This story is over 5 years old.


None of Mexico's Missing 43 Students Are Among 129 Bodies Found in Mass Graves

It's been ten months since the 43 Ayotzinapa students disappeared. The missing sparked a volunteer movement to find others who have vanished in Guerrero. In Iguala alone, 129 bodies have been found so far.
Imagen por Prometeo Lucero/VICE News

In the hills surrounding the city where 43 Mexican students were kidnapped and likely killed last year, the search for the missing continues.

Ten months since their disappearance, none of the students' remains have been found in the 60 clandestine graves that have so far been uncovered around the city of Iguala, Guerrero. And authorities do not believe any will be.

The young men's suspected assassins told interrogators they carried the students and incinerated them in a trash dump in a neighboring town the same night they were kidnapped. The students' survivors reject the government's claim.


But the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa Normal School students has also sparked a movement to find other victims of the ongoing drug-related violence in the state of Guerrero. Warring gangs battle for control of the state's remote mountains, where poppy and cannabis are grown for drugs meant for export to the United States.

The threats of retaliation from such gangs and the negligence of officials in finding and identifying victims of the drug war hasn't stopped other relatives of missing people in Iguala from searching for bodies in unmarked graves. On Monday, Mexico's attorney general's office told the Associated Press that 129 bodies have been found since searching began after the September 26, 2014 attacks on the students.

Volunteers continue to search for the missing near Iguala, Guerrero. (Photo by Prometeo Lucero/VICE News)

Every Sunday, volunteers in a group called "The Other Disappeared of Iguala" march up into the rugged hills with shovels and picks, looking for signs of a possible grave: loose dirt, disturbed soil, or evidence of garbage or clothing.

"To find the graves, we walk and walk the same hill because they are big," said Mario Vergara, a member of the group, during a recent Sunday search. "[The authorities] say our method does not work. They say it's a waste of time."

Related: Mass Graves Dot Hillsides Around Iguala as Search for Missing Students Continues

The number of bodies and graves found from October to May could possibly be higher than in the government's latest report, the attorney general's office said, because its response to a freedom of information request from the AP covers only those instances in which its mass grave specialists got involved.


'The rain will not stop us.'

Federal authorities began turning up unmarked graves at the start of the investigation into the disappearance of the 43 young men in attacks that left six people confirmed dead that night in Iguala, a municipality of 120,000 people about 160 miles south of Mexico City.

Authorities later managed to identify one of the missing students, 19-year-old Alexander Mora, from a bone fragment found amid thousands of tiny bits of possible remains that were dumped in trash bags in a river.

Since then, Mora's father said he also does not believe that officials properly identified his son. He is part among a core group of parents of the missing who once a month march in Mexico City demanding that the young men be returned alive.

Sunday's march in Mexico City for the missing 43. (Photo by Marco Ugarte/AP)

An estimated 2,000 people gathered on Sunday to mark ten months since the attacks.

"We cannot go home without truly knowing what happened to our sons," Meliton Ortega, a parent of one of the 43, said during a rally at the demonstration. "That's why we will continue to search for them alive, regardless of politicians and authorities asking us to accept that our 43 students were murdered."

"We will continue until what happened to them is clarified with irrefutable scientific proof," Ortega told supporters.

The parents said they don't trust in the government, and that the only institutions that they trust are human rights organizations, which have continued to question the official version of the events.


Related: Argentine Investigators Cast Doubt on Mexico's Claim Over Student Remains

The volunteers in Iguala are asking for professional training and tools. (Photo by Prometeo Lucero/VICE News)

More than 25,000 people are missing across Mexico, a government registry says. In Iguala, the current summer rainy season has dampened the efforts of the volunteer searchers.

"It's getting harder to access the sites and to observe the soil, but the pain moves us," a 23-year-old woman looking for her disappeared brother, who declined to give her name out of fear for retaliation, told VICE News. "The rain will not stop us."

Mexico's attorney general's office sends government searchers and forensics experts to follow the work of the volunteers. Escorted by Mexico's Navy and Federal Police, the government searchers visit the areas indicated by the Iguala group to excavate and extract bodies when they are found.

"We want to be trained during the rainy season and we are also asking for a specialized search team, but we were told that it might not be possible," Vergara told VICE News.

'We're running out of time, and time is playing against us.'

Another member of the group said authorities complain that the volunteer search parties often mark locations as possible graves that don't turn out to be one. Group members are not allowed to excavate suspected graves for fears of contamination.

"They say we are only making them dig holes everywhere. For us, any hole is a grave now. But why they don't bring the right equipment to verify if there are graves here, without having to make holes all over the terrain?" said Vergara, who is looking for a missing brother.


Between November and June, the volunteer group said it found 110 corpses around Iguala. The group is now demanding an updated report on the status of the investigation of the bodies and remains that have been taken to laboratories.

They've also requested that federal prosecutor Arely Gomez provide them with proper training, tools, and financial support for their efforts. Only seven bodies have been identified and handed over to their families, The Other Disappeared of Iguala said earlier this month.

Ten months on, authorities have yet to establish a comprehensive search operation in Iguala, Guerrero. "We're running out of time, and time is playing against us," Vergara said.

Related: The Missing 43: Mexico's Disappeared Students (Full Length)

[ooyalacontent_id="JjOThydDrK9xNkdh7_T4YenqLxEOuO8w"player_id="YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5" auto_play="1" skip_ads="0"]

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Chantal Flores on Twitter: @chantal_f