Looking for People and Answers
On Mother's Day 2009, my brother disappeared after leaving the beach on the West End of Isla de Roatan, Honduras. I didn't know at the time that a month earlier, almost to the day, Ron Scheepstra had disappeared from Xcalak, Mexico, a remote village on the Yucatan Peninsula close enough to Roatan for Ron and his fishing buddies to be using Roatan tide charts. Over the next few months, more men would disappear in Central America and the Caribbean: Alex Humphrey, in Panama; David Gimelfarb in Costa Rica; Michael Dixon in Costa Rica; Richard Alicea and Edwin Pritchard in the Bahamas, a few days before Christmas; and Leo Finley, in Roatan on Christmas Day. Eight men in nine months, that we know of. Few received more than cursory media attention -- and those who received that much coverage only did through the exhaustive efforts of family and friends. Even fewer received more than cursory attention from their home governments.
The past year has been an incredible unwanted education for those of us who lost family members and friends. We learned that if you get into trouble outside your country's borders and can't get to your Embassy, you are entirely on your own. We learned that the only way to get the U.S. government to launch a search and rescue operation is to have enough people press their congresspeople to press the State Department (of course, by the time this happens it is now a search and recovery operation at best). We learned that the most effective search/rescue practice is the use of high-altitude, high-resolution photography, which is routinely used in military SAR, but almost never in civilian SAR. We learned that when an adult male disappears in Central America or the Caribbean he is presumed to have been up to no good and deserves to be ignored by the media and his own government.
Perhaps most painfully, we learned that in the absence of a body, the family has no recourse to salvage the missing person's business interests or claim Social Security benefits or life insurance. Wives whose husbands' names are on the mortgage cannot sell their homes or refinance and must take on multiple jobs to make up for lost income. Spouses with minor children must wait many years or work through the courts in these corrupt narco-states to try to obtain a finding of presumption of death before U.S. courts will consider providing a death certificate. Siblings who spend all their savings and put themselves deep into debt running international search/rescue operations from their homes for weeks and months learn that U.S. bankruptcy law, far from being a safety net, is a crapshoot at best.
We struggle with our losses; our anger and resentment; our disillusionment; our mental, emotional, and financial strains. In addition to losing a loved one, we see our dreams for the future, however modest they might have been, deferred or destroyed. We know there must be a better, fairer way to handle these cases, if only anyone in the media or government cared enough to let the world know this problem exists. Some of us make it back into "real life". Others become obsessed, seeking answers or political action and change. Marriages and other relationships are strained. Faith and hope are tested and frequently fail.
We miss you, Joe. I miss you. And while I pray for your eventual safe return I don't expect it. My faith isn't that strong. I'm done searching for you and I'm not interested in answers or closure anymore. I'm finished crying unproductive tears. I will do all I can for your kids while attempting to do my best for my own. You will never be forgotten, brother.
Our family comes first. After that, it is all about the next family and the ones after that -- doing whatever we can and sharing whatever knowledge and connections we can cultivate to assist and advocate for the families of the next man or woman or child, American or not, who disappears abroad. I've been slacking on the project the past several months while sorting out my own issues. I have not moved forward on structuring and registering the nonprofit organization I keep talking about. It will all come with time -- this is a marathon, not a sprint.
In the meantime, I am asking any journalist or government official who reads this to please take an active interest in this issue. I ask everyone else to share this message and the link to the Missing Americans Project with any journalists or government officials you know -- and with anyone else you know. We have no idea where help might come from.
We also could use pro bono assistance from any attorneys interested in helping us break new legal ground on behalf of families of the missing and anyone who is accustomed to filing Freedom of Information Act requests. So much information that could clarify the scope of this problem is not readily available: journalists, archivists, people with investigatory or law enforcement backgrounds....we need it all. Please help or pass this along to someone who you believe could help.