Americans Missing in Mexico a Diplomatic Priority, Says Texas Congressman

By Penny Starr | July 7, 2008 | 8:24 PM EDT

( - The more than two dozen U.S. citizens who have disappeared in recent years in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, should be accounted for, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D.-Texas), told Cybercast News Service .

Cuellar said he believes U.S. law enforcement at the local, state, and federal level are "doing their best," but that Mexico is a sovereign nation and does not view solving these cases as a priority.

"The problem is the jurisdiction of another country," said Cuellar, whose constituency includes the border town of Laredo - Nuevo Laredo, Mexico is less than one mile away. "If it was people missing on this side, I think we would be talking about another story."

But in the case of Americans who traveled from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo and were never seen again, Cuellar said it is up to the Mexicans to solve these cases.

"How do you get the Mexican government to respond?" Cuellar said.

He then used the word "frustrated" to describe how he and the families whose relatives have disappeared feel as years pass without any concrete information about what happened to their loved ones. Although many of the cases are considered kidnappings by the FBI - as confirmed by the Bureau for -- without witnesses Mexican authorities consider these individuals as missing.

The U.S. State Department told Cybercast News Service that it does not make public the number of Americans who are kidnapped or missing aboard, a fact Cuellar finds unacceptable.

"I think that information should be available," Cuellar said. "I will be talking to the State Department about that."

Cuellar said he has made violence along the U.S.-Mexico border a priority in his two terms in Congress. But he said he became acutely aware of how many families had lost loved ones in Mexico when William Slemaker, who lives in Laredo, contacted his office in early 2005.

Slemaker's stepdaughter, Yvette Martinez, and her friend, Brenda Cisneros, went to Nuevo Laredo to see a concert on Sept. 17, 2004, and never returned home. ?Brenda Yvette Martinez, a U.S. citizen, disappeared in Mexico with a friend in 2004.As Slemaker searched for his daughter, he discovered that many other families had experienced the same kind of tragedy. With the help of friends, Slemaker started the Web site to draw attention to the dozens of Americans in Laredo who have gone missing in Mexico.

Cuellar said he has worked to try to bring attention to Slemaker's daughter and the missing relatives of other families, including writing letters to President Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nevada). Aside from acknowledging they had received the letters, nothing was done, Cuellar said.

Cuellar said he has also contacted Mexican President Felipe Calderon and has met with other high-ranking Mexican authorities, including Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, the Mexican attorney general, with no tangible results.

The most promising response, Cuellar said, came from U.S. Ambassador Antonio Garza, who about two years ago formed a joint task force consisting of U.S. and Mexican law enforcement personnel. The idea was to encourage cooperation to solve violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the cases of Americans who disappeared in Mexico.

To date, however, Cuellar could not say what the task force has accomplished.

"We're still waiting on an update on that," Cuellar said.

As for Slemaker, he admits his daughter made some bad decisions, including marrying a man who had been convicted and jailed on drug charges. But that does not mean his family is unaffected, including closure for his daughter's two young daughters, now 12 and 11, who he and his wife, Maria, are now rearing since their mother's disappearance.

Cuellar agreed and said that whether Americans missing in Mexico were involved in drugs or other illegal activities - or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time - their families deserve respect.

"I want to do everything possible to get answers," Cuellar said. "They definitely have to give the families closure."

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