María José Velasco, aged 14, has been missing for over two months. The teenager disappeared on March 8 when she left her home located in the Quinta Chica sector, on Cuenca’s eastside. She was last seen wearing jeans and a Mario Rizzini school jacket. Her height is just under 5 feet. She has straight back hair and has an olive complexion.
María’s disappearance is, according to the National Directorate of Specialized Police for Children, Girls and Adolescents, (DINAPAN), the only unexplained missing persons case of a minor under investigation in Azuay Province; the remaining 29 reported cases have been resolved.
The case is significant because of recent protests demanding that the government do more to resolve missing persons cases. According to police, those reporting missing persons often fail to believe that family members and friends leave home voluntarily, often to get away from abusive situations.
From January to April 2019, 30 cases of missing minors and 72 cases of people of legal age were reported in Azuay province. Ten cases of adults remain under investigation.
“Of the 255 complaints about the alleged disappearances of minors filed in 2018, every case was successfully resolved,” says Daniel Gaibor, Dinapen director. According to Gaibor, 99 percent of the cases are voluntary runaways whose motivations are sentimental or relate to family, school, or personal behavior issues.
Juan Carlos Ruales, head of the National Directorate of Crimes against Life, Violent Deaths, Disappearances, Extortion, and Kidnapping — the national police agency responsible for missing persons — agrees with Gaibor and adds that economic and health factors as primary motivations for adults who leave home.
Ruales reported that of the 72 complaints of missing adults in the province, 63 were resolved and that 9 are currently being investigated.
Between 10 and 15 reports of alleged missing persons are recorded monthly in Azuay Province, most of them the in Cuenca.
The procedure to report a missing relative is the same, regardless of whether it is a child, adolescent or adult.
Submit your report immediately to the Office of the Prosecutor or in one of the specialized units of the National Police. Ruales emphasizes that it is not necessary to wait 24 hours to make the complaint. “The more time passes, the truth flees. The more indications we have, we can deliver better results.” he said. He added that 50 percent of the cases of missing minors are resolved immediately.
In the first six months of 2019, the Azuay Prosecutor’s Office registered 132 complaints of missing persons in Cuenca, of which nine are still under investigation. There were 375 complaints in 2018, of which 22 cases are still under investigation.
In August 2018, the so-called ‘Emilia Alert’ was created, in honor of Emilia Benavides, whose body was found in a ravine near the city of Loja, a few days after her disappearance in December 2017. An agreement between the State Attorney General’s Office, the Ministry of the Interior, the Judicial Council, the Ombudsman’s Office, the Police National and the social network Facebook now coordinate to issue alerts to the accounts of users who are within a radius of 160 kilometers from the place where the child was last seen. “It’s an essential exchange of information,” says Gaibor.