Rosario Ibarra: Grieving mother who fought for Mexico’s disappeared

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The activist also became the first woman to run for the Mexican presidency  (AP)
The activist also became the first woman to run for the Mexican presidency (AP)

No woman has ever won the top job in Mexico, but in the 40 years since Rosario Ibarra de Piedra broke the male stranglehold on politics and became the first Mexican woman to run for president, several have followed in her footsteps.

In Mexico’s conservative and macho political arena it was a scandal when, in 1982, a former housewife turned activist, from conservative Monterrey in the north of the country, presumed to run against the established politicos as the candidate of the left-wing workers’ party Partido de Trabajadores.

Her candidacy was controversial even among the left, yet, just as she had done a decade before when her 19-year-old son, Jesus, was “disappeared” – kidnapped – by the state, she galvanised the disparate groups.

She showed a determination that had previously brought together dozens, then hundreds, of other mothers whose children had fallen victim to a paranoid government intent on prosecuting a “dirty war” against anyone suspected of being a dissident or harbouring opposition views.

Even though the government and the army denied holding Jesus, it was well known that anyone suspected of ties to the guerrilla organisation La Liga 23 de Septiembre was usually taken to a secret detention centre or directly to the nearest military camp for interrogation and torture.

As the activist made a determined and dignified journey from police station to government office to military barracks, she increasingly came into contact with senior officials who couldn’t help but be impressed by the diminutive woman, who always wore a camafeo – a portrait of her missing child – pinned to her chest, insisting on seeing the president himself, which she eventually managed to do.

The activist holds a photo of her son, Jesus, who was last seen in 1975 (AP)
The activist holds a photo of her son, Jesus, who was last seen in 1975 (AP)

But no one was able – or wanted – to tell her, or any of the other mothers, the truth: that more than 20,000 mostly young people had been plucked off the streets during the 1970s and 1980s – often from outside their schools or universities – and murdered.

Dona Rosario, as she became known by admirers and detractors alike, said that until she had her son home, or had his body returned to her, she would not sit at home and cry.

She gathered other mothers and relatives together, and in 1977 formed what would become Comite Eureka – the first countrywide organisation formed by and for families of the disappeared to lobby both at home and internationally.

Thanks to their efforts, more than 100 people “missing presumed dead” were returned alive to their families. The army never accepted responsibility, and continued to smear their victims, even those who had absolutely no involvement in activism.

Ibarra greets rebel leader Fernando Yanez as he leaves jail (AFP/Getty)
Ibarra greets rebel leader Fernando Yanez as he leaves jail (AFP/Getty)

Maria del Rosario Ibarra de la Garza was born in the state of Coahuila in 1927. Her grandmother was an anarchist, and her father fought in the Mexican Revolution.

She wasn’t aware of the fight she had inside her until Jesus’s kidnapping. She once said that the Rosario people knew was born of her own son. Indeed, until tragedy struck her family, she was known through the prism of her relationship with the men in her life – as her father’s daughter, and then as the doctor’s wife.

Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, she ran again for president in 1988. However, the 80,000 votes she obtained left her well behind the more mainstream left-wing candidate.

It was widely believed that the result – yet another win for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which had by then been in power under a variety of guises for more than 60 years – was obtained fraudulently. Rosario threw her energies back into Eureka, as well as serving two terms as a senator.

The writer Emilio Ruiz Parra noted that she found a sort of surrogate son in Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, a spokesperson for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, formerly known as Subcomandante Marcos. Indeed, her passion for justice for the poorest and neglected indigenous people of Chiapas was evident when I observed them together during the landmark gathering in the Lacandon jungle in 1994, after the first wave of fighting had subsided.

In her later years, she supported the candidacy of the current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who wanted to award her one of the country’s highest honours, the Belisario Dominguez Medal.

While thanking him, she said she couldn’t fully accept it until she and the other families of the now 350,000 missing in Mexico – including those whose sons were among the missing 43 from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in the state of Guererro – knew the truth about what had happened to their children.

Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, human rights activist, born Saltillo, Mexico, 1927, died Monterrey, Mexico, 16 April 2022

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