By Andrés Mazza y Christian Sánchez, El Mercurio, Cuenca, Ecuador
In collaboration with Rocío Gallegos y Gabriela Minjares, La Verdad, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
“One day she came to me and said, ‘Mom, I want to go to the United States, help me.’ My daughter didn’t have a job, she had sent out applications, but no one called her back.” Sandra Guiracocha tells the story of the departure of her daughter, Lizbeth Yolanda Topón, while sitting in a room in her house in Cuenca, Ecuador, surrounded by plastic chairs arranged to resemble a living room. “Besides, she decided to leave because she had a lot of discrimination for being more male than female. She told me that no one would judge her there. And I helped her,” the mom says in a whisper, almost as if she is embarrassed.
At the end of 2019, Ecuador published the most recent data on family relationships and gender violence against women. The three provinces that make up the Ecuadorian Austro region were among those that reported the most acts of violence, with the province of Azuay leading the way. Nearly 80 out of every 100 women have experienced a violent event in their lives, officials report. This violence has caused women to leave Ecuador. That was the case of Lizbeth from Cuenca, who disappeared on Aug. 28, 2021.
Lizbeth lived with her mother, Sandra, who sells lottery tickets for a living in the city center, in a small house nestled between farms and Cuenca. In mid-2021, Lizbeth told Sandra that she wanted to go to the United States to make money. The idea was to stay for five years, support herself financially and return, because in Ecuador she could not get a job with a steady salary. From time to time Lizbeth helped out selling lottery tickets and umbrellas, but it wasn’t enough. She was tired of not having a proper, formal job.
Added to this is the fact that Lizbeth —skinny, short-haired and strong-jawed, who had a complexion considered “masculine” because she was taking medication for a kidney condition — preferred to be called Andrés. Sandra — her eyes downcast, her voice tinged with embarrassment — repeats to herself that she supported her daughter to travel, to earn money and not to feel singled out for what she had chosen to be. She agreed to help her daughter and got a loan of $17,500 to pay the coyote who would help her get to the United States.
“We had found a person who wanted to charge us $8,000, but the trip was through the desert. I was afraid of the desert and decided to pay more so that she could cross without any problem,” Sandra said.
On August 24, Lizbeth left Cuenca and headed to Ciudad Juárez. From there, on August 27, Lizbeth, who was now Andrés, sent a message to Sandra. “Mom, I’m going to leave.” That same day, Lizbeth sent a video via WhatsApp in which she said, “My name is Andrés, and we are in El Paso, Texas.”
That file, those moving images, in which Lizbeth recorded the video in a moving car, is the last contact that Sandra had with her daughter.
On August 28, a day after receiving the video, Sandra wanted to wish Lizbeth a happy birthday, but instead ended up calling the coyote.
“The coyote tells me that she had stayed on the Juárez bridge. I ask him why they left her there and he tells me that she stayed there and that they couldn’t do anything about it. After two days the coyote tells me that she is kidnapped. Then the coyote disappeared.”
On September 2, the body of a woman was found in Ciudad Juárez. The news reached the Facebook page of Sandra’s daughters, who had already begun to search for their sister through social networks.
“A lady gave us the news through my daughters’ Facebook. She said she had seen how they removed the corpse. She told us it had the same features as my daughter. But I don’t know if it’s true, if it’s a lie,” says Sandra.
Lizbeth’s second birthday has now passed. Despite the fact that Sandra and her family have done DNA tests to compare with the samples obtained from the body, despite the fact that both Mexican and Ecuadoran authorities have told them that they will help them, they still live with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to Lizbeth.
Lizbeth is not the only person with a link to violence. On August 21, 2021 — three days before Lizbeth left Cuenca — 21-year-old Jazmín Lema left Biblián, a city in Cañar province, with her 3-year-old daughter and 17-year-old boyfriend, to head to Mexico and the United States, where her mother had been living for two years.
Jazmín left Ecuador because she was physically abused by her daughter’s father. She had obtained a restraining order before she left for Mexico.
Jazmín’s mother told 1800Migrante that the couple and the child had planned to go to Tijuana. However, due to an immigration issue that the coyote did not explain, they had to get off the bus that was taking them to the border and start walking. On the way, Jazmín fainted and her nose started to bleed. When her boyfriend saw that she was unconscious, he carried her daughter and sought help from a police officer. Paramedics were called, but when they arrived they found Jazmín dead.
The case resonated in Ecuador, especially because it made a child who had left with her mother to seek another life in the United States visible. The Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry repatriated Jazmin’s body, but her daughter remained in the custody of the Arizona Department of Social Services.
That started a court battle. On one hand, the father wanted the child to be deported to Ecuador, and on the other hand, Jazmin’s mother had asked to keep her in the United States. After several weeks, the U.S. authorities decided not to deport her, and on Dec. 23, 2021, a flight attendant handed the child over to Jazmin’s mother in New York.
Lizbeth, 20, who self-identified as Andrés Marqués and disappeared in September 2021, is on the list of people from Ecuador that 1800Migrante is looking for in Ciudad Juárez. William Murillo, executive president of the organization, says that based on publication of photos in the media and on social networks in Ecuador as well as in the United States and Mexico, information was received that Andrés Marqués, or Lizbeth, as Sandra still calls her, was murdered in Ciudad Juárez. But a year has passed and the Mexican authorities have still not been able to positively identify him.
“They pass the buck from the (Ecuadorian) foreign ministry to the Mexican prosecutor’s office and from the Mexican prosecutor’s office to the foreign ministry,” Murillo said.
He says that the coyoteros lie to Topón’s family. They say that she was abandoned, then that she was detained, and that to learn more about what happened to her, the family should send more money. Authorities suspect that she was kidnapped by human traffickers.
The Chihuahua Prosecutor’s Office reported that Topón disappeared on Sept. 7, 2021, and that the case is in charge of the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) and the “Consulate of Ecuador in Ciudad Juárez.” But Ecuador doesn’t have a diplomatic office on the U.S.-Mexico border. The consulates are in Chiapas and Mexico City, 1,637 and 1,135 miles from Ciudad Juárez respectively. Authorities say they have taken DNA samples from Sandra and the rest of the family but have not yet received the test results that would allow them to move forward with the investigation.
The body identified as Lizbeth Topón has “natural causes” registered as the cause of death and remains in the facilities of the Forensic Medical Service awaiting confirmation of the tests for delivery to the family.
This collaborative investigation by El Mercurio in Ecuador and La Verdad Juárez was produced with the support of InquireFirst.