I don’t know if they are spirits or souls or what to call them. But you feel it, you sense something. You feel it in your heart.
Their loved ones disappeared. In their hunt for answers, these families came up against a terrifying network of power and impunity. That didn’t stop them.
I wasn’t part of the first group who went to the grave. But the day that I got up the courage to go … I felt this cold wave that swept over my body, from my feet to my head. It was a feeling of sadness, pain, desperation.
Basilia Bonastre had been searching for her son, Arturo, for more than three years when word started to spread that there were bodies, hundreds of them, hidden in a clearing not far from her home.
Arturo Figueroa, 20, was in his final semester at nursing school, working in the labour and delivery ward. He was swept up in a raid the night of November 30, 2012.
He came home, changed his clothes and went out with a friend just for a bit. He never stayed out late, because he got up really early for school…
I was messaging with him. At 11:30 — that was the last message I got — I asked him ‘what time will you be home?’ I didn’t like him to be in the street. He said, ‘I’m on my way home, Mum.’
They were close to the house, a few metres away, chatting, when the patrols came and they took him — with no justification, no reason.
State police and the military were in his neighbourhood carrying out an operation they said targeted a drug cartel. Eight young men were taken that night.
Mexico’s so-called war on drugs had been underway for six years. The government had promised back in 2006 to end the public security crisis by wiping out narco-trafficking cartels. Instead, violence had soared.
Organized crime had bought off police forces, prosecutors and politicians. The federal government was battling some of the most powerful cartels, and the narcos were also fighting each other.
Civilians, caught in the middle, were dying, and disappearing.
Two years after Arturo vanished, a 19-year-old architecture student named Gerson Quevedo agreed to meet a friend at the local convenience store to grab a snack.
It was a March morning in 2014. By lunchtime, his family got a call with a ransom demand. They scrambled to gather 80,000 pesos.
Kidnappings used to be for very rich people … You don’t worry about it, because you think, ‘We don’t have anything, what do I need to worry about?’ You just don’t imagine … We paid the ransom between four and five in the evening … midnight came and there was no sign of him.
Arturo and Gerson didn’t know each other. They lived in different towns. One of them was snatched by police, the other was lured into a kidnapping by a friend. But both were found in the clearing where Basilia was standing when she felt that wave of pain.
Theirs were among 298 skulls and thousands of bones found in 155 shallow graves around the edges of the clearing. By the time it was fully excavated, earlier this year, the site was the largest known clandestine grave in Latin America.
The site came to be called Colinas de Santa Fe. It’s named for the suburb nearby, on the outskirts of Veracruz – a bustling port city on the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 66,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged when he took office two years ago to find the missing and stop the violence. Instead the number of Disappeared keeps climbing. Sixteen more people go missing each day.
And over the past few years, families in search of the missing have made a grim discovery: there are mass graves all over Mexico.
Most of the people found in Colinas de Santa Fe are still nameless. But the stories of nine of the victims expose the web of crime, power and impunity that allows disappearances to continue unabated.
And forces their families to risk everything to find them.
The graves are called ‘clandestine’ in Mexico, but they’re rarely a secret. When they are dug at the edge of communities, they serve as a warning about who holds power, and who is untouchable.
At the time Arturo disappeared, federal authorities had deployed the military and federal police to try to quell the crisis in the state. They called it Operation Safe Veracruz, and the target was the Los Zetas cartel. In the town of Cardel, a Zetas stronghold, it led to a season of terror.
Charli Rodríguez Cortés, 20, was one of the men rounded up in the sweep with Arturo. He was in his second year of business school. He went out that night to do Christmas errands with his girlfriend.
At about 10 minutes to midnight I said to my husband, ‘You know, our boy has not come home, and he’s never out this late.’ … And I waited and I waited and I waited.
Elfego Rivera, 22, was a gardener at a golf club who drummed at Carnaval. He, too, got picked up in the Cardel raid. He had stopped on his way home to pick up the hamburgers his pregnant wife was craving.
His mother, Norma, heard the yelling in the street as men in uniform abducted her son.
One of the neighbours told me that she heard him say, ‘I live close, I live right here.’ And they said to him, in harsh words, ‘No way, pal, you’re going in [the van].’
Pedro Huesca, 31, was a state prosecutor working with Operation Safe Veracruz. On April 15, 2013, his mother was at home watching a soap opera when neighbours came to tell her someone had shot at her son’s vehicle.
I thought, ‘Well, if they shot his truck he must be injured. Let’s go look for him in the hospital.’ I never imagined everything that came next, everything that was going to happen.
Pedro was abducted while he was on his way to pick up his assistant, Gerardo Montiel. Gerardo, 32, saw men in police uniforms shooting at his boss’s truck, and ran to try to help Pedro. The men abducted him, too.
He told me he’d been asked to work with Safe Veracruz. And I said, ‘No, honey, it's very risky’ … And he said, ‘No, love, I want us to have a better life.’
The co-opting of the police caused a surge in all manner of crime in Veracruz. Kidnappings for ransom, like Gerson’s, became common, and so did abductions from homes and public places. That’s what happened to Jonattan, Geovani and Luis Ángel.
Jonattan Rosales was a 25-year-old customs broker who loved to surf and skateboard. He was at home eating breakfast with his girlfriend on a July morning in 2013 when four armed men burst in and forced them out the door.
We started to look for them. We went out until four or five in the morning, but nothing.
Geovani Palmero, 21, was a loan officer at a bank. On the night of January 25, 2014, he left a party at his boss’s house to meet up with a friend downtown.
I woke up the next morning and he wasn’t home – and he never didn’t come home. So we started to search. I called his boss, I called his friends, his colleagues, nobody knew anything.
Luis Ángel Castillo, 23, ran a small gold trading operation out of his family living room. It paid the bills, but his dream was opening a gym of his own. In the early evening on July 11, 2014, he was at home with his mother and sister when five gunmen burst through the front gate and forced him to the floor.
I felt so guilty for not being able to help him. When he was little, I could protect him. But now – against five men with guns, I couldn’t help him. It was impossible.
I don’t totally remember because I blocked things out – my mother says that when they were dragging him away, I tried to drag him back in – and they put the gun to my head and said, ‘Do you want to die?’
They only hit me in the head. But they took him.
I went to the Ministerial Police here in Cardel… [The officer] said he was probably taken because he was a thief, a drunk, that I was lying. She said so many things. She did nothing.
The Navy will only help you if you go and you say, they’re holding my son in this house, at this address ... But how can we investigate something that involves safe houses and an armed gang? Am I going to go and say, ‘Hey, don’t shoot me, um, you have my son?’
At the anti-kidnapping unit, the first investigator was a young, smart fellow who did a good job. But in a very short time, he was moved off our case.
I went to see a senior state police official, to ask him what he knew. I walked in with Pedro’s wife. Before we could even say anything, he spread his arms out and said, ‘Ah, the widows – welcome to my Safe Veracruz.’ And I thought – but wait, how does he know I am a widow? Why does he think my husband is dead?
Some of my son’s co-workers told me, ‘Mr. René, Geovani’s car is at the transit police station.’ When they told me that, I breathed a sigh of relief. I said, ‘I’m going to see what happened.’
Just before noon, René got to the station to ask about his son. The police told him Geovani was pulled over on the boulevard downtown and brought in at three in the morning. They said he took a breathalyzer test and left an hour later.
So René went right next door to the public ministry to report Geovani missing.
The officials would not open a case, and told him to come back when Geovani had been missing for 72 hours. When he went back three days later, the meeting went no better.
I realized I’m not going to get any of the help I need here to find my son.
As days went by with no answers, René filed an injunction to force the police to investigate, and petitioned the state Human Rights Commission for help. But he saw no progress. So he:
I became an expert in deciphering the coordinates of cell phones. The Ministerial Police chief said to me, ‘You ought to be a cop’ because of all the work I did. Things they hadn’t even thought about.
Geovani’s cellphone placed him at the transit police office at 3:56 a.m., just before the time that the officers told René that Geovani had left the station. But then it pinged there again at 4:56 a.m. And then again each hour until 7:11 a.m., when the signal dropped.
Then, 26 hours later, it pinged again in different parts of the city – the same neighbourhoods, at the same times, as the signals from the officers’ phones.
We have lost so much – jobs, house, money – and our health has suffered, we’ve had many ailments, but it doesn’t matter what you have to do when you’re trying to find him.
It was obvious that it was very risky, that the whole situation was extremely dangerous ... But we couldn’t abandon him, not for a moment.
I gave DNA to the prosecutors three different times. They lost all three.
Every time we made a report, the authorities had no intention of helping us, no intention of looking for him. We were always on our own – until we gathered a group of mothers.
All over the country, parents of the disappeared were doing the same: forming organizations to search together, and to put pressure on authorities to investigate. By the time Basilia joined a Veracruz group called El Solecito (the Little Sun), there were parent collectives in almost every city, in every state.
We went to jails.
The maximum security prisons.
I checked the hospitals.
Psychiatric hospitals. We took photos of our sons.
We knew that narcos were taking people who did jobs that they needed, and because he was studying nursing … we had hope that perhaps they took him to help with those who are injured.
We went to Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Baja California, Tijuana, Culiacán.
I went to morgues. I saw more than 300 corpses, always with the sense of fear you get when you see a dead body.
You deteriorate. You get exhausted. Physically, economically and mentally. It’s agony … you get to a point that you wonder, would it be better if they came back dead, if at least they came back?
While more and more people disappeared, and more families joined the search, the grave was growing.
We thought there might be bodies, because of the state of the ground, because of all of the clothes that were there – and shoes, and cups, pop bottles, black garbage bags. You could see that there had been people there. And there was this sad feeling and it smelled horrible.
When we started the Collective, we started to do marches on [Mother’s Day], because for a mother with a child who is Disappeared, there is nothing to celebrate on that day.
On one of those marches we were approached by two young men who gave us papers. That afternoon when I got home and opened that paper, it was a map that said ‘here is where you will find your children.’
There were directions, there were lots of small crosses above a lake. And they had written ‘bodies’ – that we should go search there.
And that’s how the search at Colinas started. We asked for the help of the prosecutor’s office. This was in May. By August, the prosecutors arranged for us to go in and search.
And then came the surprise that in fact there was a clandestine cemetery there.
I am Don Lupe Contreras. We are in Colinas de Santa Fe.
Since the disappearance of my son, I have devoted myself to searching. Sometimes alone, sometimes with help. But always searching.
I’m here because of a commitment to the mothers, to the pain they feel. I understand it because I also feel it ... I made a commitment to the Colectivo Solecito to finish [excavating] Colinas de Santa Fe.
To me it was something new, how to search, how to find someone … how to scrape the soil, how to push a spike into the ground to check if there are any remains there. … You drive a spike into the ground and it will smell.
It was August 8, 2016 when we found the first grave.
Two people were working over by the entrance and I came here alone. And we found these, here.
And since then, well, we’ve found and found and found.
Some are inside bags, others are just covered with bags. The majority of them were dismembered. But not in the same way. So I don’t think it was just one person who did all this.
Look, for me the most difficult thing here in Colinas de Santa Fe was Grave 49.
Because the body was still intact. And when I found it we saw a part of the leg, white. You could sink your finger in… That’s what affected me the most.
Every time that we opened a grave, I said, Will it be you? Will you be here?
The day he was found, or rather the day that his grave was opened, I was there. I was there too, digging.
You dig, you remove the earth, but if you see a bag or a femur or a skull, then you step away, you can’t dig more – or else you could destroy the evidence. So that grave stayed like that until the experts could take out what was found.
They didn’t tell me it was him for another month and a half.
I never imagined that I was digging or shifting the sand in the very place where my son was buried, there below.
They are human beings who don’t deserve what happened to them. You have feelings here that you can’t understand because you haven’t seen it, you haven’t lived it.
It’s frustrating – one thinks one is prepared for this call. But the truth is, we’re not prepared for this call. It’s so sad, and it ends the hope. It ends your faith that you will find him alive.
On the telephone they tell you to come to the prosecutor’s office with a relative.
The meeting was for us and another family. It was full of people – psychologists, biologists, forensic people. Which was a joke, really, because we would never see those psychologists again.
It took maybe a half hour at most …They explained that they found some graves, that in these graves were various remains, that they catalogue them by number, each skull gets a number and they match them to DNA samples, in our case to those of my parents.
The Solecitos trusted only the federal forensic police lab to analyze the remains found at Colinas. But the lab had just a couple of technicians processing DNA for thousands of bodies found across Mexico. Many were found dismembered, in graves with multiple unidentified people, so tens of thousands of bone fragments had to be tested. The forensic police tested skulls first – since every skull clearly represented another person.
They said, we will give you the skull and if later we find a little bone you can open the grave and put it in. And I said, I don’t want this. I want him complete, all the pieces of him. Not like this. Why are they giving him to me like this?
The government says, ‘It is very, very expensive – we already told you we had identified the skull, and now you want the whole body – it would be so much money.’
They gave him to us in a little box, because there were only very small pieces of him.
After they had the DNA match, they told me it would take a while, because they had been found in pieces. And that because he was with Pedro, they didn’t know whose arm was whose and so on.
I was only told about the DNA. I didn’t know what else they had found. I learned about the other things from [the Solecitos], because they have the little book where they make a list … I said, ‘Can you check what was in grave 59?’ And it said, a Calvin Klein shirt, white, with long sleeves and blue stripes. And size medium pants, a wallet.
They found clues in those graves. Where Arturo was found there was a bracelet, socks, sneakers, a t-shirt. Those graves were found in the middle of September 2016. If I had seen a photo of the clothes found in that grave, I would have known right away, that was my son’s. But they only notified me in July 2017.
I preferred it when I thought he was alive. But it’s crushing – you think about it constantly. Where is he? Is he alive? Is he dead? So it’s also a relief – I was so desperate.
For me it struck me very hard – because you lose the hope that he is alive and the pain grows exponentially. How do you come home and say to your family that your son was in a clandestine grave?
To date, 18 people found in the grave have been returned to their families. They include: José Antonio Diez, a prosperous businessman who was running for mayor of his town when he disappeared. Vicente Colorado, a mechanic and father of two who was dragged from his bed one night by men in police uniforms. Manuel Llinas, 22, who was working as a bouncer and saving cash for engineering school; he didn’t come home from work one night in 2014. And three more of the men taken in the Cardel raid.
The government of Veracruz refused to confirm whether anyone else found in the grave has been identified. The Solecitos know of no others.
The named are all men. But there were many items found buried with the bodies, including indications some of the victims were women. Some graves contained breast implants – they stay intact even as the body around them decomposes. There were also many clues that could have formed the basis of an investigation.
The bodies of the women exhumed from the grave, and of the unidentified men, sit in refrigerated trailers and in boxes in state government offices, waiting for forensic analysis or for someone to claim them.
The authorities, like the new prosecutor, say to me, ‘Well, we found him!’ I said, He’s been found – but no thanks to you. Not by you, and not by the government … He was found thanks to the scientific police, and the mothers from El Solecito, who were there. But not by you.
And because he’s been found, I’m not going to stop pushing for justice. The opposite. I will keep going.
After they gave me the forensic exam of his body, I said to the police, ‘Well, now there’s a body, so now I want to know who killed him and why.’
But the families soon realized that although they now had clear evidence of murder, even that was not enough to spur authorities to act. They continued to experience the same kinds of delays and obstructions that had slowed their search for the missing.
Why do they disappear the bodies? Because, when there is no body, there is no crime. It’s a way for the authorities to avoid the whole thing.
While investigating state-criminal collusion and impunity in the state of Veracruz in 2016, the watchdog organization Crisis Group found consistent patterns of obstruction that mirrored the experiences of the nine families.
Through coercion from superiors and organised crime groups, as well as payoffs offered to officers, the resources of the State Police were refitted to serve criminal purposes. One way was to adopt a passive response to crime. Officers were explicitly instructed to reject citizens’ requests of help and assistance…
The report concluded there was a deliberate effort by state institutions to protect criminal interests.
An alliance between criminal groups and the highest levels of local political power paved the way to an unbridled campaign of violence through the capture of local judicial and security institutions, guaranteeing impunity for both sides.
As these nine families were searching for their missing, Human Rights Watch was tracking disappearance investigations across Mexico and found that systematic obstruction was common. In a 2013 report, the group examined disappearances carried out by both state and criminal actors.
There is strong evidence that 149 of the 249 abductions Human Rights Watch investigated for this report were enforced disappearances involving public security personnel. Members of all of the security forces participating in public security operations – federal, state, and municipal police, the Army, and the Navy, as well as judicial police – are implicated in the cases.
Beyond failing to resolve individual cases and exacerbating a general climate of impunity, these investigative failures allow security forces and criminal groups that carry out multiple disappearances to strike again.
They knew everything … but they had total impunity. In other cases they take your report, they send people to go and search immediately – but they didn’t want to, and it was because they were obstructing the path. So that it didn’t go forward.
Three years after Arturo and the rest of the young men in Cardel were taken, a direct witness came forward to say it was the state police working with Operation Safe Veracruz who abducted them. An internal investigation exonerated the Navy, and no further action was taken against the police force.
They didn’t actually want to figure out who did it and hold them accountable… they only did it to prove that it wasn’t them, that it was the state police. And that’s where the investigation was left.
After Pedro and Gerardo were taken, people from the neighbourhood recognized the person on lookout duty for the shooters. When he was arrested, he named the neighbourhood cartel boss as the person who’d tasked him with the job.
Both were sentenced to 60 years for kidnapping, but acquitted on appeal. Griselda has tried without success to have new charges laid for murder.
The two that they caught and put in jail were those at the bottom of the ladder. But the ones who sent them to carry out this execution? They’re not going to detain them.
Of the four men who took Jonattan and his girlfriend, one has been identified and convicted. But he refused to name the other three, and he has not been charged with murder.
One person, the friend who lured him to the convenience store, was convicted in Gerson’s kidnapping; three other cartel footsoldiers are in jail awaiting trial.
Of the four transit police officers shown through René’s investigation to have abducted Geovani, two have been charged – with disappearance – and only one was convicted.
They say that at that time, the transit police stations were controlled by the Zetas. If you didn’t give them money, they forced you to go and get it out of an account. I think they beat him and he died, and then they looked for a group they worked with to bury him.
But there has been no further investigation to prove this theory or find out why a traffic stop turned deadly.
What I want to know is, which was the first case, and how is it connected to the next one. ... It would be good to know the whole story. Maybe one story leads to the next to the next, in sequence, through seasons, by characters, by perpetrator.
Even with only six per cent of the victims identified and minimal investigation, a faint picture emerges from the grave of the nexus of government authorities and organized crime that allows this to happen.
But all nine men ended up buried here.
To complete the picture, everyone would need to be identified.
And all of their cases investigated all the way up to the intellectual authors.
This is one site with 155 graves.
The data on clandestine graves across Mexico was compiled by Alejandra Guillén, Mago Torres, and David Eads for #MéxicoPaísdeFosas, a project of A Dónde Van Los Desaparecidos and Quinto Elemento Lab published in November 2018 and generously shared with The Globe and Mail.
With thanks to Marcela Turati and Mago Torres at Quinto Elemento; Dr. Alberto Olvera Rivera at the Universidad Veracruzana; Lucía Díaz Genao of the Solecitos.
3D model photo texture composited by DroneDeploy.