Mexico’s new president must address the epidemic of mass graves

Women marched to call on the authorities to locate their missing loved ones on Mother's Day in Mexico City on May 10. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)
Women marched to call on the authorities to locate their missing loved ones on Mother’s Day in Mexico City on May 10. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

From 2006 to 2016, almost 2,000 mass graves used by criminals to disappear people were discovered in Mexico, according to official records. This barbaric practice took place in 24 states, affecting 1 in 7 municipalities.

These are some of the results of a year-and-a-half-long investigation led by a group of journalists concerned about the systematic and widespread practice of disappearing people. During the past two administrations, 37,000 have gone missing.

Our investigation — which discovered 1,978 clandestine graves, the municipalities where they were located and the number of bodies and remains extracted — shows more than double the highest number of graves reported during the same period by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), a federal government agency.

Our figures were taken from documents obtained from state prosecutors via requests for public information. We constantly had to cross-examine and try to interpret the documents because each state has its own criteria for classifying findings, if any.

An interactive map shows the number of mass-grave sites increased significantly in the past two Mexican presidential administrations, during the “war against the narco.” In 2006, the first year of Felipe Calderón’s government, only two graves were registered in one state; in 2010, the annual figure rose to 105 graves in 14 states; in 2011, the number jumped to 375 in 20 states, equivalent on average to one grave per day. Since 2012, when Enrique Peña Nieto assumed the presidency and prolonged the militarized strategy, the yearly statistics on clandestine burials have not fallen below 245.

And we were being conservative: We removed the figures we had doubts about and those that could be duplicated. We also did not include figures such as those from the Attorney General’s Office, because they used a different methodology.

The map is incomplete because eight states in the country — a quarter of the national territory — responded that they could not find graves in their records. The Yucatán is the only state where there is no evidence of official figures or news reports regarding graves.

Last month we launched the #MéxicoPaísdeFosas (#MexicoCountryofGraves) investigation with various media outlets. People with missing relatives attended the public presentation, among them the mother of an agent from the Office of the Federal Attorney General who worked to combat kidnapping and who has been missing since 2011. She asked us what we could tell her about the graves exhumed in Durango that same year.

We marked points on our map, but we know that each point represents humans buried without dignity and families waiting for answers. Prosecutors recovered 2,884 bodies, 324 skulls, 217 bones, 799 skeletal remains and other fragments from these graves. Although the figures fail to measure the human drama or how many people were buried, they do show the collapse of justice and the level of impunity in Mexico.

Of the total bodies and remains exhumed, only 1,738 of the victims have been identified.

The difficulty of obtaining documents and making sense of the puzzle of disparate pieces of information is, for us, an example of a system designed to be an elaborate labyrinth: the idea is to make you stop looking for answers. However, despite everything, families continue to carry out searches and demand to know the location of their missing relatives.

Our research has helped families demand that prosecutors reveal data that had previously been kept hidden and to compare that data with their own figures and findings.

Mirna Medina, founder of Las Rastreadoras (The Trackers), a group of families who go to the hills to look for bodies buried in the state of Sinaloa, told us: “We feel less alone because journalists are also looking for them.”

While violent territorial disputes between criminal rivals are common wherever organized crime exists, the bloodshed became more widespread and brutal in the context of the “drug war” declared in December 2006 by Calderón. His successor, Peña Nieto, continued the same strategy of militarization, which has done little to curb drug production or trafficking, but has led to an exponential increase in murders, disappearances and human rights violations by the military and the police. More than 200,000 people have been murdered in Mexico since 2006.

The new government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has lifted the veil on the taboo subject of the graves. The new secretary of the interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, has repeated what many of us already said: “Mexico is a country of graves.”

Our investigation received partial financial and editorial support from the Quinto Elemento Lab and was undertaken by a group of independent journalists who did what the government should have done but did not.

Now the authorities have inherited the responsibility to use the truth to carry out justice. López Obrador’s administration should address this crisis by creating reliable public records for missing people, making a national map of graves that catalogs any evidence discovered, and supporting and professionalizing prosecutors and other experts so that they can offer victims a dignified burial and peace.

Marcela Turati, Alejandra Guillén and Mago Torres are Mexican journalists and the coordinators of the investigation “Where are the disappeared?” Turati is co-founder of Quinto Elemento Lab, a laboratory for innovation and research in journalism.

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