Thousands of Hidden Drug-War Corpses Lie in Mexico’s Mass Graves

"There are so many mass graves in Mexico, the country is starting to resemble a Swiss cheese," says one crime reporter

Sep 03, 2014 at 7:36 AM ET

DOS AGUAS, Mexico – The hole is at least 50 feet wide, with rocky edges that veer straight down. The bottom is so deep, it’s shrouded in complete darkness. Locals in this tiny village, tucked between the mountains in the central Mexican state of Michoacán, call it the Barranco del Manguito, the Gorge of the Mango. According to Rubén, the 34-year-old man who drove me here, the pit harbors a dark secret. He says it’s a narcofosa, a makeshift grave where drug traffickers dump the bodies of their victims.

“Several years ago, members of a local drug gang dumped an entire family here,” says Rubén, who asked that we not use his real name. “They were five or six people. They killed them over a drug deal gone wrong. They put their bodies in a pickup truck and pushed the whole thing down the hole. There could be other bodies, too. They always use places like this. It’s perfect, because no one even thinks of looking for bodies here.”

Though the hole is too deep, and its sides to steep for us to personally verify Rubén’s story, he does know the area and the local underworld. Before a wave of violence scared him into retirement, he worked as a driver and marijuana farmer for La Familia Michoacana, a now-defunct drug cartel that terrorized the region between 2006 and 2010.

As Mexico’s violent drug war rages on, the country has become marked with narco-graves. While more of them surface each month, critics say the government isn’t doing nearly enough to locate the dead. Some even accuse law enforcement officials of working with the cartels, allowing them not only to bury large numbers of victims with impunity, but also ensuring that the graves are never found.

Last Friday, authorities in Michoacán unearthed several clandestine graves in the vicinity of Lázaro Cárdenas, a Pacific port city some 60 miles to the east. Police dug up 10 bodies in five graves. It still isn’t known who the victims were, who killed them or when they were buried, but few doubt that the dead were casualties of the brutal gangland battles that have plagued Michoacán for the last seven years.

Since 2006, Mexican authorities have uncovered at least 174 narcofosas in 19 different states, containing more than 1,000 bodies. Most of the graves are small, like the ones found in Lázaro Cárdenas. Others resemble the gruesome killing fields of Cambodia and Bosnia. Between last November and February, authorities discovered three mass graves in Jalisco state, just across the border with Michoacán, recovering more than 100 bodies over the course of four months. The bodies showed signs of torture, decapitation, and were riddled with bullet wounds.

Most notorious were the narcofosas in San Fernando, a town in the northern state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. In 2010, the bodies of 72 massacred migrants were found in a warehouse. Less than a year later, a mass grave was discovered with the remains of 193 people. All of the victims were reportedly killed by Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.

“There are so many mass graves in Mexico, the country is starting to resemble a Swiss cheese,” says Jorge Reveles, a veteran crime reporter who has investigated narcofosas and written numerous books about the drug war. “The number of graves that hasn’t been found is infinitely larger than the number that has been discovered.”

Statistics support his theory. Last week, the Mexican government admitted that more than 22,000 people have gone missing since the drug war began in 2006, when then president Felipe Calderón deployed the military to combat the country’s drug cartels. That number is significantly higher than the 9,000 reported missing last year. And last Tuesday, the National Citizen Observatory, a crime watchdog, released a report indicating that Mexico now has more kidnappings than any other country in the world, with 0.8 kidnappings per 100,000 people.

But not only is the number of disappeared alarmingly high, critics also say that criminals can dump bodies wherever they want, in some cases even with the assistance of corrupt law enforcement officials. How else, they argue, would it be possible for anyone to bury dozens, sometimes hundreds of people without anyone noticing?

“It seems that a blind eye has been turned to organized crime, allowing them to disappear, kill and bury with ease,” wrote Ruben Martín, a columnist for the El Economista newspaper, after the graves in Jalisco state were found earlier this year. “It is a very serious issue that must be clarified.”

Moreover, many also criticize the way the fosas are being investigated. “Take the example of San Fernando, where the biggest graves were found,” says José Reveles. “There was no prosecutor in town to properly lead an investigation. Some of the bodies were damaged when they were taken out of the grave and the identification process took far too much time. It is an awful development for families of the disappeared, who often need to travel the whole country just to find out if their loved ones happened to have been found in a newly discovered mass grave.”

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has promised to ramp up the fight against organized crime. Part of his strategy is the formation of the Gendarmería, a new elite police unit working under the auspices of the Federal Police. This week saw the first deployment of 350 Gendarmería agents in Valle de Bravo, an affluent town near Mexico City, which has recently reported a wave of kidnappings.

But many doubt whether the current government is willing or able to solve the gruesome mysteries of Mexico’s disappeared and mass graves. “If you ask me, it’s all for show,” says the former pot farmer Rubén. “In Michoacán alone, there are graves everywhere, hundreds of people have disappeared. The authorities could easily find most of the fosas, but I feel that it just doesn’t interest them.”