are still looking for their missing
In Mexico, entire families of the
disappeared discover secret mass graves.
Horror has many faces in Mexico, and sometimes it hides behind the most everyday routine.
Like in the case of Tranquilina Hernández. September 13, 2014 was a Saturday like any other in Cuernavaca, an hour's drive south of Mexico City. A fertile spot of land with a mild climate. Even the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortez had a weekend hacienda in the "City of Eternal Spring". In recent years it has become more restless since the local drug cartel leader was executed by marines, and young killers fight among themselves for his succession. There have been shootings repeatedly, business people complained of extortion and kidnappings, and stories of child killers circulated in the press.
But those were "matters of the evildoers", Hernández thought back then. The 38-year-old single mother lives in a quiet dead-end street in a working-class neighborhood. Her oldest daughter Mireya, who just turned 18, had a visit from her boyfriend that morning. A young man from the neighborhood. They had been a couple for two years. "Will you accompany me to grandma's? I want to pick up some books." he casually asked. No reason to worry. "Grandma lives a few houses away," Hernández tells. "Mireya accompanied him, just as she was, dressed casually."
It's like dying a little bit every day.
Now Hernández is standing 300 kilometers away in front of a two-meter deep hole in a sugar cane field and sobbing. The people around have joined hands and are praying the Lord's Prayer in unison. "Where are they? You could be next. Come here, it could be your child!" resounds from two dozen choked throats. The group has just recovered charred bone remnants from the freshly dug earthen hole. A piece of skull, presumably shinbones, a relatively intact thigh bone. Nearby, in the thicket of a coffee plantation there are wet, muddy women's ballet flats, a black skirt, a paint-stained men's shirt, a blue jacket.
“Bad things happened here. In the afternoon, the police blocked off the dirt road, and we saw dark clouds of smoke in the sky from afar," a farmer from the coffee village El Porvenir had explained, and quickly fled in fear as a dust cloud in the distance signaled the arrival of strangers. There had been warnings, they should not go there.
“Wherever there are elongated ground depressions and the iron rod penetrates the soil without resistance, there may be remains."
The group went to work nevertheless. Equipped with shovels, spades, hoes, and the iron will of those who no longer want to be put off by the state.
People like Alma Rosa Rojo, from northern Mexico's Sinaloa, who has been searching for her brother for seven years. Or the round housewife Rosa Neris, 52, from Coahuila, whose brother-in-law disappeared without a trace six years ago with two brothers. The lean bartender Mario Vergara from Guerrero, whose family could not raise ransom quickly enough for his brother. The boisterous, always joking brothers José-Luis and Miguel-Angel Herrera, whose four siblings are missing.
„Where there are elongated depressions in the ground and the iron rod penetrates the soil without resistance, there may be remains," says Vergara. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to uncover secret mass graves between fields and undergrowth. Every few minutes the members of this brigade take turns shoveling. It is humid, the clothes stick to the body. They have all undergone a crash course organized by human rights organizations or the citizens' association for forensics.
Every day, 14 people disappear without a trace in Mexico, with half of them being younger than 30. According to official statistics, 27,659 Mexicans are reported missing. Unofficially, it could be many times more, says Juan López Villanueva from the National Human Rights Commission. "Many families do not report the crime because they are afraid. The authorities work carelessly, files disappear, and the records are not harmonized." Villanueva, along with two bored federal police officers, is the only government representative accompanying the first national volunteer brigade in their search for the missing in the state of Veracruz.
In Cuernavaca, Tranquilina Hernández became suspicious one hour later when Mireya did not show up and did not answer her phone, even though it was time to accompany her sister to the First Communion class. "I went to her fiance's house, but he only said that Mireya had been waiting outside her grandma's house, and when he went out after five minutes, she was gone." Tranquilina did not believe a word he said, asked the neighbors, but no one had seen anything. Then she went to the police – and was rejected. She was told to search in hospitals and the morgue and come back in 72 hours. Nothing could be done before that. A bureaucratic madness, because the first 48 hours are the most important for locating kidnapped persons. "Even after filing the report, nothing happened," she sighs. "It's as if the earth had swallowed Mireya." All she is left with is the nagging uncertainty: Has she eaten anything? Is she being treated badly? Is she still alive at all? "These questions drive you crazy. It's like dying a little bit every day.“
"The state does not want to find the disappeared and hold the perpetrators accountable, because then it would have to investigate itself,"
"Even after filing a complaint, nothing happened," she sighs. "As if the earth had swallowed Mireya.“
All brigade members tell similar stories. Stories of DNA samples getting lost, of authorities who are not responsible or are just bored, of investigators who give false hope or are killed themselves, of unidentified bodies wrapped in black plastic and buried in anonymous mass graves in cemeteries. "For seven years, I tried to find my brothers with the help of the state, I got lost in files and fell into the confusion game. They carry on like that until they break you," says the goldsmith Juan Carlos Herrera. "The state doesn't want to find the disappeared, nor hold the perpetrators accountable, because then it would have to investigate itself," emphasizes the tall, strong man who organized the brigade. "We families have to take action if we ever want to know what happened to our loved ones. We don't even talk about justice anymore.“
"Mexico is a huge, secret cemetery“.
"Mexico is a huge, secret cemetery," says Father Julián Verónica from Amatlán de los Reyes, with whom the brigade members find refuge. According to the prosecutor's office, more than 1,200 bodies have been found in such mass graves; only 11% have been identified. Verónica's parish house is located near the railway racks of the migrant train, on which Central American refugees have been traveling through Mexico for decades to reach the United States. "It started with the migrants many years ago," the priest relates. "We have a network of church hostels along the route, but from hostel to hostel the number of arrivals decreased, and they told us about armed men stopping the train and kidnapping people." The drug cartels had discovered a new lucrative line of business in human trafficking. Women were forced into prostitution, men were forcibly recruited as drug couriers or killers, children were kidnapped for pornography or organ removal, and others were taken as hostages to extort ransom from relatives in the USA. The migrants were perfect prey: anonymous, invisible, and without any rights.
In 76% of cases, federal police officers or soldiers are involved.
The church raised the alarm, but it was not until 2011 that Congress passed an immigration law; a law on forced disappearances still does not exist to this day. To kidnap, kill, and have the bodies disappear was part of the state terror of the South American military dictatorships. Since the early 1990s, it has been considered a serious human rights crime if state entities are involved. "There is chaos in Mexico," says Volga del Pino from the Center for Human Rights and Democracy. "Depending on the state, the individuals were only registered as missing or categorized as abductions. After sharp criticism from human rights activists, this is supposed to change now, but the bill is plodding through the parliamentary channels. There are hardly any statistics on crimes committed by state officials. The Attorney General's Office announced that 236 cases are being investigated nationwide. In 76% of cases, federal police officers or soldiers are involved."