Forensic examiners recovering bodies from mass graves in remote terrain has become commonplace during Mexico’s drug war, but criminal groups in Jalisco are making authorities’ jobs increasingly difficult by hiding corpses inside residential homes.
Just outside Jalisco's capital of Guadalajara, the body count in a mass grave found underneath the patio of a house on July 21 has increased to 21 after authorities initially uncovered 12 bodies and 11 bags with human remains, AFP reported.
The grisly scene was discovered after federal police forces, during a routine patrol, observed an armed man outside of what appeared to be a safe house in the municipality of Tonalá. The man fled upon seeing police and left the door wide open. Authorities initially found three dead bodies with their hands bound and faces covered before discovering the other bodies and human remains, according to AFP.
In May, authorities uncovered the human remains of at least 34 individuals at two properties in western Jalisco, the home state of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación -- CJNG), one of Mexico’s most dominant criminal groups.
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The Pacific state of Jalisco has one of the highest numbers of bodies recovered from mass graves in recent years, according to government data. So far in 2019, the state's Attorney General’s Office has located at least 13 clandestine graves and uncovered more than 70 bodies -- though there could be many more, according to an investigation from Zona Docs.
Between 2009 and 2014, state authorities uncovered 53 clandestine graves and exhumed 152 bodies from such sites -- second only to southwest Guerrero state during that time, a recent report from the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos – CMDPDH) found.
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The backbreaking task of discovering and exploring Mexico’s many clandestine graves has often fallen on the shoulders of families and loved ones of the disappeared, as well as non-governmental organizations that assist in the process. Criminal actors regularly bury victims in vast stretches of land in remote regions, at times with the complicity of authorities.
While searchers can access these wide-open areas, the task of finding the disappeared in Jalisco has become even more challenging as criminal actors instead use residential homes as burial grounds.
While indeed a daunting task, the Mexican government has long struggled to determine the fate of some 40,000 disappeared individuals throughout the country, according to government data.
“It’s more difficult [when graves are in residential areas] because they are private property and we have to go through legal procedures to dig … There are places where there is cement and you have to get a backhoe … it’s much more complicated than if you go to an open field,” Guadalupe Aguilar, a member of the Families United for Our Missing in Jalisco organization, told Zona Docs.
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For authorities, this means having to gather sufficient evidence to obtain probable cause or a search warrant in order to gain access to houses or properties where some of the disappeared may be buried.
Such tactics are not exclusive to just the state of Jalisco. In northwest Chihuahua state, for example, authorities have also uncovered clandestine graves hidden in safe houses.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to tackle Mexico’s crisis of disappearances and mass graves in part by reinstating a national search system and allocating unlimited resources to the program. But this is not happening swiftly enough for loved ones who often spend years searching for their missing relatives.
These efforts may be prolonged much further if Mexico's most brazen criminal actors continue to use residential properties to hide the bodies of their victims.