Mass grave in Mexico points to drug cartel murders: 250 skulls found

Citizens and family members took matters into their own hands – finally arriving at answers in the search for missing loved ones.

Felix Marquez/AP
A federal police officer walks in an area known as Colinas de Santa Fe on the outskirts of Veracruz, Mexico, on April 11, 2015. More than 250 skulls have been found in early 2017 in what appears to be a drug cartel mass burial ground in this wooded area on the outskirts of the city of Veracruz, prosecutors said Tuesday, March 14, 2017.

Mexican authorities have announced the discovery of more than 250 buried human skulls in the eastern state of Veracruz. They believe they belong to victims of drug cartel violence.

“Veracruz is a huge grave,” the state’s attorney general, Jorge Winckler, told local media. With excavations ongoing, he predicts that “when they finish opening the clandestine cemetery in the state it will be seen as the largest grave.”

This grisly find might appear to mark a new low for a country racked by years of “disappearances.” But the grave’s discovery is also a story of courage and perseverance on the part of family members. After years of indifference from authorities, Mexicans are increasingly taking matters into their own hands to learn the fates of their vanished loved ones.

In 2014, The Christian Science Monitor reported that estimates of “disappearances” in Mexico varied wildly – anywhere between 14,000 and 45,000 for the years 2006-2012.

A big part of the problem, explained legal expert Juan Salgado in a separate article, was mistrust of the authorities. “People think twice or thrice before going out to the authorities, because they assume that there is collaboration between authorities and criminals, or they may feel [threatened] if they go and try to file a case.”

Events in Veracruz bore out those fears. The Associated Press reports that last year, the state’s governor, Javier Duarte, resigned two months before the scheduled end of his term and vanished. Still on the run, he faces charges that include money laundering, organized crime, and looting state coffers – including the resources needed to conduct DNA tests.

Families of disappeared veracruzanos remain leery of state authorities. Lucía de los Ángeles Díaz, who coordinates a group called Colectivo Solecito, describes Mr. Winckler as “an arrogant and haughty person.”

But rather than simply blame authorities, Ms. Díaz and other Colectivo Solecito members have begun searching for disappearance victims on their own. According to the AP, they started digging in a wooded area outside of Veracruz in August of 2016. When they began to find signs of bodies, they pressured authorities to begin a full-fledged investigation.

As excavations of the mass grave continue, the group has also begun to fill other gaps in the state’s investigative process. With Veracruz still relying on federal resources and outside groups like the Red Cross to conduct DNA testing, the group recently sponsored a collection of DNA samples to aid in the search for the disappeared.

Similar groups have formed to raise awareness about past human rights abuses. In 1977, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo began weekly protest marches in Buenos Aires to protest the disappearances carried out by Argentina’s military junta. Forensic excavations have been ongoing since that country’s “dirty war” ended in 1983; recently, Mexico asked Argentine experts to help identify victims of its own drug violence.

But in Veracruz, it's not a desire for remains that's driving the mothers of the disappeared to seek answers. "We mothers say they are still alive, until we find out otherwise," Diaz told the AP.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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