The problem of forced disappearances and mass graves in Mexico is greater than what the state claims. Reports regarding the location of clandestine graves are increasingly common, yet they aren't adequately reflected in official statistics or statements. InSight Crime spoke with relatives of the disappeared, activists and experts -- all of them point to the same problem: Until now, the true magnitude of the situation is unknown and the political will to face up to it is lacking.
The residential area of Colinas de Santa Fe is located about 15 minutes from the entrance to the city of Veracruz. Here, residents lack basic services, with sewage problems and streets in poor conditions. Behind the houses, there is a huge fenced lot with three gates, guarded 24 hours a day, some with security cameras. It is here that a group made up of more than 100 mothers of missing young people have found more than 260 buried bodies in some 130 mass graves over a period of nine months.
Lucía Díaz, who heads the group known as the "Solecito Collective," speaks without fear. In a telephone conversation with InSight Crime, she talked about how she searches for her son, but also for the lost relatives of her companions. Together they have become full-time grave seekers, searching five days a week for the last two years.
"On the first day that we worked, I grabbed the clumps of dirt with my hands and found bones," Díaz said. "We are sure that we are still missing many bodies. We have no doubt. We do not know how many and don't want to leave anyone behind."
Some of the young people were abducted by criminal groups. Others disappeared after being detained by authorities. For the devastated families, the state's reaction has been yet another source of anguish. Its response has been woefully insufficient, and authorities have gone as far as trying to discredit victims by saying they were "going down the wrong path."
Colinas de Santa Fe is the largest set of mass graves found in Mexico so far, but the problem has affected the entire country. For years, criminal groups have buried thousands of their victims to avoid them being found, often with the complicity of authorities.
This has occurred in a context of over 130,000 lives being lost in the first decade of the war on drugs, according to estimates, and criminal groups exercising more control than the government itself over some areas of the country.
A Buried Reality
Despite the alarming discovery of mass graves like Colinas de Santa Fe, some state governments have occasionally referred to them as isolated incidents or have taken a stance of denial.
However, according to official figures, about 1,143 mass graves that have been located across the country since 2007, in which at least 3,230 bodies have been unearthed. Additionally, there are about 30,000 missing persons, according to government records.
While these figures alone already signify a widespread problem, the activists interviewed by InSight Crime assert that these numbers are still far from representing reality.
"By simply doing field work in any of the country's states, particularly in those where most conflict occurs, such as Guerrero and Veracruz, one realizes that there is a very high unrecorded rate," Carolina Robledo told InSight Crime. Robledo is a researcher at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social - CIESAS) who has accompanied several relatives of the disappeared.
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According to Robledo, the majority of cases regarding the disappeared are not reported and do not appear in official records. This makes it impossible to determine the real number of persons that may be buried in mass graves.
One of the main reasons for not reporting a disappearance is fear of endangering oneself and the rest of one's family. Generally, disappearances occur in places with a substantial presence of criminal groups, which in some cases infiltrate government structures. Several relatives of missing people in Mexico have been murdered in retaliation for their complaints and investigations -- most recently, the May 10 murder of Miriam Rodríguez in the state of Tamaulipas.
Criminal groups "instill fear in you: 'Do not search for your relative because we will screw everyone else. We already know where they are,'" said Mario Vergara, an activist who dedicates himself to searching for mass graves in the state of Guerrero.
Lucía Díaz says that in some cases the authorities themselves prevent people from filing reports, by assuring victims that "it is not necessary" or by processing the complaint improperly.
Robledo believes that the fact that people do not report is, at least in part, a consequence of the unsatisfactory manner in which the state has responded to disappearances. On the other hand, however, the continued underreporting of these figures allows local governments to continue ignoring the problem.
"The government itself has caused people to not want to report; from there they start minimizing the problem," Vergara said. "They [the government] want to continue burying the truth."
Unearthing the Disappeared
Mario Vergara is part of the search group "Los Otros Desaparecidos de Iguala" ("The Other Disappeared from Iguala"). This group was formed following the disappearance of 43 students from the small city of Iguala in the state of Guerrero in 2014. It was a case that received international attention and showcased the inability of the Mexican state to uncover the facts and find the students.
The whereabouts of these students are still unknown, but during the search for them many other bodies were found buried in the fields of Guerrero. This led many others to organize and search for their own missing relatives. The group to which Mario belongs has already found about 170 bodies since they began their search in early 2015.
In Mexico, there are legal statutes that address the issue of disappearances and even a specialized prosecutor for the search of missing persons. However, relatives are forced to overcome a series of bureaucratic challenges, corruption and a lack of capacity or willingness on the part of authorities to help them resolve their cases. The years pass, and their loved ones still do not appear.
"The government looks for our relatives in an office and they are not there," Vergara said.
That is why Vergara, Díaz and thousands of others who make up more than 70 search groups around the country have been forced to unearth bodies from mass graves using their own means, hoping to find the remains of their relatives.
"We go to the places where [criminal groups] were based, we go to the places where our relatives disappeared. We are doing so because the authorities do not do it," Vergara said.
Search groups in Iguala, Guerrero. Video courtesy of Animal Político.
When members of The Other Disappeared find a grave, the first thing they do is call news reporters -- pressure from the media helps them get the government to come to the scene and take responsibility for "lifting" the bodies.
"The search groups take charge of doing the complete investigation," says Robledo. "They locate the place, explore it, and escalate it. They only call the government at the moment in which the bodies will be exhumed."
To locate the mass graves, Vergara and his companions depend, in large part, on help from churches. In Iguala, kidnappings and murders are frequent and many citizens have witnessed clandestine burials; churches have offered these individuals a trusted channel through which they can anonymously provide information to search groups.
In other cases, the search groups have found informants within the criminal groups themselves, former police officers or even public officials. There are also cases in which family members infiltrate neighborhoods where organized crime groups operate in order to obtain information.
"The government does not conduct [the search] with the resources they have available to them. We do it using our own means," says Díaz, the coordinator for the Solecito Collective.
The Other Headache
Of all the bodies that the group of mothers has found, only two individuals have been identified so far. Authorities have yet to arrest anyone, but it is known that police officials participated in some of these disappearances and that Veracruz's ex-secretary of public security was also involved.
Griselda Barradas, of the Solecito Collective,is the mother of one of the victims identified in Colinas de Santa Fe. Video courtesy of Animal Político.
The process of genetic identification can take anywhere from six months to up to four years. On the one had, it depends on the condition in which the body was found, which varies depending on the modus operandi of the criminal group that carried out the act. Robledo says that in Veracruz, for example, the majority of the bodies are found incinerated and in fragments; in Sinaloa, it is generally whole bodies with clothes; and in places like Coahuila, where the Zetas used to reign, body parts are found.
On the other hand, the duration of the identification process also depends on political will. Robledo believes that the speed of these processes depend on the priority the government gives them. When there is a case that generates the kind of attention that could affect the government's reputation, that case will be given priority and the rest will have to wait.
"This prevents alot of investigations of cases that have been around for years from advancing," Robledo said.
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Additionally, there are very few personnel capable of carrying out the identification processes. Joel Olvera, a member of the Mexican Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Mexicano de Antropología Forense - EMAF), told InSight Crime that there are only five certified laboratories in the entire country and less than ten forensic anthropologists in the Attorney General's Office (Procuraduría General de la República - PGR). The EMAF is one of the independent teams dedicated to supporting family members in their identification of the bodies and training them on how to strengthen their investigations.
"These crimes are generally not investigated," Díaz said. "When they are investigated, a culprit is not found. When they are found, they are not processed. And even if they are processed, they are not sentenced."
Mario Vergara says that he has all the proof of who abducted his brother, which he has shared with authorities. That was four years ago. Today, there has yet to be a serious official investigation into the case.
"It is a rampant impunity," Díaz said. "Everything ends without justice."