How a Grieving Father Is Uncovering Mexico’s Mass Graves


Guadalupe Contreras knew demise was within the subject. It was a September morning in 2017, and the 60-year-old former mason had met a dozen or so folks, wearing boots and scruffy denims, on the outskirts of Veracruz, Mexico, at an space referred to as Colinas de Santa Fe. In a sandy pasture, surrounded by inexperienced hills, Contreras and the others rummaged by way of heaps of shovels and surgical masks. Then, one after the other, they took five-foot iron rods, fanned out, and commenced hammering them into the earth. Every time they pulled out a rod, they sniffed the tip for decay. They have been looking for our bodies. They have been looking for their family members.

They labored for hours within the torrid warmth and located nothing. Round noon, Contreras bashed his rod into the bottom once more. This time, the tip had a well-known scent, harking back to low cost fragrance and rotting meat. He had breathed it a whole lot of instances. It adopted him all over the place. It clung to his garments and his hair and his ideas. He set the rod on the bottom and referred to as for the others. He knew what awaited him down within the grime.

THE BODY WASN’T Contreras’ first. He makes his dwelling discovering corpses and has proved adept on the job, even in contrast with different grave hunters. The actual physique he discovered that September day had been dismembered, wrapped in 4 plastic luggage, and buried about three toes underground—little doubt the handiwork of a drug cartel. When Contreras seemed inside the baggage, “there was nonetheless flesh on the bones,” he mentioned not too long ago. Since 2014, he has recovered some 300 our bodies in equally unmarked narco graves, many at Colinas de Santa Fe. The location might be the biggest clandestine mass grave ever present in Mexico. Greater than 250 our bodies, in 150 burial trenches, have been recovered on the website since Colectivo Solecito—a bunch of households whose relations have vanished, for whom Contreras now works—found it in 2016. And the search is much from over.

Since Mexico’s drug battle started in 2006, some 37,000 folks have “disappeared” all through the nation, and three,600 within the state of Veracruz alone. However Martín Gabriel Barron Cruz, a criminologist at Mexico’s Nationwide Institute of Legal Science, believes that the variety of disappearances could far exceed the official toll, owing to authorities and police corruption and a fearful public. “Individuals don’t know who to belief,” he instructed me this spring, “in order that they do nothing moderately than threat placing themselves or different relations at risk.”

Contreras holds up a photo of his son.
Contreras holds up a photograph of his son. Sebastian Castaneda Vita


Over the previous a number of years, nonetheless, households of the vanished—moderately than depend on the authorities—have taken restoration efforts into their very own arms and turned to grave hunters like Contreras for assist. “It’s not a job you do to get wealthy,” he instructed me. The work isn’t simple, so “it’s important to have a great purpose to do it.” And he does.

On that September day in 2017, Contreras, not like the grieving moms and dads with him, had no actual expectation of discovering a relative at Colinas de Santa Fe. However he knew the ache of getting a liked one disappear; he’d endured it himself. He’d misplaced a son. That’s why he’d come. That’s why he retains looking.

ON A SATURDAY MORNING in Could, I adopted Contreras right into a forest 40 minutes exterior Veracruz. Skinny and grizzled, with a wispy mustache, he seems to be older than his 60 years, however he moved by way of the undergrowth nimbly. He first gained consideration for his work in 2015 when he discovered 68 our bodies within the hills exterior Iguala, his hometown, within the southwestern state of Guerrero. However his work has since introduced him right here, to Veracruz, on the gulf, some 400 miles away. As his apprentice, a person named Gonzalo, cleared the comb with a machete, Contreras scanned the bottom. “It’s unlikely we’ll discover a physique,” he mentioned in Spanish, coughing by way of cigarette smoke. “However you by no means know. That is Mexico, in spite of everything.”

In different Latin American international locations, comparable to Chile and Argentina, desaparecidos, or the disappeared, have tended to be political dissidents whom authorities or rival factions abduct and kill to neutralize as a risk. However in Mexico, organized crime bears a lot of the blame for the vanishings, and for 150,000 confirmed deaths over the previous decade. Cartels, in a wrestle for dominance, have disappeared not solely journalists, politicians, and rival gang members but in addition harmless civilians, they usually’ve infiltrated politics and legislation enforcement to train and additional reinforce their management. María Mora is a member of Colectivo Solecito whose son was allegedly kidnapped by plainclothes cops in 2014. “The place will we go if the people who find themselves representing us gained’t assist or are concerned within the crime?” she requested me. “What can we do?”

Contreras and different grave hunters have supplied a solution. “We’re pressured to do what the federal government gained’t,” he defined, as he kicked by way of the comb. “If the state will not work for us, then we have now to work for ourselves.”

Contreras smells the end of an iron rod to determine whether a body might be buried underground.
Contreras smells the tip of an iron rod to find out whether or not a physique could be buried underground. Sebastian Castaneda Vita


We quickly came across a clearing. When trying to find our bodies, Contreras seems to be for clues, like alterations in soil colour, depressions within the grime, or disturbed vegetation. “When you see any of these indicators, that’s when it’s important to stick the rod into the bottom,” he mentioned. “You then take it out and sniff.” He hammered a four- and-a-half-foot rod into the earth, extracted it, and lifted it to my nostril. It smelled like damp soil. Had the aroma been foul, “that’s while you dig,” he mentioned.

As we continued, he walked backwards and forwards in a line, inspecting the bottom intently. “Take a look at that!” he immediately shouted. A couple of yards away, a rag coated in crimson blotches lay strewn among the many weeds. He rushed over and straightened the tattered material together with his rod. He knelt, picked it up, and dug his nails into the stains. Then he sniffed. “False alarm,” he mentioned. “It’s simply crimson paint.”

“There are such a lot of traps like that,” Gonzalo defined. Some timber scent like rot, and buried trash and buried animals also can lead a search astray, he added.

“The place will we go if the people who find themselves representing us gained’t assist or are concerned within the crime? What can we do?”

As we headed again to the automotive, Contreras started to elucidate how he ended up on this macabre line of labor. “I didn’t come searching for violence,” he mentioned. “It got here searching for me.”

BEFORE CONTRERAS DUG for corpses, he made tombstones for them, having spent most of his grownup life as a mason. He was effectively appreciated by his colleagues and labored laborious to help his spouse and their 5 kids. Most days, he went from residence to work and again uneventfully. In his free time, he loved ingesting beers with buddies. “It was a great life, a simple life,” he recalled.

Maybe his favourite pastime was watching soccer together with his 28-year-old son, Antonio, with whom he was shut. Slim with wavy black hair, Antonio was Contreras’ third youngster and shared his father’s fanaticism for the sport. Contreras cheered for Membership Deportivo Guadalajara and Antonio for Membership Necaxa, so at any time when the groups performed, they’d demand that whoever’s membership misplaced needed to put on the successful workforce’s jersey for per week. Even after Antonio moved out to dwell together with his girlfriend, he stopped by recurrently for recommendation or to borrow a number of pesos from his father.

Then, someday, in October 2012, Antonio disappeared.

It was a Monday, and Antonio, an electrician and mechanic, had spent the weekend on the store the place he labored whereas his boss ran errands. That morning, Antonio, relieved of his duties, set off on the brand new 150cc scooter he’d purchased a number of days earlier than.

Family members of desaparecidos.
Relations of desaparecidos. Sebastian Castaneda Vita


What occurred subsequent stays unsure. However primarily based on data Contreras later gathered, Antonio first visited a buddy’s home and chatted for a couple of minutes earlier than driving to a automotive dealership to repay a debt. Subsequent, he stopped for a Corona. “After that, we all know nothing,” Contreras mentioned.

Contreras was at residence when he heard the information; he refused to just accept it. Contreras was a succesful man. A person who constructed and glued issues. A person answerable for his life and every part in it. However immediately, he had no concept what to do. He didn’t belief legislation enforcement; he feared that if he got here ahead, the remainder of his household would possibly endure the identical destiny as Antonio. And although he didn’t need to admit it, neither out loud nor to himself, he knew that his son wouldn’t come residence alive. He knew that Antonio was useless.

Days handed, then weeks, and no phrase from Antonio or his kidnappers ever got here. Contreras’ shock turned to ache. He grew determined to search out out what had occurred, to know the reality. He started visiting deserted buildings, rubbish dumps, tough neighborhoods, the properties of drug sellers—searching for suggestions or clues. “I used to be aware of the hazard, however I wasn’t scared,” he mentioned. “These items don’t actually matter you while you’ve misplaced a baby.”

Then, in February 2013, after almost a 12 months with no hint of his son, Contreras had a breakthrough: A man he knew from his outdated neighborhood, who had connections to organized crime, agreed to search out out all he may about Antonio’s disappearance.

Inside weeks, he confirmed Contreras’ deepest concern: Antonio had been killed. Native delinquents had robbed and murdered him for his new scooter, then buried him exterior the close by hamlet of Mexcaltepec. Worse but, Antonio had identified his killer. “One of many guys had gone to high school with my son,” Contreras mentioned. “It was simpler to homicide him than to threat Antonio going to the police.”

Contreras’ spouse, Guillermina Mata, struggled to return to phrases with the information. Grief-stricken, she stopped taking her cirrhosis tablets, and Contreras feared that she was letting herself die. In August 2013, his suspicion grew to become actuality. Having refused therapy, she died in a hospital, leaving Contreras alone for the primary time after 36 years of marriage.

Guillermina’s demise additional rocked Contreras and his 4 surviving kids. “My life accomplice left me in what was already one of many worst moments of my life,” he mentioned. But he didn’t cease his search. His kids frightened about his security and begged him to stop, fearing that they may lose him, too. However he refused to relent. He felt as if part of him have been lacking, a component that he needed to discover.

He wanted proof that Antonio was gone. He wanted a physique. He wanted to maintain trying: “It saved my thoughts targeted; it gave me a purpose to hold on.”

Contreras and Rosa Garcia Ramon, a member of Colectivo Solecito.
Contreras and Rosa Garcia Ramon, a member of Colectivo Solecito. Sebastian Castaneda Vita


In November 2014, he and the opposite relations of desaparecidos fashioned a collective, referred to as Los Otros Desaparecidos, and commenced scouring the hills exterior Iguala and Mexcaltepec for indicators of their family members. After three days of toiling, Contreras discovered his first physique. Nevertheless it wasn’t Antonio’s. Nonetheless, folks generally spent months looking for a grave to no avail; Contreras had uncovered one in days.

Over the subsequent 12 months and a half, he discovered 67 extra corpses, together with these of seven police- males. He was efficient, partially, as a result of he had looked for demise earlier than. Within the early 1970s, as a Crimson Cross volunteer, he’d recovered corpses and dug graves after pure disasters devastated his hometown. “He wasn’t scared,” Juan Jesús Canaán Ramírez, a founding father of Los Otros Desaparecidos, later instructed me. “Nor was he repulsed or intimidated by the horrible smells.”

One factor did unnerve Contreras, nonetheless. “Each time I used to be looking,” he mentioned, “I felt an anxiousness that, at any second, I used to be going to find my son.”

BY 2016, AFTER almost two years of trying, Contreras had little concept whether or not he was any nearer to discovering Antonio. However he supposed to maintain roaming the hills exterior Iguala till he did. However his plan quickly diverged.

On Mom’s Day of that 12 months, in Veracruz, a whole lot of miles away, members of Colectivo Solecito have been tipped off in regards to the mass grave at Colinas de Santa Fe. They have been handed a notice, presumably by cartel members, which alleged that Veracruz state governor Javier Duarte and the native police had aided within the disappearance of their relations. (In 2016, Duarte fled Mexico after being charged with embezzlement and dealing with organized crime. In 2017, he was extradited from Guatemala and awaits trial.) The notice additionally included a hand-drawn map to the sandy clearing out- facet city. “I suppose they felt sorry for us,” Lucía Díaz, one in all Colectivo Solecito’s founding members, instructed the press. “Possibly they have been pondering of their very own moms.”

“Final 12 months, we acquired so many our bodies from unmarked graves that they have been spilling out of the mortuary and onto the road.”

Not sure of the right way to comb the realm, the group employed Contreras, who had by then gained notoriety for his grisly discoveries, and two different searchers from Iguala. Within the first week, they discovered nothing. The sandy soil made disturbances or abnormalities within the earth laborious to determine. “However once we began to search out the our bodies,” Contreras mentioned, “we didn’t cease.”

Inside weeks, the three males had positioned and dug up 75 unmarked graves. Afterward, the opposite males returned residence, however Contreras pledged to remain in Veracruz and assist Colectivo Solecito, which, in flip, agreed to offer him with board and a modest weekly wage. However he didn’t take the job for the cash. He knew that there have been extra our bodies to be discovered and exhumed, even when Antonio’s in all probability wasn’t one in all them. He had an obligation to search out them, since so few different folks may.

AFTER TREKKING THROUGH the woods, Contreras and I finished by Colinas de Santa Fe, the place he now works most days. An armed police officer stood earlier than the padlocked entrance, guaranteeing that journalists, like me, couldn’t enter, so we parked exterior the gate. Within the almost three years since Contreras moved to Veracruz, his life has fallen right into a predictable routine. Every morning he wakes at 7, attire, and gathers the iron rods, shovels, and different provides he wants for the day. After breakfast, a federal police officer picks him up and drives him right here, to Colinas de Santa Fe. At night time, he returns to the home he shares with two different gravediggers, eats supper, smokes cigarettes, and calls his household.

It’s a monotonous life, and Contreras’ work has numbed and jaded him. However in some ways, he’s nonetheless like the opposite moms and dads of the disappeared. He struggles with the incertitude of Antonio’s vanishing, and when nobody is round, he nonetheless cries for his son. He misses his 4 youngsters and 22 grandkids. (“They ring me with their issues on a regular basis. I’m miles away, and I can’t remedy any of them.”) However his work in Veracruz places wanted distance between him and his grief. Returning to Iguala would possible show overwhelming and drive him to consider Antonio greater than he already does. Not less than in Veracruz, he’s serving to others of their struggling, moderately than drowning privately in his personal.

On the final day I spent with Contreras, we visited a cemetery 50 minutes north of Veracruz. The headstones and tombs have been dusty and a few ill-kept. However not like these on the mass burial websites, no less than every grave had a reputation.

Contreras stops by the tomb of Octavio Colorado Mora, a mechanic whose body he found at a mass-burial site.
Contreras stops by the tomb of Octavio Colorado Mora, a mechanic whose physique he discovered at a mass-burial website. Sebastian Castaneda Vita


As we walked a dusty path, Contreras appeared neither content material nor unhappy, decided nor resigned—solely distant. He motioned to a tomb that had a six-foot crucifix. He mentioned the plot belonged to Octavio Colorado Mora, a neighborhood mechanic. Earlier that afternoon, I’d spoken with Mora’s mom, who alleged that, in Could 2014, cops had kidnapped her son from his residence. They didn’t ask for ransom, she mentioned, so she didn’t know what grew to become of him till January of this 12 months, when his stays have been recognized. “I discovered him within the Colinas de Santa Fe,” Contreras mentioned.

Of the a whole lot of our bodies which have been recovered at Colinas de Santa Fe, Octavio’s is one in all solely a dozen or so which have been recognized. The low conversion owes principally to administrative issues. Mexico, till not too long ago, didn’t have a nationwide DNA data- base, and most state forensic departments are unstaffed or lack enough funding. Consequently, circumstances are sometimes delayed or misplaced, or DNA analyses by no means carried out—one other impediment for households in the hunt for the vanished. In the meantime, our bodies proceed to fill Mexico’s morgues.

Guadalupe Melo Santiesteban heads the Institute of Forensic Medication on the College of Veracruz, the place coroners carry out autopsies. “Final 12 months, we acquired so many our bodies from unmarked graves that they have been spilling out of the mortuary and onto the road,” she mentioned. Her workforce needed to put up a tent within the yard in order that the general public wouldn’t see the our bodies.

However till one thing modifications, justice and demise stay in limbo. A number of households I spoke with instructed me that the query of whether or not a liked one was useless or alive had destroyed their lives, a lot because it has Contreras’. “If my son is useless, I’m fairly certain we’ve already discovered him,” Contreras instructed me. “I searched all of Mexcaltepec, and I discovered 18 our bodies there. However as a result of the DNA hasn’t been processed, I gained’t know for a very long time.”

Within the meantime, he should dwell with uncertainty. He doesn’t need the previous to loom over the current or to have to wonder if Antonio has already been discovered. “All I need is for this to finish,” he mentioned.

As we walked again to the automotive, I watched as two younger males, who appeared to be crying, laid flowers at a grave. Contreras glanced at them, maybe with envy, maybe with disappointment. However he mentioned nothing. He simply hauled himself into the again seat and stared forward. Tomorrow he’d wake at 7 a.m. to start out looking once more. And every time he smelled demise on the finish of his rod, it might cross his thoughts, nonetheless briefly, that possibly the invention would free a household of doubt, that possibly this time, he’d discover some reduction down within the grime—if not for himself, no less than for another person.


This story seems within the November 2018 print situation, with the headline “The Grave Hunter.”

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