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Sifting for answers in a mass grave in Tapachula, Mexico

Migrants travel through Mexico's Veracruz state atop a train. The disappearances of Central Americans headed to the U.S. went largely unnoticed until August 2010, when 72 migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were abducted and slain, execution-style, in the northeastern Mexico state of Tamaulipas, allegedly by gunmen from the Zetas gang.
(European Pressphoto Agency)

TAPACHULA, Mexico — With the first light of day, a team of investigators using shovels and brushes begins picking through the red dirt of the Garden Pantheon cemetery, a ramshackle resting place where a mass grave sits cordoned off by yellow police tape.

Black and blue tarps (and one advertising Coca-Cola) shield the work from the intense sun and prying eyes. Slowly, over the next weeks, the team will exhume dozens of bodies that have been dumped, nameless, in the mass pauper’s grave toward the back of the cemetery, in this city near Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

Some of the bodies are skeletons; others, more complete. Some died violent deaths at the hands of very bad guys; others succumbed in more mundane ways: disease, car wrecks, exposure.

Standing at the center of the operation is Mercedes “Mimi” Doretti, a forensic specialist who has pretty much seen it all. Tall with long, dark hair, the 53-year-old Argentina-born single mom has dug up bodies for two decades, from Latin America to the killing fields of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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She is fiercely protective of her charges, taciturn with outsiders, sympathetic but reserved with survivors. More than 400 people with missing relatives have given DNA samples, mostly from strands of hair, which will eventually be used in the hope of identifying the bodies.

“It’s putting together pieces of a puzzle,” Doretti said.

Doretti’s world-renowned Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has been brought in to conduct the exhumation through a hard-won agreement with Mexican authorities and several governments of Central America, responding to demands from family and human rights groups.

The Tapachula site was chosen in part because it is a major entry point for Central Americans hoping to travel to the United States and, for many families, is the last known whereabouts of their missing kin.

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Most of these nameless dead are thought to be migrants, lost on a journey that put them at the mercy of vicious drug and extortion gangs that roam, in the words of a Salvadoran diplomat, like “a pack of wolves.”

The forlorn mass grave underlines a nagging legacy of Mexico’s 6-year-old drug war: How many have died, and who are they?

“Not knowing is the worst,” Doretti said. “I’ve seen it across countries and cultures.”

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Each mass grave investigation is different, Doretti says.

In Bosnia, where she and other international forensic specialists identified the bodies of 3,000 Muslim men slaughtered in the 1993 takeover of the town of Srebrenica, the numbers were overwhelming.

It took months of often dangerous reconnaissance to find the clandestine burial grounds of a massacre considered the deadliest atrocity in Europe since World War II. But at least in Srebrenica, there was a finite population of survivors with whom the DNA of the bodies could be matched.

Doretti and her team also unearthed hidden bodies at El Mozote, a hamlet in northern El Salvador where the U.S.-backed army in 1981 slaughtered an estimated 800 people, more than 100 of them children. At El Mozote, identifying the dead was not as much a priority (entire families had been wiped out) as establishing the historical truth, because the Salvadoran and U.S. governments had for years denied that the massacre took place.

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If the unidentified dead here in Tapachula or the dozens of other mass graves that human rights advocates say may dot southern Mexico are from an ever-moving and essentially hidden population of migrants, matching names to bones may prove next to impossible.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has estimated that 10,000 Mexican and Central American migrants are unaccounted for in their sojourn across this gateway nation to the United States.

The disappearances of Central Americans were a little-noticed problem until August 2010, when 72 migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were abducted and slain, execution-style, allegedly by gunmen from the notorious Zetas paramilitary force in the northeastern Mexico state of Tamaulipas.

Since then, Mexico has come under increasing pressure to protect the migrants who cross its territory, as well as to help find the missing. Little has been achieved, however, and only gradually has the government allowed in outside experts such as the Argentine forensic investigators. It took two years of delicate negotiations, and officials insisted on multiple layers of secrecy, according to several people involved.

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“This is a very complicated process,” Doretti said. “The missing can be anywhere.”

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Humid and leafy, Tapachula is the principal crossing for Central Americans entering the country on a path they hope will take them to the United States. But thousands end up stranded here and in other southern border towns, out of money and out of hope, begging and scraping a living, preyed upon by rapists and exploiters.

Gangs, often in cahoots with local police, demand money from the migrants from the minute they cross the Suchiate River into Mexico.

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Many migrants pay brokers to board a rickety, smoke-belching train that crosses the country; they cling to wagon roofs and sides, and many fall off and are killed. Most have to pay people claiming to be the Zetas, who have branched out beyond drugs and dominate the human-trafficking business. Migrants are killed if they fail to fork over enough cash.

“Coyotes used to be independent, but now they all work for the Zetas. To pass through, it has to be authorized by the Zetas,” said Luis Perdomo Vidal, a vice consul of El Salvador who is based in Tapachula and who helped initiate efforts to bring in the Argentine team.

Perdomo Vidal tracks the ebb and flow of Salvadorans through Tapachula, those headed north and those deported back south. Six in 10 of the women are sexually assaulted, he says, and he is particularly alarmed by the number of girls younger than 18 who are attempting the trip — twice as many so far this year as last — and becoming targets of the gangs.

The gang members “move in a pack of wolves,” he said.

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Activists praise the local government for mounting an operation a couple of years ago to round up thugs from one of the gangs. The men confessed to killing 20 migrants, but the bodies were never found. No other such arrest operations have taken place.

And so the Central Americans end up like Suyapa Hernandez from the inaptly named Progreso, Honduras. Her husband and an adult son headed north last year and went missing. She came to Tapachula in search of them. And then she went missing.

“Who is left to denounce the crime?” asked Ramon Verdugo, a human rights activist dedicated to migrants. “I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened.”

And that is where Doretti and her team hope to come in.

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Aldo Ledon, a Mexican member of the team, is the head of an ad hoc migrants rights group called Voces Mesoamericanas (Mesoamerican Voices). “The idea is that this allows families to close the circle. Closure,” Ledon said.

As one chapter — identification — closes, perhaps another — finding justice and removing stigma — opens, Ledon said.

So, each morning, Doretti leaves her young daughter at the hotel with a baby-sitter, puts on sauna-inducing coveralls and trudges through the Garden Pantheon, with graves slightly overtaken by weeds, rows of miniature mausoleums and bright aquamarine and coral-pink tombstones.

Toward the back, the mass grave sits among palm trees. Because these were not clandestine burials, there are actually records, albeit scant ones, of each body, listing things such as height and weight and, if known, the place where the victim was found. Diplomats say there are about 60 bodies in the grave, but local journalists put the number closer to 100.

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As each body is removed, it is transported to a morgue, where the DNA samples are consulted. (Doretti has religiously denied access to the burial site to journalists; the details here were recounted by participants.)

Next to the exhumation site in the main part of the cemetery, the Alvarez family the other day was burying Adelita, a 46-year-old mother who had died of cancer.

Huddled around the freshly churned dirt of her grave, they ate tamales and drank Corona beers. A musician sang a cappella, mournfully intoning the words of an old Mexican folk song.

When the pantheon takes me

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I don’t want crying

I don’t want sadness

All that I want is a serenade in the early morning.

Behind them, the black and blue tarps glistened in the sun, and police officers chased away anybody who approached.

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wilkinson@latimes.com


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