Imagine your sister goes missing in a foreign country more than 2,200 miles away. Imagine you don’t speak the language of that country. Imagine, also, that you can’t travel to that country.
Then imagine that three months have passed since her disappearance and law enforcement officials involved in the investigation have told you very little about how the case is going.
How livid and frustrated would you be?
That’s the sorrowful plight of Alicia Morales Rojas, whose sister, Reina Morales Rojas, went missing the weekend after Thanksgiving, or 90 days ago. Reina, a single mom who came to the United States from El Salvador just after Mother’s Day last year, was reportedly last seen Nov. 26 getting into a car in East Boston, where she lives, and dropped off in Somerville. The sisters are extremely close and would communicate with each other daily.
There are several difficult layers to unpack in Reina’s case. A major one is the glaring fact that it took the Boston Police Department more than six weeks to alert the public to Reina’s disappearance. So far, the police have not explained the delay except to say that in their “focused efforts to identify her whereabouts, our investigative team regrettably did not share her information publicly until January 12,” according to an e-mailed statement from Mariellen Burns, chief of communications for the Boston Police Department.
Then there are the barriers that Reina’s family is facing when advocating for her. Reina, like many immigrants in Boston, doesn’t have relatives in the area; it was Reina’s boyfriend and her landlord who went to the East Boston police station to file a missing person’s report. Alicia said in an interview that she would have traveled that day to Boston but she doesn’t have a US visa. There’s also a language barrier — Alicia doesn’t speak English.
“I feel so powerless all the time,” Alicia said in an interview in Spanish. It’s a feeling that many immigrants can relate to. In most missing person’s cases, a family member would call the media and show up at the police station demanding answers and updates. But make no mistake: The police shouldn’t have to be pushed to do their job. Law enforcement shouldn’t need the local advocacy of loved ones to look for a missing person, nor should the media.
Boston officers keep telling Alicia the same thing: that they’re working day and night to find Reina, she said. “Well, where are the results of that work?” Alicia said she spoke with the Spanish-speaking Latino detective in charge of Reina’s case on Jan. 31. “Since that call, I didn’t hear from him until earlier this week. And he kept saying the same: There’s no update. He told me, you have to understand that this is an active investigation and we cannot give you more information. And I said to him, ‘OK, I understand that. But who understands us?’ ”
Another Spanish-speaking police officer has also been in touch irregularly, Alicia said, albeit more frequently than the detective. But, she said, the officer told her to stop calling him and to communicate with the department only via WhatsApp texts. In her statement, Burns acknowledged that some may be frustrated by the department’s “inability to provide personal details related to the case,” but that BPD both talks and texts with Reina’s family frequently on WhatsApp “but no one on our end has indicated a preference of voice or text.”
Enter Boston’s Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, the relatively new police watchdog agency. Stephanie Everett, executive director of the office, said in an interview that there are limits to OPAT’s investigatory power. For instance, the office doesn’t handle criminal cases. And OPAT “would not be looking at cases where there is an open investigation,” Everett said. However, the agency can look at the department’s policies if there is a question about whether or not the department acted according to its own protocols. In the case of missing persons, BPD’s current rules allow some discretion around releasing information to the public. Additionally, Everett said, OPAT will be looking at “ways we can strengthen” the police’s regulations on missing person’s cases.
It’s been largely up to local activist Lucy Pineda and her organization, Latinos Unidos en Massachusetts, to elevate awareness of Reina’s disappearance and put public pressure on the police. On Feb. 26, Pineda is holding another vigil in front of the new East Boston police station located near the waterfront. “We’re not asking for much,” Pineda said. “Why can’t the police hold a public press conference or media availability? It can’t hurt the case and more people would be alerted about Reina.”
That move would also go a long way toward building trust within the immigrant community, for that is what lies at the heart of this case: mistrust of the police. Another trust-building step would require Boston police to offer a coherent explanation for why there was no public communication for so long after Reina’s disappearance. The immigrant community deserves reassurance that its tragedies are just as important as any others.