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JOSE GASPAR: Bakersfield father of 5 is missing in Mexico

On Sept. 25, Jenifer Flores celebrated her husband's 43rd birthday with a cake alongside the couple's 6-year-old son, Miguel. Her husband, Ramiro Andrade, made it home that weekend after spending the week working out of town plastering and fixing houses and had recently started his own company.

Two days later, the dutiful husband kissed Jenifer and Miguel goodbye and traveled to the city of Zamora in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. Andrade went to his hometown to see his elderly mom and renovate her house. Jenifer is afraid it's the last birthday she will ever spend with him.

Ramiro was to return home Oct. 8. Yet more than a month later, neither Jenifer nor family in Zamora have seen or heard anything about or from Andrade. It's highly unusual of him not to keep in touch with his wife in the United States.

"We kept in touch every day," said an anxious Jenifer. "Every time he goes to Mexico, that was one of the rules — to stay in touch about his location, his plans, everything."

Making matters worse is that two of Andrade's relatives who live in Zamora are also missing. His brother, 33-year-old Jose Antonio Andrade, is a taxi driver, and on Oct. 8, he was to drive Ramiro to the airport in Guadalajara where Ramiro would catch his flight to return to the United States. The brothers were accompanied by a cousin, 20-year-old Paul Gonzalez. That afternoon, the trio headed out for Guadalajara, but apparently never made it.

Andrade's family confirmed with the airline that there is no record of Andrade boarding his return flight. The three simply disappeared somewhere along the roughly two-hour route from Zamora to Guadalajara. At around 8 p.m., Jenifer called her husband, but there was no answer. He must be on the plane, she thought. Three hours later, at around 11:20 p.m., she called him again with no answer. Maybe he's on the plane, she thought. Maybe. But she started to stress.

Later when Jose Antonio and his cousin Paul did not return to family in Zamora, a family member called Jenifer in Bakersfield, asking if she'd heard from her husband. That's when it hit her.

"I already knew he's not coming back because my husband is always responsible." a distraught Jenifer said as she recalled that day. "For nobody to hear from any of them, I already knew that something had happened."

Family in Zamora made a missing persons report with the State Attorney General of Michoacan, but so far there's been no news. They've checked hospitals and morgues in Michoacan and Guadalajara, but nothing's turned up. The only clue found so far is that the three men stopped in town to eat at a restaurant and security camera footage shows them leaving afterward, but nothing else.

"He's nowhere to be found and people don't just disappear," said Jenifer Flores. "That's the part that's not normal."

Not normal anywhere else. But this is today's reality in Mexico.

When people disappear in Mexico, it is often a calamitous and heartbreaking episode for families. According to Mexico's National Search Committee, there are at least 100,000 disappeared people dating to 1964. Others say the number is much higher. Families often have to be their own investigators, a harsh reality to the inability of government to not only search and find the missing, but also bring their perpetrators to justice. Complicating matters is that local and state police can also be complicit in these cases. So for now, Andrade's family in Zamora are the ones putting out flyers with photos of their three loved ones, asking, begging for information.

It gets worse, though. Since her husband went missing, Jenifer revealed she received messages on her Facebook page from people claiming to either have her husband in custody or claiming to know where he is. The messages come with photos showing Andrade with "bruises" on his face. And they demand she send them money if she wants to save her husband. Jenifer soon realized that the photos were photoshopped, as they were the same photos she had taken of her husband and the low-lifes made it appear as if he had been beaten.

"You don't think that's going to hurt? It's the last thing that I want to see of my husband even if I know that those are not real," she said.

Shortly before Andrade left Zamora, he spoke with his son in a video chat.

"I see you tonight, OK mi hijo? Love you, bye," Andrade said on the phone. The 6-year old doesn't understand why his father isn't home.

"He keeps asking me, 'When is daddy coming home?' and I don't know what to say," said the tearful mother. "If I tell him his dad is coming home soon, he might resent me for the rest of his life for having lied and giving him false hope."

The State Attorney General's office in Michoacan has not provided much information about Ramiro's case to his family in Zamora or to Jenifer Flores. I called the Consulate of Mexico in Fresno to ask what is being done to help find Ramiro Andrade, and a spokesman told me someone would get back to me. I'm still waiting.

Andrade was in the pipeline to become a U.S. citizen, but since he was not yet one, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City told his wife there was nothing it could do, either.

Jenifer Flores admits she doesn't know what to believe about what might have happened to her husband. Is he still alive? But being missing can perhaps be the worst blow because she may never know what happened to Ramiro or where he might be.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.