What do you do when a loved one goes missing abroad?

Jenny Chen, a resident of Wallingford, has gone missing abroad while backpacking in Mexico. Here, Chen is seen while traveling in Puebla, Mexico, in March. (Courtesy of Jonathan Reinhard)
Jenny Chen, a resident of Wallingford, has gone missing while backpacking in Mexico. Here, Chen is seen while traveling in Puebla, Mexico, in March. (Courtesy of Jonathan Reinhard)

It was going to be the trip of a lifetime. Jenny Chen, a 26-year-old Wallingford resident, planned to spend four months traveling through Mexico and Cuba before returning home. A mid-trip highlight was a planned meetup with her husband in Cancún.

But Chen, a Chinese citizen, never showed at the Cancún airport, where the two had agreed to rendezvous. She was last seen on April 12 in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where she may have hitched a ride.

Now, more than a month later, her husband says government agencies and local police departments have abandoned him in his search.

“Completely frustrating,” says Jonathan Reinhard of his communication with the U.S. embassy in Mexico. “They’ve ignored me, promised to help and then not returned my phone calls.”

Reinhard recently spent five days in Mexico trying to help the investigation and says he’s similarly frustrated with responses, or the lack thereof, from the Chinese Embassy in Mexico City and police in Oaxaca.

He says the most promising leads have resulted from hiring a private investigator, who this week, according to Reinhard, uncovered information about a truck that picked Chen up in Oaxaca.

Reinhard says witnesses reported a Corona beer truck stopping for Chen and then taking her in “the opposite direction of Cancún.”

Reinhard calls it “the best info so far” regarding Chen’s whereabouts. He says he’s contacted the beer company and local police to ask for help to investigate the driver, though both entities have been slow to respond so far.

It’s not uncommon to feel frustrated and alone when it comes to searching for a loved one who’s gone missing abroad, says Jeff Dunsavage of The Missing Americans Project, a website that advocates for families in these situations.

“There is no protocol, there is no standard operating procedure,” explains Dunsavage, whose own brother went missing in Honduras seven years ago.

He says missing-traveler cases are often seen as “one-offs” with few leads and the challenge of mixed jurisdictions spanning multiple countries.

Combine those complexities with potentially corrupt police departments and slow-moving embassies, and the result is families who have to struggle to coordinate complex international investigations.

“In my case, I had to learn overnight how to run a search-and-rescue operation,” says Dunsavage, who never found his brother, now presumed dead, but has devoted himself to sharing lessons learned through his family’s tragedy.

Lesson No. 1 is to never stop advocating. He advises families to engage relevant embassies and agencies immediately but not to assume they’re prioritizing the case. “You have to involve them, but you can’t trust them,” says Dunsavage.

He also encourages families to reach out to anyone with influence for help, from media to local politicians. If you don’t have those contacts, press your networks and use social media.

Jonathan Reinhard has done just that. He’s currently running an online fundraising campaign to help pay for the private investigator and keeps a “Help Find Jenny” Facebook page updated. Anything to help find Chen, a woman he says was looking for some adventure before heading off to graduate school.

“She was due to be back on July Fourth,” says Reinhard. “This was a big trip for her before she started school.”

This week, Chen would have been in Cuba. But she never got on the flight.

For more information about the search for Jenny Chen visit: www.facebook.com/groups/helpfindjenny/ & www.gofundme.com/helpfindjenny

Help Find Jenny poster, circulated after Seattle resident Jenny Chen went missing abroad in Mexico

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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