At least 31 bodies have been found in a mass grave in a remote ranch in Mexico’s Veracruz state, a region that lies along the dangerous route used by undocumented migrants, and is deep in the country’s cartel-controlled territory.
Seven women and 24 men were found in the grave, which was discovered Monday night during a military patrol in a ranch called El Diamante in the Tres Valles region.
The unearthing of the bodies this week is the latest instance of corpses being found piled in shallow ditches, and the string of discoveries is haunting Mexico as its government struggles to contain narco-related violence.
It has been almost seven years since the military-led campaign to dismantle the drug cartels began, and this mass grave is now casting fresh doubt on the federal government’s shifting figure of missing and “disappeared” people in Mexico.
Former president Felipe Calderon left office in 2012 with an estimated 27,000 people officially missing in Mexico since the start of his government’s campaign against cartels. At the time, the figure was criticized by human rights leaders as being an untrustworthy and likely low estimate.
Mexico gathers the data on missing people from state-level governments, which are notoriously unreliable in investigating crimes. In addition, local news outlets in violence-plagued areas are frequently forced under threats to avoid reporting on shootouts, or so-called “narco-blockades,” and are threatened when seeking to confirm stories of mass killings and mass graves.
Human Rights Watch said in a stinging 2013 report on Mexico’s missing that evidence points to the participation of public security forces in some cases of forced disappearances.
In late May, President Enrique Peña Nieto revised and dramatically downgraded the number of missing to about 8,000 people. But after intense criticism, Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio again revised the government’s number of missing and raised it to 16,000, saying on Monday that his office re-checked with state-level attorney generals, and recounted.
Forensics officials in Cosamaloapan, the municipality where Nopaltepec is located, said they had identified eight of the victims so far. The state prosecutor in Veracruz released a statement today saying most victims appeared to be from the general "nearby" area. Bodies were also sent to morgues in the major cities of Xalapa and the Veracruz port.
It is still uncertain who all of the victims in the mass grave in Veracruz were. Some could have been migrants passing on the dangerous route north to the United States, or, like those identified, some could have been local people — possibly snatched up in an act of terror by one cartel aimed at another.
But as news of the discovered grave spread in nearby communities, frantic and angry relatives of people missing descended on the city hall in Cosamaloapan, demanding to see the bodies. According to a news account by AVC Noticias, relatives of the missing forced their way into the building and opened and closed a single body bag found in the lobby, which was filled with dirt and worms.
One woman arrived and stood outside with a photo of her missing husband, saying all he left before he disappeared was a bicycle lying on the ground.
“He has children,” the woman said.
Rumors about the victims abounded. “I heard they found a clandestine grave, and they dumped someone from Papaloapan, and I am from there,” said a woman whose son has been missing for a year.
Mexico’s government does not keep a tally of discoveries of mass graves. One media count says at least 400 people have been found in such graves in 13 states since the start of Peña Nieto’s term in late 2012.
These mass grave discoveries are littering Mexico’s landscape. In January, a mass grave discovered in La Barca, Jalisco, reached a total of 74 victims. Later that month in Coahuila state, a special investigation determined that at least 300 people had been kidnapped, massacred, and presumably disintegrated with diesel fuel outside the community of Los Cinco Manantiales during a cartel conflict in 2011, as VICE Mexico reported.
On January 31, 10 barrels filled with human remains were found near Gomez Farias, Tamaulipas. An estimated 30 people were killed and dumped there. Some 20 bodies were found in Tingüindin, Michoacan, on February 5, and 19 bodies were found February 20 in Tlajomulco, Jalisco, which is close to the major city of Guadalajara.
So far, none of the high-level political figures who would bear some responsibility for preventing mass killings such as this week’s discovery have made any public mention of the 31 victims in Veracruz. The state governor Javier Duarte is posting pictures of ships on Twitter, while Peña Nieto and Osorio Chong have mostly used social media to congratulate Mexico for its 0-0 draw against Brazil on Tuesday in the World Cup.