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

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.

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