Wendy Sánchez is a white woman, standing five feet and four inches tall, with brown eyes, short brown hair, and freckles. Her face has recently been seen on murals, video projections on buildings, illustrations shared on social networks, and missing persons posters. Since January 9th, her family has been looking for her across Mexico.
That Saturday in January, as she did every two weeks, Sánchez left her home in the small beach town of San Francisco (San Pancho), in the state of Nayarit on the central Pacific coast, to visit her family in the neighboring state of Jalisco. Since she left her house at seven in the morning, no one has heard from her.
For 31-year-old Baruc Sánchez, Wendy’s youngest brother and a social media strategist, the first and most immediate action he could take was to turn to social media. He and his family hoped that one of Wendy’s friends had seen her or could provide any information. Considering the failed record that Mexico has in searching for the thousands of disappeared, Baruc and his family felt compelled to lead the search for Wendy.
“We saw the need to start raising our voice a little more, to start organizing ourselves, to see what we could do, how we could make the case visible, how we could raise our voices among so many,” says Baruc.
Thousands of people disappear in Mexico every year, fracturing communities and denying families the right to know the truth about the fate of their missing loved ones. The government’s response has changed from denying the problem to working with families, but it rarely allocates the necessary technical and financial resources to search for and clarify the fate of disappeared people. All over the country, community groups and families, like the Sánchez family, have taken over the difficult process of searching by themselves, often at high risk of intimidation and violence.
As the days passed, Wendy, a 33-year-old artist and designer, was still missing. Relying on the connections he had built in his work, and his sister’s involvement in the artistic community, Baruc summoned artists and illustrators to create vivid visual content to tell Wendy’s story through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Floral art illustrations composed of roses, gerbera daisies, tulips, leaves, foliage, and sparks “to light her path” flooded social feeds. Each piece features Wendy’s face on a colorful background, usually wearing her large, black-framed glasses.
“We definitely fight so that my sister’s case is not only the news of the day, of the week,” Baruc says. “Unfortunately, as we know, so much news of the same type desensitizes us as a society.”
Baruc encouraged people online to share posts that included the word “Wendy” and a series of hashtags to drive attention toward finding his sister. #TeBuscamosWendy (We are looking for you, Wendy) was the first cry for help, as Baruc says, to call on families, community groups, and civic organizations. Then came #TeVamosaEncontrarWendy (Wendy, we are going to find you) as a more concrete and hopeful message. Then, #GobernadorDondeEstaWendy (Governor, where is Wendy?) as a demand for authorities to do their work.
“‘We are going to find you’ was a statement because we are going to find her; in the end we know that Wendy is going to return with us,” Baruc says.
The hashtags became trending topics and kept Wendy’s disappearance an ongoing subject of conversation, according to Signa_Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab from the Jesuit University of Guadalajara, which analyzed a sample of more than 22,000 tweets containing Wendy’s hashtags from January 26th to February 2nd.
“Seeing the entire sample of tweets, it’s visible how the conversation has remained current and it’s constantly reinforced,” says Paloma López-Portillo, analyst and content curator with Signa_Lab. “It’s very important that the hashtags include active verbs, meaning that we’re moving, we’re doing something, and it’s a constant demand that has not ended.”
For more than a decade, thousands of families across Mexico have come together in collectives and search brigades to look for their disappeared loved ones, either in hospitals and jails or in clandestine graves and vast terrains. More than 80,000 people were reported missing between 2006 and 2020.
Between 2011 and 2017, government institutions either working for or closely collaborating with drug cartels violated, extorted, murdered, and kidnapped residents of Nayarit, where Wendy lives. In 2017, after the arrest of state attorney general Edgar Veytia — who is currently serving a 20-year sentence in a US federal prison for participating in a major Mexican-US narcotics trafficking ring — the situation worsened. Families and civil organizations denounced numerous cases of enforced disappearance. Last August, the United Nations’ Committee on Enforced Disappearances urged the Mexican government to search and investigate 39 cases of disappearance in Nayarit.
Since the first social media post, dozens of families, collectives, and civic associations have approached Wendy’s family to offer support. Some of the members of Guerreras en Busca de Nuestros Tesoros, an association made up of 32 families searching for 34 people in Nayarit, have accompanied the Sánchez family in the search for Wendy.
“That is our role as a group: to say, I have already gone through this, I know what they are feeling, I feel the despair that they are feeling, and I already know the bureaucratic ordeal of navigating the system… It’s a Via Crucis,” explains Victoria Garay, founder of the association and mother of 19-year-old Bryan, who disappeared in February 2018.
The field searches for disappeared people have slowed down following mobility restrictions and social distancing rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, following health guidelines, the Guerreras have been accompanying Wendy’s family in searches in the surrounding area of San Pancho. “We need the physical search in the field,” explains Garay. “Going to check or trace the steps that each of them used to take to get an idea of where we can look for them.”
In its analysis, Signa_Lab found that alongside Wendy’s hashtags, Twitter users added labels referencing other cases of disappearances or events marked by violence and impunity.
“Some users also included other events that have also not found justice and have been painful for Mexican society,” adds López-Portillo. “It’s like an effort to maintain an historical memory.”
The intensive social media campaign searching for Wendy has created a quick and empathetic response, building on the work that dozens of associations of relatives of disappeared persons have been doing to raise awareness in society at large, about the systematic disappearance of people across Mexico.
“Society is already tired,” says Garay. “All this has generated a cycle of support and of saying: it cannot happen again!”
The investigation into the case of Wendy Sánchez continues without showing progress. Meanwhile, every day a new illustration, tweet, or video, calling for the safe return of Wendy, is posted on social media platforms.
“In the end,” affirms Baruc, “this is a cry from the citizens wanting to find someone.”