones through food.

In Mexico, Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte (The Trackers of El Fuerte), a group of more than 130 women share a story of loss, pain, and memories through the book. Not just any other ordinary cookbook, it contains a collection of recipes prepared by family members in memory of the favourite foods of their loved ones who have disappeared or been missing.

Today, as we observe the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, an important day since its declaration by the U.N. General Assembly in 2010 and first observed since 2011, we must remember the lives of all those who disappeared and those who continue to search for the missing, the beloved, with uncertainty and agony.

The Story of “Recetario para la memoria”

The story of this recipe book is connected with the northern part of Mexico. In the state of Sinaloa lies the city of Los Mochis where a 21-year-old Roberto Corrales Medina was found missing in July 2014 in the municipality of El Fuerte. Like Roberto, there have been many families whose loved ones have disappeared or gone missing. In a quest to search for him and many others like him, his mother Mirna Nereida Medina Quiñonez founded Las Rastreadoras. With great efforts from the community and little support from the authorities, she was finally able to find her son’s body in 2017, around three years later. The 130-plus members of Las Rastreadoras, largely women, search for their family members – in their own words, they search “not for bodies in clandestine graves,” but for “treasures . . . because those who are underground, never to be found, are the most valuable to their families.” As of 2020, the group has been able to locate the remains of 195 victims of enforced disappearances and been searching for 1,500 more.

As a means to share their stories, the book showcases recipes of food prepared by 27 people in memory of their family members who disappeared or went missing. These food preparations used to be their favourite and, in a way, reminded them of their lost loved ones. At its core, the book is a window to the lives of people who we never knew, but who readers can relate to through a common rooted sense of food, love, and family, giving us a glimpse of who they were in life – beyond their pain and suffering – and the absences that their disappearances created in their families. The book is a reflection of thousands of various other families that go through this ordeal every day and continue to search for their family members.

Status of Enforced Disappearances and Missing Persons in Mexico

According to recent statistics collected and released by the government of Mexico, from 1964 to August 2023, around 110,826 people have been reported disappeared or missing. Around 16,000 of these are minors. The majority of the reported disappearances happened since 2006 – when President Felipe Calderón waged a war on organized crimes and drug cartels which has over the years resulted in severe crackdowns and consequently many victims.

The U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances, while visiting Mexico in 2021, reported the challenges and impunity that exist on the ground, with only 2 to 6 percent of cases being brought before courts. While the government has been searching and investigating these crimes, including establishing the national register for missing and disappeared persons, creating local search commissions, and setting up a Special Prosecutor’s Office for investigating cases of enforced disappearances, the number of cases still remain on the rise. The crisis in Mexico isn’t just about 100,000 missing and disappeared individuals – it’s about the anguish of thousands of families yearning for their loved ones, clinging to the hope of a reunion.

Missing Individuals and Enforced Disappearances Around the World

Enforced disappearances and missing persons is an issue not just unique to Mexico. The number of people missing around the world is increasing at an alarming rate. According to as International Committee of the Red Cross tracker, 55,000 people were newly registered as “missing” by their family members in 2021, taking the total tally to 179,000 at the start of 2022. The U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which is tasked with the duty to assist families in finding the whereabouts of their family members, has since its inception in 1980 transmitted 59,600 cases to 112 States. As of May 2022, there were around 46,751 active cases for consideration with the U.N. Working Group, the majority of which belonged to Iraq (16,427) and Sri Lanka (6,264).

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which entered into force in December 2010, laid down the first internationally agreed definition of enforced disappearance, which includes deprivation of liberty against the will of the person with the involvement of the government, either directly or indirectly, and refusal to disclose the person’s whereabouts. Legally speaking, this must not be confused with the term “missing persons” which is used in a broader context and may involve natural calamity, an armed conflict, or any other scenario. Further, the Convention concretizes various important rights including the right to know the truth about the disappeared person, the right to seek justice, and the right to redressal, providing an individual as well a collective connotation to the Convention. As of date, seventy-two States have ratified the Convention and are therefore legally bound by its terms.

The Path to Seeking Truth and Justice

The right to know the truth, a powerful tool which forms the core of the Convention, is the same right that many of the families in Mexico and elsewhere seek to vindicate. Las Rastreadoras are one of the many groups who carry the will and the strength to seek the truth and find the ones they love the most, with or without the support of the government. In that way, “Recetario para la memoria” is a crucial exercise which brings to the fore the pain and despair that families suffer in their quest to search for the truth – the truth about the whereabouts of their loved missing ones. Food is an important site of remembrance: people live through it and with it. At the time of publication, 15 families covered in the book were still in search of their family members.

The International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances sets a reminder to all of us to work towards a more peaceful tomorrow and join hands in holding authorities responsible for their action.  There remain many around the world for whom the right to truth and justice is the last bastion of hope, and as a society, we must fight for their rights – our rights, at all costs.

IMAGE: Aerial view of the Memoria que Resiste Memorial, where hundreds of people were dissolve in acid by cartel groups and which remains lie underground, as people and victims relatives gather in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on August 30, 2021, amid the U.N.’s International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images.