GUANAJUATO, Mexico – Salvatierra, a city of some 34,000 in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, made news this week for the worst kind of reason: the discovery of 59 bodies in a cluster of clandestine graves.
“It is truly a cemetery there in Salvatierra. And I know that there will be more than 100 bodies there,” Norma Patricia Barron Nuñez, representative of the volunteer organization Una luz en mi camino (A light on my path), told EFE.
Eight days of excavations at the Barrio de San Juan site have unearthed 59 bodies, Mexico’s national commissioner for missing persons, Karla Quintana Osuna, said on Wednesday at a press conference.
But much of the field remains to be explored, according to Jose Gutierrez, the leader of another group devoted to the search for the missing.
“Very probably, we are talking about a number closer to 100 bodies than to the 59 we have right now,” he said in an interview with EFE.
Guanajuato is leading Mexico’s 32 states in homicides for the third consecutive year. Authorities say that 90 percent of the 3,438 murders committed in the first nine months of 2020 can be attributed to organized crime.
The state, home to much of the Mexican auto industry, has become the locus of a battle for supremacy between two powerful drug cartels, Jalisco Nueva Generacion and Santa Rosa de Lima.
But until this week, Salvatierra has remained largely untouched by the carnage, which is why the discovery of the hidden graves has come as such a shock to people in the area.
Norma Patricia Barron said that her organization decided, in coordination with the federal and state missing-persons commissions, to begin a search of Barrio de San Juan based on tips from citizens via social media.
“People tell us, ‘we hear that at night, one hears shouts, that they are chopping at the earth, we hear many things.’ So that is an alert signal from society itself for us to search in that field,” Barron said.
For families of the missing, watching the process is painful and at the same time offers a tantalizing prospect of finding long-lost loved ones.
“It is in some way the hope of having peace in our family,” in the words of Barron, who is searching for her husband, Juan, and son, 17-year-old Kevin, since they were kidnapped in June 2019 in Irapuato, 70km (43mi) from Salvatierra.
She acknowledges, however, that it is especially troubling to see machetes and shovels buried with the bodies.
The protocol for the excavations mandates that a psychologist be present to aid family members overcome by the experience.
The groups representing the families of the missing are now pressing authorities to expedite the identification of the bodies.
“They showed us a laboratory that is certified and the rest, but a laboratory that is not (adequately) supplied and which, in some cases, takes as long as a year to generate genetic profile tests of the missing people,” Gutierrez said.
He called for the establishment of a mechanism for the government to provide families with the information they need to determine if the bodies being recovered belong to their missing kin.
Mexico’s official register of missing persons includes the names of 77,171 people, some of them last seen in 1964. Nearly 4,100 clandestine graves have been detected in the last 14 years and just five states – Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Guerrero, Sinaloa and Zacatecas – account for more than half of that total.