A Salvadoran Mother Disappears Without a Trace

Luis Fuentes takes care of his two children, Luis and Jaine, after his wife Marilú’s disappearance. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Luis Fuentes takes care of his two children, Luis and Jaine, after his wife Marilú’s disappearance. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

It has been almost two years since Luis Fuentes heard his wife’s voice for the last time, right before her baffling disappearance in Texas as she was crossing the border. Today, after an unsuccessful crusade that took him to El Salvador, Mexico and several cities in the U.S., Fuentes refuses to give up the search for the mother of his two children.

“A day before Mother’s Day, I dreamed of her; I almost felt her,” said Fuentes, who keeps the clothes and jewelry of his wife Marilú Noeli Alas Santos in her bedroom in Brentwood, Long Island, awaiting her return. “In my heart, there is always hope that she is alive, waiting for me to find her.”

A construction worker, Fuentes emigrated from Ahuachapán, El Salvador, in the late ’90s through the Temporary Protection Status (TPS). The permission was granted by Congress in 1990 partly to assist victims of Hurricane Mitch.

Marilú, born in the same area as Luis, came to the U.S. in 2006 and lived in Brentwood without legal status. A few weeks after arriving, she rented a room in Fuentes’ house, and soon they fell in love. In 2007, they had their first child, Luis, who is now 7, and later Janie, who is 4.

In 2011, Marilú returned to El Salvador with her two children to take care of her ailing father. A year later, she decided to return to Brentwood, and set up to cross the border in spite of the endemic drug-related violence.

“I begged her not to do it; I warned her that it was very dangerous,” said Fuentes almost in tears.

Marilú’s last phone call — she was 28 at the time — was from Texas on Sept. 3, 2012. Fuentes breathed a sigh of relief, confident that the 2,000-mile journey from El Salvador was over.

His wife told him that she and her sister, Reina Carolina, were on U.S. soil after crossing the Rio Grande, and that they were in Hidalgo, Texas. However, in a flash, Fuentes went from relief to agony.

“She said that she was nervous because the coyotes had blackmailed them during the trip. She told me that I had to pay for the crossing immediately, or I would never see her again,” he remembered.

Fuentes arranged the transaction with a man who identified himself as Mario, to whom he wired $2,500 through Western Union. He never heard from Marilú again.

“Reina said that a car was supposed to take them to Houston, but Marilú was forced out of the car. They took her sister; it was the last time she saw her,” said Fuentes.

Reina told him that she slept with other migrants in an unidentified place for a few days. She was then given to another coyote, who took her to a motel named Palacio Inn — in Alamo, in southern Texas — where she was raped in room 116 for two days until she was able to escape.

“They called me several times asking for money in exchange for Reina. They said they also had Marilú, but they would not put her on the phone,” he said.

According to Luis, his sister-in-law cooperated with immigration authorities and they were able to capture her kidnappers, but they said that they did not know of Marilú’s whereabouts.  The case is still open, and Reina — who also lived in Brentwood — is awaiting a U visa, granted to victims of violence, human trafficking and other crimes.

Hope still alive

In November 2012, Luis Fuentes was able to bring his children from El Salvador, and left them in the care of his family in order to continue looking for Marilú. Fuentes said that he has knocked on dozens of doors — including organizations, police departments, politicians and diplomats — in his home country, Mexico and in the U.S.

“In these past two years, I have sent out over 600 emails to people I thought could help me,” he said. “I posted Marilú’s picture in 2,500 churches along the Mexico-U.S. border. I will not rest until I find her.”

His last-ditch effort was providing samples of Marilu’s DNA to anthropologists who are trying to identify the bodies of 162 migrants found in common graves at a cemetery located in the village of Falfurrias, in southern Texas.

For Fuentes, the disappearance of his wife hits their children the hardest.

“Alive or dead, we want her back. We need a grave to cry over and to bring flowers.”

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