Vanished in Vallarta

Erika Berenice Cueto Vazquez

Erika Berenice Cueto Vazquez

Erika Cueto was on the move in her professional career. Described by relatives, associates and acquaintances as a friendly, dedicated and no-nonsense woman, Cueto was making a name for herself in the world of pole fitness. A petite woman bursting with energy and a catchy smile, the 39-year-old helped organize an international pole fitness competition last November in her home town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

But on November 12, several days prior to the event, Cueto disappeared. On November 18, the instructor’s car, an unmistakable pink Chevy, was reported recovered by police about 20 minutes from Puerto Vallarta, at a spot along the Ameca River bordering the states of Jalisco and Nayarit.  Karina Cueto, Erika’s younger sister, said the vehicle had been repainted white but minus a battery appeared intact. More than two months later, the family still has no word of Erika’s fate.

“We’re getting desperate because we don’t know what to do,” Karina told FNS. Erika’s boyfriend for nine years, Roberto Godinez, who lives in a town north of Puerto Vallarta, is also stumped by the disappearance, the worried sister said.

Was Erika kidnapped for profit? Did the pole fitness business have anything to do with her disappearance? Did she encounter auto thieves? Is something else behind the mystery? Until now, no one has contacted the family with a ransom demand, Karina stressed.

“It’s very strange that she disappeared five days before the (pole competition),” the sister sighed.

Stirring emotional anguish is the big unknown of where Erika was last before she vanished. According to family members, neighbors spotted Erika’s car parked outside the Puerto Vallarta home she lived in alone on November 12, but did not see the woman depart. Reportedly, Erika had a business meeting scheduled November 12 in San Jose del Valle, a small community just across the state line in Nayarit that has had its share of problems with delinquency.

Erika had a business site in Puerto Vallarta, which relatives inspected but detected nothing out of the ordinary. Erika’s relatives first realized something was amiss the evening of November 12 after getting no answers to their repeated calls to Erika’s cellphone. For a spell, the phone produced three or four rings before finally cutting off. “We tried calling many times but it stopped,” Karina said.

Alarmed by their loved one’s disappearance, the family dialed the 066 emergency line. The call was picked up by an operator in Nayarit who informed the Cuetos that another call must be made to the state of Jalisco where Puerto Vallarta is located.

Less than two days later, Erika’s father trekked over to the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office and filed a formal missing person’s complaint, which typically is not activated until the 72 hour legal waiting period has passed.

“It’s very disappointing because the first 48 hours are crucial and, as far as we know, nothing happened,” Karina maintained.

During the next few weeks, two different officials were put in charge of the case, and the family discovered other obstacles stood in the way of the truth. According to the distraught sister, relatives sought video surveillance from the road where Erika would likely have driven November 12, but discovered that cameras were not turned on at the time in question.  Moreover, the prosecutor’s office has not been able to produce critical records of Erika’s phone calls, because officials told the family that acquiring the information entails a lengthy process with the phone company.

Family members have been rebuffed in their attempt to see the entire case file by officials arguing that the matter is in an investigative stage, Erika’s sibling added.

Nonetheless, Erika’s family has met with Jalisco’s top cop, State Prosecutor Luis Carlos Najera, who pledged to assign Erika’s case to a special coordinator in the law enforcement agency’s Guadalajara headquarters, Karina said.

“We think they’ve advanced in some respects, but then they don’t advance,” Karina said. “They are friendly, but there are no results for my sister. They’ve treated us good, but that’s not enough.”

Accompanying Karina Cueto for the interview with FNS was her mother, Leticia Vazquez Camarena. “We think the authorities have been slow,” Vazquez said flat out.

Mom painted a portrait of Erika as an athletic, hard-working woman who did not drink or smoke, much less fool around in murky corners. Growing up in Guadalajara, Erika thrived on physical activity-Olympics gymnastics, aerobics, tae kwon do, pole fitness…, her mother recalled.  Holding a bachelor’s degree in physical education, Erika Cueto was also a teacher.

“Ever since she was a young girl, she liked sports. She’s a nice woman. She always liked to laugh at home,” Vazquez said. “She always liked children and gave classes.” Six years ago, Erika moved to Puerto Vallarta in search of greener pastures.

“She thought there would be more opportunities in sporting, above all in the hotels,” Vazquez added. “There is a lot of competition in Guadalajara. She thought it would be better for her here.”

Eventually, Erika opened a small gym and studio in the Plaza Marina shopping mall and condominium complex. Located across the Amerimed Hospital and Holiday Inn Express on the main boulevard to the airport, the small business still sports the fading “Pole Fitness by Erika Cueto” sign but stands stripped of the valuables removed by family members as a safeguard.

Situated in the back of the indoor section of the mall, the studio/gym is just around the corner from a back entrance monitored by a security camera that would presumably capture the comings and goings of anyone passing through the door, which exits into to a small parking area staffed by a pair of security guards.

The now empty studio/gym joins numerous other bare storefronts in Plaza Marina, some of which bear “For Rent” or “For Sale” signs while others are splashed with government “closed” seals because of tax debts. In the front lot, a Federal Police cruiser and a municipal police patrol were visible on a recent day.

Once settled in Vallarta, Erika began putting the Mexican coastal resort city on the map in international pole fitness. Organizing annual meets that first drew national and then international attention, the pole competitions caught the eye of athletes in places as far away as Russia and the Ukraine.

Although the other organizers of the November 2014 pole dance competition in Puerto Vallarta went ahead with the event, the turnout was diminished due to Erika’s disappearance a few days earlier.

“The foreigners cancelled their participation in the event because of the insecurity in the country,” Karina said. Likewise, the University of Guadalajara pulled out, she added.

Erika Cueto was a board member of the Pole Association of Mexico, the non-profit organization which sponsored the Puerto Vallarta pole fitness gathering last fall. The association has posted messages on its Facebook page that express serious concern and “hurt” over their colleague.

“We continue waiting for news about you and we will not rest until it is known what happened to you,” reads a Facebook message posted last December 9. “You have left your mark on the history of Pole in Mexico and we want to have you back.”

Locally, the disappearance of Erika Cueto has become something of an issue. In a January 19 editorial, the Tribuna de la Bahia newspaper called for renewed, official attention on Erika’s and similar cases.  The editorial followed the January 15 disappearance of City Council Representative Humberto “Beto” Gomez, as well as last weekend’s reported dramatic escape of a kidnapped businessman who ran into a gasoline station with his hands handcuffed.

“(Officials) should not forget the councilman, they should not forget Erika, and they should not forget the people who are waiting for their help in the return of loved ones,” the Tribuna de la Bahia editorialized.

One week after his disappearance, “Beto” Gomez was still missing. By the third week of January, Puerto Vallarta’s streets were peppered with large and small posters of Gomez, with a heading that asked, “Where is Beto?”

Karina observed a difference in the response to Gomez’s disappearance and that of her sister, contending that an announced government search operation and rapid outreach to the federal attorney general’s office (PGR) was an example of “discrimination between politicians and civilians.”

While the disappearance of a relative is a devastating experience for any family, the Cuetos face additional challenges. Like countless Mexican families, Erika’s is geographically and nationally split between Mexico and the United States. Born in the U.S., Karina and her twin sister are U.S. citizens, while Erika and another sister are Mexican citizens. Karina resides in Colorado, where she works as an architect.

Since November, family members have traveled back and forth from Guadalajara and the U.S. to Puerto Vallarta to probe Erika’s disappearance. Expenses are mounting, and Karina has not been able to work.

The family has reached out to an array of authorities, the 35-year-old architect insisted, with one sister contacting the U.S. government only to be told that Washington could really do nothing because Erika is a Mexican citizen with a Mexican problem. In Mexico, a family call to the PGR was answered with a promise to bulletin the disappearance, but with the caveat that the investigation was a state matter for state law enforcement officials.

Seated near Puerto Vallarta’s waterfront as locals and tourists strolled merrily by, Karina and her mother looked wistful as a slight ocean breeze cut the tropical air. “Nobody knows anything,” shrugged the sister. For the Cuetos, the new year has still brought no news about the whereabouts of their beloved Erika. Vanished in Vallarta.

A Facebook page for Erika Cueto has been set up at:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ayudame-a-encontrar-a-Erika/554504128017486

-Kent Paterson


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