Jeannette Cerecer Ruiz last saw her son Ernesto Garnica Jr. nearly six years ago, hugging him goodbye at the end of celebrating his 23rd birthday with relatives, just across the Mexican border from his home in Brownsville, Texas.
His burned-out 2011 Jeep Liberty was found days later on a ranch beside a highway in Mexico connecting Matamoros and neighboring Rio Bravo.
Another body was found inside, and days later, Ernesto’s bank accounts were emptied.
Ruiz is convinced her son was kidnapped, the same fate which befell four Americans in the same city this month – but with a different outcome.
After a massive operation by Mexican authorities, two victims were found dead, two others still alive.
And under pressure for kidnapping innocent Americans seeking cheap plastic surgery, Mexico’s notorious Gulf Cartel even handed over some of its members.
The kidnapping prompted warnings not to travel to Mexico, and the disclosure of an estimated 550 American citizens missing in Mexico – a figure the State Department declined to confirm – as relatives of victims remain frustrated at an apparent lack of action by authorities on both sides of the border to find their loved ones.
Garnica, who was born in 1994 in Long Beach, California, worked at a company that served migrant children in Los Fresnos, Texas.
Crossing the border, as for many on the residents along the Rio Grande, was routine, so when he went to Matamoros for his birthday, it was nothing unusual.
“We hugged,” Ruiz recalled to The Post through a translator. “And if I had known it was going to be the last time, I would have never let go.”
The following morning, on Aug. 31, 2017, Garnica left his grandparents’ house at 4 a.m. with a friend.
He has never been seen since.
A day later, Ruiz reported his suspected kidnapping to Mexican and American authorities.
“It was to obtain money,” Ruiz said of her instinct. “But with the passage of time, I know that young people are kidnapped to become victims of human trafficking, slavery and organ trafficking.” The other dead body in the car was never identified, she said.
When Ruiz saw the intense rescue operation launched by Mexican authorities in the wake of the four Americans’ kidnappings this month, it gave a glimmer of hope that Ernesto may also be found alive.
“I was surprised by the speed,” Ruiz said. “I was grateful that these people were returned home, but I asked myself if the authorities cared about them and not about my son Ernesto. I think about it and can’t find what the difference is.”
Ruiz is frustrated by the lack of progress in her son’s case, which contains more than 3,000 pages of files. “At the FBI in Brownsville, Texas, they have always told me that Mexico has to request their intervention and the public ministry that is in charge of the investigation in Mexico says that the FBI only intervenes in matters of national security,” she said.
Brownsville police spokesman Martin Sandoval said it had forwarded the case to Customs and Border Protection, as well as the FBI. “There are some mentions of his information being used in Mexico and the Mexican authorities are investigating that aspect since it happened in Mexico,” Sandoval said. “Our missing person report is still active and his information has been entered into the national database since the day he was reported missing.”
Like Ruiz, Lisa Torres last saw her son in 2017. She, too, had a visceral reaction to the dramatic March 3 rescue.
It paled in comparison to what occurred after her 21-year-old son Robert disappeared in July 2017 while visiting his father’s relatives in Agualeguas, Nuevo Leon, 50 miles from the Rio Grande, she said.
Robert, from the Houston suburb of Pasadena, was last seen in a 2007 Chevy Tahoe.
He had been traveling with a friend but never arrived.
Days later, Torres and her husband received a phone call demanding a ransom of several thousand dollars, which they paid.
Robert was not returned, however, and Torres reported everything to Mexican authorities, as well as the FBI.
The couple believe he passed through cartel-held territory and was kidnapped.
“He didn’t show up,” Torres said. “Somewhere between the border crossing and his destination, something for sure happened, and that’s what we don’t know.
“I feel Robert was abandoned by his government, him being a U.S. citizen,” Torres told The Post. “I feel as if they left him over there in a country he doesn’t know. Robert has not been represented in any way, shape or form.”
Torres, 48, now dedicates her time searching for Robert while running “Americans Missing in Mexico,” a Facebook page that aims to reunite missing U.S. citizens who loved ones.
She questioned why Robert, and other missing Americans, didn’t appear to get the same resources dedicated to his recovery as the four missing Americans earlier this month.
“I don’t know why, that’s what I want answers to,” Torres said. “Why didn’t he get the same response? I would like someone to tell me.”
FBI officials in Washington declined to comment to The Post.
A State Department official said there was “no higher priority” than helping missing Americans’ families.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week: “Whenever we receive a report of a missing American citizen, our team on the ground, the team back here, springs into action to support the family, to support the loved ones in every way we can.”
Any bit of new information could help end the ongoing anguish Torres and Ruiz cannot escape, both mothers said.
“It really breaks a person,” Torres said of not knowing what happened to her son. “And they have no higher priority? I’m trying to honestly comprehend what that exactly means. I didn’t feel Robert was a priority.”
Ruiz, meanwhile, firmly believes she’ll see her son again.
“My connection with my son tells me that he is alive and God takes care of him,” she told The Post. “It’s a terrible nightmare. Only God knows when it will end.”