"We're not the police, we are pueblo, you can tell us the truth," Miguel Angel Jimenez, a member of a volunteer community police force in Mexico, told the old maize farmer.
Jimenez and around two dozen of his fellow volunteers were searching the rugged hillsides around Iguala, in Guerrero state, for the 43 normalista teaching students who have been missing since September 26, when buses they had commandeered were reportedly attacked by local police.
Jimenez crossed paths with the farmer on a sloping field of dried cornstalk. Others poked and peered in the distance around them.
The two men met hesitantly at first. The community police officers had received four tips indicating that this farmland on the outskirts of Iguala, a green mountain known as Loma del Zapatero, might have more mass graves, or even a safe house where people had been heard screaming at night.
Maybe they would find some of the students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Or maybe they would find someone else — a hostile force.
Unarmed, without police protection — not to mention without backup of any kind from professional forensics investigators — the men and one woman from the Union de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero, or UPOEG, were determined to find the missing normalistas.
Guerrero state police officials describe the area as disputed territory between four different drug gangs, but the community police force said they were undeterred.
The voice on the other end of the line told them they'd better stop poking around up in the hills, or else.
The farmer told them he hadn't seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. He promised. So Miguel Angel Jimenez and the rest of the group marched onward.
Less than an hour later, over a ridge and up a ruddy path, they eventually found two fresh ditches.
With VICE News present, they dug into the ground and turned up some bones — a piece of jawbone, a femur, and some scattered clothes and garbage — before they decided to leave. One of the community police members had received a threatening phone call. The voice on the other end of the line told them they'd better stop poking around up in the hills, or else.
The UPOEG volunteers immediately alerted federal officials that they had found two more graves. Those would add to the nine found in the days prior to their patrol last Monday, but more graves would turn up the next day. And the day after.
In this city, where the local police are accused of firing upon three buses carrying students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, killing six, before kidnapping 43 others, you dig at the ground in the hillsides and the cemetery that Iguala has become pokes back at you.
Federal forces were called up to the Loma del Zapatero, but they never came. The gendarmerie, a new militarized police unit currently in charge of public safety in Iguala, were patrolling the city but seemed to barely leave the downtown square.
Another Movement Grows From Tragedy
A few years ago, after poet Javier Sicilia's son was killed in the sort of senseless act of violence that has become commonplace in Mexico, a grassroots protest movement started in the streets that demanded an end to the US-backed drug war and a halt to the reckless impunity enjoyed by officials and criminals alike.
It was an emotional moment for Mexico, and the country is at an emotional moment once more.
Thousands marched Friday in Acapulco, the capital port of Mexico's southern Pacific coast, calling for the return of the missing students in a defiant stance against the hold that organized crime groups have over much of Mexico. Other protests occurred in Mexico City, where multitudes of students at universities and colleges across the city declared they would strike in protest of the Iguala killings and disappearances. Protests were also held last week in the United States and UK.
The Ayotzinapa students, backed by a teachers union in Guerrero and fellow normal school students from other states, are taking over toll roads and hijacking corporate food delivery trucks.
Tensions are running high. On Friday, VICE News saw teachers at the Palo Blanco toll station detain two men they accused of being government spies. The men were apparently taking photographs of the protesters from a motorcycle. They were caught, their bike was set on fire, and the detainees were taken to the center of Chilpancingo, the Guerrero state capital. One of them admitted being a military intelligence officer, the other declined to state his affiliation.
There is an unshakable sense that no one is truly in control of Guerrero, where the scraggly hills and mountains seem unforgiving even from a distance, and where a legacy of guerrilla resistance and social activism runs strong to this day.
The feeling is especially evident in Iguala. Links that fugitive mayor Jose Luis Abarca allegedly had with the cartel Guerreros Unidos were well-known, but authorities, again, did nothing about it. Meanwhile, killings and mass disappearances went on as the Guerreros Unidos battled with another gang, Los Rojos, for control of the local "plaza," or drug trafficking corridor.
Like so many other places in Mexico, the default power in Iguala is clearly the violent criminal organizations that control and move illicit drugs, extort and kidnap locals for ransom, and buy off police and elected officials.
And it's not just Guerrero. Whole regions of the country are believed to be under the control of criminal gangs, large and small. The Ayotzinapa case is a reminder that federal officials may claim they are dismantling criminal groups with the captures of major capos such as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, but rule of law remains basically out of reach for the average resident of Mexico.
This week, as more protests are planned, the scope of the tragedy that is arguably confronting the entire country is now setting in.
The mood in Mexico today is reminiscent of the heart-sickened days after the January 2010 massacre of mostly student-athletes at a party in Ciudad Juarez, or the discovery of a mass execution of 72 Central and South American migrants in August 2010, or the fire-bombing deaths of 52 people inside the Casino Royale in Monterrey, in August 2011.
The parade of terrible headlines ticks on in this country where few crimes are ever punished.
Last Wednesday, a doctor and citizen journalist on Twitter was kidnapped and killed in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in an attack that chilled the community of social-media reporters who inform one another on drug-war violence. On October 11, a rural campesino leader who hosted a radio show in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, and frequently criticized officials over the effects of a dam, was ambushed and killed — while on the air.
'They attacked them as if they were an army, and not students from a rural normal school.'
And, through it all, the missing students are still nowhere to be found. The mass graves around Iguala are turning up bones, the stench of burned flesh, and little else.
A leader of the Guerreros Unidos caught by authorities reportedly described the attack on the students and the 43 others as "a casual situation," federal investigators said in a press conference last week. Over the weekend, the noted immigrant and victims' rights advocate, Father Alejandro Solalinde, said he received trustworthy word from a source in Iguala that the young normalistas were incinerated, by "agents of the state," he said, claiming that some of them were still alive when it happened.
"I don't want to give more details, but I was told how they were burned," Solalinde said to reporters. "They attacked them as if they were an army, and not students from a rural normal school."
The claim is unimportant to the volunteer community police forces still stationed in Iguala and marching up its hills.
On the day we accompanied them, three workers from the national human rights commission eventually came to confirm their report of two freshly found graves. But the officials stopped climbing after the UPOEG volunteers informed them that they had been threatened. The officials said they would return, with police to escort them.
Later that night, VICE News met the UPOEG leaders back at their camp on a central plaza in downtown Iguala. Police never came. Two new graves were identified that day but not secured or examined immediately by experts.
A "casual situation," you might say, in Iguala, but another small failure of the state for a Mexico sickened by violence, corruption, and injustice.
Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter @longdrivesouth.