By: Jaime Luis Brito | Translated by Valor for Borderland Beat
With the face of their missing on their shirts or on a sign, relatives of missing persons work with the state attorney, The Autonomous University of Morelos, and federal corporations in the clandestine graves of Tetelcingo. They carefully record the removal of bodies in order to help identify them and to help alleviate the pain of the relatives, as Concepción and Lina narrate, two of the searchers who, thanks to them, helped with the reopening of the graves.
Tetelcingo, Morelos— This morelense town “represents the confirmation that the State also has its clandestine graves”, says Javier Sicilia, founder of the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity). At least here, the local district attorney dug two or “maybe three”, where they irregularly deposited more than 100 bodies. The authorities say it is a “common practice” of the district attorneys in the country, even if it’s illegal.
During the recent exhumations, in addition to the forensic teams of the Attorney General of the State of Morelos (FGE), The Autonomous University of the State of Morelos (UAEM), the Attorney General’s Office of Mexico and the federal police, a group of mothers and relatives of the disappeared have had to use Tyvek suits, such as those used by forensics, to witness and record everything that happens in the graves.
In this case, the work of María Concepción Hernández Hernández, mother of Oliver Wenceslao, a merchant from Cuautla who was kidnapped and killed by criminals in 2013 and whose body was illegally buried along with the other bodies in these graves, has been instrumental.
After recovering the body of her son in December 2014, María Concepción and her sister, Amalia, began a legal and civil battle in order for the graves to be reopened and to identify the other bodies.
She was born in Cuautla and is 55 years old. “I never imagined that this would happen. But my son gives me the strength, because I love my children too much, that’s why I’m here, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening to the mothers of the people who are in the graves,” she says during a break from the work.
Under her special white suit, she has a shirt with the image of Wenceslao. She wears a hat that shades her face. She has a shy gaze; during the interview, she looks the other way on several occasions. From the beginning of the interview, she requests that they don’t ask her anything about what is happening in the graves, since she doesn’t want to give information that may endanger the diligence.
María Hernández Hernández poses for a photograph in Tetelcingo, Morelos
Photo by: Germán Canseco
She is part of the team that records the conditions in which the bodies are recovered from the grave. One of the coordinators of the UAEM had told the reporter that the lady wouldn’t be directly in the graves and she admits that she’s often afraid: “I know I’m not brave.” In any case, she raised her hand to participate and has not missed any stage of the proceedings.
When she is asked why she’s here, her gaze blurs. She says that Oliver Wenceslao, who was “like a knife stick,” now keeps on insisting: “He tells me: ‘Have you seen about the office? Have you already pressured this authority?’ And so it remains. He talks to me through the ideas that I have. He is the spokesman of the disappeared, that’s why we fight until the graves were opened. Now we hope that all of the people here find their families.”
This petite, white-haired woman accompanied the rector of the UAEM, Jesús Alejandro Vera Jiménez, and the poet Javier Sicilia, whom had informed that the judge ordered the opening of the graves, in the field El Maguey. The area was cordoned off and had seals of the PGE, but Vera and Sicilia went to the center to announce from the inside, with the help of María Concepción and other people.
This had cost them accusations from the government of Graco Ramírez who accused the whole group of sabotage and abuse of authority. It’s not the first time it happens; it’s a victim that for more than two years was re-victimized and is now criminalized by the authorities, in their opinion, they decide not to do their job. When she is reminded about the charges of the government, she replies: “If they put me in jail, I only ask for you to take me some cigarillos. I don’t smoke, but I can learn.” Although the Morelos government pledged to withdraw the complaint, it is unclear at what stage it’s in.
On Monday, May 23rd, the first day of work with a backhoe, the authorities realized a mistake: the graves were next to the hole that they spent all day opening. “What do I tell you? It’s unbelievable. And they still dare to say that there are no irregularities,” says the interviewee as she moves her head disapprovingly and fixes her suit, that unravels the image of her son, because in a few minutes, the exhumation work will resume.
Relatives of the disappeared in the clandestine graves of Tetelcingo
Photo by: Germán Canseco
Tranquilina Hernández Lagunas is the mother of Mireya Montiel Hernández. On September 13, 2014, this young woman, then 18, went out with her boyfriend, but he left her alone for a moment and when he returned, she was gone. Since then, Tranquilina began to look for her.
A month ago, upon hearing the case of the Tetelcingo graves, she asked a judge to instruct the FGE so that the UAEM could participate in the exhumation and identification of the bodies as her representative. She achieved it. These exhumation jobs with observers and technical equipment owe a lot to her intuition.
This young single mother didn’t lose a good humor despite this tragedy. Previously, her biggest concern was to bear support to Mireya and her other daughter, 13, who studies in high school. She was a domestic worker “in the homes of Jews,” but since her daughter disappeared, her daughter stopped working and dedicated herself to investigate her whereabouts. To “go on supporting herself”, she recycles newspapers and makes crafts.
Tranquilina Hernández Lagunas, mother of Mireya Montiel Hernández
Photo by: Germán Canseco
Apart from contributing to the opening of the graves of Tetelcingo, a few weeks ago, Hernández Lagunas was part of the National Brigade in Search of Disappeared Persons that went to Veracruz, where they located graves with human remains. Her strength was noted when speaking.
She recalls her beginning as a searcher: “I started teaming up with other mothers. I know that the disappearance of my daughter isn’t the only one, that there are many more who are like me, searching under rocks. One day I knew I had to seek training in searching graves. It’s very difficult to accept that the daughter of one can be in a grave; one wants to think that you will find them alive. But I went anyway.”
“They taught me how to scrape the dirt, how to use a pick and shovel. They taught me how the smell is when people are buried. I learned. Then came the (National) Brigade and at first I thought I couldn’t go, because of my other child. But my family has been very supportive; they know that I need to do that, so I ended up going to Veracruz.”
Searching there is different: “Fear, real fear, I have felt it in Veracruz. Here in Morelos, it isn’t fear, it’s rather anger, pain, sadness.”
Wrapped in her Tyvek suit with the UAEM logo on the back, Hernández Lagunas is located on the edge of the graves, recording every detail. One by one, the bodies come out and she listens, records, observes. “I don’t have an education (she finished high school), but honestly, we could teach some of the forensic experts how to do their job,” she says.
For the fourth day of exhumation, she looks tired. She has dark circles, but doesn’t quit. “We need to continue. The people who are in the graves are not trash, they aren’t animals, we need to hurry up and get everyone out of there,” she says, despite the work having to take another 15 more days.
Furthermore, The National Brigade in Search of Disappeared Persons will return to Veracruz, and Lina, as her friends call her, prepares to go:
“The pain I feel is the same that other mothers and families have. I want to contribute to search for others. I brought this canvas with my daughter’s face, I put it there because I want, if it comes out in the cameras (of television), maybe someone has seen her and will advise me. But I also want that if she sees the pictures, she’ll realize that I’m looking for her, that despite the time, I have not stopped looking for her, or stopped missing her,” she explains as she lowers her face.
Her phone drops. “That phone! I don’t want it anymore, it always falls,” she says smiling; she picks it up, says goodbye, and returns to work.
Next to the UAEM tents, an ambulance is used for sampling. About 40 people have come because they heard that they are preparing the genetic profile of the relatives for free. With a sad face, with sharp pain in their eyes, men and women, young and old, with a photograph of their missing, go telling their story, repeated a thousand times and ignored a thousand times.
The backhoe is heard in the background. Cameramen and photographers fight for a place along the UAEM pipe that serves as a lookout at the edge of the perimeter. Others settle in between security gates. Mothers look with hope at the scene. The machine has exhumed another body. While some women sing the Ode to Joy or paint a beautiful mural on paper, others rush to welcome the body rescued from the abyss: “What time did it come out?” They write down the date, hour, and number of the body on a card; then, they tie the perimeter.
In the east, the Popocatépetl exhales another plume of smoke.