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By Majo Sicar (México D.F.) /Translation: Blanca García
  • 183 corpses have been exhumed in 40 illegal communal graves in Tamaulipas that the narcos use to bury their victims
  • Hundreds of relatives of missing persons search for their own among the remains
  • The discovery also brought to light the Mexican state’s inability to guarantee the safety of its population

Guadalupe Ríos waits seated on the stairs of the Mexican State’s Attorney’s Anti-Kidnapping Unit. Inside is her oldest daughter, Angélica Velazquez, to have a DNA sample taken, and to try to remember peculiar details that reveal the identities of her sister and her son, who disappeared seven months ago. They come from far away with the hope of finding their relatives among the 183 corpses unburied in April in the 40 illegal pits found in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. More than 130 of these people show signs of torture, exposed fractures and head trauma, as the authorities revealed after the autopsies. According to the investigations, these massacred corpses could belong to people that would have been kidnapped by the two drug trafficking cartels that are fighting over the area, El Golfo and Los Zetas, to join their ranks, and when they resist, they are tortured to death.

The Matamoros and Mexico DF forensic medical services work to identify the 183 bodies unburied in Tamaulipas. Alexandre Meneghini/AP

“We want to have them back in any way, we would want them to turn up alive, but if not, at least we want to find them so we can bury them”, Guadalupe Ríos manages to say among tears. Her daughter, Julia, traveled to Reynosa last September to bring goods for the store she ran in Tula, Hidalgo. Her nephew, Miguel Ángel, Angélica’s youngest son, went with her. On the night of September 25th Julia talked to her husband to tell him that they were already on the road and that, at the latest, they’d be home by 9 or 10 in the morning. They never got there. Julia’s husband reported them missing, he asked formally to see the tapes of the tolls on the road, and for five months he traveled all over desolate paths and villages. Everywhere the same answer from the government workers: “she’s not the only one, there’s hundreds of missing people”. Now many of their relatives, certainly many more than the 183 corpses found, line up in Mexico DF and in the Matamoros, Tamaulipas, morgue, where the bodies have been distributed. With each one of these remains the everyday abnormality this country, and especially this border state, lives in has been unburied: daily massacres, the barbarity of the criminal groups, the connivance of many government workers, the society’s fear of reporting it, and the mass disappearances.

According to a Ministry of Defense report, from January to October 2010 there were 1,700 people reported missing in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León (adjacent states). And by the end of March, the National Human Rights Commission had registered 18,000 missing throughout the country since 2006, when the war over control of the territory broke out between the drug traffickers and the Mexican Army. And that in spite of the fact that most of the ones who go looking for their relatives now confess that they hadn’t dared to report it. They feared the authorities would answer them with the already traditional “they must have been up to something” or that they themselves were conniving with crime. In fact, the Citizens in Support of Human Rights organization (CADHAC), of Nuevo León, who along with other NGO’s from the Northeastern Mexican states submitted a report about forced disappearances to the UN office, has heard about threats against people who are looking for their missing relatives from government workers -attorneys, policemen and soldiers, as well as from strangers. For instance, among the 76 people arrested related to these graves that the authorities have now hurried to show appear 16 San Fernando local police officers. They have also arrested the alleged mastermind, Martín Omar Estrada, aka El Kiko, pointed as the leader for the Zetas in that same city and alleged murderer of about 200 people.

However, its residents do not think that these arrests will make much of a difference. “Before the ones from El Golfo and the Zetas lived in San Fernando and there were no problems, but since (president Felipe) Calderón came in with his soldiers, both of them are fighting for the area and they keep recruiting new people. Now there are a lot of massacres, kidnappings, extortion, robberies. And they are done by armed 14 or 16 year old kids. Or they pull people off the buses so they join the cartel, if they don’t want to get in, they kill them”, a San Fernando neighbor who is waiting for news of her daughter tells.

A woman waits in front of the Matamoros, Tamauplias, morgue, to find her 16 year old son among the corpses. AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini

That is also the way the National Security office handles it. It points out that most of the 183 corpses found would be those of people who traveled in the passenger buses that go to the neighboring country. The Tamaulipas customs are the southernmost along the border, and a lot of Mexican and Central American migrants choose to cross through them because they are more permissive and they are the shortest way to cross Mexico. In fact, it was in San Fernando itself where last August the corpses of 72 undocumented Central and South Americans were found.

But fear spreads everywhere there. “It’s awful. If, for example, you are riding a car they like on any road they take it away, and if you don’t give it to them, they kill you”, says the same San Fernando neighbor. Among the relatives runs around 4 years-old Tania, oblivious to anything. Her mother, Esmeralda, 8 months pregnant, told her they were going to the doctor to get from her a blood sample that will help identify her husband, missing since a couple of months ago, when he went to take a van to Tamaulipas. He worked in a used car agency in DF and he was supposed to bring another vehicle back. He never got to deliver the van.

He might have disappeared in San Fernando or anywhere else in the state, because in the Tamaupilas roads criminal squads are multiplying and there does not seem to be any law apart from theirs. A National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) report from last February identifies 71 towns in 16 different states, road and railroad stretches in which there have been kidnappings, extortion, robberies, sexual assaults and abuse on migrants. But as the CNDH points out, 39 of these risk spots congregate in only four states: Nuevo León, Veracruz, Chiapas and Tamaulipas.

The government’s promises of increasing security measures after the finding of the 72 murdered migrants last August do not seem to have made much of a difference. The open war between the Golfo (Gulf) Cartel and its former military arm, the Zetas Cartel, added to the militarization and the police corruption maintain what analysts have dubbed a “failed State”. The thugs themselves murdered last year the governor candidate, and his brother, who replaced him, set up an ineffective government. The press is silenced by beatings or by bills and the local police is an accomplice to the cartels. The state has become considerably depopulated and those who have stayed live subdued to floor rights charges and extortion, mandatory toll for any business in the region.  And if they refuse, they’re killed, its residents assure. They don’t leave their houses after dark anymore. “No one can speak, we don’t even have neither Police, nor Justice, nor anything. Security is paid for through extortion. But what security? If they want to they kill you. We’ve been living a massacre for more than a year”, the same San Fernando neighbor, who prefers not to give her name, tells.

Uriel Carvajal left for the US on a bus that passed through Tamaulipas. They never heard from him again. Two of his brothers went looking for him and now all three are missing. A fourth brother and their parents wait for them to turn up in the town of La Concepción, in Hidalgo. Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Guadalupe, on the other hand, asks: “What would happen if it were the politicians’ relatives the ones who were in this situation? What would Calderón do if his children disappeared? And the criminals? Don’t they know that they are destroying entire families? We all suffer, children, grandchildren, siblings…

All of their stories transmit an eerie feeling of fragility. It will still be a while before they get answers. As just this week, after almost a month, the Attorney’s office has delivered the first three identified bodies. And while they are still waiting, 104 more have been unburied in the also northern state of Durango. This dance of corpses seems like a convicting enumeration to the State, which not only is incapable of maintaining the civil population’s integrity, but that sentences them to the uncertainty of not knowing what has happened to their thousands of missing persons.