Once silenced by fear, the families of some 400 victims who have been forcibly disappeared in and around the Guerrero city of Iguala, Mexico have organized and conducted weekly searches for clandestine graves. Their remarkable success is at once a tribute to their determination and a sad comment on how common disappearances are in northern Guerrero.
Back in the 1970s, when he was younger, Guadalupe Contreras learned the profession he still practices today -- tomb-building, grave-digging and the manufacturing and installation of headstones.
This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.
But starting about a year ago, Guadalupe has taken one day off a week from his graveside pursuits to become something else -- related, but very different.
Every Sunday, Don Lupe, as his friends refer to him, grabs a machete, a hammer and a hat and goes out to the hills around Iguala to look for graves.
He's not looking for the kinds of graves he normally works with, which have headstones, crosses or the name of the deceased. The kind he's hunting for are usually found in clandestine growing fields, in gaps in the terrain, in bushy areas or abandoned sites. They are graves, in other words, where many of the disappeared victims of organized crime are buried.
There are 16 municipalities in the northern region of the state of Guerrero. The most important is Iguala, where Don Lupe lives. At least three criminal groups battle to control it -- the Knights Templar, the Rojos and the Guerreros Unidos.
According to official information, 326 reported cases of "missing or disappeared persons" have accumulated over the last decade. Few believe that official figure reflects reality. The discrepancy is sometimes the result of negligence in registering reports or following up on them, but more often due to the tendency for families to stay silent about disappeared loved ones out of fear.
Don Lupe was one of the silent ones. He waited two years before reporting the disappearance of his son Antonio Ivan, 28, who had three children and a job as an electrician in an auto shop. Don Lupe was worried that if he reported his son as missing, his daughters and grandchildren would be in danger.
The abduction and disappearance of 43 teachers college students from Ayotzinapa, which occurred in his hometown of Iguala on September 26, 2014, shook Don Lupe's family profoundly, as it did so many others in the region. The fear that had paralyzed them for two years began to weaken.
Newly energized, he and hundreds of other families of victims organized in November of last year Los Otros Desaparecidos (The Other Disappeared Victims). In just over a year, the group's membership has grown to include families of 390 disappeared victims -- 60 more, it should be noted, than the official total. And the list is still growing.
"We get together to try to help each other," Don Lupe says, "because we all share the same interest, of finding our relatives. We're more than 390 families now. About half of them just came to report the facts about their missing family member and never came back. But the other half are active members, they attend the meetings, they come to the interviews with authorities, they make demands."
A core group of about 15 to 20 persons goes out looking for graves. "We're the bloodhounds of the organization," Don Lupe says. "We go sniffing around the hills."
Don Lupe has the sharpest sense of smell among them, not to mention the keenest eye. During the rainy season, when new vegetation hides most traces of possible gravesites, he's the only one who goes out grave hunting.
"When my sons were little, I was in charge of carrying the monuments to the cemeteries and placing them," he recalls. "I also dug the grave and all that."
Which is why he can tell the difference between earth recently moved by ants from earth recently moved by human hands. He can also identify the smell of a decomposing human body without confusing it with that of another animal.
"It's impossible to not to recognize that smell," he says. "You smell it once, you never forget it, no matter how many years go by."
The first recorded forced disappearance in Mexico took place in 1969. The victim's name was Epifanio Aviles Rojas, a teacher who was detained in Coyuca, near Iguala, by the Army and loaded onto an airplane. He has never been heard from since.
From that beginning, a total of 26,599 people have been disappeared, according to the official count.
Los Otros Desaparecidos stand out among organizations of victims' family members not just for their search efforts, but for their achievements.
In the first month of their existence, they recovered 18 corpses in the neighborhood known as La Laguna.
Then in Monte Horeb, an area supposedly already explored by investigators from the state prosecutor's office, they found three more.
Then they went to the La Joya neighborhood, which had also been previously searched by authorities, and found 22 skeletons.
They kept finding bodies -- in La Parota, Loma del Zapatero, Cerro del Tigre, Pueblo Viejo, Filo del Ganadero and Tijeritas.
In the 12 months of its existence, the group has found 104 disappeared persons in the area surrounding Iguala, but only 10 of the bodies were identifiable and returned to their families.
"And even in those 10 cases, sadly, we can't be sure that the identification was accurate," says Mario Vergara, a group member who is looking for his brother Hector, who was disappeared in Huitzuco.
There have been cases, Vergara says, in which remains have been returned to the wrong families.
"There was one family in Acapulco who received a body when their relative wasn't even dead," he says.
Los Otros Desaparecidos has a policy of not asking about the past of any victim or the victim's family.
"We know that there are some who may have been one of the bad guys," Vergara says. "But we don't distinguish. They're victims. They've been disappeared. And their families are suffering because they don't know what has happened to them."
Vergara talks about his brother as an example of innocents being disappeared. "He was a taxi driver, hardworking, honest, as everybody in our family is, so there's no reason for any of us to get involved in bad things," he says. "But they took him. All we found was his taxi, abandoned. I haven't lost hope of finding him."
Land of the Disappeared
Official federal government data shows that criminal violence in the state of Guerrero between 2010 and 2012 was very much like a state of war. There were at least 18 open confrontations during that period between the Army and armed criminal groups.
As a result of those battles, 597 assault rifles and a dozen grenade launchers were confiscated from organized crime, and 25,000 hectares of illicit crops were destroyed, as was a ton of opium paste, ready to be converted into heroin.
All that changed after President Enrique Peña Nieto took office on December 1, 2012. The warlike battles stopped, as though peace had fallen over the land.
The Army has reported no armed confrontations with organized crime in Guerrero, no decommissioning of weapons, no discoveries of illicit crops, and no rescues of innocent victims.
But, of course, by no means has peace settled over the region. The violence never stopped. From 2013 to today, 5,000 murders have taken place in Guerrero, as well as 400 kidnappings for ransom and hundreds of forced disappearances.
"This is a region where extortion, executions and kidnappings never stop," says Oscar Mauricio Prudenciano, a priest in Iguala's San Gerardo Maria Mayela parish. "And even though people live with the hope that the situation will improve, the truth is that not much is being done about it."
Prudenciano, like so many others, cites fear as the inhibiting factor. "The people are afraid, of course, because everybody around here knows that the police and the mayors have been part of organized crime," he says. "And in the face of this fear, many respond as if nothing were happening."
But he joins Don Lupe in seeing the disappearance of the 43 as a galvanizing event.
"People who lost a son, a husband, a mother, a father, and who chose, out of fear, to continue their lives as though nothing had happened, have now decided to do something," Prudenciano says. "They are looking for their loved ones."
*This article was originally published by Animal Politico, as part of the series, "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission