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Behind the Headline: María Eugenia Vela

María Eugenia Vela’s husband was killed when a drug cartel swept through their small town in Mexico. For years, she never got answers until a ProPublica story revealed what happened.

Kirsten Luce, special to ProPublica

Impact has been at the core of ProPublica’s mission since we launched 10 years ago, and it remains the principal yardstick for our success today. For our 10th anniversary, we’re presenting stories of people whose lives have been affected by our work.

A lawyer from the small Mexican town of Allende, María Eugenia Vela was at work on the evening of March 18, 2011, waiting for a judge to sign off on reports she had written. Her husband Edgar stopped by her office, delivering empanadas and giving her a kiss. It was the last time she ever saw him.

That night, gunmen from the Zetas drug cartel swept through Allende, kidnapping men, women and children. Houses were looted and set on fire. When it was all done, dozens, possibly hundreds, of people were dead or missing, including Vela’s husband, Edgar. The night he disappeared, their daughter was just six years old, and Vela was pregnant with their second child, a son.

“The authorities were totally apathetic,” Vela said of the lack of any investigation into the massacre, even after she filed a report about Edgar’s disappearance. Some in the community suggested that the victims may have been involved with drug trafficking. “I didn’t understand how this disappearance of my husband came to pass. It’s unthinkable.”

Years passed, and Vela rarely spoke about the incident. She never got any answers to bring closure. So it was a shock when ProPublica reporter Ginger Thompson showed up on her doorstep in 2016. Thompson was working on an oral history about what happened in Allende and hoped that Vela would speak with her. “She gave me the reassurance to speak,” Vela said about agreeing to be interviewed. “The way she addressed me, and how she treated the topic, made me trust her.”

The ProPublica oral history, co-published with National Geographic, unveiled the tragic story of Allende through the voices of those left behind. It also revealed a scandal: A botched U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation had triggered the massacre in the first place.

“The story is proof that Edgar didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Vela, who learned about the U.S. government’s role in the massacre for the first time through Thompson’s reporting. “I have something tangible that I can show my children when they are older. I can explain to them how it happened. It gives me relief that there is, written in full, a journalistic testimony of what happened to their father.”

The story also got the attention of senior lawmakers in Washington. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, citing ProPublica’s reporting, called for an investigation into the DEA’s role in triggering violent drug cartel attacks.

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