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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The country of 2 thousand clandestine graves

Translated by El Profe for Borderland Beat from Zeta Tijuana, originally published in

[For interactive map visit here/ map by state here]

From 2006 to 2016 authorities in Mexico reported the finding of 1,978 mass graves, and the PGR 232. There were 24 state prosecutors who recognized that they found clandestine graves in their territory with at least 2,884 bodies. It is not possible to know the exact amount of brutality. The data obtained through requests for information only approach our understanding of it.

By: Alejandra Guillén, Mago Torres and Marcela Turati

Visualization: David Eads *
On February 20, 1943, the Purépecha community of Angahuan watched in astonishment as the earth opened, expelling black smoke from its interior and began giving birth to the Paricutín, the youngest volcano in the world. More than 60 years later, that same Michoacan municipality was the site of another discovery: when digging the land, the police found six men tied, half naked, blindfolded, with their jugular cut. It was September 7, 2006.
The first clandestine grave of the year had just been discovered in that wooded tourist spot, only half an hour from the thriving city of Uruapan. It happened after locals said they saw a luxury van pass by; upon looking, they detected ground that had been removed.

Angahuan once again honored one of the meanings that gave its name in Purepecha: "In the middle of the earth."
The discovery of these bodies marked the beginning of the brutality. Since then, and while the "war on drugs" has been unfolding, for the assassins it is no longer enough to just kill; now they take great pains to hide the bodies. 

This is how clandestine graves multiplied.
DNA samples analyzed at the facilities of the Forensic Medical Service of Mexico City, May 9, 2011. Photograph: Mónica González
An investigation initiated a year and a half ago by a team of independent journalists -and part financially and editorially supported by Fifth Element Lab- reveals that between 2006 and 2016, almost 2 thousand clandestine graves have been found practically all over the country at a dizzying pace of a grave site every two days, in one of every seven municipalities in Mexico.
There are at least 978 clandestine burials in 24 states of the country. This figure far exceeds the information given by the Mexican government today.
The prosecutors have recovered from these graves 2 thousand 884 bodies, 324 skulls, 217 bones, 799 bone remains and thousands of remains and fragments of bones that correspond to a not yet determined number of individuals.
Of all the bodies and remains in all these years, and of all these graves, only 1,738 of the victims have been identified, according to the investigations made from two hundred requests for access to information from the authorities of each of the victims of the 32 states.
This is the map, at least partial, of the dimension of cruelty.
The phenomenon grew to levels of catastrophe if it is taken into account that in 2006 only 2 graves were discovered, and that in the following years the number of them increased to several hundred.

In 2007 the number of hiding places of bodies discovered underground climbed to ten, spread over five states. In 2010 the annual figure was already 105 graves, in 14 entities; in 2011 it was in 20 states and jumped to 375, equivalent on average to one per day.
As of 2012, the findings of clandestine burials, per year, have not fallen below 245.

Illegal burials became one of the watermarks of the two six year periods, to the extent that in one of every seven Mexican municipalities criminals have dug holes in the ground to hide the bodies of their victims and, in some cases, also burnt them.
In at least 372 municipalities in Mexico there were people who disappeared their victims in this way.

"This investigation allows us to know the municipalities where organized crime has the capacity to kill people and make pits to disappear them. It allows us to see new forms of operation and government where people do not dare to denounce the crimes. It would be interesting to know how many people live in this 15 percent of the municipalities with graves and in order for us to have better indication of criminal government schemes," reflects Sandra Ley, CIDE professor-researcher in crime and violence, reflecting on the results of this investigation.
This unprecedented figure of almost 2 thousand graves in 11 years is supported by the responses provided by the prosecutors of 24 states to the requests for access to public information that was made.

Even though this data exceeds all the figures previously given by any authority, the information is still incomplete.
Eight states are not included in the mapping because they answered that in those 11 years they did not find mass graves: Baja California, Chiapas, Mexico City, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Puebla, Querétaro and Yucatán.
However, Yucatan is the only state where no one - not the local prosecutor's office, nor the PGR, nor the CNDH, or the press - had registered until that date the discovery of a clandestine burial.

         Silvia Ortiz looks for her daughter Fanny, who disappeared in Torreón, Coahuila, in 2004. She 
         formed the Vida group to search the "cocinas" of the zetas and in the safe houses, 
         collecting the small pieces of bones that the experts do not collect. photo: Mónica González

The stench began to permeate the landscape. It was in 2010, the season in which Juan Viveros and Nabor Baena, the two caretakers of the abandoned "Dolores" mine, located on the outskirts of the city of Taxco, listened at night to the noises of trucks, and were noticing the unbearable smell of death that came from one of those mine shafts similar to what comes out of chimneys.

It was then that they detected that its point, previously sealed, had been grooved, and the well reopened.
"It caught us at the time we came because there was a lot of blood. I said to Nabor: "Is that blood?" And he said: 'Who knows? Would they bring an animal?' Whatever it was, the stench rose, it smelled ugly. Then we went to work," recalled Juan Viveros.
"Then some more people said that they were smelling something bad, and when Civil Protection showed up there was the hole where they were thrown down: there were human beings there," said Nabor Baena.
"We figured out what was happening, that they were taking people out, that there were people being stored, that this well was the prize winner," Juan Viveros says.
Both miners became vigilantes since being unemployed by the company. They learned from the news that, in the carts where they normally extract silver, they were hailing bodies out in the open. That was narrated in an interview in 2010.
"55 corpses found," the press reported on that incident. 41 were registered by the PGR and 64 in the log of the local prosecutor's office. More than 120, say the families who went to the morgue to verify if any of the bodies removed were missing family members.
The finding occurred in 2010, the same year when, according to this research, the first peak in the number of bodies found in a single site was registered; when the finding of corpses went from tens to hundreds. It was the preamble to hell.
From then on, these types of discoveries became more and more common.
In hills and mountains, clandestine graves in Mexico are located in one of every seven municipalities. Photography: Erika Lozano

The systematization of the official data obtained in this investigation reveals that:

* The main sites of death in Mexico those 11 years are in the municipality of Veracruz, with 125 graves in which 290 skulls were located. The exact place is called Colinas de Santa Fe: 22 thousand 79 skeletal remains have been found there, of which the authority has not yet reported on how many people correspond to them, and where the excavation work continues.

The other is in the municipality of San Fernando, an hour and a half from the border with Texas, in Tamaulipas, where, in two years, 139 graves with 190 bodies and skeletal remains were registered.

* Since 2008, year after year, Ciudad Juárez appears in this macabre statistic. The sum of the pits -without counting the municipalities of the surrounding valley- gives 58. Meanwhile, Acapulco as of 2010 has not missed a year on the list: the port city, from 2006 to 2016, accumulated 108 pits.

* The municipality where the most bodies extracted in one year was Durango, with 350, in 2011. And Durango is also the state where the most bodies have been found in pits: 460 in 7 years.

Nuevo León reaches a higher number because it is the only state that details how many bone remains recovered correspond to how many people, so its records mention that it recovered the skeletal remains of 475 people and 119 corpses. That is, 594 victims that were hidden in clandestine graves.

Veracruz, meanwhile, reports that it exhumed 222 bodies, 293 skulls and 157 skeletal remains that, in total, would correspond to 672 people.

* The states that lead the number of graves exhumed in the period studied are: Veracruz (with 332); Tamaulipas (280); Guerrero (216); Chihuahua (194); Sinaloa (139); Zacatecas (138); Jalisco (137); Nuevo León (114); Sonora (86); Michoacán (76); San Luis Potosí (65).

* Morelos was the only state that kept secret the dates of the discovery of its 21 graves (it failed to mention in its list the graves of Tetelcingo, created by the prosecution itself to send bodies that should have gone to the mass grave, but buried there in a clandestine manner until 2016, when the families of victims discovered their existence).

* The states where more corpses were discovered in pits are: Durango (with 497 bodies); Chihuahua (391); Tamaulipas (336); Guerrero (325); Veracruz (222); Jalisco (214); Sinaloa (176); Michoacán (132); Nuevo León (119); Sonora (96); Zacatecas (81).

Location of a clandestine grave in Ciudad Mante, Tamaulipas, Mexico. During a search 
carried out by the Colectivo Milynali Red CFC, on January 24, 2017. Photograph: Mónica González

Clandestine graves are thought to be in remote and isolated places. This research shows that this is not always the case. Mass burials can be in populated neighborhoods and busy avenues.
In the spring of 2011 a sound woke up a couple of professionals who lived in a small house that had previously been abandoned, and in the care of a night watchman, in the Providential subdivision, in the center of the city of Durango. The couple was surprised to discover soldiers trying to cut the chains of the entrance gate.
When the couple questioned them, they asked to enter to dig in their yard. They made a first hole, they found nothing. They went to the back, almost with the border of their fence, and there they found something. There were bodies. And in another area, under the cement floor of a palapa, there were more.

A rusty chain locks the black gate since then. There is grass grown on the heaps of dirt in the yard where the army found 12 corpses. Yes, 12
Most of the 350 bodies removed in 2011 in the municipality that is the head of that state were buried in urban areas: some in the very middle, some in houses, car parts shops, garages, blacktops, in vacant land, in the middle of an avenue, or even near a high school.
What happened in the city of Durango is far from extraordinary.
In 18 of the 24 states there is a registry of graves in the municipalities of the capital cities. These are: Aguascalientes, Baja California Sur, Coahuila, Colima, Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Jalisco, Morelos, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Sinaloa, Sonora, Tamaulipas, Quintana Roo and Zacatecas.
            Clothes found in a safe house in Ciudad Mante, Tamaulipas, Mexico. During a search During 
               a search carried out by the Colectivo Milynali Red CFC
               on January 24, 2017. Photograph: Mónica González

A sky blue canvas serves as a clothesline for what appears to be a T-shirt, black plastic bags, pieces of shapeless fabric and even baby clothes. All tinted with the same muddy color from the time they remained underground.
That image disclosed by the Veracruz government illustrated the news that on September 7th reported some newspapers: the discovery of 32 clandestine graves with 174 skulls in the center of the state of Veracruz.
"There are baby clothes in the graves of Veracruz; relatives identify even rompers and suits" or "pants, hats and sweatshirts: they find baby clothes in underground mega graves of Veracruz," different media published highlighting the cruelty of the perpetrators.
The finding was followed by an erratic dance of statistics. The team of the future Federal Secretariat of the Interior spoke of the very different stats that the outgoing federal government had given them: 855 told by SEGOB, 1 thousand 150 by the National Search Commission.
That same day, the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH) updated its latest registry and said that up to May 2018, 306 graves containing 3,926 corpses and almost 36,000 fragments of skeletal remains had been located.
This investigation yields twice as much as the highest government figure. For the period of January 2007 and December 2016 - the period in which the CNDH had documented 855 graves - this team recorded the existence of 1,976 graves.
Even though it is vastly more, it is not a complete figure. And here is why:

-Not all states recognize their graves: The governments of 7 states reported that there are no graves or similar sites of exhumation in their territory, even when information from the CNDH, the PGR or the press indicate otherwise.
It was the case of the government of Baja California that denied having a registry of burials, sites of dissolution of corpses, "cocinas," or anything similar, where criminals could have disappeared the bodies of their victims. This is despite the fact that in 2009, in Tijuana, the Army captured Santiago Meza López, who was presented to the press as "El Pozolero" because he dissolved the bodies of alleged enemies of the Tijuana cartel in acid.
Meza confessed to having dissolved the corpses of at least 300 people; He said it when he was right at the place where he committed the crimes, on a farm in the ejido of Ojo de Agua, on the outskirts of the city. From that nightmarish day, families accompanied by authorities search in these areas traces of missing persons, and every so often find teeth or fragments of bone that the PGR has taken for analysis. That is to say: yes there are clandestine burial sites.
Mexico City, Querétaro, Hidalgo and Chiapas also reported zero clandestine burials when they were asked for information. This refusal contrasts with the reports of the PGR or the CNDH that account for 10 graves among all; but if the media monitoring done by the CNDH is taken into account, they reach 17. In the case of Guanajuato and Puebla, although both are declared free of graves, the press reports otherwise.
The map that arises from this investigation does not mix the data of the state prosecutors with those of the PGR.
-The state prosecutors reported fewer graves than those found.

For example, we take the case of the government of Michoacán that reported the discovery of only two graves in 2006 (the burial of the six men whose throats were cut in Aganhuan and a grave located in Aguililla). The PGR added another piece to the incomplete puzzle and reported another in Lázaro Cárdenas with three bodies of men tied hand and foot.
The press, at the end of the year, reported two more graves that omit government records: one in Morelia and another -discovered the last day of the year- in Buenavista Tomatlán.
-The graves processed by the PGR, and whose exhumed remains ended up in federal facilities in Mexico City, are not taken into account in the state registers.
This causes the under registration of clandestine cemeteries on a large scale, such as those of La Barca, Jalisco, in 2013, where 37 graves with 75 bodies were found. Or the 175 bodies extracted from 54 graves in the hills surrounding Iguala, Guerrero, discovered by locals who formed the organization "Los otros desaparecidos," out of the disappearance in 2014 of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa.
This report and the map that supports the information found, also classified in a differentiated manner, and in separate areas, are both sources of information, provided by local prosecutors and by the PGR.
-There are regions that appear in white on this map, as if there were no clandestine burials, which may be due to the fact that these areas are very difficult to access due to their location and control under criminal groups.
"There is a temporal difference as soon as a grave is created and when its discovery occurs, and that tells us about the temporal and spatial dynamics of violence. The findings of graves may correspond to a time when violence in those areas has decreased, hardly when it is at its peak," says the historian of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, expert in the history of disappearances in Mexico, Camilo Vicente Ovalle
After seeing the map, Vicente Ovalle says that surely in places like the Sierra de Guerrero there are more graves with which criminals ensure clandestine death, but have not been discovered.
            A bag of burned human remains collected during the search operation carried out on 
               July 2, 2016 by the collective "VIDA", near the city of Torreón in the 
               state of Coahuila, Mexico. Photography: Mónica González
In 2015, María de la Luz López Castruita, who since 2008 has been looking for her daughter Claribel Lamas López, found one of these points in the Ejido Patrocinio, in Coahuila. As the families of disappeared people usually do, she started her own investigation, and devised a way to infiltrate those lands where there were rumors that people who were never seen again were taken.
Maria de la Luz Lopez began to go disguised as a farmer -hat, bandana, a stick, and jug of water on her back- and soon the goat farmers helped her find the places where there were barrels, ashes, remains of buried bones, shoes, and clothes scattered on the ground.
A goat herder told her that he came to see 80 to 90 dairy farms where they burned the captured people. The brother of Mrs. Luz López came to see 14.
"Then there were hundreds of dead?" she asked the goat herder.
-They are thousands, ma'am. Every day the trucks passed with people tied up, like this, spliced ​​like animals, by day, the sun was high - she remembers the man's answer.

- And the barrels?
- They took them by the kilo, but there are two left - said the gentleman and took her to where they were.
Patrocinio was another site, among others, that established criminals in Coahuila as the exterminators of people. Grupo Vida, a group of trackers that included Mrs. Lopez, located other points with barrels pierced with a pick axe, in which they put their victims and burned them with diesel and gasoline.
They put a trailer tire around the barrels to contain the fire; in holes they emptied the burnt remains.

Lucy, as she is best known, was organized with other families to carry out the International Caravan of Life Search, which, in May of 2017 in Coahuila, brought together other families to do field surveys.

In Mexico, searches have been conducted where violence has not abated, in the midst of "war," when many of the territories where people are hidden are still controlled by mafias. The forensic landscapes are still crime scenes and some are extermination zones.
Many of the clandestine grave findings have been made possible thanks to the research and hard work of families.
But that effort has a poor reward, and Lucy feels great frustration. She and other searchers have found, one after the other, a large number of graves. And the government seldom did the job of identifying the remains that were there.
The Scientific Police of the Federal Police is responsible for doing analysis and alerting families if someone is found.
The body of her daughter Claribel is not among the one thousand 738 victims that prosecutors have already identified, and who were buried in one of almost 2,000 graves.
A few years after she began the searches, Lucy comments disappointed: "Why do we waste time looking for graves, the dead, if they do not tell us who they are anyway? And in this we have no time, so we decide its better to look for the living."
The identification of corpses is much more difficult when mistakes were made during the burial, as in Durango in 2011, where the bodies were extracted with tractors that destroyed them.
Or when the remains were burned, incinerated or dissolved using acids or alkaline methods. As in Veracruz, where there are six points with at least 18 thousand 680 skeletal remains and only two people identified, according to response to our requests. Coahuila, for example, reports 87 clandestine burial sites from which 102,717 "biological samples" have been taken and only 19 people have been identified. The prosecution refused to provide the location of each, and therefore fewer sites appear on the national map.
In other states it seems that the prosecutors themselves lost track of the bodies they have under their protection.
It is the case of Sonora that, when requesting information from a body recovered in Nogales in 2016, they answered: "it is unknown if it was identified." Concerning two bodies exhumed in 2008 in the municipality of Naco, it was said: "the information is not available due to the doctor's discharge." In other cases the reply was: "it is not known if they were cremated or the place of shelter is known."

"Why remove the remains if we are not going to be able to give them an identity?" Asks Juan Carlos Trujillo Herrera, who has four missing brothers - two captured in Guerrero, the other two in Michoacán - and who has headed the national search brigades.
"There is no competence. I say, that's the problem. "
                      Clandestine grave in Nuevo León. Photography: Erika Lozano

This investigation, which tries to give location and number to the graves and the remains found, also throws clues about disputed sites, methods of disappearance by regions or changes of patterns.

With the information obtained that served as support for the map, it is possible to detect sites where pit layers accumulate. Among these, five stand out in permanent dispute between criminal groups, and sometimes Armed Forces, all of them on the border, either with the sea or with the United States. The five points of concentration of pits are: Ciudad Juárez, as well as the ports or corridors near the sea: Ahome, Sinaloa; San Fernando, Tamaulipas; and the ports of Acapulco and Veracruz.
It is also possible to distinguish that in the northwest and the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico incineration has spread as a method to get rid of the corpses of their victims. There are fragments left. This happens in places like Veracruz, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Coahuila or Nuevo León.
In these places, both searching families and authorities continue to discover land with thousands of bone fragments, which makes it more difficult to identify them.
A lens to look at the map of pits derived from this research is the one proposed by the Argentine doctor in Political Science, Pilar Calveiro, author of books such as "Power and Disappearance": 

Observe the moments in which to kill and throw corpses in the street ceased to be sufficient punishment, when they began to bury bodies to disappear them, and the moment in which the assassins stopped burying and opted for methods to dissolve bodies.
"The technology used for the disappearance says a lot about the disappearing and the power that sustains them," he says.
       Relatives of FUNDENL accompany the authorities and experts during the safekeeping of remains of
         people in a clandestine grave located in the Cerro del Fraile in the municipality of 
         García, Nuevo León, May 2017.  Photography: Erika Lozano

This investigation also ran into fragmented information, often contradictory, others made up, as well as the lack of authorization between state prosecutors, even to classify bodies, bones, remains, fragments and pits.
In order to reach the agreed upon numbers, it was necessary to unravel the variety of names that each prosecutor gives to each body-lifting site, according to the complexity it faces.
For the prosecutor's office in Veracruz, for example, a well with calcined bone remains is a grave, but it also names it as a "center of destruction of bodies." While Coahuila calls "places of clandestine burial" the places where used barrels were found to burn people.
At the request for the number of graves, Tamaulipas added in its response the number of metal drums that have been found with remnants of incinerated bone remains. And to the 19 places where corpses were burned, the Nuevo Leon prosecutor's office mentioned them as "cocinas," using the slang of organized crime groups.
Aguascalientes, meanwhile, responded that it does not know the meaning of the word clandestine grave.
The researcher of the College of Mexico and a professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Jacobo Dayán, an expert in crimes against humanity, believes that investigations such as this "stripped down,  is the failure of the state."
"There is no official information of graves in the country as there is no clarity as to the location of the bodies, or if they were donated to medical schools or are circling in trailers or lost in Semefos or who knows where. There is an urgent need for a clear registry of the disappeared, and on the other hand, fragments, remains and graves to start making the search, exhumation and identification policies."

For Mercedes Doretti, the director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) in Mexico, investigations like this show the need to create a protocol approved throughout the country to register graves and remains found.
"That they (each prosecutor's office) explain what they mean when they say grave, bone, body, or remains. What do they call someone who was identified but their family hasn't been found: not identified or not claimed? How do they tell? How do they catalog what they call 'cocinas,' or when the bodies are buried or in rivers, dams, outdoors or in a suitcase ? Without these definitions it is very difficult to make statistics. That has to be solved. "
Dispersed, incomplete, contradictory or fragmented records of state and federal governments force families to live in uncertainty about the whereabouts of their loved ones. The sum of negligence and omissions condemn disappeared persons to disappear a second time.
                 Bertila Parada holds the photo of her son Carlos Alberto, a Salvadoran migrant found in a 
                 common grave in Tamaulipas. Photography: Mónica González
The Salvadoran Bertila Parada had to rescue her son Carlos Alberto Osorio Parada from the labyrinths of the Mexican bureaucracy, where his body, rescued from a grave, was lost due to the lack of protocol that people recover the body of their loved one and give him a decent burial, and leave him with his people.
The young migrant was killed in March 2011 by Los Zetas, in complicity with the municipal police of San Fernando. His body was the third to be located in pit 3 of the El Arenal divide, along with 12 other people killed when the exhumations began in April. In total there would be 189 bodies recovered in a quarantine of graves.
The body of Carlos Alberto Osorio was transferred to the morgue of Matamoros on April 17, where, the following day, he was autopsied; Another 122 exhumed bodies took another course: they were transferred by the PGR to Mexico City.
The body of Carlos Alberto was buried with a record of an unidentified person along with 67 bodies. He was buried in row 11, lot 314, block 16, of the municipal cemetery of La Cruz in Ciudad Victoria, capital of Tamaulipas.
When his family found out about the finding of the graves, genetic analysis was done so that the PGR could check them against the genetics of the exhumed remains. But the PGR initially only carried out the tests on the bodies sent to Mexico City. The young man, therefore, remained three years and 10 months in the common grave of Tamaulipas, and was about to be incinerated by the authorities.
"He was buried here. Why so long without being able to bring him? He was on this hill," said his mother, Mrs. Bertila Parada, pupusas vender, when interviewed in 2016 while showing the folder she received on January 28, 2015 containing the photos of her son's shattered skull and the pantheon where he rested under a rusty cross that marked his grave, when his identity was "Body 3 Pit 3."
She had to protest many times before the authorities of her country until she found a Mexican organization (Foundation for Justice) and a group of forensic anthropologists (the EAAF), who helped her rescue her son from abandonment and anonymity, to give him rest in his house.
Once he had recovered his son's body, Bertila could feel a little relief from the torture she had suffered from finding where he was and recovering him.
"I feel pain and at the same time I feel there is something we do achieve. Because many people have not succeeded, many who do not know where their children are. When I buried him I had a little rest," she said.
In Mexico 37 thousand 485 people were reported as missing between December 2006 and last October, according to official records. It is unknown how many of them are in pits.
* Juan Solís, Gilberto Lastra, Aranzazú Ayala, Paloma Robles, Mayra Torres and Erika Lozano collaborated with this text. This report is part of the project, a research site on the logic of disappearance in Mexico, and received editorial support and funds from the Fifth Elemento Lab.


  1. El Profe and Borderland Beat staff: Thank you very much for locating, translating, and posting this article on clandestine graves in Mexico.

    I was very impressed by the maps and graphs and how they were full of data in interactive chronological order.

    Also, the article describes how difficult it is to gauge the "actual" magnitude of the clandestine "fosas" problem is.

    I also appreciated the stories of ordinary citizens and loved ones to locate and identify the criminally "disappeared." IMO: Shame on the Mexican Government for not being much more aggressive and helpful in this serious problem area. I get the feeling that powerful people in government "don't" really want to know.... bad for business?

    Again, Thanks a million, amigos.

  2. Get ready for the war between El Chapo and El Mayo this war will see more bloodshed then 2006 and 2012 shit is about to turn upside down the government has officially broken the Sinaloa Cartel by using el mayo Zambadas brother

  3. Graves everywhere, what happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico.


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