Perspectives

Missing Abroad

Scheepstra_Dunsavage

When my brother, Joe Dunsavage, disappeared while on vacation in the Bay Islands of Honduras in 2009, we had no idea how common such disappearances were, how little help local and U.S. authorities are prepared to provide, and how indifferent the media are to such stories, unless they follow a very specific narrative, typically involving an attractive, vulnerable white woman.

Why Are Men Disappearing In Latin America and The Caribbean? And Why Does No One Care?

Jeff Dunsavage, Director, The Missing Americans Project

The recent disappearances of high-school valedictorian August Reiger in Baños, Ecuador, and Armando Torres, a U.S. Marine, in Matamoros, Mexico, have begun bringing attention to an underreported problem that has become a major focus of my life: the challenges faced by families who lose loved ones while traveling outside their national borders.

When my brother, Joe Dunsavage, disappeared while on vacation in the Bay Islands of Honduras in 2009, we had no idea how common such disappearances were, how little help local and U.S. authorities are prepared to provide, and how indifferent the media are to such stories, unless they follow a very specific narrative, typically involving an attractive, vulnerable white woman. In the four years since Joe disappeared, we have come into contact with many families who have lost relatives – mainly white males between the ages of 28 and 49 and primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean. Bringing government and media attention to this spate of disappearances has been tantamount to trying to perform oral surgery on a Kodiak bear without anesthesia or instruments.

When a woman disappears abroad – particularly in an exotic locale – one of two narratives dominates:

  1. She was loose, careless, or drunk and got involved with one or more men who raped her and disposed of the body.

  2. She was targeted, stalked, and sold into “white slavery”.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little evidence exists to support either of these narratives. Journalists will talk with high school friends and bartenders, pore over the missing woman’s social media content; in short, they will look for whatever they can to support some version or combination of these narratives because that is what is expected to capture the most “eyeballs”.

When a man of a certain age disappears abroad, the implied narrative is simple and uninteresting: He went looking for adventure or drugs, did something bad or stupid, and got what he had coming. Such a narrative cannot be published without evidence; and, since the story is not expected to draw the kind of profitable attention garnered by speculations about sex and the murder or trafficking of innocent victims, they are not deemed worthy of substantial reporting. Add to this the fact that no organization – like, say, the U.S. State Department – seems to find the issue important enough to maintain a database or do serious comparative case analysis, and you can understand why the public perception is that women are primarily, even exclusively, at risk while traveling in the developing world.

Looking for Answers

The Missing Americans Project is a small, family-run organization that does not have the resources to perform the sort of professional evidence gathering and analysis one might expect from a U.S. State Department, FBI, or Interpol. Therefore, the information I’m about to provide must be considered nothing more than a subset of the disappearances that actually occurred between April 2009 and December 2011. I provide them only as a snapshot that suggests the problem of men vanishing in Latin America and the Caribbean is larger than the media-generated narrative would have you believe and worthy of further investigation. The following list does not include cases that eventually were shown to have been murders or accidents or the countless disappearances that have occurred in Mexico. The Mexico cases referenced below only represent those whose families have joined the Missing Americans Project online community and provided us with information about their loved ones’ disappearances. Others have written more comprehensively about disappearances in Mexico than I can even begin to do.

Click on the grid to see the large version

From this little grid, a few observations may be significant:

  1. Most of the disappearances during the period under consideration were men between the ages of 28 and 49.

  2. Scheepstra and Dunsavage were both just shy of their 50th birthday, traveling in locations they were very familiar with, and were engaged in innocuous recreational activities (Scheepstra was flyfishing several yards from his fishing buddies before going to the car to get something; Dunsavage tooling around in the shallows in a small catamaran). They disappeared a month apart, nearly to the day. Xcalak is close enough to Roatan that Ron and his buddies were using Roatan tide charts to inform their fishing. Each man also disappeared the day after his arrival.

  3. Gimelfarb and Dixon – 28 and 33, respectively – disappeared from locations in Costa Rica about 50 miles apart. Each man disappeared either the day of or the day after his arrival.

  4. Not much is known about Humphreys’ disappearance. He was 29 years old and, like Dixon, hailed from Manchester, England. Three men of similar age (two of them from the same town) disappearing in the region in a period of two months, right after the demographically similar Dunsavage and Scheepstra disappeared a month apart from the same area ought to give someone pause.

  5. Most of the men were traveling alone. Pagliaro and Mirabella and Pritchard and Alicea are the exceptions. Little is known about the disappearance of the two Italians, only that they worked together and vanished at the same time. Pritchard and Alicea’s disappearance is by far the most tantalizing because, for 48 hours, only the pilot of the aircraft and someone in the Bahamian government knew the coordinates of the two men on the island with the SOS in the sand.

Not much can be made of these observations in the absence real investigation and analysis. Every person who travels beyond his or her own national borders enters a world in which legal standards and cultural norms can be dramatically or subtly different. Every world traveler takes certain risks – the question is, how well-informed can the decisions to take those risks be in the absence of reliable information about safety and security?

Signs of Progress?

Recent events suggest that progress may be being made in bringing these types of disappearances to the attention of government and the media. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that when Armando Torres – a 27-year-old U.S. Marine reservist who served in Iraq – disappeared with two family members in Matamoros, Mexico, the media and, hence, the U.S. government, took notice. Torres’s membership in a branch of the armed forces whose prestige is based in part on “leaving no brothers behind” makes his disappearance too compelling to ignore.

Perhaps the fact that Torres went missing on the heels of the disappearance and murder of Sarai Sierra, a Staten Island mother of two, in Istanbul, Turkey – a case that captured media attention for weeks – and that his disappearance was quickly followed by that of August Reiger in Ecuador  accounts for the sudden interest in overseas disappearances.

Reiger and his parents went to Ecuador in June, in part so the 18-year-old could work on his Spanish before going to college. A well-adjusted young man and high-achieving student, August has a girlfriend and a full scholarship waiting for him at home in Oklahoma. The fact that he was on vacation with his parents and disappeared 10 or 15 minutes ahead of them on the trail they were hiking makes it difficult to dismiss him as depressed, suicidal, escapist, or some kind of immoral adventurer who “most likely just got what he deserved.” Not only has his case received media attention comparable to that of the missing Marine, but President Obama has referred to him publicly as “a missing patriot.”

At this writing, August Reiger has been missing for more than a month. Another American, Bob Ehlert, has been missing almost as long in the vicinity of Panama City, Panama. None of the people listed above has been found, and they are only a chip off the tip of a massive iceberg that includes men and women, locals, tourists, ex-pats, and migrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families. The people who have disappeared and their families deserve to have their stories told and to have their cases more diligently investigated and analyzed than has been the case to date.

 

Jeff Dunsavage
Jeff Dunsavage is a media and communications professional who started The Missing Americans Project after his brother disappeared off the coast of Roatan, Honduras. MAP provides moral support and practical guidance to families who have lost loved ones abroad and collaborates with organizations, such as U.K.-based Missing Abroad and International Cruise Victims, to build awareness of safety and security considerations when traveling and to promote change in U.S. policies and practices regarding its citizens who disappear or are murdered outside U.S. borders.

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