A Nun’s Fearless Fight Against Mexico’s Drug Wars Heads to the Big Screen

Sister Consuelo Morales’ campaign to help families locate missing loved ones is featured in the new documentary ‘Kingdom of Shadows.’
Sister Consuelo Morales. (Image: Courtesy Quiet Pictures)
Nov 19, 2015· 4 MIN READ
David Page has written for The New York Times, Men's Journal, Skiing, Outside, and many other publications. He is a co-founder of Mammoth Medical Missions, Inc.

In a world of random terror, of mass graves and decapitated bodies, of kidnapping and murder—and where, more often than not, the police and the army are the bad guys—the message to the average citizen is clear: Keep your head down and your mouth shut. Stay in the shadows as best you can. Maybe even try to escape across the border to the United States.

For 67-year-old Sister Consuelo Morales, an Augustinian nun and veteran human rights activist based in drug war–torn Monterrey, Mexico—and one of the main subjects of Bernardo Ruiz’s new documentary film Kingdom of Shadows, opening Nov. 20—these are not options. As long as there is truth to be spoken and no one else courageous enough to do it, she will not be silent.

“The silence of good people,” she tells TakePart via Skype, “is sometimes more terrifying and does much greater harm than the actual evil that is being committed.”

Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón declared open war on the Mexican drug cartels, more than 23,000 people have disappeared, including journalists, politicians, policemen, and many thousands of ordinary citizens with no direct connection to the drug trade or organized crime.

At first, Monterrey, the capital city of the northern state of Nuevo León and the second wealthiest city in the country, was spared the worst of it. But by early 2010, this sprawling city at the base of the Sierra Madre had become a three-way battle ground between the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Mexican military. Here, too, people started to disappear.

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Sister Consuelo Morales. (Image: Courtesy Quiet Pictures)

“We were in a terrible crisis,” Sister Morales explains. “We were all paralyzed: the authorities, the politicians, organized civil society, society in general. Nobody trusted anyone. The streets were empty. Fear and terror took control of our hearts.”

Nobody understood what was happening, least of all the families of the missing.

In June 2011, poet and activist Javier Sicilia, whose son had been murdered earlier in the year in Morelos, arrived in Monterrey with a caravan of buses and cars on a cross-country protest journey. “He told us that if the attorney general wasn’t paying attention to us, we needed to go see him,” says Sister Morales. “So at midnight, with seven families, we went and knocked on his door.”

The prosecutors promised to investigate. It seemed unlikely anything would be done, and, indeed, the violence and disappearances continued. But little by little, certain truths began to emerge. “At least we began to understand how organized crime, and perhaps the authorities as well, had disposed of the people they had taken,” Sister Morales explains, “mutilating them, burning them or dissolving them in acid.”

The truth was brutal, but it was better than no truth. Through Sister Morales and her coworkers at Citizens in Support of Human Rights, the organization she cofounded in 1993—originally to combat routine police abuse against youths—the families began to feel they could have a voice. They began to come together for weekly meetings; mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children continue to support one another, to share their suffering and desperation, and to find a way forward.

Mariano Machain, a human rights campaigner at Amnesty International, attended one of these meetings in 2012. There were 40 or 50 people in attendance, he remembers. “It impacted me deeply,” he says, “the way Consuelo”—it’s worth noting that her name, in Spanish, means comfort or consolation—“was able to open a space for them to share their anguish and tears, and at the same time to articulate the importance of staying united, of following up on their cases and continuing the fight.”

Ever so slowly, a modicum of trust has been established between the families and investigators. The families have begun to share more information; the investigators have taken cases seriously. Where before there was no mechanism to deal with the disappearances, there is now a legal declaration of absence and a protocol for immediate search that has proved effective in nearly 90 percent of new cases, Sister Morales says.

“We still have a long way to go,” she says. Of the 925 registered disappearances in Monterrey since 2009, only 150 people have been found or identified. “But the path has made us every day a little stronger.”

Families looking for their missing loved ones wait at Sister Morales' office. (Image: Courtesy Quiet Pictures)

Every morning, wearing a simple blouse and a silver cross on a chain around her neck, Sister Morales drives across the city to her office. There are bars on the windows and a security camera at the front door. Inside, the walls are covered with photos and posters of people who’ve been kidnapped or disappeared. The words Derechos Humanos—human rights—inscribed above the door for all to see seem a declaration of defiance in a city where television stations have been bombed and casinos full of people have been set on fire in broad daylight.

“Often people think of nuns as being meek and quiet, and she’s a small woman,” says filmmaker Ruiz, whose film weaves together three narratives, including Sister Morales’, that of a U.S. drug enforcement agent on the border, and that of a former Texas smuggler to tell the story of Mexico’s growing human rights crisis.

Recalling one of his first visits to her office, he remembers seeing her with a landline phone to one ear and a cell phone to the other. “In reality, she’s the bravest person in the film, speaking truth to power and doing so in a context that puts her life at risk,” he says.

Nuevo León state police. (Image: Courtesy Quiet Pictures)

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Since childhood, Sister Morales had wanted to become a nun. There was a time, though, before she took her vows, when she questioned her faith. But she discovered that working in human rights allowed her not only to confirm her beliefs but, more important, as she puts it, “to live the commitment of true fraternity with those who are most vulnerable,” helping them to restore and defend their dignity as human beings and convert their pain into power.

“A faith that does not translate into a radical, clear commitment for the defense of what one believes, a faith that does not translate into action,” she says, “cannot be called faith.”

Her commitment has not gone unnoticed; Sister Morales has received various national and international awards for her work, including Human Rights Watch’s 2013 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism.

Still, she insists the real heroes are the families of the disappeared.

“The price that has been paid is very high,” she says. “But if people objectively recognize our work, it means simply that we are on the right path and that we must keep going.”

Additional reporting was contributed by Maria Beltran.

This article was created in association with TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in support of its film Kingdom of Shadows.