The recent abduction of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in southwestern Mexico has not only shocked and appalled the nation but has also drawn attention to the deeply concerning number of disappearances and mass graves across the country.
When Mexico’s Attorney General announced that the 28 bodies exhumed near the town of Iguala were not those of the students it brought a glimmer of renewed hope that they might yet be found alive.
But it also raised several serious questions: if the charred corpses did not correspond to the missing students, then whose bodies were they? Had the victims’ disappearance been previously reported? And if so, why had it not been investigated until now?
Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre Rivero indicated that the bodies had been buried before the 43 students disappeared last month and were likely victims of previous cartel atrocities. Yet the fact that the area was a known dumping ground for cartel victims had not led local or state authorities to carry out excavations — that is, until they came under intense pressure after the students went missing.
Many Mexicans suspect that finding missing persons is simply not a top government priority.
“I think the government wants us to forget about where the 43 missing students are. They want to throw them into the black hole of impunity,” Mexican journalist Sanjuana Martínez told Latin Correspondent.
The disappearance of the students has already provoked unrest across Guerrero, with angry protesters setting fire to several government buildings last week, and this would only be exacerbated if the government were to confirm that the students are dead, Martínez added.
Dozens of bodies found in canal
Discoveries of mass graves have been made across much of Mexico, not just in the troubled state of Guerrero. At least 21 more bodies were found in a canal in the neighboring State of Mexico last week. Sixteen of the victims were female and the majority of them were teenagers.
The canal was drained over the summer, but only after family members pressured authorities to step up the search for more than 40 women, mostly minors, who had disappeared in a state already notorious for femicides. David Mancera Figueroa, president of Solidaridad por las Familias, an organization that helps those searching for missing loved ones, claimed that 46 corpses have been found in the canal this year, more than double the amount the state government has acknowledged.
The largest grisly discovery to date came in the northern state of Coahuila, where more than 300 bodies were found in 11 mass graves in late January. Many of the victims had been burned in makeshift ovens or dissolved in barrels of acid.
One of the reasons that victims are not found sooner is because many Mexicans never report disappearances to the police for fear of reprisals by drug gangs or corrupt police or government officials.
“People keep quiet because they’re scared. They’re terrified of the drug cartels and the narcopolítica (politicians with links to drug gangs),” Martínez said.
San Fernando massacres
Two of the most infamous massacres in Mexico’s recent history took place in the municipality of San Fernando in northern Tamaulipas state, and some people believe there may still be many more bodies buried there.
In 2010, authorities found the corpses of 72 immigrants from Central and South America at a ranch in San Fernando, and the following year another 193 bodies were dug up from dozens of mass graves in the same area.
When police arrested Édgar Huerta Montiel, an operative of the ultraviolent Los Zetas cartel who allegedly ordered the second massacre, he claimed there were more than 600 bodies buried in San Fernando.
Isabel Miranda de Wallace, the leader of the Alto al Secuestro (Stop the Kidnappings) organization, believes there are still some 500 undiscovered corpses in San Fernando alone, but that the Mexican government has not dug them up for fear of the political repercussions that such a discovery would bring.
Martínez agrees that government inaction is politically motivated, noting that “when they discovered the graves in San Fernando, the governor said ‘stop digging now.’”
The parents anxiously awaiting news in Guerrero must hope that this time, things are different, and that authorities genuinely want to find their children.