2,000 clandestine graves: how a decade of the drug war turned Mexico into a burial ground
Between 2006 and 2016, almost 2,000 illegal burials were discovered where criminals disappeared their victims. This investigation documented more clandestine graves than those the government has recognized: a new grave has been located on average every two days.
Por Alejandra Guillén, Mago Torres y Marcela Turati
November 12, 2018
On February 20th, 1943, the Purépecha community in Angahuan, Mexico, watched with great astonishment as the earth opened up, expelled black smoke, and gave birth to the Paricutín volcano, the youngest volcano in the world. More than 60 years later, on September 7, 2006, the same municipality in the state of Michoacán was the scene of another uncovering. Police dug up six half-naked men with their hands tied, their eyes covered, and their jugular veins slit.
The clandestine burial pit was discovered in a wooded touristic spot only a half-hour away from the thriving city of Uruapan. Locals had reported seeing a luxury pickup truck drive by and soil turned over.
The discovery of these bodies marked the beginning of a new barbarity. From that point on, clandestine graves multiplied. In Mexico’s drug war, it is not enough for murderers to kill. They also go to a lot of trouble to hide the bodies.
A year-and-a-half-long investigation by a team of independent Mexican journalists, supported by Quinto Elemento Lab, shows that almost 2,000 clandestine graves have been found all around Mexico between 2006 and 2016 — one grave every two days, in 1 out of 7 municipalities.
There were at least 1,978 clandestine burial pits in 24 states — a number that greatly surpasses information provided by the Mexican government to date. State district attorney’s offices in Mexico recovered from these pits 2,884 bodies, 324 craniums, 217 bones, 799 bone remnants, and thousands of other remains that belong to an as yet undetermined number of individuals.
The investigation found that only 1,738 victims have been identified, according to more than 200 requests made under freedom of information laws to authorities in all 32 Mexican states. And because of gaps in the official record, we know that this information provides only a partial map of the barbarity’s dimensions.
As Mexico’s drug war escalated, the phenomenon of mass graves reached catastrophic levels. In 2006, only two graves were found, while in the years that followed, the figure increased to several hundred per year. In 2007, 10 burial pits were discovered in five states. In 2010, the figure rose to 105 graves in 14 states; in 2011, it leapt to 375 throughout 20 states — equivalent to one per day on average. Since 2012, at least 245 clandestine burial pits have been found each year.
Illegal interments became a hallmark of the administrations of Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, with criminals digging holes to hide the bodies of their victims, and in some cases, burning them, in 372 municipalities in Mexico.
“This investigation allows us to know the municipalities where organized crime has the ability to murder people and make burial pits to disappear them; it allows us to see the new modes of operation and governance where people don’t dare report to the police,” said Sandra Ley, a professor and researcher from the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, known as CIDE by its Spanish initials, and an expert in criminality and violence.
The unprecedented figure of almost 2,000 graves over 11 years is supported by answers to public information requests that were provided by district attorney’s offices in 24 states. While the data exceeds all the numbers given previously by any authority, the information is still incomplete, and at times conflicts with press reports and figures from the Mexican national government.
Eight states answered that they did not find any burial pits: Baja California, Chiapas, Ciudad de México, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Puebla, Querétaro, and Yucatán. Yucatán is the only state where no one — not the local district attorney’s office; nor the national attorney general’s office, or PGR by its Spanish initials; nor the National Human Rights Commission, or CNDH; nor the press — has recorded finding any clandestine graves to date.
Plague of graves
The stench started to saturate the landscape. In 2010, Juan Viveros and Nabor Baena, two watchmen for an abandoned mine on the outskirts of the city of Taxco in the state of Guerrero, heard trucks in the night and started to sense the unbearable smell of death coming out of one of the mine intakes. They realized that the intake’s end had been unsealed, and the mineshaft had reopened.
“It bothered us when we came, because there was a lot of blood,” said Viveros. “I told Nabor, ‘Look, where did that blood come from?’ He answered, ‘Who knows, maybe they brought an animal?’ Whatever it was, the smell came out, and it smelled bad. So, we went to work.”
Baena recalled, “Then, some people reported the bad smell, and when the people from the [municipal system for] Civil Protection searched, there was the hole where they threw them down. There were human beings down there.”
“We realized what was in there — that they were pulling people out, there were people stored, that the mineshaft wasn’t empty,” said Viveros.
Both workers learned through the news that people were being taken out in the carts normally used to extract silver, according to an interview they gave in 2010.
“55 bodies found,” reported the press at the time. The PGR’s records said “there were 41”; 64 were recorded in the local district attorney’s office logbook. According to the families that went to the morgue to verify whether any of the bodies belonged to their missing relatives, there were more than 120.
That moment was a prelude to hell. Since 2010, such discoveries have become more and more common. The official data obtained in this investigation shows that:
In Mexico’s collective imagination, graves are located in remote and deserted places. However, this investigation proves that this is not always the case. Burial pits also exist in populated neighborhoods and along busy avenues.
In the spring of 2011, a noise woke a married couple, professionals who lived in a small house that had once been abandoned, in a neighborhood in Durango’s city center. The couple was surprised to discover some soldiers attempting to cut the chains of the entrance gate.
When the couple questioned them, the soldiers asked them if they could come in and dig in their yard. They dug a first hole and didn’t find anything. Then they went to the back of the yard, almost to the enclosing wall, where they found something. There were bodies. Elsewhere, under the cement floor of a palapa, there were more.
Ever since, a rusty chain keeps the black gate locked. Grass has grown over the piles of dirt in the yard where the army found 12 bodies.
Most of the 350 bodies recovered in 2011 in Durango were buried in urban areas: some in the city center, others in houses, repair shops, workshops, construction sites, empty lots, in the street — even next to a high school.
This is far from extraordinary. In 18 out of the 24 states that responded, there are records of burial pits in the municipalities of the capital cities.
A sky blue tarp laid on the ground serves to display what appear to be some underpants, a shirt, black plastic bags, shapeless pieces of fabric, and babies’ clothes. Everything is stained with the same muddy color due to the time they remained underground.
That image, published by the government of Veracruz, ran in newspapers on September 7, alongside the news that 32 clandestine graves had been found with 174 skulls in the center of the state. “Little trousers, bonnets and sweatshirts: babies’ clothes were found in clandestine mass graves in Veracruz,” read one headline highlighting the murderers’ cruelty.
That discovery prompted an erratic dance of figures from the federal government as to how many such graves existed in Mexico. Members of López Obrador’s SEGOB, the Spanish acronym for Mexico’s federal interior department, talked about extremely inconsistent figures given by the outgoing federal government. Peña Nieto’s SEGOB reported 855; the National Search Commission, which is in charge of leading search efforts for missing people, said 1,150.
CNDH, meanwhile, said that from January 2007 to May 2018, they located 1,306 graves, housing 3,926 hidden bodies and almost 36,000 bone remnants. From 2007 to 2016, they documented just 855 graves.
This investigation recorded a much larger figure for the period between January 2007 and December 2016: 1,976 graves.
This number is likely still incomplete. That’s because not every state acknowledges its graves. The governments of seven states reported that in their territory, there are no graves or similar sites, even when information coming from CNDH, PGR, or the press proves otherwise.
This was the case in Baja California, which denied having records of burial pits, body dissolution sites (or “kitchens,” as organized crime groups call them), or any similar place where criminals could have disappeared the bodies of their victims. This is despite the fact that in 2009 in Tijuana, the Mexican army captured Santiago Meza López, presented to the press as “El Pozolero” (pozole is a traditional Mexican stew) because he dissolved in acid the bodies of alleged enemies of Tijuana’s cartel.
Meza López confessed that he had dissolved the bodies of at least 300 people; he said it while standing exactly in the location where he committed the crimes, an estate on the outskirts of the city on community-owned land called Ojo de Agua. Since that terrible day, families have worked alongside the authorities to search for traces of missing people, and every so often, they find teeth or pieces of bones, which the PGR has taken for their analysis. In other words, there are clandestine sites of interment in Baja California.
Mexico City, Querétaro, Hidalgo, and Chiapas also reported zero clandestine burial pits when they were asked for information. This information differs from that given by the PGR and CNDH, which report 10 graves altogether (including media reports, CNDH arrives at 17). Guanajuato and Puebla also both declared themselves free of graves; press reports indicate otherwise.
Other state district attorney’s offices often reported fewer graves than other records show. Consider the case of Michoacán, where the local government reported the discovery of only two graves in 2006: the six men found with their throats slit in Angahuan and another grave in Aguililla. The PGR, however, added another grave, in Lázaro Cárdenas, which held the bodies of three men with their hands and feet tied. Media at the end of that year reported two more graves, which do not appear in the government’s records.
Graves processed by the PGR, the exhumed remains from which end up in federal facilities in Mexico City, are not taken into account in the state records. This leads to underreporting of large-scale clandestine burial pits, such as in La Barca, Jalisco, where 37 graves with 75 bodies were discovered in 2013. Or the 175 bodies taken from 54 graves in the surrounding hills of Iguala, Guerrero, discovered by locals from a group called the Other Missing People, which was formed after the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa.
Because of these disparities, our analysis and map consider the data provided by the local district attorney’s offices and the PGR separately. Regions that are geographically remote or controlled by criminal groups may appear in white on the map, as if there are no clandestine graves. In fact, no one knows for sure, because these places can’t be reached.
“There is a time difference between when a grave is created and when it is found, and that shows us the time and spatial dynamics of violence. The discovery of graves could correspond to a moment in which violence in those regions has decreased, hardly when it is at its peak,” said Camilo Vicente Ovalle, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and an expert in the history of disappearances in Mexico. Vicente Ovalle says that in places like the mountains of Guerrero there are surely more graves that haven’t been discovered.
DNA samples analyzed in the Forensic Medical Service's facilities in Mexico City on May 9, 2011. Photo: Mónica González.
Sites of death
In 2015, María de la Luz López Castruita, who has been looking for her daughter Claribel Lamas López since 2008, found one of these previously undiscovered graves, in an area of land held in common known as Patrocinio, in Coahuila. As many families of Mexico’s disappeared have done, she had started her own investigation and found her way to places where there were rumors that people were taken and never again seen.
María de la Luz López, or Lucy, as she is known to most, started to go out looking disguised as a farmer – with a hat, handkerchief, a stick and a water jug on her back – and soon local goatherds helped her get to places where there were metal drums, ashes, buried human remains, shoes, and clothes spread across the ground.
A goatherd told her that he had seen 80 to 90 metal drums where people who had been captured were burned.
“So, there were hundreds of dead people?” she asked the goatherd.
“Thousands, ma’am. Everyday, trucks went by with people tied up in the back, piled up like animals, in the daylight, the sun was up high,” she recalled the man answering.
“And the metal drums?”
“They were taken to the junkyard, but there are still two over there,” said the man, and he took her to the spot.
Patrocinio is just one of the places that criminals established in Coahuila for the extermination of people. Grupo Vida, a group of trackers to which Lucy belonged, located other spots with drums full of holes made with a talache, or pick, in which they put their victims and burned them with diesel and gasoline. They used a truck tire to contain the fire, and then put the burned remains in holes.
Lucy, along with other families, helped organize an international caravan, known as Busqueda en Vida, or Searching Alive, to carry out searches in the field in 2017 in Coahuila. These expeditions have taken place even when violence has not subsided, in the middle of the “war,” in territories that are still controlled by organized crime. Many burial pit discoveries have been made thanks to arduous investigations carried out by the families.
But that effort has brought little reward. Lucy and other women searchers have found a large number of graves, but the government has rarely done what is required to identify the remains they uncover. (The Scientific Police Division of the Federal Police is in charge of doing an analysis of these findings and notifying the family when someone is identified.) The body of Lucy’s daughter Claribel is not among the 1,738 victims in mass graves that the district attorney’s offices have already identified.
After years of searching, there is disappointment in Lucy’s voice. “Why do we waste time looking for graves, for the dead, if they don’t tell us who they are anyway? And we don’t have time for this. That’s why we decided to look for those alive.”
Identifying corpses is very difficult, and even more so when mistakes are made during disinterment. In Durango in 2011, bodies were destroyed by the excavator that extracted them. It’s also difficult when the remains were burned, incinerated, or dissolved using acids or alkaline methods — as in Veracruz, where there are six spots with at least 18,680 bone remains, from which only two people have been identified. Coahuila reports 87 clandestine interment sites from which 102,717 “biological samples” have been taken, and only 19 people have been identified. The district attorney’s office there refused to provide the location of each site.
In other states, it would seem that district attorney’s offices lost track of the bodies under their own custody. We requested information about one body recovered in Nogales, Sonora, in 2016, and were told, “We don’t know if the body was identified.” Regarding two bodies exhumed in 2008 in the municipality of Naco, officials stated, “There is no information because the doctor no longer works here.” Concerning other cases, they answered, “We don’t know if the bodies were cremated nor do we know where they are being kept.”
“Why take the bodies out if we won’t be able to identify them anyway?” asks Juan Carlos Trujillo Herrera, who has four missing brothers – two captured in Guerrero, the other two in Michoacán – and leads national search brigades. “There is not enough capacity. I believe that is the problem.”
Many of the places found where layers of graves have accumulated stand out because they are the locations of persistent dispute among criminal groups, fights that sometimes involve the armed forces of Mexico. All of them are along borders, either with the ocean or with the United States: Ciudad Juárez; Ahome, Sinaloa; San Fernando, Tamaulipas; and the ports of Acapulco, Guerrero, and Veracruz, Veracruz.
The data also indicates that in the northeast and the northern parts of the Gulf of Mexico – states such as Veracruz, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Coahuila, or Nuevo León — incineration has spread as a method to get rid of victims’ bodies, leaving only fragments. In those places, families and authorities keep finding pieces of land with thousands of bone pieces, which make identification work even harder.
Pilar Calveiro, an Argentian with a Ph.D. in political science and the author of “Power and Disappearance,” suggested analyzing the moment when killing and throwing bodies in the street stopped being punishment enough, when criminals started burying bodies to disappear them, and the moment when murderers stopped burying bodies and switched to dissolving them.
“The technology used for the disappearance says a lot about the perpetrators and the power they hold,” she said.
Bertila Parada holds a photo of her son, Carlos Alberto Osorio Parada, a Salvadoran migrant found in a grave with 12 others in Tamaulipas in 2011. Photo: Mónica González.
Forensic Tower of Babel
This investigation also came across fragmented information, often contradictory, other times sugar-coated. We found a lack of standardization in the state district attorney’s offices’ records when it comes to how they classify bodies, remains, bones, fragments, and graves.
To reach the our numbers, we had to figure out the array of names that every district attorney’s office gives to the places of the bodies’ removal. For Veracruz’s district attorney’s office, for instance, a hole with charred bone remains is a burial pit, but they also call it a “body destruction center,” whereas Coahuila calls the places where metal drums used to burn people were found “clandestine inhumation sites.”
Tamaulipas added to their answer the quantity of metal drums that were found with incinerated pieces of bone remains. And the 19 locations where bodies were burned were called “kitchens” by Nuevo León’s district attorney office. Meanwhile, Aguascalientes answered that they did not know the meaning of the words “clandestine grave.”
Jacobo Dayán, a researcher at Colegio de Mexico and lecturer at the Universidad Iberoamericana, who studies crimes against humanity, says that an investigation such as this “exposes the state’s failure.”
“There is no official information about burial pits in the country, nor about the bodies’ locations — if they were donated to medical schools, or if they are being driven around in trucks, or lost in institutes of forensic sciences, or who knows where. It’s urgent to have a clear record of missing people, and additionally of fragments, remains, and graves to start creating search, exhumation, and identification policies,” Dayán said.
Mercedes Doretti, director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in Mexico, believes that the findings reveal the need to create a standardized protocol throughout the country to record graves and remains.
“They [every district attorney’s office] should explain what they mean when they say grave, bones, body, or remains. What do they call someone who was identified but whose family hasn’t been located? Unidentified or unclaimed? How do they count this person? How do they classify what they call ‘kitchens’? Or when the bodies are buried, or in rivers, dams, out in the open, or in a suitcase? Without these definitions, it is very hard to create statistics. This needs to be solved.”
The state and federal governments’ vague, incomplete, contradictory, or fragmented records force families to live in uncertainty about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Negligence combined with omission means that missing people go missing a second time.
Bertila Parada, a Salvadoran woman, had to rescue her son Carlos Alberto Osorio Parada from the mazes of the Mexican bureaucracy, where his body, rescued from a grave, was lost due to a lack of protocols.
The young migrant was murdered in March 2011 by the criminal group Los Zetas, in collusion with San Fernando’s municipal police. His body was identified in a grave with 12 others when exhumations started that April. In total, 189 bodies were recovered from about 40 graves in the area.
On April 17, Osorio’s body was taken to a morgue in another city, where, the following day, an autopsy was performed; 122 other exhumed bodies went to the PGR’s offices in Mexico City. Osorio was buried as an unidentified person together with 67 others; he lay in row 11, plot 314, block 16, in La Cruz municipal cemetery in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas’s capital city.
When his family found out about the discovery of the burial pits, they had genetic tests done so that the PGR could compare them with the genetics of the exhumed remains. However, at first, the PGR only tested the bodies that were sent to Mexico City — and so the young man spent three years and 10 months in Tamaulipas’s common grave, and was at one point about to be cremated by the authorities.
“He was buried here. Why did so much time go by without being able to bring him? He was here, in this hill,” said his mother, who sells pupusas in El Salvador, when she was interviewed in 2016. She showed a folder she received on January 28, 2015, that contains pictures of her son’s destroyed cranium and the cemetery where he was put to rest under a rusty cross that marked his tomb. His only identity was “Body 3, Grave 3.”
She complained many times to Salvadoran authorities before she found a Mexican organization, Foundation for Justice, and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which helped her rescue her son from abandonment and anonymity, and give him rest at home.
Only once her son’s body was recovered was Parada able to feel a little relief from the torment she experienced while trying to find out where he was.
“I feel pain, and at the same time I feel that we did achieve something. Because many people haven’t achieved it, many don’t know where their children are. When I buried him, I had a little peace of mind,” she said.
Visualization by David Eads. Juan Solís, Gilberto Lastra, Aranzazú Ayala, Paloma Robles, Mayra Torres and Érika Lozano contributed reporting. The English version of this story was published by The Intercept on Dec. 13, 2018. Translation by Ashley Hermosillo Bawell.
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