In January, on a cold morning in the mountains of Córdoba, Veracruz, a dozen people gathered in a drafty hotel conference room. On the tables in front of them, propped up against complimentary bottles of water, were laminated sheets of paper. Each one featured a man’s photograph and below it his name, height, and age. The headlines were all the same: Ayúdanos a encontrarlo!—Help us find him!
Yadira Reyna, a forensic anthropologist based in Mexico City, stood at the front of the room next to two of her colleagues. “We hope that you all find your loved ones alive,” she said in Spanish. “But in case the worst happens, this training will give you some ideas of what to do.”
The people sitting around the tables were there because they expected that the worst had happened. Their sons, husbands, and fathers had been missing for months or years, most likely killed by gang members and buried in unmarked graves. Mexico does not have the resources to find and identify every body, so Reyna, who worked for two years for the federal government, helps the families of the missing learn how to hunt for the graves themselves.
Reyna asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves and share something they love that starts with the first letter of their name. A young woman stood up. She was wearing a white T-shirt printed with photograph of a man’s face. “Hello, my name is Rosario,” she said. She looked at a woman sitting beside her—her mother, Concepción Chavez Fuentes. “We’re looking for my dad, Artemio Solano Jeda.” She said that her dad, the man pictured on her shirt, was kidnapped six months ago. “What I love are rosas blancas—white roses.”
Marcela Zurita Rosas, a fifty-nine-year-old woman wearing a velour tracksuit and movie-star sunglasses, went next. “Me llamo Marcela,” she said, blinking at the ceiling. “I’m here for my son. He’s been missing for five years.” Her eyes blinked faster. “I like el mar—the sea. Or, rather, I used to like it. Because I took my son there all the time.” Her voice caught. “Now I don’t like the sea.”
The forensics team opened their presentation with a slideshow listing the federal and state agencies one can contact to find missing people. The projector displayed a stream of screenshots from various government websites. The group started taking notes, but their pens soon ceased to move. At first I attributed this lack of interest to boredom. But then I realized that they had already filled out the official forms and contacted the official agencies. None of these websites helped them find their missing husbands and sons.
When Reyna clicked to a slide going over the procedures that authorities follow when they receive a missing person’s report, Zurita muttered, “The police here don’t do it that way.” When Reyna started talking about digging in different soil types, Zurita interjected that in Córdoba bodies aren’t found in the ground. “The dirt here is clay. It’s too hard,” she said, “so criminals drop the bodies down water wells.”
After lunch, during a presentation on how to train dogs to hunt for the scent of decaying flesh, Reyna told the group, “Certain self-made forensics experts in this country are going to gravesites and just digging at random, digging everywhere.” She went on to say that untrained diggers were not following proper methodology, and so the dogs were often confused. “This is the problem of amateurs leading excavations.”
Zurita stood up and sighed. “We know our work isn’t perfect,” she said. “But the police don’t help. And we’re not going to wait years to find the bodies of the missing.” She continued, “The missing are our family members. We can’t wait.”
Since the turn of the decade, the state of Veracruz has suffered some of Mexico’s worst violence, as several drug cartels, including Los Zetas and Jalisco Nueva Generación, have fought to control the state’s lucrative smuggling routes north to the United States. The most reliable estimates put the number of people murdered in Mexico due to organized crime at 80,000 since 2006, and the number of people disappeared at over 30,000, though many deaths and disappearances stay off the record. In 2013, it was reported that police were not notified of as many as 98 percent of disappearances over the previous year. Even when they are notified, government investigations lag far behind. Jorge Winckler, the state prosecutor, found that agents in Veracruz were only looking into about two-thirds of disappearance cases.
The men and women gathered in Córdoba for the forensics workshop were members of a group called Solecito that was formed on WhatsApp in 2014 by a Veracruz mother who had lost her son. She selected a sun to be the icon for the text thread—a bright spot in the darkness—and invited other parents of missing children to share emotional support. As the members started to trade stories of their interactions with the legal authorities, they realized that the police were either unable or unwilling to find their children, so they decided to teach themselves forensics in order to find and excavate the mass graves that narcos commonly use as dumping grounds for their victims. Now, with more than two hundred members, Solecito is one of the largest group of amateur grave hunters in the country.
On Mother’s Day, 2016, as the group was marching through the streets of a nearby town to protest the government’s inability to find their kids, two men approached and handed one of the women a map with Xs marking a field in the neighborhood of Colinas de Santa Fe. The map identified the site as one of the Jalisco Nueva Generacíon cartel’s burial grounds.
The local police were hesitant to let Solecito search the Colinas site—federal authorities had already found five bodies there and they doubted how many more could be uncovered by distraught mothers—but the group insisted. To fund the dig, Solecito sold used clothes and canvassed the streets for donations; they raised four thousand dollars and bought dozens of tools, including shovels, post-hole diggers, and machetes. In August of that year, they started digging. So far, the site has yielded 287 bodies—it’s the country’s largest known mass grave.
Zurita is the leader of the Córdoba branch of Solecito, and she was part of the first brigade of mothers to excavate Colinas de Santa Fe. When I asked her how many bodies she had dug up there, she responded, “One grave after another.” I pressed her for a number and she shrugged, explaining that graves usually contain contractor bags holding several bodies, or a jumble of body parts. It’s hard to sort the pieces, she said, and count how many might be inside.
Five days after the workshop, I accompanied a half-dozen members of Solecito on a busqueda—a grave hunt. Zurita drove some of the group in her sedan, including Rosario and Concepción, who were on their first excursion, while I drove the rest in my rental car. We had a security escort, two state police officers toting assault rifles, following us in a white pickup truck. They offered to transport Solecito’s digging tools—shovels, pickaxes, post-hole diggers, hammers—in the bed of the truck.
Last May, Solecito’s Facebook account received a tip that human remains were stuffed down an abandoned water well southwest of Córdoba. Zurita brought a group out to inspect the site a month later, but the water level in the well was high, making the search difficult. They hooked a sneaker in the well and managed to haul it almost to the top, but it slipped free. Before the shoe fell, Zurita says, she saw a foot in it. After that visit, the group requested that a team from the federal prosecutor’s office investigate, and although they traveled to the site, they didn’t rappel down the well. So we headed back. Zurita hoped that by finding more evidence herself, she could force authorities to conduct a search.
As we drove out of town, the city quickly dissolved into farmland. Thick, green forests crowded the road, and mountains rose in the distance. Occasionally the forest cleared, and we passed vast sugarcane fields. An hour into the drive, our convoy turned up a steep dirt road. We abandoned the car and climbed into the bed of the truck, driving until we reached a narrow clearing. At the heart of the clearing was a cement well.
The members of Solecito walked up to the well, which was surrounded by thick foliage. It was a sunny day, but the well sat in shade. Its cement cylinder rose three feet above the ground, half-decomposed, chipped, and patchy with the colors of rot. A rusted pulley hung over the mouth.
Zurita peered over the edge of the well, into its depths. “It’s basically empty,” she declared. There had been little rain since her last visit, and the water was low. Eyeballing it, Zurita estimated that the well’s shaft was fifty to seventy-five feet deep—too deep and dark to risk lowering anyone into it. So, under Zurita’s direction, the men tied a few small hooks to a rope and worked the rope through the well’s rusty pulley. Paco slowly paid out the rope as Zurita guided it down the shaft. As the hooks descended, bats suddenly flew out, and Zurita shrieked in fear. It surprised me that someone who unearths corpses was afraid of bats.
After a few slow descents and ascents recovered nothing, it became clear that blindly scraping lightweight hooks against the bottom of the well would not work. Zurita instructed her son to tie a rock above the hooks to make them heavier, a strategy that Paco called “fishing.”
Once the weighted hooks were fully pulled out they saw that one was glistening—it had penetrated about a foot into the muddy bottom of the well. Zurita lifted the hook to her nose. “It smells like caca,” she said. She passed the hook around for the other members of Solecito to sniff and informed them that in their first stages of decay, corpses smell of feces. “There’s something down there,” she said.
Zurita still wasn’t convinced that the tool was going deep enough. She instructed Paco and a man named Don Marcos to fetch a five-foot length of rebar with a shorter length welded near its top, in the form of a cross. Normally the tool is used to pierce the ground. When lifted out it can be inspected for the stench of rotting remains, thereby indicating the depth of a body.
The men tied the rebar to the rope and hung it from the pulley with its sharpened side pointed down. They decided to drop the rebar from forty feet up with the aim of spearing whatever was resting at the bottom of the well. Over the next hour, the pole recovered several objects—a piece of tire, an old plastic gas can, a coconut shell. But no sneaker.
Rosario and Concepción joined the fishing efforts, and the tool underwent some modifications: the sharp side of the rebar was turned to point upward, with its crossbar pointing down, then Paco tied hooks to the crossbar. The first time the improved tool was dropped, the hooks sank so deeply into the mud that it took three people, including one of the state police, to tug it free. After a few more attempts, Rosario shouted that they’d hooked something. Zurita rushed over and grabbed the flashlight. “It’s a sneaker.”
Solecito and the state police officers crowded against the well’s edge as Zurita instructed Paco to pull the rope up slowly. “Slowly, slowly,” she said, entreating them not to lose their find. The other members of Solecito held their breath. The squawks of birds and the buzzing insects from the jungle suddenly seemed loud.
As soon as the pole reached the top, Zurita unhooked the shoe. It was white and heavily caked with mud. Zurita turned it over, and brown water poured out of the mouth. There was no foot, no blood. Zurita wasn’t sure if it was the same shoe as before. She asked for a bag to store this potential evidence, but neither Solecito nor the state police had one. One of the police officers walked to the truck and returned with two styrofoam trays from lunch. He sandwiched the shoe between them for safekeeping.
The group continued to drop the pole into the well for another thirty minutes, and then Zurita declared the search finished. It was only 2 pm, but she told me that the area was a battleground after dark. Although she couldn’t confirm that there was a body in the well, she said that the shoe would help her pressure the police to send a team to search again.
Rosario, Concepción, and I walked the short distance back to the cars. After a day spent under the shade of thick forest, the sun felt good, but I was rattled—not at our find, but at the amateurism of the operation. How much death must be littered throughout Veracruz for untrained people to stumble so freely upon it? If the state funded well-equipped professionals to do Solecito’s work, how many more mass graves would be unearthed?
I ask Rosario how she felt about her first excursion, and she replied that she was satisfied. I asked if she was disappointed that she didn’t find a body. She shook her head. “I want to find more, more pieces of missing people. We’re not going to stop looking.”
Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The story was reported in partnership with NPR’s Latino USA. A radio version of this story is available on latinousa.org.