Until We Find Them
On World Press Freedom Day in May 2019, then-Master of Human Rights student Hunter Johnson (‘20) spent the date editing footage of journalists Darwin Franco and Dalia Souza for a documentary short about their search for truth in Mexico’s crisis of enforced disappearances.
Three years later, Johnson’s film Until We Find Them is being released for streaming online to commemorate the date. Beginning May 3, 2022, Until We Find Them can be found on Facebook and its official website, UntilWeFindThem.com.
The film’s journey began in late 2018 when Johnson joined as a lead researcher with the Observatory on Disappearances and Impunity in Mexico, a collaborative project between the Human Rights Program and academic partners from FLACSO-México and Oxford University. Alongside a research team including MHR students, HRP-affiliated faculty, and scholars from around the world, Johnson helped create a database of press articles covering cases of enforced disappearance in four Mexican states between 2009 and 2018.
Johnson’s research led him to travel to Guadalajara, Mexico, in March 2019, to film a short project about Franco’s work as a reporter. It was there that he met both Franco and his wife Souza, the editors of Mexican news website ZonaDocs, who report on local and national stories from a human rights-centered perspective.
“I quickly realized he [Franco] and Dalia are a complete team, both professionally and personally,” Johnson told the Human Rights Program. “I knew that this story was going to be a very personal portrait of their work together, why they feel called to it, and how it affects their lives as partners.”
For years, Franco and Souza had been involved with the families of persons forcibly disappeared by Mexico’s criminal cartels. When the state failed to investigate the whereabouts of the families’ loved ones and the identities of their perpetrators, it fell on independent journalists, activists, and the communities of the disappeared to locate the missing and fight for accountability.
Johnson’s documentary, Until We Find Them, records Franco and Souza’s intrepid commitment to the victims of enforced disappearance despite the constant risks posed to their lives and livelihood. In the half-hour short, Johnson follows the couple’s public and private lives, their confrontation with the Mexican government’s cold complicity in enforced disappearance, and their camaraderie with the families of the disappeared. He produces a record of corruption and neglect, but he also documents the fearless advocacy to which communities resort when the government fails to protect their human rights.
According to government figures, nearly 100,000 persons have been forcibly disappeared since Mexican authorities renewed the country’s deadly war on drugs in 2006. Human Rights Program Director Barbara Frey, an expert on the crime of enforced disappearance, calls the crisis a pattern of “macro-criminality” characterized by collusion between state officials and organized crime.
Journalists like Franco and Souza who cover the issue of enforced disappearance put themselves at immense risk of retaliation from state and criminal actors. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2021 that Mexico had more missing journalists, more unsolved journalist homicides, and more confirmed or suspected homicides of journalists in retaliation for their work than any other country in the world. While state actors are suspected to be involved in a majority of crimes against the press, Article 19 estimates that 99.75 percent of violations go unpunished. As a result, Frey and University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate Paula Cuellar have found that enforced disappearances in Mexico are significantly underreported in the press because journalists often self-censor in the face of physical, economic, and social threats posed against them.
At Franco and Souza’s suggestion, Johnson decided to release Until We Find Them for streaming online to correspond with World Press Freedom Day. The date is commemorated in the U.N. system each year following its designation by the General Assembly in 1993 to mark the adoption of the historic Windhoek Declaration for a free, independent, and pluralistic press.
“Darwin and Dalia’s unwavering dedication to reporting on disappearances in Mexico—one of the most dangerous countries to be a reporter—is a shining example of how journalism can be used as a tool to seek truth,” said Johnson. “We believe publishing the documentary on World Press Freedom Day is a great way to honor their courageous work and that of other brave journalists standing up to injustice around the world.”
Prior to its release, Until We Find Them made a run at 11 film festivals in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America and was named “Best of Fest” at the 2021 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Last November, the Human Rights Program screened the film at its 20th Anniversary Symposium, followed by a virtual appearance from Franco and Souza as the featured speakers of the Stephen and Chacke Scallen “Principled Voices” series for 2021.