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While Searching for Their Mother, Sisters Form Drug-War Support Group

The mother of twin sisters Mitzi and Nitza Alvarado Espinoza disappeared from their home in Mexico in 2009. Now exiled in El Paso, the sisters have formed a movement aimed at providing comfort to young victims of the drug war.

Twins, Nitza Alvarado Espinoza (black shirt) and Mitzi Alvarado Espinoza, with their sister Deisy, at a rally in Austin on November 9. The sisters started "Hijos de Desaparecidos" after their mom was kidnapped by the Mexican military in Chihuahua. They are currently in deportation proceedings but their attorney has filed a petition seeking a special-immigrant status since they were abandoned or orphaned.

EL PASO — Mitzi and Nitza Alvarado Espinoza wear different colors at news conferences, their lawyer says, so people can tell them apart as they talk about their missing mother and the group they have formed to help others in their situation. The Alvarados, 18, are identical twins.

The sisters seem to share everything, including four years of desperation since their mother, Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza, was forcibly taken by the Mexican military in the state of Chihuahua.

Fearing for their  own safety, they left Mexico with their sister, Deisy, 15, and are now exiles here.

As they seek residence status, the sisters are holding on to hope that they will be reunited with their mother. They are also embarking on a project to help console and counsel people who have suffered similar nightmares.

In December 2009, Mexican military officers detained the twins’ mother and her cousin José Ángel Alvarado in a small community in San Buenaventura, Chihuahua, a township about 170 miles south of Cuidad Juárez. Another cousin, Rocío Irene Alvarado Reyes, was taken that day in a separate incident. The family says it has been given no explanation about why the three were taken and has learned little about the case.

“There was never an official order. They just said they should be detained and they were going to be detained,” Nitza Alvarado said. But there was a sign of hope later, she added. “She called after three months, the 3rd of February 2010, from a penitentiary in Mexico City.”

Asked what they were told, Mitzi Alvarado said, “That she was alive.”

More than three years have passed since they last heard from their mother. But they have not given up hope of a reunion. Amnesty International has highlighted their plight, and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights has decided to hear their case. The court could rule in its official capacity that the Mexican government is guilty of participating in human rights violations, said Lucha Castro, the family’s lawyer in Mexico with Chihuahua’s Center for the Human Rights of Women. Hundreds of complaints have been levied at the Mexican Army since former President Felipe Calderón deployed units to help combat organized crime starting in 2006. But little usually comes from the complaints.

The military initially said the family was being held after a raid in search of criminal suspects, but the army later denied it was holding them, according to Amnesty International.

According to their petition filed with the Inter-American Court, the family members contend that despite having brought several complaints before local and national authorities, they have not received additional information about relatives’ whereabouts, health or status.

Castro said the case was an example of the lawlessness in that country.

Carlos Spector, the sisters’ El Paso-based immigration lawyer, said that the international court could take years to issue a ruling but said the fact that that it had taken on the case boded well for his clients. The decision was also what ultimately caused them to flee Mexico, where he said they stayed and kept up pressure on Mexican authorities until this summer.

“When that hits the papers of August this year, the military comes after them again,” he said. “With all the international attention they created, there’s just no way they feel safe. And that’s when they came running over.”

Maria de Jesus Alvarado, the girls’ aunt, left Chihuahua with them for the state of Sonora before fleeing to Texas. But the attention was the same there. Unlike her nieces, she has only one option: an asylum claim.

“The military is everywhere,” she said.

Spector, who represents hundreds of families seeking refuge here through political asylum, is trying a different tack in helping the sisters get residence status.

They are still in deportation proceedings, he said. But lawyers with the Catholic Diocese of El Paso’s migrant and refugee services have filed a special immigrant petition for unaccompanied minors. They were able to do so because the sisters’ aunt had filed for temporary custody.

“They’re still in deportation proceedings, so we filed what’s called a special immigrant petition for unaccompanied minors,” he said. They were able to do so because their aunt filed for temporary custody of the children. “So based upon that, we might be able to get them residency quicker,” Spector said.

All three sisters are enrolled in a public high school; the twins are juniors, and Deisy is a freshman. Language is the largest hurdle, they say, but they are learning. They know they want to study law, and their eyes light up when they announce where they want to move after high school: Austin.

In the meantime, the young women have recently formed a group, Hijos de Desaparecidos (Children of the Disappeared), which they hope will shed light on their plight but will also act as a support group for people in their situation. The group is part of Mexicanos en Exilio, Mexicans in Exile, which Spector helped found in 2008.

“It’s not just if you lost a father or mother, but also an uncle, a cousin or whatever it may be,” Nitza Alvarado said. “When our mom disappeared, we were 14 years old, and my little sister was 11. At first we didn’t receive any counseling.”

They said they were shocked at how many people they had come to know at their high school with missing or killed relatives in Chihuahua. At a recent town hall, Spector said several participants had admitted to having been personally affected by the violence across the Rio Grande.

“But there is no emergency crisis management,” Spector said. “If they don’t go to school, it’s because they’re thinking about their mom. It’s a common problem.”

While in Mexico City, the sisters came to know members of the group Hijos México, which was formed with a similar purpose — to highlight the plight of Mexican families whose relatives have been slain or have disappeared. They sought advice and support from the group. But because the sisters lived in Chihuahua and the other group was based in Mexico City, they decided to form the Chihuahua-focused group on the border.

In 2011, before they formed their own group, the sisters traveled to Mexico City for an event to discuss the violence in Mexico. They were representatives of Chihuahua’s disappeared community.

“We were asked silly questions that we didn’t know how to respond to, even less so because it was our first time participating in something like that,” Nitza Alvarado said. “Like what gift would we give our mother if we saw her or what would we be doing if she were here? How could we even think of those things without having her here?”

Like others whose choice to leave Mexico was made for them, they doubt they will ever return.

“We’re scared to go back,” Mitzi Alvarado said.

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