This story is over 5 years old.


Mexican Authorities Filled a Mass Grave, and Now the Government Is Exhuming the Bodies

The local authorities have accepted that this was an irregular common burial site where bodies from the morgue were dumped without proper registration. Activists fear it may also contain the victims of extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances.
Imagen por Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News

During the last decade of extreme violence associated with Mexico's drug wars, Mexicans have become used to the discovery and exhumation of clandestine graves filled with victims of the horror.

This month, the authorities are digging up a shady grave with a difference — the corpses were put there by the government.

The local authorities in the central state of Morelos, where the grave is located in a town called Tetelcingo, have accepted that this was an irregular common burial site where bodies from the morgue were dumped without proper registration. Some even lack an identification number associated with their case files.


However, activists fear that this goes beyond just sloppy, disrespectful, opaque, and shameful morgue management.

"Extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, we don't know what we are going to find," said Javier Sicilia, a well-known Mexican peace activist and poet who has been pushing for the exhumation since the grave was discovered last year.

"(We want) to make it visible that the victims were not only humiliated and violated by criminal organizations, but by their own state prosecutor's office which didn't take care of them."

The digging began on May 21 carried out by the local and federal authorities, overseen by human rights officials, with the aim of both identifying everybody in the grave, as well as clarifying who is responsible for putting them there without proper procedure.

The first stage of the exhumation finished on Sunday, covering a section of the grave that the state prosecutor's office had said should hold 52 bodies, according to their records. The forensics dressed in white coveralls and masks dug up 53 — already a sign that perhaps additional bodies were hidden in the pit.

Throughout the dig activists and relatives of the estimated 27,000 people who have disappeared in Mexico since the drug wars began, have watched the removal of corpses from beneath yellow tents set up at the site.

"The families that are here are tired of the authorities," said Antonio Sandoval, wearing a t-shirt with a photo of his missing brother on it. "You go to the state prosecutor's office, they don't even offer you a glass of water, they make you wait outside for two or three hours."


Sandoval drives a taxi in the state capital Cuernavaca, about 28 miles from Tetelcingo. His brother went missing months before the bodies are alleged to have been put in the grave and he hopes that perhaps he is in there too.

Related: Mexican General Who Led the 'Death Platoon' Will Go to Prison for Torture and Murder

"Really, I don't know why there are so many people in this grave," he said. "But because of that I'm here, in the hope that my brother is there."

The grave became public knowledge when the family of Oliver Wenceslao Navarrete asked to retrieve his body from the state authorities.

Navarrete had been kidnapped and murdered in 2013 and the state prosecutor asked to keep the body to further their investigation. After a year without results, the family requested that it be returned so they could give him a proper burial, but the morgue no longer had the body.

They informed the family that it had been moved to a common grave in Tetelcingo. The authorities refused to exhume the body until the family obtained a court order in December 2014.

The family then filmed the exhumation in which the authorities were seen maneuvering around over a hundred other corpses before they could locate Navarrete's body. The footage, posted on social media 11 months later, caused a major stir when it became clear that the state prosecutor's office didn't really know who those bodies belonged to.

"We just want these victims of violence to be buried with dignity," said Amalia Hernández, Navarrete's aunt, who also wore a shirt with a photo of her missing nephew. Even though his body was retrieved, family members are vocal leaders in the movement to have all the corpses exhumed, tested to allow identification, and then reburied in marked graves.


Related: City Reels After Its New Mayor Is Murdered a Day After She Took Office

Along with Javier Sicilia and other civil groups, they persuaded the federal attorney general's office to agree to exhume the bodies earlier in May.

"He loved his two children very much," Hernández held back the tears as she described her nephew. "Oliver was a really relaxed person. Like we say in Mexico, muy muy buenachona — a really really decent person."

Whatever his personal qualities, Navarrete's case was not particularly remarkable in a state where murder rates have long been among the highest in the country, and disappearances are also common.

Morelos was the stronghold of the Beltrán Leyva drug trafficking organization until its main leaders were killed or incarcerated, beginning in 2009. It is now prize territory up for grabs.

In April, three different cartels left narcomantas, threatening letters or banners written by drug cartels, around the state. On May 19, a decapitated body was discovered beside another manta alleging to be from a fourth cartel.

The Morelos state prosecutor's office has claimed many of the bodies in Tetelcingo belonged to people who died of natural causes. They say they have case files in their office filled with fingerprints, dental records, and genetic profiles that should help identification. However, the fact many of the corpses do not have tags makes it unclear how they could link those bodies to their records.

Antonio Sandoval, the taxi driver searching for his brother, said he knows that his presence at the grave is the product of his family's desperation for an end to the uncertainty, rather than any solid belief that his brother's body is in the grave.

"I'm really afraid for all the people in similar situations, searching for their loved ones, their siblings," he said, visibly shaken. "It's the fear that we're never going to find them."

Related: Digging up Bodies: Colombia Is Searching for Thousands of Unnamed Dead

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz