On a crisp December morning, I walk alongside Ricardo Martínez during a land search in the town of Matamoros, not far from Torreón in the Mexican state of Coahuila. Martínez’ son, named Ricardo Daniel, was disappeared on Mother’s Day in 2010. Martínez eyes the horizon, pointing out where he thinks it’s strategic to look. “On the way here, I saw lots of goat tracks, and I wondered if the herder saw something, they know a lot, they know the places [where people were killed], they’ll point you in the right direction,” he says. “That’s what I came over here looking for, but I already walked a lot and I don’t see anything. I came over here following these tracks, but no, I didn’t see anything.”
Martínez’ attention shifts over to some large sand mounds. “It’s easier for them to dig there, they won’t go to a place where there are rocks,” he says, referring to the killers who are known to be operating in the region. We walk towards the mounds, holding a small shovel and a long metal pole, used to poke at the earth.
“Sometimes they even had their victims digging their own grave, and then they buried them there, they buried them in one piece, but when they couldn’t bury them, they burned them,” he says, as we continue a slow walk through the desert. Martínez, 70, has had two knee replacements and suffers from diabetes, but joins the weekly searches as often as he can.
News of the September 17, 2018 discovery of a shipping container holding more than 157 bodies spread like prairie fire through Mexico. The container was abandoned near a neighbourhood in the municipality of Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, not far from the city of Guadalajara. It was a refrigerated container, but had been unplugged for at least 12 hours when locals called in the smell. Initial reports said that the corpses had been stored there for three to four years, and that the state morgue did not have the capacity to store the bodies.
Days later, a second shipping container was reported, this time on the premises of the state forensic organization in Guadalajara City. It, too, contained around 150 bodies. By the end of September, it was revealed that there were at least 13 more containers holding bodies in at least six cities in Mexico. The bodies in the trailers have not been identified, but state officials and the press blamed their deaths on organized criminal activity, which is a way of stigmatizing victims by linking them with drug cartels.
The war on drugs in Mexico can more accurately be described as a war on the people of Mexico
News of the shipping containers was another gruesome turn in the so-called drug war in Mexico, which has provoked extreme violence including massacres and mass disappearances. But it was hardly shocking. In April, it was reported that there are over 35,000 unidentified bodies in morgues throughout Mexico. In addition to the on-the-books warehousing of unidentified bodies, last year authorities were discovered illegally burying 117 bodies in mass graves outside of the town of Tetelcingo, in central Morelos state. Clandestine mass graves, attributed (often without investigation) to organized crime groups have turned up in dozens of cities, containing hundreds of bodies. In northern Mexico, the preferred means of body disposal involves hacking up bodies and burning them in diesel fires until little remains other than charred bone fragments.
The war on drugs in Mexico can more accurately be described as a war on the people of Mexico. It is the bodies of the poor majority that fill the morgues and the mass graves. According to the (limited) data available, state forces, from municipal police to elite special forces, marines, and soldiers carry out approximately half of reported disappearances.
The official number of disappeared in Mexico is just over 37,000, which nearly matches with the number of unidentified bodies state officials claim are in morgues. The number of disappearances that have not been recorded could be much, much higher, as family members report threats and aggression from state officials upon registering their cases. And of course, the number of bodies in clandestine graves, unreported shipping containers – or reduced to shards the size of bark mulch – is unknown.
In the face of this devastation, it is family members of the disappeared who have bravely led efforts to locate and identify the dead. There are dozens of collectives around the country, each carrying out their own searches and following their own strategies to pressure the government and find the disappeared. It is within this context that the members of Grupo Vida, whose name stands for “Victims for our Rights in Action,” fan out into the dry, dusty flats on the outskirts of the city of Torreón, in the border state of Coahuila.
“The only thing I know is that armed men picked him up in front of a supermarket, and I never heard from him again.”
“I’m here because I want to find my son, I learned about the group, and I joined them because I didn’t get any help from the authorities,” says Martínez. “The only thing I know is that armed men picked him up in front of a supermarket, and I never heard from him again.” Every now and then, an animal bone or some upturned earth catches his eye, and we walk over to examine what to an untrained observer would look like any another bit of desert. By mid-afternoon the sun hangs above us like a weight – temperatures in the area frequently rise above 40 degrees celsius.
The region where we’re searching became a locus of militarization and violence in the context of the war on drugs. Homicide rates in Torreón rose from 26 in 2007 to 488 in 2011, to a shocking 792 in 2012, the most violent year on record. Disappearances exploded over the same period. Officially, just over 570 people disappeared in Torreón over this period; unofficially that number is estimated to be much higher. But the violence in Torreón didn’t come out of the blue. It was a product of economic decline and inequality, and it happened in sync with the militarization of the region. But there’s a little-discussed aspect of the violence that should be considered a key contributing factor: water.
Flowers in the desert
The metropolitan area to which Torreón belongs is known as La Laguna, which translates to lagoon. Long inhabited by semi-nomadic peoples who fished and cultivated abundant plants, La Laguna was once a fertile area where two rivers, the Nazas and the Aguanaval, drained. It was colonized by the Spanish, who carried out a vicious war against the nomads, a war that was carried on by the nascent Mexican republic after independence. La Laguna became Mexico’s most important cotton producing region, as the overflow from the two rivers washed fertile sediments and ample water over crops. It was a hotbed of insurgency during and after the Mexican Revolution, and it was home to the largest land reform in the post-revolutionary era.
Allotting land to peasants and workers was a straightforward task compared to the management of water. Dam building was the favoured method of controlling the flows of the rivers. Today there are 12 dams on the Nazas and Aguanaval rivers. The dams have meant that the rivers no longer flow through La Laguna, and that historically larger private landowners were able to access water with more facility than ejidatarios (farmers with communal land titles). Since the cotton industry crashed in the 1950s, La Laguna has shifted towards dairy, further concentrating water and land in the hands of a few rich industrialists. Without irrigation or access to the river flows, many of these small farmers were forced off their land, often migrating towards low-paying work in assembly plants in the city, or in other border cities.
Without irrigation or access to the river flows, many of these small farmers were forced off their land and into low-paying work in assembly plants in the city
One Saturday morning in May, I travelled with Grupo Vida to a site in the town of Viesca, where there were reports of human remains. We gathered at the central square of the last hamlet, where we picked up two locals who had come across the bones, and would lead us to them. We drove for about half an hour through an already infernal heat in what looked like pure desert. Barely a bush in sight, and not a scrap of shade. Finally, we got out, and walked to an area carved out by heavy rains, where a near-complete human skeleton had been carried along by the rushing water.
As we walked through the semi-desert, I imagined what it would look like if the rivers still flowed over wide, fertile floodplains closed in by dramatic mountain ranges. It was hard to imagine feeling so isolated, so alone if the land was arable, if farmers were at work. The transformation of the lands around La Laguna into parched plains has driven migration to urban areas, increased inequality, and fed structural violence against its people.
Over the past decade, these same lands were transformed into killing fields where most fear to tread, but where a small group of bereaved family members have managed to rise up against extreme violence and the impunity produced by the state.
The families from Grupo Vida share the pain of disappearance with tens of thousands of others throughout Mexico. Together, they have led massive marches and participated in protests against the disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Together, they’re charting a new path forward for México.
Dawn Paley is the Mexico-based author of Drug War Capitalism (AK Press, 2014).