Meet the Mothers and Grandmothers Reuniting Migrants and the Families Left Behind

Rosa Nelly Santos (left) and fellow members of COFAMIPRO are determined to help Honduran families discover the whereabouts of migrants who have gone missing. Photo by Robert Mentov

May 10, 2019
By Cheryl Blowers, Fund Staff

Each year, thousands of people make the difficult decision to migrate north from Honduras, leaving everything behind. They are driven by a desire for economic opportunity and a life free of violence—but their path is fraught with danger. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Some fall victim to human traffickers who prevent them from calling home. Others, embarrassed at being unable to cross into the United States or only being able to find work as manual laborers or sex workers, choose to lose touch with family.

Those left behind in Honduras are haunted by not knowing the fate of a daughter, father, or nephew. Founded by a group of grandmothers and mothers whose loved ones disappeared while migrating, COFAMIPRO (Committee of Families of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso) provides critical support to families like theirs. Working tirelessly from their offices in El Progreso, COFAMIPRO staff gather information on the whereabouts of missing migrants and raise awareness around the perils faced by people fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

The women began their advocacy by bringing portraits of their disappeared family members to town squares and the steps of government buildings. At first, co-founder Rosa Nelly Santos shared, people dismissed them as “four crazy old ladies on the street holding signs,” but the women stood their ground and eventually the foreign ministry agreed to hear some of their cases.

They began helping more families, but soon realized that putting together the pieces of migrants’ stories would require experiencing the journey themselves. So, for several years, COFAMIPRO grandmothers and mothers joined various migrant caravans. The experience helped them secure community-based and government contacts throughout Central America who could support their searches.

What they witnessed on the caravans also motivated them to document the realities of migration and to advocate for greater protections for migrants across borders. “What we ask is for human dignity to be respected,” says Rosa.

The group now manages a database of lost migrants and hosts a weekly radio program discussing migration-related issues and ways the organization can help locate disappeared migrants. When they learn a migrant has died, they work with an Argentinean forensics team to run DNA confirmation and legal teams to repatriate bodies for burial.

At the time of this article, COFAMIPRO has worked on nearly 600 cases, securing resolution for 150. The Fund for Global Human Rights has provided flexible financial and technical support to COFAMIPRO for five years. With the Fund’s backing, the group has trained staff, accessed better technology, and made critical connections, allowing them to bring hope and resolution to more Honduran families.

When a Son Goes Missing

COFAMIPRO’s dogged pursuit of truth is one of the few resources available to mothers such as Sonia, who was living in the rural town of San Jose when her 16-year-old son disappeared. Juan Carlos Angel was eager to find work and more opportunity than his country offered. He waited until an election day when people were often on the move, packed a few belongings, and left without telling his family. He and several others from the town planned to travel through Guatemala to Mexico with the intention of finding work in the U.S.

For seven years, Sonia did not hear a word about her son’s whereabouts. A year after Juan Carlos Angel disappeared, the stress on the family reached a point where Sonia’s husband left her and their six remaining children. As time passed, her other children grew up and started families of their own. Every night before going to bed, Sonia knelt to pray, first for her son’s safety and eventually just to learn whether he was alive.

Sonia (left) is counseled by Evette, a psychologist from COFAMIPRO, after learning her son’s fate in Mexico. Emotional support for searching families is a critical part of COFAMIPRO’s mission. Photo by Robert Mentov

In 2016, Sonia discovered her son’s fate. Tragically, she learned that Juan Carlos Angel had been murdered in Mexico. With COFAMIPRO’s logistical and financial support, Sonia was able to bring his body home for burial, a process that took nearly two years.

The family learned that once Juan Carlos Angel got to Mexico, he realized that crossing the border to the U.S. would be too difficult and secured work in Tijuana as a bricklayer. There he met and married a Mexican woman, but his wife convinced him not to reconnect with family back home. They eventually separated. One day, he didn’t show up at work and was found tied to a chair and strangled in his home. While the investigation is still open, it is suspected that a group of Americans who had been renting a house from Juan Carlos Angel killed him after a dispute.

In addition to helping repatriate Juan Carlos Angel’s body, COFAMIPRO also worked with a group of lawyers in Mexico to further the investigation and to give psychological and emotional support to Sonia and her family. She visits his grave every month and has joined the organization, helping counsel other families.

Helping Families Find Peace

Throughout the ups and downs of every case and for six months afterward, no matter the outcome, COFAMIPRO provides vital psychological services to families of missing migrants.

Evette Pineda, a trained psychologist, has been working with COFAMIPRO and searching families for more than two years. In response to seeing frantic mothers, grandmothers, and siblings arrive at the organization’s doors, she helped develop training for “first responders”—staff who help comfort and reassure relatives who are navigating their search, reuniting with a loved one after years apart, or who must be told that a family member is deceased.  

In addition to working with families directly, Evette also builds greater understanding of the ripple effects of migration among Honduras’ mental health care community. Currently she is working with a psychology professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras to study and replicate COFAMIPRO’s model and to increase the focus on community-centric work and migration issues.

As long as there are open cases, Evette, Rosa, and the mothers and grandmothers of COFAMIPRO are fueled by optimism and empathy to continue shedding light on migrant journeys and reuniting loved ones. Says Rosa, “We are a family. We help each other.”