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The first time I went to Colinas de Santa Fe, it was the tail end of a long, hot day of reporting. I stopped to grab snacks and water at the convenience store by the entrance to the neighbourhood. And I got chatting with the clerk at the cash register, a guy in his 30s.
He asked what brought me – an obvious gringa – to Colinas, a scruffy suburb on the edge of the port city of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’m a journalist,” I told him.
And before I could say more, he cut me off.
“Oh, so you’re going to the mass grave,” he said matter-of-factly.
Yes, I said, to the grave.
And I asked him what he knew about it.
Well, he told me, we saw the cars going up there – state police cars, and municipal police cars, and lots of unmarked white vans. I saw them out the window of the store here, because the entrance road is right there in front.
So you knew? I asked. People knew what was happening there?
We didn’t exactly know, the clerk told me. We didn’t ask questions. But we could imagine.
Over the course of a half-dozen years, the scrubby patch of forest on an old ranch beside Colinas de Santa Fe became the largest mass grave in Latin America. The bodies of at least 298 people were dumped there. But the thing I hadn’t understood, until I stood by the cash register and looked out the window, was that it wasn’t secret. In Mexico it’s called a fosa clandestina, but there was nothing clandestine about it. There was no attempt to hide what happened there. In fact, it was quite the opposite; by pushing back the trees and creating a mass burial ground right next to a bustling neighbourhood, the people who made it exhibited their power, their control and their impunity. There were plenty of other ways they could have disposed of those bodies, but creating the grave was the point.
While I was working as the Globe’s Latin America correspondent, my editors and I were looking for ways to tell the story of how, despite dramatic political and economic change in Mexico, the enmeshed problems of violence and corruption continued to plague the country. Typically those stories are reported with a blizzard of grim data, and it can be hard for a reader to grasp what it feels like to live, as a citizen, in a country where so little effort is made to protect or serve you.
We decided to tell the story through the phenomenon of Disappearances, because it brings together most of the key issues confronting Mexico today: violence and public insecurity; corruption; organized crime and state capture; poverty and social vulnerability; and impunity and weak justice and governance.
Disappearances aren’t unique to Mexico: they were a feature of military dictatorships of Argentina, Chile and Brazil, for example. There is a brutal degree of terror that comes with causing people to simply vanish. Murders, or executions, cause horrific grief for the loved ones of the victim – but they also provide an ending. When someone is Disappeared, though, it leaves panic, uncertainty, anguish, and it doesn’t end. It’s an insidious method of social control.
At least 66,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since the start of the “war on drugs” in 2006, so clearly there would be no shortage of stories to tell, and the next question was, what was the right one to help a Globe reader understand how this feels, how it works.
The challenge of reporting on the missing, of course, is that they’re missing. The story is obscured. There are thousands of families living with that pain, but their stories can’t help to explain the how or the why, because they don’t know it themselves. To tell the story of the Disappeared, we would need to tell the story of the relatively few who have been found. And I thought about Colinas, which I had visited while reporting on insecurity. When I went to the grave for the first time, parents had been excavating for about five months, and it was clear that hundreds of people were buried there. Already there were signs that they included migrants who had been trafficked, low-level narcos caught in the fighting and kidnapping victims. There were the bodies of men and women, and, one of the searching parents told me, they had dug up a skeleton of what looked like a young teenager.
This grave, and the stories of the victims who came to be buried there, would be a way to show the tight nexus of organized crime and the state, and the devastating impact of the violence it wrought.
When I began the reporting in earnest in the late autumn of 2018, a handful of victims were known to have been returned to their families, and I started with them. I met Basilia Bonastre, the mother of Arturo Figueroa, for the first time at a crowded café in downtown Veracruz. As she was telling me the story of the night Arturo, a 20-year-old nursing student, vanished, she stopped suddenly and nodded her head towards the next table. She’d caught a snatch of the conversation the couple seated there was having – about the news of a young woman who had disappeared a few days before, how her parents were searching, how she must have been mixed up in something sketchy to be taken like that. “You see,” Ms. Bonastre said to me, her face grim. “That’s what people say. If they take you, you deserved it somehow. Everyone thinks that. Until it happens to them.”
Meanwhile my colleagues in Toronto – the digital storytelling team of Laura Blenkinsop, Jeremy Agius and Timothy Moore – were grappling with how best to tell this story. We wanted to bring you as close as possible to the experience the families had. Many of the family members had been to the grave to search, and we were trying to imagine a way to visually represent the place, experimenting with what technology could help. We also had the idea that if we could colour code the individual burial sites by perpetrator, and track when and how the victims went missing, it might reveal something about the relationship between the crimes.
To represent the grave, we need to know what was in it.
How many individual graves existed at Colinas, and how did they relate to each other? All I could give the design team at that point was an incomplete set of blurry photocopies showing generally where some were. If we were going to figure out if there were any relationships between the burial sites, we would have to build our own map.
As the months went by, I tried to find more families. I traced rumours and social media accounts – the majority of disappearances in Mexico don’t get reported because families fear retribution or because the same authorities one might report to are involved. If families do recover remains, they often keep it secret, afraid of the same stigma I encountered with Ms. Bonastre in that café. Working with Félix Márquez, the brilliant Mexican photographer whose pictures form the body of this story, sometimes joined by producers Karen Cota or Rafael Castillo, I knocked on doors in sketchy neighbourhoods and traced the paths of abductions. We had more than one encounter with truckloads of young men who were clearly cartel employees and made a number of nausea-inducing high-speed exits chauffeured by driver and security adviser Samuel López.
I submitted a freedom-of-information request to the Veracruz state government, which controls the grave site. They sent me a stack of papers explaining that, for privacy reasons, the state couldn’t tell me anything. A member of a family search group in Veracruz showed me a leaked list from the federal prosecutor’s office, of 17 people returned. Families were being told it was definitive. Yet I had already spoken to some of the families on the list who said their children were still missing and found the families of other victims from Colinas who were not on the list.
By now we had satellite pictures of the grave and some forensic data on locations from families, but we needed more visual information. In Toronto, my colleagues began testing automated flight apps, in empty lots north of the city, and animation programs for mapping and reconstructing 3D models of large, outdoor spaces.
This was new territory for the digital team, and they needed to know what a local drone operator in Veracruz would have to achieve.
To get into the grave, we petitioned the state prosecutor’s office for months. I went to see the governor of Veracruz (who told me his state was safer than Disneyland, then insisted he should send an armoured car with a military escort when I went to the grave site). I finally got permission to enter months later, with just a couple of hours’ notice. We met a federal police escort at that convenience store I’d been to years before. On a scorching May day, Mr. Márquez, Ms. Cota, Mr. López and I walked the site repeatedly, photographing each individual grave and noting its location in relation to others – while a drone pilot operated the machine overhead. We were guided by Guadalupe ‘Don Lupe’ Contreras, who had dug open most of the graves. (Days before this project was published, we learned that Don Lupe’s own son, for whom he’d been searching for eight years, had been identified among remains found in a grave in Guerrero, on the other side of the country.)
We shipped the recordings and images from Colinas de Santa Fe to Toronto, and Mr. Moore dove into it – hundreds of high-resolution drone photos and cellphone footage from the walkthrough. Some graves were clearly visible from the air and easily confirmed from ground level. Others were hidden under the tree canopy; he used 3D-animation programs to triangulate the images to make the most precise placement possible for each grave. At the same time, we were experimenting with the various ways we could present this to readers online and merge it with any data or other material we might collect, so Mr. Agius started to write the necessary custom code to bring these things together. Ms. Blenkinsop began to study the images and data and transcripts, thinking about how we could use them to make a story that would show a reader what was happening. When she and I build a story, I gather information in the field, and we synthesize and distill it together, crafting it into a narrative that the team uses to develop specific visual concepts.
By now I had identified 18 people who had been returned to their families and spoken with 14 of them. But few of these families had answers about who Disappeared their children; few had even managed to compel authorities to investigate, let alone convict. So what could we say about how and why the grave was created and grew? We struggled with these questions for months.
Finally, one day, as we once again studied our spreadsheets and our mountains of interview transcripts at each end of a phone line, Ms. Blenkinsop said to me, “The thing that keeps us from being able to show people the impunity – is the impunity.” Because the majority of those found in the grave have not been identified, because their cases have not been investigated or solved, because even though there has been a complete turnover of political power in Veracruz, there has been no accounting of who created the grave or why or who wound up buried there.
In the end, we couldn’t show you what we first hoped to show you at the grave, because of impunity. But we can show you what it is like to be these families, unable to get answers – and thus show you what an effective tool disappearance is for fracturing a society. And the model we built using the drone helps, in many different ways, to understand the place.
We knew we’d succeeded in that the first time we showed it to Mr. Márquez. He has covered Colinas de Santa Fe since the first time police went into the site looking for bodies, and he knows the terrain intimately. Nevertheless, he texted me after he saw it, “I couldn’t sleep last night … it gives you the feeling of just what it’s like to be there with them.”
Stephanie Nolen was the Globe’s Latin America correspondent from 2013 to 2018.