Texas man vanishes in Mexico, raises fears about mission trip safety

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As demonstrators continue to protest the Mexican government’s perceived botched investigation into the disappearance of 43 students, the new disappearance of a Texas man is raising fresh questions about security south of the U.S. border.

Elijah Hernandez, 26, an American citizen, traveled in November on a volunteer missions trip to Cabo San Lucas, a tourist destination located on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. Hernandez spent several weeks working with Ephesus One Congregation to build a church and was scheduled to fly back to Dallas on Jan. 14 for his brother’s wedding.

“He never mentioned feeling unsafe,” Hernandez’s mother, Teresa Hernandez, told me in a phone interview. “He felt very accepted and part of the community there.”

Two days before he was supposed to leave, Hernandez vanished with only his wallet, passport, and cellphone (which hasn’t been used since then). His parents, Martin and Teresa Hernandez, immediately traveled to Cabo San Lucas, an area not known for crime, and could not find him after 10 days of searching. They believe local authorities in the small community are withholding information, but the U.S. State Department and FBI have said they are unable to get involved, citing various applicable treaties.

A State Department official told me the agency is aware of Hernandez’s reported disappearance, but such cases are common and rest in the hands of local authorities, unless they request assistance from the U.S. government. Although the State Department does not publicize the number of U.S. citizen disappearances in Mexico each year, a Mexican agency estimated 105,682 kidnappings occurred in 2012—almost 300 per day—followed by a 20 percent increase in 2013. At least some of those included U.S. citizens. Only a fraction of all kidnappings were reported to authorities, and some incidents implicated police.

Last week, U.S. officials quietly told Hernandez’s parents they should hire a private investigator. They did, but there is still no sign of their son, a homeschool graduate who enjoys writing and attends Shoreline Church in Dallas. His parents launched a website, a Facebook page, and a crowdfunding effort to finance the private search, which could take months.

I reached out to several Texas lawmakers, and Sen. John Cornyn’s office is apparently the only one involved.

“Our office has been working closely with the family and federal authorities to do whatever we can to help in this difficult time,” a Cornyn aid said, while declining to offer any further details.

In October, the State Department issued a travel warning for Mexico and later updated it with a new warning in December.

I asked Teresa Hernandez what advice she has for parents who may be thinking about sending their teens to Mexico on missions trips this summer.

“I’d say they’re out of their minds,” she said. “Mexico is not a safe place. There are lots of Americans who live in Cabo San Lucas, and they’ve said to us, ‘This is the safest place in Mexico.’ But it’s still Mexico.”

by J.C. Derrick

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