For Victims of Disappearances, Farce over Narco-graves Provokes Rupture with Coahuila’s State Government
by Inés Santaeulalia (EL PAÍS)
– Relatives of the disappeared clash with authorities in the northern Mexican state after an alleged operation to find missing people
Mexico is missing 26,000 Mexicans. The anguish of their families puts a face to a debt blighting the country: Mexico has as yet been unable to explain its disappeared peoples’ whereabouts. The latest blow to victims comes from Coahuila State, in the country’s north, a place punished by violence from organized crime between 2006 and 2012. The recent discovery of various narco-graves with human remains resurrected families’ hopes and fears, but it’s been accompanied by confusing, even contradictory information from the state government, causing victims’ patience to evaporate. The United Force for Coahuila’s Disappeared (Fuundec), the country’s largest such association, decided to cease its dialogue with authorities for the first time in four years. “It has all been one big farce,” summarized Rosario Villanueva. She has been looking for her son since 2009.
In Coahuila, a photo in last week’s newspapers stirred up the victims’ tense wait for word about their loved ones. Families learned through the press that the state government had found several narco-graves. Nobody wants to talk about it, but an awful question popped into peoples’ heads: “Could it be my relative?” The authorities – even including Governor Rubén Moreira – sat down last week with Fuundec’s members to inform them about what the press was reporting as “the first large-scale national operation” to look for missing people. By Monday, he had changed his message: Moreira now talks about “small finds.”
“The governor was asked if they were following the appropriate search protocols, and he said they had been taking care with the remains, but that’s all a lie,” explains Villanueva. Images spring to mind of heavy machinery working the ranches where organized crime supposedly buried the victims — the US Spanish-language channel, Univision, filmed the operation in Allende (about 60kms from the US border). “Do you know what they do when they find dinosaur remains? They use brushes and a great deal of care so as not to break anything. Here they turn over the ground when they look for people,” complained Raúl Reyes who has been looking for his thirty-four year old son Raúl Ignacio since April 2009.
The deputy prosecutor for missing people, and the head of the alleged operation, Juan José Yáñez, told this newspaper that 250 people were participating in the operation. The personnel were drawn from the state and federal police, and the army “to comb” an unknown number of ranches in 11 townships. Coahuila is the country’s third largest state and occupies 150,000 square kms. Yáñez stated that the procedure used was to “prick the earth” with sticks so that sniffer dogs could smell for human remains. The operation also used radar for underground mapping.
Last Wednesday EL PAÍS traveled to Coahuila on the state government’s promise to provide access to the operation then underway in the city of Monclova. But unexpectedly the day before our arrival, the authorities said that the operation had finished. In spite of a request, officials would not provide a map of the work areas and they refused to show any discovered remains that had supposedly arrived that same day in the forensic medical service (SEMEFO). This newspaper could find no evidence an operation existed beyond the testimony of state authorities.
The state’s attorney general and the deputy prosecutor explained that they found bones, burnt remains, and various drums that criminals used to make bodies disappear by reducing them to ashes. This information contradicted information given by Coahuila’s governor on Monday. “There are bodies that are never going to be identified,” Yáñez remarked. The DNA analyses of the supposed human remains will take months but the families’ mistrust of the authorities began in no time. “Even if they say they are ours, we won’t accept it because we need proof. We don’t just want bodies returned to us to make the problem go away. We want to know about everything right up until the end: who disappeared them, and why,” said Mr. Reyes.
Coahuila’s government says that the graves were discovered as a result of information obtained during interrogations and detentions, from statements made by mayors, former mayors, and officials from the 11 townships under search. Citizens sent in anonymous tip offs in response to a flyer asking for cooperation in locating the disappeared.
Media outlets slowly leaked news about the operation until last Saturday when the newspaper, El Siglo de Torreón, published the deputy prosecutor’s statement that 500 human remains had been discovered in graves. The very same Yáñez then denied that information to this newspaper. “I never spoke of numbers. The bones could come from just one person,” he said in a phone call.
Coahuila has a population of 2.7 million inhabitants, and lived through an escalation of violence during Humberto Moreira’s governorship (2006 – 2011), brother of the current incumbent and nominated as national PRI president in 2011. Months later Humberto Moreira was removed for an illegal increase in the state budget during his term in office. State authorities say the violence began to decrease in 2011 and that the region has calmed. The state attorney general, Homero Ramos, remembers that in 2011 they fired 33percent of the state police force for corruption and ties to the narco. “Previously we had to combat organized crime. Now we are going after common criminals,” he says.
The debt to the disappeared remains outstanding. The state purports to be one of the few in the country that has “recognized the problem.” As such, in 2011 it created a deputy prosecutor’s office for missing people. It says that it has a full database of the missing, that it has gathered DNA samples, and that it meets twice a month with victims’ families to inform them of any advances in the search for their loved ones. The last of these meetings occurred on Saturday. After the meeting, Fuundec decided to get up from the table and issued a press release. “Fuundec categorically rejects the operation, doubts its results, and is suspending meetings with the state until those responsible … explain publicly and transparently what happened.”
“We feel deceived by the authorities. They make promises, but they never investigate. In three years and nine months they have never offered a single result. We don’t want dead people, we want them back alive,” says Mireia Villareal, the mother of the Cantú brothers. Villareal pounded on the trucks that carried her sons away early one morning in 2011. The two twenty-year olds, Lauro and his brother Jorge, were abducted from their home in Torreón, Coahuila by some men “dressed like soldiers” as their mother wept disconsolately after them.
Others simply disappeared without even a “so long or goodbye.” Four years ago, José Alberto Cerda left his house one morning to head for Monterrey to fix his car. Claudia Risada (25) left her son with her mother and said she was going out to eat with her boyfriend one night in 2011. One afternoon in 2009, Antonio Jaime Aldaco (40) went to buy some cigarettes a few blocks from his house in Saltillo. That’s how they were last seen. In Coahuila there are 1,665 lives on hold.
Journalist Inés Santaeulalia reports on Mexico for El País. This article first appeared under the title, “ Las victimas rompen con el Gobierno de Coahuila por la “farsa” de narcofosas,” available at: http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/02/10/actualidad/1392064501_991971.html. A photo gallery by staff photographer Saúl Ruiz accompanies the story.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.