At least 25 bodies have been found buried in an abandoned thermal water park in Western Mexico, on the border between two states troubled by drug-related violence.
The remains were found on June 11 at the Los Negritos natural reserve in Michoacán, after activists and families looking for missing loved ones blocked a main highway to pressure local authorities to search for bodies inside the park, according to local press reports.
Neither authorities nor activists blamed a particular cartel for the mass grave, but over the past two years, the region between Jalisco and Michoacán has seen a violent war between two factions of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG).
The excavation work in Los Negritos began on June 22 with the help of activists and the public as well as state and federal authorities. Authorities from Michoacán and Mexico’s Federal Attorney General’s Office are still searching the area for more bodies, and activists have said that there could be as many as 500 people buried on the site, which would make it the largest mass grave found in Mexico’s history.
Only eight of the bodies, six men and two women, have been identified so far, mainly by clothing or dental records, according to Michoacán’s General Attorney's office.
Some victims died from gunshot wounds, others from mutilation and one from head trauma, according to the government. The age of the victims ranges between 16 and 60 years old, officials said.
“From what we know there could be as many as 500 bodies,” Iris del Rocío Macías, founder of the missing persons search organization ‘Looking for Angels’, told VICE World News. “Organized crime has operated in this area for more than a decade.”
Some worry that the remains of people found in the latest mass grave to be discovered in Mexico could be the victims of an incident that took place earlier this year in town of San José de García, some 60 kilometers from where the graveyard was discovered. In February, armed gunmen burst into a funeral in San José de García, lined mourners up against a wall, and executed a reported 17 people. After the slaughter, the aggressors removed the bodies.
“The bodies they took from San José [de García] funeral could very well be here,” an activist who asked to remain anonymous said. “They used this park as a dump for their enemies because it is well hidden but also because of the spring waters…the bodies dissolve with the heat.”
The Los Negritos park attracted families and tourists with its natural acidic, hot waters surrounded by volcanic rocks. But when violence started ramping in the region, visitors to the park dried up and it closed.
In 2017 a mass grave with 300 bodies was found in Veracruz, which at that time was the largest ever found in Mexico. In March this year, another mass grave containing 21 bodies was found in the northern state of Sonora.
The number of people reported missing in Mexico is at a record high of 100,000, according to official figures. Government data, which goes back to 1964, shows that almost all the disappearances have occurred since 2007, when then-President Felipe Calderón launched the "war on drugs” - a government crackdown on organized crime and drug-trafficking. The United Nations has called the number of people missing in Mexico "a human tragedy of enormous proportions".
This week’s morbid discovery in Los Negritos is a nod to a growing trend among organized crime groups in Mexico, who are hiding the bodies of their victims rather than killing and leaving them in public to be found by officials. The strategy brings down homicide numbers, but could mean that killings are still on the rise.
Mexico’s homicide rates have been steadily dropping since last year, according to official figures, but incidents where killers take their victim’s bodies are rising. Last month two Jesuit priests were murdered inside a church in the northern state of Chihuahua along with a tourist guide who tried to hide from the killer inside the church. The bodies of the three were taken from the killing scene and later found some 200 km north.
Authorities are still searching the park for more bodies. If what activists believe is true, this could be the biggest clandestine grave in Mexican modern history.