FJA 2020 Shortlist
Category: Contribution to Civil Rights
Violeta Alejandra Santiago Hernández (Mexico)
Finding the Disappeared in Terror Camps
March 29, 2020
The original publication is available via the following link:
The Fifth National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons was held in the north of Veracruz State between the 10th and the 21st of 2020. It is the third time that such kind of collectives have organized themselves in order to search for human remains in the territory of Veracruz State, but it is the first time that is has been held in such region, where 276 reported cases of disappearance were submitted until 2016, although the real number might be much higher, according to those affected from the María Herrera collective in Poza Rica.
This Brigade was a huge challenge, even for the experienced seekers involved. In addition to dealing with inclement weather and adverse conditions in lands that are evergreen most of the times, the Brigade's major discovery were the Cocinas (kitchens): an improved practice for human disappearance that is systematically carried out, under the silence and in collusion with institutions of Public Security of Veracruz and Mexico.
More than nine years have had to pass to speak about what happened to the disappeared ones in the north of Veracruz. Although the “kitchens” are suddenly reducing the hopes of finding the loved ones, the relatives in the María Herrera collective are not giving up in the search for their people, and their fight to stop this kind of bloodcurdling activities, therefore they can be protected against the pain caused by the uncertainty of not knowing where their loved ones are.
For almost two weeks we accompanied the Fifth Brigade established in Papantla City to compose this choral story, with the aims of bringing the problem that represents the enforced disappearances of people in this region of Mexico into the spotlight, sharing the feelings of those longing for empathy from citizens, and serving as a space to remember those who search and are searched.
Because, even if footprints are wiped out, the stories remain.
Dimensioning the disappearances
The original publication is available via the following link:
It has been said that in Veracruz violence entered from the North. Between 2008 and 2010, crime was settled in the northern cities and was gradually spread to the center and to the South. By 2014, almost the entire State, that borders more than 700 km of the Gulf of Mexico, knew about the disappearances and clandestine graves.
The first witnesses of what would leave a mark on Veracruz in the last decade, of the increase in unprecedented violence through enforced disappearances and clandestine graves, were the municipalities located in the La Huasteca and Totonacapan regions, from Pueblo Viejo to Tecolutla, an area that stands out because of its oil production and its citrus industry.
The ‘National Registry of Disappeared Persons’ database puts in evidence the increase in complaints of disappearances since 2011, when Javier Duarte de Ochoa started his term as Governor of Veracruz.
On average, 1 out of 10 people who disappeared between 2006 and 2016 was in one of the municipalities located in the north of Veracruz, according to the "Registry of
Disappeared Persons" of the State Attorney General's Office, the most complete database on the matter which was made public during the Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares’ term (2016-2018)
from PAN (National Action Party), although some data was omitted during his period. According to this database, 5,934 files for disappeared people were opened in Veracruz in a decade. 3,501 people were located (90% of them alive), but 2,433 have not been found. Of these last cases 1,723 are men, 709 are women and not specified in one.
In Veracruz, 130 municipalities (out of 212) have, at least, one case of disappearance. The northern cities have reported 276 cases in the State Attorney General’s Office (11.35% of
the total): Poza Rica, an important city for the oil industry, ranks fourth in the state with 113 cases; Papantla comes in ninth place with 41; but also Tuxpan and Tihuatlán stand out with 21 cases each. However, Maricel Torres Melo, a member of the María Herrera collective, estimates that the real number of disappeared ones in the northern area is far higher than the authorities say, since not all cases are reported, in the words of Maricel Torres Melo, a member of the María Herrera collective.
The clandestine graves are places where the bodies of those who have been deprived of their liberty are buried. The first cases in Veracruz took place in the northern area, but they spread to 58 municipalities, leaving a scar in the entire state. The official request for information 02173318 that was made to the State Attorney General's Office (plus hemerographic records) revealed that there were 460 graves and 5 wells with human remains between years 2010 and 2018 in Veracruz, and the victims amounted to 993. The northern area represented about 10% of the total number of clandestine graves with 35 sites, and less than 5% of the bodies, with 45, a relatively low number if compared to the 276 complaints of disappearance in that region, also a pioneer in the registration of cases of people taken by force and whose bodies were not found: sometimes due to kidnapping; most of them, without leaving a trace or having subsequent
communication from people who claimed money in exchange for life. The secret that was kept for almost nine years is that, although there are regions in Veracruz State that later ruled both in number of graves and corpses in them, the lack of bodies found in the north of Veracruz is not due to the number of disappearances being low, but rather to the fact that people deprived of their liberty were reduced to less than ashes: they were simply “cooked”. Unrecognizable for life. Disappeared forever.
The María Herrera collective
The original publication is available via the following link:
Before disappearing in one of the busiest streets in Poza Rica, Iván used to come home after the gym and ran towards his mother to hug her, who also used to jokingly pushed him aside to avoid him because he was sweating. Now, Maricel Torres Melo mentions that the thing she longs for the most is that one hug. Because of that, she has left Iván's room without any changes since May 25, 2011, the last day she saw her 17-year-old son.
Iván Eduardo Castillo Torres was studying his second year of high school and had told his mother about his concern of studying anthropology. Ironically, she is the one who has learned from forensic anthropology throughout these years, since she is entirely dedicated to the search for her son and the other loved ones of the María Herrera collective, which is composed by 130 families looking for 145 disappeared people.
Almost 9 years have passed since she went out to each ranch around Poza Rica by herself with a photo of Iván in hand to search “like a madwoman," as she refers to herself. Every day, for a long time, to ask if they had seen her son.
Iván had asked for a permission to go, with two female friends and another young man, to the Poza Rica National Chamber of Commerce fair. The night ended with a short walk to
eat tacos on Avenida 20 de Noviembre, located in the Cazones neighborhood. It was around 1 in the morning when he called by Nextel to communicate that he was almost home, but he never arrived or answered his cellphone anymore. What Maricel knows, not from the work of the State Attorney General’s Office, but from his own, is that Iván and his friends were detained by the Poza Rica-Tihuatlán-Coatzintla Inter-Municipal Police, cities that make the polygon of disappearances in the hands of an institution of Public Security, which was dissolved in 2015 by the State Government.
Within the next few weeks, Maricel became the target of extortion from a local criminal, who assured her that she must “buy” her son's liberty. Whenever she hesitated, he told her that they already had him at the border and that he would end up in the human trafficking market. Between 2011 and 2012, Maricel paid almost $50.000 (one million pesos) until she was morally and economically exhausted.
While time was passing by, Maricel realized that they took advantage of her because due to the desperation of having no news about Iván's whereabouts. She also learned that the deprivation of liberty of young people, like her son’s, was quite common, as well as understanding the joint collusion of both organized crime and the Police, to forcibly recruit young men, in a situation of modern slavery, the one she verified when her collective knew about a training camp located in a jungle area of Tihuatlán, north of Poza Rica, located by the Mexican Army in 2014.
In her experience as a leader of the María Herrera collective, she could know about the cases of groups of young people, middle class students who were taken to forced labor. Others were disappeared by the Inter-municipal Police, and they infer that, after detaining them, the Police gave them over to criminal organizations. Also, even on the same avenue and in the same taqueria where her son was taken, the collective documented disappearances before and after that case.
But before this point, Maricel traveled alone in Poza Rica and its surroundings for five years.
“I used to say if many disappear here, why do people stay silent? Why are people doing nothing to search for their children, since they are not furniture that can be replaced?” Maricel, who until then had no idea about working in a collective, met Juan Carlos Trujillo Herrera and his mother, María Elena Herrera Magdaleno, on the 10th of May 2016, both joined by a very strong bond with Poza Rica: in 2008, Jesús and Rafael, sons of María Herrera who worked as metal brokers (such as gold), were disappeared in Atoyac de Álvarez, in Guerrero State, when they were coming back from a work trip in Oaxaca State to their native Michoacán State. Two years later, Gustavo and Luis Armando, two other sons of María, traveled to Veracruz following their siblings’ same business, in order to obtain resources and keep on financing their search, but they were detained at a police checkpoint in Poza Rica, and also disappeared.
The Trujillo Herrera family split into two simultaneous searches for four of its members at opposite ends of the country. María's husband passed away during those years, then, the brothers Miguel and Juan Carlos Trujillo were left at the head of the search, along with their mother.
When Maricel met Juan Carlos on the march for the disappeared people on Mother's Day, she says they “showed her the way”. Juan Carlos invited her to a meeting, and she called other relatives of the disappeared people from Poza Rica that she met on social media. José de Jesús Jiménez Gaona, Jenny Isabel Jiménez Vázquez’s father, one of the young women that disappeared along with Iván, also participated in that meeting. José was already part of the National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons, and together with Maricel and Juan Carlos Trujillo, began to organize the first search group for the disappeared people in the north of Veracruz. Willing to search for their loved ones, they started with 20 cases from the area. On the 15th of June 2016, José de Jesús represented the group in a meeting at the Boca del Río WTC, where there were other groups, as well as state and federal authorities such as the Office of the Under-Secretary for Human Rights, the State Attorney General's Office, and the Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Search of Missing Persons from the Attorney General’s Office. He left the meeting, designated as observer of the actions of the State Attorney General’s Office on the investigation and search for disappeared persons in the Poza Rica area. That is where the Family in Search ‘María Herrera’ in Poza Rica was born as collective.
That man’s joy was ephemeral. Maricel recalls that it was difficult for him to get the courage to go out and search for his daughter, and that he participated, with a lot of courage, in the First National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons that was meant to be tested in Amatlán de los Reyes, Veracruz, since they considered it the preamble to gain experience, and with this, they could go out and discover the horrors happening in their own land. A week after his designation he was murdered.
Maricel could also have died that 22nd of June. She says that she was traveling by car with José and his wife, Francisca, to the place where, the next day, they were meant to have a meeting with Luis Ángel Bravo Contreras, The Veracruz State Attorney General, who would go to Poza Rica for the first time. That was an achievement after the WTC meeting. José de Jesús mentioned that he was hungry, so Maricel decided to stay in a church. Five blocks ahead, in front of the Poza Rica Prosecutor's Office, unknown people opened fire on the couple. José de Jesús died instantly and his wife was seriously injured.
After the attack, Maricel was pressured to abandon the search for her son. But by telling the story of José de Jesús’ death in front of the journalists, she decided that she would not give up.
"Since then, when thinking about things, I said: no, now I feel more committed to the fight because I am no longer looking only for my son, but also for Jenny”. Later, she would embrace the search for Andrés Cázares, son of a woman who, according to Maricel, died of sadness while searching. After a while, she became in charge of the collective.
At first, the meetings aimed to look for distraction and understanding. Confidence was born among the members of the group, and their own research led them to know “too much”: to identify who was leading the crime in Poza Rica, who was already in prison, or who was murdered. After that, it was very difficult to see the city with the same eyes.
"We can't stay like this, because they are our children," Maricel encouraged the other family members for them to join in the search. She kept on insisting until, two years later, they went from being a group of only four members and relatives, to 73 in 2018, and almost doubling that number a year later.
They do not judge in the María Herrera collective: Maricel considers that a mother’s suffering is always the same. It is like what the Trujillo family always exposes and that has become the National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons’ motto: they are not looking for the culprits, but to find their loved ones. The body is their priority, not the executioner’s punishment.
However, in 2017 they found the first vestige in the northern area of what is known as a “human kitchen," an omen of what they would find three years later, in the Fifth National Search Brigade.
The group found the “La Gallera” ranch, a property located in Tihuatlán, in the north of the Cazones River which divides the municipality of Poza Rica; it was a property that the
Zetas took from a family in 2011, for it to become a meeting point and clandestine burials. During the days of the right-wing party's government, the National Action Party (PAN), after Javier Duarte's escape from Veracruz, was when their request prospered. The Veracruz State Attorney General's Office, then in charge of Jorge Winckler Ortiz (currently a fugitive), reviewed the “La Gallera” ranch in early 2017, but there were no findings. After insisting, they returned in February with the families of the María Herrera collective.
Maricel assures that she was greatly impacted when she entered in “La Gallera” for the first time. After a dirt road, on the left, a path opens up and leads into the thick undergrowth for about fifty meters, to a clearing where a house stands and in front, about ten meters away, a big room with an oven about two meters high and a front of three meters to make zacahuil, a giant tamale (the largest in Mexico) based on beef and pork with chopped corn, very typical of the gastronomy in the northern area of Veracruz and the Huasteca.
"La Gallera" shares its deathly meaning in two parts of the country: in Poza Rica, Veracruz, and in Tijuana, Baja California, because that one is also the name of the property where Santiago Meza López, presented to the media as "El Pozolero," used to dissolve bodies in acid. In "La Gallera" a special word was coined for this practice that also links horror to gastronomy, since the group discovered that due, to the characteristics of the oven, it was said "people were cooked like a zacahuil”.
The bodies of a woman and five men were exhumed behind the house, some of them, dismembered. Maricel estimated that there were corpses that had been buried for about twenty days, so she considered that they were looking in an active point. A colleague of the group identified her brother thanks to his tattoos and clothing, while the rest have not yet been recognized.
Inside the house were bloody stains on the walls, like handprints, that even after three years, are still visible. They also found a lot of clothes, which made them think that there should be more people buried in there, than only the six in the courtyard. They concluded that there could be bone remains among the ashes of the zacahuil’s oven. The Prosecutor's Office wanted the site to be ruled out and the proceedings to be concluded, but Maricel Torres’ collective kept on insisting.
The ineptitude of the Prosecutor's Office was not only witnessed by the Poza Rica collective, but also by Luis Tapia Olivares, coordinator of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Centre for Human Rights’ defense area (Centre PRODH). He narrated that the forensic experts could not even distinguish between human and animal bones, or stones and wood, and that they did not even take the necessary measures for not to contaminate the place, such as the use of diverse tools to conserve the scene intact.
The third raid (the second with the presence of family members) was registered on
March 1 and on that occasion, they had the support of the National Search Brigade. There
came Mario Vergara Hernández, originally from Guerrero, and the person who coordinates
the Brigade’s field searches. He is looking for his brother Tomás “Tommy” Vergara, kidnapped
on the 5th of July 2012. He says that he asked for a proof that his brother was still alive and
since this one was not provided, they did not pay the ransom.
"You will regret it and you will never find your brother," they said in retaliation. Although he does not describe himself as field person, he began to look in the field out of necessity and learned to detect when the ground had been recently removed, as a sign of a pit. As it happened with Maricel, Mario and Juan Carlos Trujillo met and discovered that there were other people also looking for their disappeared across the country.
Even if Mario has been touring different parts of the country since then, and helping with field searches, “La Gallera” is one of the cruelest places he remembers because in most of the times that they have found human remains, they are adult people. In the third search inside “La Gallera” they found the skull of a child and when he thinks of it, it gives him goosebumps.
“That really hit me”. The government's criminalizing speech repeats that those walking ‘bad steps’ end up in graves, but “a child?”, he muses.
Maricel says that, in addition to the skull that belonged to a minor, it was the first time that they found fragments of charred bones. They added another skull to their findings, a maxilla, more bone pieces, ribs, and a lot of ashes in the oven.
This is what Mario Vergara refers to with “having the luck of disappearing in another state”: he explains that, while bodies are buried in other parts of Mexico, they are reduced to dust in Veracruz. A single body can be broken into hundreds, thousands of fragments. If everything would be processed to get answers, it would take years and resources that would mean millions of pesos (thousands of dollars). It is like putting together a genetic puzzle: discovering which little piece belongs to whom, if it is not calcined enough to extract its DNA, otherwise, identification becomes impossible. Mario also highlights that searching in Veracruz is difficult because of the humidity and the speed in which the vegetation covers everything. The María Herrera collective, with the support of the Centre PRODH, requested the Federal Public Ministry that the investigations could be carried out by the then named Attorney General of the Republic, and not by the State Prosecutor's Office, alleging a lack of both technological and human resources capacity for processing such amount of evidence. The Prosecutor's Office kept the human remains of "La Gallera," until the Attorney General of the Republic asked for them.
“That there is no budget, no reagents, nor desire. The Government is not interested in the identification of the bodies, and that one is our concern. What is the point for us to search if there are remains that are being accumulated?” complains Maricel. After these proceedings, more were carried out in November 2017 and in May 2018, in which more than 200 pieces of bones, and even more clothes were added: adults’, young women’s and children’s, diapers included.
And even if with every new visit the aim was to find new clues, the fifth time that all the families returned to this ranch as part of the Fifth National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons in 2020, was not the exception.
It is hard for Maricel to find others, because she has not yet found Iván. In 2018, one year after the findings in "La Gallera" she confessed that she believes that her son is no longer alive, but clung to the idea of finding him, even if it would mean finding only his remains, so he can rest in peace.
"He was used because of his youth. It is not fair that they stole his life and destroyed ours. He deserves a place where we can go and see him”.
By that time, she pointed out that the only thing she was afraid of was dying without finding her son. That she no longer knew of another life. That her search is her ultimate goal.
And, that if he could listen to her, she would tell him: “Iván, wherever you are, your mother loves you and tells you that she will find you”.
The Fifth National Brigade’s search in an extermination camp called Veracruz
The original publication is available via the following link:
For Miguel Ángel and Juan Carlos Trujillo Herrera, the northern area of Veracruz is indebted to them. In 2011, their brothers Gustavo and Luis Armando and two other relatives were detained at a police checkpoint in Poza Rica. Miguel's theory is that they were detained because they were four men traveling in a VW Jetta with a Michoacán number plate and tinted windows. Miguel says that after the disappearance of his brothers, he could find the location of their telephones and also found out that the points where they appeared, coincided with the place that used to be the Inter-Municipal Police’s base of operations for Poza Rica- Tihuatlán-Coatzintla. Also, he would eventually discover that the car where his brothers were traveling in ended up in a junkyard owned by Gregorio Gómez, the owner of Autopartes Gómez and former president of Tihuatlán, where “La Gallera” is located.
This is the third time that the National Search Brigade for Disappeared Persons has worked in Veracruz. Its first two editions, in 2016, took place in Amatlán de los Reyes and Paso del Macho, near Córdoba and Orizaba, in the central area of the state. Then, in 2017, they went to Sinaloa and in 2019 they visited Guerrero.
The Trujillo brothers and their mother, María Herrera Magdaleno, organize the National Search Brigade that launches calls for collectives that are part of the Network of National Links. Since the first time they went out into the field, they postponed their own search in the north of Veracruz to help in other areas where death also abounds. Finally, from the 10th until the 21st of February 2020, they would go into open lands in northern Veracruz, in the middle of oil fields, cattle ranches and orange orchards.
Monday, 10th February
The Brigade congregates in the House of the Church, owned by the Diocese of Papantla that will serve as a shelter for the next two weeks. There are four red brick buildings that rise along a path that goes up a hill. It looks like a country hotel: the rooms with wooden doors and frames are distinguished by a room number, although there are not enough for the more than 200 seekers of 70 collectives of the country, volunteers or human rights observers.
The rooms have two single beds and a private bathroom with hot water. They will end up being three or four people per room, taking turns to sleep in the bed or a mat on the floor. As for men, who could not get one of these rooms, they will simply get a space on the floor of any other empty ward which, in a joking tone, would be referred as "the barracks". There are also restrooms with common showers, but these have the disadvantage of only having cold water. And at this time, during the mornings or nights in Papantla, the weather can be quite cold enough to be considered uncomfortable.
At the bottom of the hill, to the left, there is a wide esplanade with a dome that usually functions as a space for religious congresses, although in this context it is used as a parking lot for the vehicles that will take the seekers (most of them women) to different points according to their search axis.
Some minutes pass 7 in the morning and there is already a lot of activity in the House of the Church. The night before, the coordinators warned us journalist that would accompany the Brigade that we would not be able to go out into the field due to the complications of the terrain, so the majority decided to follow those who would go to the Benito Juárez Park, in Poza Rica.
Edgar Escamilla, reporter from that area, and I arrived early. While we observed the hustle of the first day, we spoke with Maricel Torres, the head of the María Herrera collective. We can go only if there is some space left in the designated transport going out into field. “Search in life! Search in life, they are almost gone!”
Two Nissan Urvan vans are so full that they look like public transport from the state of Mexico in peak hours. A double cab cabin truck is enabled: the seats are soon taken, so there is only space in the back. Juan Carlos Trujillo approves us to go, and we take a spot in there. There are four women around us: with their backs to the tray’s back, they are Rosalba, from Baja California Sur, and Tranquilina, from Guerrero. In front of her is Angélica, from Baja California Norte and a friend of Rosalba, and next to her there is a young human rights observer from Mexico City. With our backs to the back window, Edgar and I stayed squatted. "Goodbye! Good luck to you! Good luck!" They wish, and we reply by waving our hands.
Our place in the caravan is the number four. Ahead, the passenger vans and a pick-up truck. Behind, the vehicles of the National Human Rights Commission, the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic with the canine teams, the Executive Commission for Attention to Victims, and the Federal Police patrols.
Rosalba Ibarra Rojas, a very tall and strong-looking woman, wears completely black and her shirt stands out due to her name at chest height, the image of a shepherd dog in the front, and a pickaxe and shovel crossed in her right arm. She breaks the ice from the back of the truck, which is shared with other six individuals.
"I guess people must be panicked with all of this" she says with a very strong accent, quite probably from the north of Mexico, as we observe the confused faces of people from their homes or the sidewalks as we make our way in convoy through the main avenue of Papantla, a city famous for being the birthplace of vanilla and whose name, as Edgar would explain later to me, comes from the Totonac language and means “the city that perfumes the world”, and that some decades ago, the streets really had the smell of vanilla because the pods were put to be dried on the sidewalks; that does not happen anymore, almost all production is now from Madagascar.
After crossing Poza Rica, 30 kilometers to the north of Papantla, we take the road to the left and after a while a sign announces that we are leaving the state of Veracruz and entering the state of Puebla. Angélica and Rosalba talk about the particular conditions of the search in the states of Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur: they highlight the lack of official records, the minimal visibility of cases, the increasing amount of disappearances in small towns, and the strategy of burying people in the building foundations or under concrete floors. They lead the conversation in which Tranquilina barely participates: she is rather concerned about putting her eyes on the road, with her eyes scanning the horizon.
As we were passing by Lázaro Cárdenas village, known as “La Uno," we entered through the village’s downtown.
"Look at the 'hawk' that is filming," warns Tranquilina and we observe a young man with his mobile pointing at the row of vehicles.
We went down the hill along a winding road until we crossed a narrow bridge over the clean waters of the San Marcos River that marks the borders of Puebla and Veracruz. A biker that we spotted also seems to discreetly record on the phone. Meters ahead there is a sign with the name of the community we crossed: El Paso, municipality of Coyutla, Veracruz. Almost the only ones watching us going by are dogs; most houses have closed doors and dusty facades.
If it takes time for us to cross the 700 meters of the main street, from the first house in the town to where we have to turn off to the right, it is because it is a rugged dirt road and river rocks.
After the rural health clinic, we see the last houses in El Paso and, at the end of those houses, one of them seems to be saying goodbye to us, like at least eight others, with the logo of the PRI painted on the wall, the party where Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte belonged to, both former Governors of Veracruz when the number of disappearances and graves increased.
For almost three kilometers the road is traveled without talks, and the only noise that can be heard is the purring of the engines and the creaking stones. The undergrowth grows thicker around the dirt road where only one vehicle can fit. We passed a dried ford and three gates for cattle; in the last one, one of the Nissan Urvan cannot cross and people have to get off while a group of fourteen cows curiously approaches.
"Comrades, hold on tight please," says the driver as we seem to practice some curious yoga positions and then feel a sharp blow on the back.
"Well, the thugs did have gasoline,” Rosalba remarks, with irony "and also a good truck”
The place we are going to, the body of a missing young man from “La Uno” was found the last year, and the Brigade noticed that some bones were left, and that there could be other people’s bodies. Finally, three hours after leaving Papantla, a hill started to be spotted in front of us and we stop with the Sun shining to our left. The vehicles do a U-turn to stay in a starting position, as a security measure.
As soon as the seekers get off the vehicles, Mario Vergara gives instructions and takes a pickaxe, shovel, rod, bar or rake to venture into the undergrowth that smells as if it had been freshly cut by the machetes of those who break through. For being a hill in the middle of nothing, it is uncommon that there is a more-or-less defined path. It is also surprising that the mobile signal is good: even in 2013, the Google Maps car passed by here and there is a street view; for seven years it has barely changed, except for the secret that the hill keeps. Eight Federal police officers guard the rear of the line and we stopped when indicated by those of the Marabunta Humanitarian Peace Brigade, Human Rights observers who oversee much of the logistics. Edgar and I are asked to wait while the family members take a look at the ivory-colored and earth-stained fragments that the exploration group located yesterday in what looks like a riverbed: a piece of skull, some vertebrae next to a sock, a rib, one ulna and a piece of a jaw with some teeth. They also found a bullet casing, but it was lost due to the footprints.
Everything above our heads is covered by a natural ceiling, hence the freshness. This also causes the black earth to remain moist and fertile to the point it looks like a jungle: lianas raining down among the thin tree trunks, some of them with thorns, and others just getting stuck in the ground. Opening your eyes wide, to avoid stumbling and to find bones, is fundamental.
Mario calls people to come closer to see the pieces, so those who have never seen human remains know what they look like. Slowly, they pass by two or three and then they will carefully start raking the ground as if they were peasants about to sow, but the truth is that they will start digging up. Using tools, sticks, or bare hands, they remove the top layer of soil in hopes of discovering something that will lead to identify a person. "Where do I want us to look for?" Mario Vergara yells. "Everywhere!"
It does not like we are on a hill, although it is somewhat remarkable due to the inclination of the terrain. Climbing becomes heavy at some point and holding onto the lianas can be treacherous. If there was no clear path, someone would easily get lost.
"We can be on top of the bones. We have to move the leaves" continues Mario, giving instructions.
Since it is already noon, the seekers are getting ready to check the ground before the afternoon is gone. Carmen Hernández Yáñez concentrates on the ground under the leaves. Víctor Manuel Hernández Hernández, her son, could be around there. He who would be 35 years old now, but he disappeared in 2015 in Lázaro Cárdenas or “La Uno," when one day some friends went to look for him at night, he left and never returned. His mother has had to combine two tasks: running her local business, a butchery, and searching for her son. It is the second time in 4 months that she has gone to the field in Veracruz and she feels like she’s more from Veracruz than from Puebla, because she belongs to the María Herrera collective in Poza Rica, and she also knows that those who were taken in “La Uno” used to brought to Veracruz and vice versa. Despite what she has read on the news about how decomposing bodies have been found, she is still hopeful that her son is alive.
Carmen tells me that the place where we are is known as "Las Palmas". It is not until we leave and go away from the hill, when I discover that the place is called like that because, among all the vegetation, very tall palm trees grow and rise from the green roof. Also, with this reference we notice how high we climb.
"Hey, up here!" screams are heard, they’re asking the canine team to go up. The air smells like garlic because of a plant that we cannot spot, but perceive. The how a certain thing, plant or food takes on a new meaning to me would happen at least twice during the Brigade. I will never be able to think the same about garlic: what used to be only a style to prepare food for me, now will always remind me of the spicy air that interfered with the search.
As we climb the slippery ground, three agents from the Criminal Investigation Agency join. There is something that looks like a gap, as if the ground had been removed long ago, and the possibility of a pit is verified with a rod. After burying the rod in the ground, “Sibani" arrives, one of the two dogs that are trained to detect human remains. Negative. Another woman says that she will continue digging because she has a hunch and that the garlic may have affected the animal's nose.
A few meters down, Montserrat Castillo, one of the organizers, awaits. She is searching for everyone and no one in particular: she is not the only one that accompanies the Brigade as a volunteer of the Network of National Links, despite having no missing family member. Her first approach was eight years ago with the poet Javier Sicilia’s National Movement for Peace, and since that moment, she joined the Brigade when she met the Trujillo brothers, so she has attended all possible national searches from Amatlán to Poza Rica. Montserrat seems to be everywhere at the same time: later, we would discover that she has a twin, although both are such active women, that we got to think that they were triplets instead.
It is similar to Rosalba’s case, a woman from Sinaloa who lives in Baja California. This hairdresser and mother of two founded the search collective “San José, rastreadores de la Baja," even if she had no missing relatives. Nevertheless, after almost one year of activism one of her friends disappeared, and she has suffered intimidation because of her actions. In spite of how hard his work can get to be, Rosalba proudly says that her children understand what she does, and says that on Christmas Day, her eight-year-old daughter wrote a letter for her, but since she did not understand her daughter’s handwriting, she asked her to read it for her.
"Dear Santa, I don’t want toys or gifts, I'm just asking you to help my mom to find all the one who are disappeared," wrote her girl. While the agents of the Attorney General's Office fence the area to collect pieces of bones, it is already one o'clock and the lunch is served for everyone: there are meat tamales with vegetables and flavored electrolytes to accompany. The electrolytes can help to get hydrated without having to urinate that many times. This last thing can be difficult for women, and we are a majority, so we have to go as a group to a remote part of the path and get into the bush.
After eating a little, Ana Karen Bautista Santiago works on an unexplored piece of land. She knew that her son was missing when she was informed that he had not come home. After some investigation, she would find out that the Civil Force intercepted the young man who used to work in a supermarket in Poza Rica, on the 17th of January 2016. Although she joined the “Unidos por amor a nuestros desaparecidos” collective just two months ago, she has made six independent searches to find José David. A few meters away from Ana, Reina Barrera García sits behind the yellow tape to observe the work of the agents in white suits. With her 71 years of age, she goes up and down the hill looking for the seventh and youngest of all her children. "I always count him," laments Reina, little Reina, as they call her in the Brigade with affection.
The laminated photo of Luis Javier Hernández Barrera, who disappeared in Poza Rica on the 20th of November 2011, hangs from a cord around his mother's neck. The weight of his disappearance has fallen on her, the one who looks for him, suffers and cries for him. Reina was born in Tuxpan, to the north of Poza Rica, but she moved to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, with one of her daughters until another sister of Luis told her that they couldn't find him, and the two of them started crying on the phone. She decided to abandon her medical treatment to go and find her son.
"Some people tell me he was in bad steps," tells the woman as she clings to a threadbare backpack where she carries her medicines, her mobile and some plants that she liked because of how they bloom. She does not fully believe what people told her, because she states that Luis Javier worked as a bricklayer and his life was not luxurious, but rather with deficiencies.
In addition to an unofficial criminalization, she also faced the typical bureaucracy of the disappearances in Veracruz: the Prosecutor's Office was not aware of the case because his son’s partner did not report it, until Reina she did it and they took DNA samples from her. As in many other cases, what she found out was by personal investigations, not by the authorities: her son had been threatened in a sports ground by another man, apparently related to her daughter-in-law.
Reina barely receives some understanding from her family, so she has found comfort in the collectives, where there are women getting organized and looking for children, siblings, parents, nephews or friends are organized, most of the times without the support of their close relatives.
Her black leather boots are already worn out because they were not made to walk in the dirt, only to go for a walk. But she uses them for this and she will use them every single day for the rest of the time that the Brigade lasts, because they are the only pair of shoes that she brought. The only thing that can't be taken away from her is the hope of finding her son, it doesn’t matter the way she gets to find him, because for her “even if he was already an adult man, he was my baby”.
Marité Kinijara is at the top of the hill, the highest place that the Brigade can reach. She is upset because there were no prayers or blessings before they started the search. It is the first National Brigade in which she participates, and she is wearing a white t-shirt with the printed photo of her brother Fernando, who disappeared on the 11th of August 2015 in Empalme, Sonora.
"No, it's mold, we already smelled it," she replies to another woman who thinks there are burned logs.
When his brother disappeared, she looked for Mario Vergara and, in two months, they set up the “Guerreras Buscadoras de Sonora” collective, distributed into seven municipalities to search for more than 800 disappeared persons. Like Mario said, she agrees that Veracruz is distinguished by its humidity, which makes the search tasks difficult.
The late afternoon comes with worries for the group. Maricel Torres checks a low area with another group, the one that randomly digs the soil. Soon, the terrain looks dark under the
undergrowth that is already impeding light to pass through. With the Sun, the energies and hopes of finding more than just remains, irresponsibly forgotten by the Veracruz Prosecutor's Office a year ago, go away.
The members of the Brigade leave the hill and rest on its lower slopes. Maricel and some other women make tuna sandwiches and offer them from hand to hand. Suddenly, nobody knows from where, some two-and-a-half liter cokes appear, and we all celebrate, and pour some in our plastic glasses, the equivalent of a few sips, so it can be enough for everyone.
Then, Marité sits next to me, on the ground, and starts to sing a song written by an inmate from the Old Guaymas Jail, Rogelio Fernández, with information he obtained from the radio or newspapers.
The tools are left lying at the entrance to the tree tunnel that leads to where the forensic experts will be working until they collect the last bone. One of the Brigade coordinators asks them to group together and record a video to say thanks because they surpassed the goal of $7.500 (150.000 pesos) at the donadora.org page (in the end, they would collect 198.555 pesos, more of $9.920).
Then they are called by Father Luis Orlando Pérez, a Jesuit collaborator in the Education area at the Centre PRODH, who actively accompanies them in the field. In a circle, they hold hands, thanking God for the search day and ask that the people who were killed can find peace and that they can be found by their relatives. When the Our Father ends, Reina breaks down in tears.
Marité, Yadira, Maricel, two brigade members from Marabunta and a woman from the Network of National Links run to hug her and start to jump around her to cheer her up. Reina wipes her tears as she smiles and then poses with them with a wistful expression on her face. The way back is serene. The landscapes in that area of Veracruz, especially at sunset, look like a postcard. It is ironic that this kind of horrors happened in such beautiful places. I would to imagine that the search group is actually one of hikers who rent vans, traveling to see some archaeological zone lost in the jungle all day long, having backpacks filled with repellent, food and electrolytes and that, at the end of the day, they meet to return to their hotel; I wish it was like that, but it is not. Although the mood is strong today, there is no pleasure or fun in what they actually did. Then the blow of the fresh air from the highway brings me back to the back side of the pick-up where I am lying in not an easy position, and then a sign reminds us that we are in Veracruz.
Tuesday, 11th February
Today, we have been told that we will go to a river near to where we were yesterday. We remember the crystalline waters of the river that we crossed to go to El Paso, so there is enough excitement at the possibility of taking a refreshing dip in the water, so the seekers wear shorts and flip-flops.
Breakfast is served at 7 in the morning in the dining room located on the ground floor of a brick building at the top of the hill, next to the chapel and a white statue of a virgin. It is large enough to gather the entire Brigade. People line up to pour some coffee in plastic cups, to have a plate with food and a sweet bread; then they are seated at long tables with seats enough for eight or ten.
The dynamics are like Monday’s. Each person is noted on a list according to her axis (search alive, countryside, churches, schools, or coroner’s office) and hops on the corresponding vehicle. A bus is added to today’s trip. I take a place in the back side of a pickup, there are five men and three women (me included), it means we will get numb more easily. Reina is with us because she did not want to leave in the bus. She entertains herself by peeling off her leather boots; when she laughs, she shows her toothless mouth and when she stays serious, her lips remain twisted into a permanent grin and curved down and to the left.
Those who talk about their experiences do so with enthusiasm; It seems to be a lifestyle and sometimes it seems that they can no longer imagine life beyond searching. At 11 am, after a truck was lost and we ran out of gas, we have barely reached Poza Rica, and the convoy stops at a convenience store. The Marabunta member in our unit asks us not to leave the vehicle so there won’t be any kind of disorder, but when he sees his own mates running towards the store, he changes his mind. The cokes are taken out of the cooler boxes in a heap and suddenly, there is a line of people wearing caps and backpacks; we look like explorers. The soda keeps us awake: before that, another young man and I were nodding. During the journey, changing positions is essential to avoid losing sensitivity in the legs.
We took almost the entire route yesterday, but instead of turning off towards the El Paso clinic, we continued straight on the main road. Here there is more movement than heading to "Las Palmas" and there are even businesses like the "Doña Mini" cafeteria. Palm groves, dry trees, orange groves and cornfields alternate the view. We turn to the left of a field with people picking tomatoes and when it is almost 1 in the afternoon, we finally stop in front of a ranch.
Mario Vergara announces that in this area they were told that a woman had been buried and that later, next to a river, there would be bags with human remains. This information was obtained by the exploration group that traveled the villages days before us, trying to gain the People’s so that they could tell them if they knew where bodies were being dumped or buried, or where the disappeared were taken to. The problem is that, quite often, the information is not verified or there is no exact point where we can search. The seekers split in two teams: the first is for the ones that stay to rod the land, and the second is for those that wear flip-flops and go towards the tributary that is 800 meters away and which is practically the Cazones River, the same one that crosses Poza Rica.
On the way to the river, Yessenia Ramírez, from Coatzacoalcos, in the south of the state, and whose father is missing, complains of pain in her hand because she touched a plant that caused her an allergic reaction. Despite the swelling, she arrives with the group to the shore.
Yesterday's risk was snakes, like the nauyaca that, as we would just realize, was released by Miguel Barrera, the leader of the Marabunta Brigade. Today the fauna is more varied: in addition to snakes, we must also take care of mosquitoes and spiders, plus plants that can cause us some itching.
Flip-flops will be useless because the river is covered by the fall of two trees that caused the water to stagnate and, in addition to the bad smell, the bottom is muddy. Marité, wearing the same shirt with the photo of her brother Fernando, downplays it and gets in with her sandals on. She is followed by Tranquilina, a man and woman that are also seekers, Miguel and two other Marabunta members.
"Being in the Brigade is like building up some sort of peace. Being in the mud is building up some sort of peace" Marité sings rhythmically, with water reaching up her thighs. From inside they remove the branches and cut the fallen trunk to be sure that, if there were some plastic bags, they are not stuck among the roots. After almost two hours, the river current flows again, but they find anything but sand sacks, the sole and lining of a woman's shoe, and a piece of clothing next to the river.
Next to the water, Angélica Ramírez, from Baja California, tells me that she divides her time between being in charge of two beauty salons and being a volunteer, since she fortunately has no missing relatives, although like Rosalba, she experienced the disappearance of a friend after becoming an activist.
Beyond the water stream, Herlinda Baltazar Santiago looks at some sacks, with suspicious eyes. The experience taught her the strategy of burying people alive in the Cazones River by tying stones to them. A Marabunta member tells her that they are just sand sacks, not cement.
Maybe his brother is around there or not. Armando Baltazar was kidnapped from his home on the 17th of September 2015, when he was 48 years old. The father of Baltazar brothers was the owner of at least 24 hectares of land in Poza Rica and, after donating 3 to the municipality in order to have a school in there, he was able to lotify 12 and sell them, Herlinda explains. That is why she points out that his father could have paid $15.000 (300.000 pesos) that the criminals demanded as a ransom, but he did not want to do it because he considered that they would murder his son, one way or another.
"You stupid woman, if you don't give us the money, you will never see Armando again." His sister-in-law was the one who received the phone call in which, like in many other kidnapping cases in Poza Rica since Fidel Herrera was governor, criminals threatened with disappearance in the absence of a payment.
She also suspects one of her nine siblings. She believes that money and ambition were the reasons to kidnap Armando, who came back to Poza Rica to help with his father's business, when she, who lives in Tantoyuca, to the north of Poza Rica, insisted that he had better not come.
Herlinda uses her pension as retired elementary school teacher to pay for Armando's search: she uses her truck and pays a man, who helps her drive and do field work in searches with the María Herrera collective, since her husband has diabetes and he cannot support her, and as for the rest of her family, she does not get any kind of understanding from them.
It is almost 3:30 in the afternoon and it means lunch time. The food is has finally arrived: tamales, like the ones we had on Monday. Packs of ten tuna sandwiches were left behind. Water and some oranges are also served for everyone. Herlinda sits down. It does not matter if her varicose veins are on top of horse droppings.
Despite the heat and hunger, there are ways to keep the spirits up. Tranquilina, soaked from her neck down, chases some others to give them a hug and wet them. These days the
presidential plane raffle is a trending topic, so they allow themselves to fantasize and mention that, if Marabunta won the plane,"By searching for them, we find ourselves,” they would write in huge letters, with adhesive tape.
“We are going to continue working because we are already delusional”. A group of reporters and I decided to go back to the first point, and the National Guard gives us a ride.
You can enter the ranch without permission from the owners, Mario Vergara later confessed, since the request would significantly delay the searches. This land of about 50 square meters is divided with a string into four quadrants. They are looking for the skeleton of a woman, or at least that was the information given to the exploration group.
In the upper left quadrant, an older man digs and stags. Firstly, he tries with a small rod, then with a large one. The man, who is called Marcos Contreras Román and comes from Córdoba, Veracruz, works together with Lilian Sage, a Canadian woman who spends half the year working in Vancouver and the rest in Mexico City, from where she travels to take part in different volunteer programs in the country .
When they pull the rod out and they conclude it is a negative point, it smells like iron or wet ground; several of us who ask us to borrow our sense of smell to check a point. When positive, it smells putrefied.
Today the results are negative. Neither at the ranch nor in the river anything was found that the first group had been informed of. But it is only the second day, and the mood is still up.
Wednesday, 12th of February
"Stand up or the ticks will attack you.”
During breakfast, on the third day of field work, the tick bites are the trending topic in the dining room. When I came back from the river and after entering the land, tired, I decided to sit for a while on the ground next to the path, but a woman recommended that I better would not do it because of these creeping animals. Now, they say that even after taking a shower, ticks were found, like black dots, stuck to the skin.
After eating green beans with scrambled eggs, black beans, bread and some coffee, each one hopped on the truck or van according to their activity.
We move to Santiago Street, in the La Rueda neighborhood, northeast of Poza Rica.
Victoria Delgadillo, leader of the "Enlace Xalapa" collective, told me that we would go to a place where people were thrown to crocodiles.
We arrived at the entrance of a land of more than 500 square meters, half covered with trees and the other, with brush. The “Club Certoma” elementary school, whose walls adjoin the property, is on the corner. They doubled the wall’s height after the constant shootings (that happened even during classes) and because the people of the neighborhood found out that the ground served even as a dump for corpses.
That was discovered by a dog that removed the fresh arm of a woman in 2017. This is what Moisés González Díaz, from the Alliance of Shepherd and leader of the colony, tells. He brought the Brigade to this point after the testimonies he has collected in recent years. The Prosecutor's Office took out a bundle but it was told they had not found anything. "The dog surely took it from another side" was the response that the agents gave to pastor Moisés.
Sometime later, he explains, there was a project to build houses or to sell the land in various lots to the highest bidder for whatever they wanted the land lots for, but they stopped when they found human remains. The only thing left is a human bone in the middle of the undergrowth, where they inform that there are nauyacas, a kind of a poisonous snake. Just like the first day, the seekers enter in teams to observe the bone, possibly from one arm, and its characteristics such as color, size, or texture, which, explains a forensic anthropologist, distinguish them from those of animals. The field is divided into quadrants and they begin to remove the brush at impressive speed. It is cloudy and that allows you to work in a little bit easier way. Mario Vergara, the field search coordinator, and Miguel Barrera, from Marabunta, go to the bottom with three more volunteers and find women's purple underwear. Then, they descend on tracks made by heavy equipment and arrive at an open and cleaner space until they come across a fence made of sheep cloth. Mario points out that beyond that point, there is the Cazones River, where he has heard that people were allegedly thrown to the crocodiles. Miguel, who has accompanied the Brigade since the second search, also says that the complicated thing about Veracruz is that it is always green.
"You have to open it as if you were going to bury a person," says Mario when he detects softened ground. The Marabunta members take turns to take the pickaxes and shovels to soften the soil and dig. Above them, a drone is humming. They ask on the radio if it is from the Brigade, and they confirm that one is property of the Federal Police. According to what their experience says, they can be monitored like this by those who do not want them to discover the clandestine graves.
After digging for a while, a sock appears, then a piece of a shirt, the spring of some underwear and a Christmas boot. Mario explains that in other places they try to hide the graves by throwing garbage to confuse them and that this work could have been done with a machine due to the number of stones that are there and the heavy equipment traces that we saw before.
Before noon they pull out something that looks like a mop. A young Marabunta member shakes it and jokes with others telling them to put on as a wig. But as more ground falls, black root braids and dark red strands are discovered. There is expectation that it could be hair. No, it is a wig, but, what are all those things doing there in a hole of more than a meter deep in the bottom of a land where, in its front side, there is a human bone? The first time I talked to Mario, two years ago, he told me that clothes do not grow on hills, as a way to explain that finding many clothes in places like this is not normal, even less if they are buried. They continue digging, now, to the rhythm of the ”El Mecate” cumbia by La Luz Roja de San Marcos, a local band.
As background noise, every few minutes, a water pump can be heard. Pastor Moisés told me that the land where the pump is located was sold by the owner of the property from where we are searching for people, and that the buyer is dedicated to the distribution of water by pipes. The liquid was extracted day and night, the neighbors went to report it to the City Council since the noise was too loud, and then, the man threatened them with death. Between the front and the back of that land, there is a path, to the right, towards a grove that has some tattered clothes, a backpack, a woman's wallet, and a lot of plastic car garbage. There is a possibility that the clothes had reached the ground due to a great flood in Poza Rica, although twenty years have passed since then. On the other hand, the clothes do not look that old, and there is even some sort of a clothesline in the middle of the trees. Tranquilina Hernández Lagunes rests for a moment, leaning on her rod. She came all the way from Cuernavaca, Morelos, to gain some experience for her own search: her daughter Mireya, who disappeared on the 13th of September 2014 when she was 18 years old. That is the reason why she keeps Mireya’s same phone number, something common among the seekers, in case her daughter tries to communicate with her one day. She never liked Mireya's boyfriend and she believes that he or his family are involved in her daughter’s disappearance, especially after she knew, from official investigations about them, that the brother-in-law of her daughter's boyfriend was also disappeared.
"My hope is that she may be in a tolerance zone or wandering the streets." It can be blood-curling to think that, if Mireya lives, she may be a victim of human trafficking, but it is something that her mother learned from the path she has traveled while searching for her: she explains that the girls, many times, end up working as prostitutes the same as boys, or that they also end up as victims of organ trafficking . Tranquilina's eyes are going teary. That would mean that many people's lives were cut short by reducing them to the same value of any other piece of meat: sexual exploitation or to rip off their viscera. That is why she exclaims that, if they have already abused their daughter, if they have already made money from her in the past six years, they give her daughter back.
"Someday someone else is going to help me know the truth," Tranquilina said, and that's why she has been participating in the searches since the first National Brigade, because, by helping others, she is kind of satisfied and motivates her to keep going on. Back in the front of the field, this looks like it has been transformed by barely having any undergrowth left. The Marabunta squad honor their name: they are legionary ants that raze everything in their path. Meanwhile, the seekers sift dirt from mounds to see if they can find crushed human remains by the heavy equipment.
The workday ends, and there is nothing left but to rest for a while on the ground or the rubble. There is more silence and less joy than in the last days. Some women go to the toilette in groups. A neighbor is sharing her restroom with them, and she takes some minutes to hear the stories about the people they are looking for, but she says that she knows nothing about where in Poza Rica they could have disappeared, despite how Poza Rica became a place where it is now common to hear about a co-worker or a friend having a loved one that had been kidnapped or disappeared.
Thursday, 13th of February
The weather that allowed to work well on Wednesday became treacherous on Thursday. The 39th Cold Front cancelled the trip to the field, and the team joined the Schools axis. We go to the “Francisco Morosini” kindergarten, in the Arroyo del Maíz 1 neighborhood, on the edge of the city. Along the way, the Federal Police patrols split ways and the agents will spend the day in the archaeological zone of El Tajín.
The dome protects children, mothers and brigade members from the rain. At 11 in the morning the clown “Canica” comes out to talk with the little ones about peace, while the mothers are also paying attention. There are circus shows such as the one performed by Isaac Roberto Hernández Luna, who is characterized as “Picudo Patines Ponzoña” to juggle colored rings.
After a bit of fun, Liliana López, from the group "Madres Buscadoras de Sonora" (searching mothers from Sonora), explains the adults that they come to build peace, but above all, to ask that, in case someone knows where in that zone some human remains could be found, that one can leave an anonymous message or map it in the "Peace Mailbox”. The juggling acts continue, and then, with some balancing on a string performed by "Venadito," who makes his triumphal entry, barefoot and playing a cumbia. All these characters are played by volunteers from the Marabunta Brigade. They do some storytelling, sing songs, dominate a soccer ball, and do aerial dance.
Almost in the end, the Brigade members ask the children and their mothers to hold hands and, together, they build a huge symbol of peace. Children hug the seekers and draw some messages of peace and hope on a wall newspaper. Suddenly, Liliana is approached by Katherine, a four-year-old girl, who hugs her.
"If I get lost, my mom is going to look for you, so you both can search for me," the little girl would whisper in her ear, leaving Lily thrilled.
When the children leave, Lily has some fun by spinning the soccer ball with her index finger and she goes surprised when she can do it many times in a row. They take out a Mexican lottery (a very typical board-game in the country) that they bought the day before, and nine people join the game by paying two pesos per cardboard, each one with different colorful drawings.
"What moves the Brigade?" Liliana sings. “The Heart!” And hold up the card with a heart drawn on it.
The ones who have that same figure drawn on their cardboards, rush to mark it with little fluorescent paper balls, made of sticky notes. On the other hand, when El Diablo (the devil), La Muerte (the death) or La Calavera (the skull) come out, Lily tries to sing fast, and without paying that much attention to such cards.
In the face of difficult days, laughing is cathartic.
Friday, 14th of February 14 to Monday, 17th of February
I leave the Brigade for a few days while on Friday they leave to go to “El Chote," a community in Coatzintla, in the middle of Poza Rica and Papantla. The search, despite not losing its intensity, is ephemeral once again.
On Saturday they are back in Poza Rica, in a point about ten minutes south of the La Rueda neighborhood, where had already been on Wednesday. Mecatepec street ends at the edge of the Cazones River, in a section where it opens in a curve. Heka Ríos, a documentary filmmaker who accompanies the Fifth Brigade, tells me that it was said that people were also thrown here to the crocodiles, but there were no more findings than an umbrella and some candles, one of them dedicated to the Devil. By then, he says, the Brigade was beginning to show some discouragement.
On Sunday, Ríos accompanies the Search in Life axis to the Papantla’s penitentiary. Although inmates welcome them, no one gives information on search points. There were no trips to field, but they were distributed to attend masses in the region, the "Walk for Peace" in Coatzintla at 11 in the morning, and to distribute leaflets in the afternoon. The next day they go to the northwest of Poza Rica, near the limits with Puebla, to an area of orange groves in the “La Antigua” community, municipality of Tihuatlán. At the base of a hill there is a cabin where they find boots of different sizes, as well as men's and women's clothing.
The people of La Antigua tell Miguel Trujillo that they could hear the screams coming from a some sort of training camp where around 60 young people under 30 arrived, they were made go up and down the mountain, using their elbows against the ground, and the ones who were unable to do this was hit with a board. This place, according to newspaper reports from 2014, is where the Army dismantled a camp.
"We were very surprised that there were some kind of graves, or something that looked like graves, but they were rather used as trenches for the bad guys to hide and hence, they could be able to do the training," says one of the most active women in the Brigade, Yadira González Hernández, from Querétaro. She is looking for her brother Juan González Hernandez, who disappeared on the 16th of June 2006. She also remembers that there were bullet holes in orange and mango trees, and that, beyond the fields they found some abandoned barrels.
Other searchers find a car mat with blood traces that was buried, and their intuition tells them that a person was wrapped in it, says Tranquilina. In total, they found three pits and one of them was a processed grave: a hundred meters away, on the hill, they unearthed a black bag that for a moment made them think that it had a body inside. In reality, there were cordon tapes and garbage from previous procedures, something that violates the Prosecutor's own protocols, a searcher says.
Tuesday, 18th of February and Thursday, 20th of February
Suddenly, Yadira finds herself surrounded by human remains. Wherever she stands, she will crush them and if she wants to get out of there, she will have to step on them. Today is the sixth time that search for disappeared people at "La Gallera" in Tihuatlán, and the fifth time that collectives enter that ranch. They did not expect to find any more remains behind the house, where six bodies and two skulls were exhumed some years ago, but the touch of Tranquilina's fingers on the ground was enough to take out some pieces of cracked bones.
Yadira responds to Tranquilina's call and repeats the process until she realizes that every here and there, human bones were mixed with animal remains. "I do not want to move, because I am stepping on them," she thinks, but she knows she must do it, because there is no other way to get out of that place. It is painful and frustrating.
I rejoin the Brigade the day after, but I go to "La Gallera" until Tuesday. To get there, we passed “Autopartes Gómez," a junkyard, the same company where the Trujillo brothers' car ended up after they were disappeared by the Intermunicipal Police.
The house and the oven, which caused so much pain among the seekers of Poza Rica, rise at the end of the road full of undergrowth. A huge pine tree shades the pale facade of the house, which shows the lack of maintenance for almost nine years. The shapes of blacksmithing, that once were protections, are embedded in the washed walls. After a halfheight balustrade, I go through the main door that leads to what could have been the pinkwalled living room, with columns with broken mosaics and "Z-35" written on a wall. The floor is different in this and each one of the three rooms on the left. In the first room, the hematic mark of a hand is still clear and the lower part of the wall looks messy, as if someone had rubbed his hands against it, while on the floor there are two packages of condoms that look from recent times, and Yadira remembers that there was a used condom behind a car seat that is in the middle of the room; in the next room there is only an old and broken wooden closet; in the last one, with stained walls, we shudder when we read a name compulsively written with a pencil on the walls.
“Pedro,” we read vertically on a column and then, horizontally, on a wall. "Pedro Mora,” we hesitate. "Morales! Juares, with 's'!" There are, in total, six “Pedro," one “Morales," one "m" and two “Juares”.
They can barely be read. Next to the light switch, there is another name, "María Guadalupe". Also, someone wrote "Jesus" on the kitchen bar. There are two burned cans of beans, and in the corner, there are sprinkled corncobs next to a bottle of beer. To the right of the kitchen and living room, there is the porch and sixteen steps lead to the slab where an unfinished room is. There is a box in the middle, which has some used toilet paper, same scene as in a cistern.
From above, I can see the oven in the front, and behind, there is the yard where Yadira was shocked and unable to move.
One of the strangest things is that around the oven and the house, they found ten water jugs with perforations in the base, they were completely buried. And one of the most painful ones, is that when going out the back door of the house to the yard, you can easily see a pink pacifier. I hallucinate. Then Yadira would confirm that she also saw the pacifier and the she also found diapers.
Two days after the first visit to “La Gallera” by the Fifth Brigade, they continue to search around the oven because Danisha, a Belgian shepherd dog from the K-9 of the Federal Police, marked it as a positive spot, although she was later saturated by the smell of the death.
In addition, there are buried ashes and mounds that were left as unchecked. The searchers are clad in white forensic suits and strain the ashes to detect severed fragments that were not consumed. Yadira believes that the place would have some job to be done for months or even years, which would be too much time, because it is enough for you to sit down and pay some attention to any piece of land so bones can come out, since judging by how burned they are, they look like stones and are confused with the color of the ground. She also showed some evidences on how useless the agents can get to be. She found a rusty machete and marked it with a piece of tape for it to be processed as evidence. But Policeman who would usually investigate these cases, took it to hit the kitchen floor because, according to him, it was heard hollow.
"What are you doing?" She rebuked him. "Why are you doing that, completely gloveless and with an evidence in your hands? It's outrageous that, you as an element for special investigations seems to know nothing about anything, damn it! Can’t you see the yellow tape?”
On Tuesday Yadira removed a pile of bone fragments from a hole of around 60 centimeters of diameter. The place is crowded, and the agents of the Attorney General of the Republic are not enough. She chose to hide them again.
"In fact, the human remains look like they were cut with a saw," she says, "and then those little pieces left of our people were mixed up with animal bones. All of this is mixed up, both humans and animals, randomly dumped all over the ranch.” Then she explains that if there would be anything that still remains of them, in case the DNA is extracted, that tiny little piece will be destroyed forever, and the families will receive nothing more than a piece of paper saying that was their loved one.
So, when Yadira found herself as if she would have been besieged in the bone-mined field, she could not help but crying alongside Tranquilina.
"La Gallera is totally an extermination camp.”
Wednesday, 19th of February to Friday, 21st of February
A day before, on Wednesday, I rejoined the Brigade, and today we go to a ranch located behind “Lomas Residencial," a luxurious and private neighborhood. A two-meter-high fence topped with coils of steel blades separates the idea of security from a land that vomits clothing, when it is being dogged.
The landscape up here is fabulous. Everything screams green color, and life. It is a place where you imagine a weekend with friends or family, as Yadira would later say, if it was not for the fact that they know that they are tracing the trail of buried human remains. We reached this point with information from a man who contacted a member of the María Herrera collective, although it was Miguel Trujillo who kept the communication by messages. The informant assured that there, he "cooked" people and that they should find the remains, but there are only buried clothing and some bullet holes in the bark of a leafy mango tree surrounded by palms with thorns as fine and dangerous as hypodermic needles. “Royal papanes,” black birds with vibrant yellow plumage, eat from a coyol palm and squawk loudly as we pass by. I wonder if those birds have seen the ones that were brought here to die and if they also sang as they were passing by.
For the first time, I hear Maricel Torres saying that they will never find their disappeared. She mentions it as we cross two dried streams, and gracefully makes her way up the ranch which seems to have some sort of a roller coaster topography. Her voice sounds full of sadness and frustration. Things have changed with time, she says. Ticks make us their prey during a break. María Ortiz distributes enchiladas, typical food of the region, among everyone. I tried to make a joke asking for a zacahuil. She replies that such food is prohibited in the collective, and I do not understand why, since it is one of the most traditional dishes in Poza Rica. Then she explains that in "La Gallera" they discovered that some used to say that people “were cooked like a zacahuil" in the oven, so now they have a special aversion to that dish. I apologize.
Almost when we left, Belén González, the leader of a collective that has her name, from Coatzacoalcos, slips on a palm leaf and breaks her hand. She is very angry because she has a search in her area the next week, and she ends up in the hospital needing an operation.
On the way to the House of the Church, we passed by Poza Rica and were happy to see the mural that the Brigade painted below a road bridge: two hands clasped by the wrists, a white dove flying, the DNA double helix, diamonds (which means their lost treasures) and, in the end, in capital letters: “By searching for them, we find ourselves”.
On Thursday, we first go to "La Gallera" and then we join another search in Tihuatlán, in a place called "Las Antenas," from where you can see all Poza Rica behind the Cazones River. It is impossible not to notice the word "Zetaz" painted on a wall of the structure that protects one of the numerous telecommunication antennas a few meters from a Pemex well. It is already more than 4 in the afternoon and the group checks an area with many trees, just after Pemex facilities. Vultures fly over us and some giant mosquitoes are devouring us while the agents of the Criminal Investigation Agency cool off the air conditioning inside the van.
On the hill, practically behind the back of the Federal Police facilities, we find a variety of girls' and women's clothing: gray high school skirts, blouses, panties, shoes, and a package of condoms that expires in July 2021. Most of us shudder when we realize that we are in a place where sexual assaults take place.
On Friday morning, in the Church House, the rain falls like fine dew that could barely wet someone but cools the soul instead. The Fifth Brigade ends today. When the day starts, the members of the Brigade inaugurate the mural, and unveil a plaque at the Poza Rica City Hall and read the final report from “La Gallera”. There is desolation. Not because they had found so little in two weeks, but because that time was enough to confirm something that the María Herrera collective refused to admit. At the end of the report, the Fifth National Brigade announces the following: the north of Veracruz is full of "kitchens" and for that reason they found nothing, no matter how much they had searched.
The “kitchens” of Veracruz: an improved practice for human disappearance
The original publication is available via the following link:
After almost two weeks of searching, there are few human remains that the Brigade could find. There were more than eight days, ten hours of field work that ended without a human finding, in spite of the clues of horrible things that happened there. The humidity and exuberance erase the marks in the places where tens, even hundreds (according to the María Herrera collective from Poza Rica) of people, were murdered and disappeared for the second time. The first time was when they were deprived of liberty; the second, when they were denied with the option of being claimed and mourned by those searching for them.
The Fifth Brigade searched among the municipalities of Papantla, Coyutla, Poza Rica, Coatzintla and Tihuatlán in what looked like almost a ritual: digging where the land looks different in the eyes of the relatives, converted at the whim of a fate into forensic experts. Instead, what they found is a situation that reduces their hopes to ashes or less, literally: the presence of more than a dozen “kitchens," an idea that is being installed in the collective’s minds, the one that has climbed hills and urban lands, in the north of the State.
“Human kitchens” are an improved practice to disappear individuals that goes to the extreme of making the identification of a person practically impossible. The practice that makes the northern area of Veracruz stand out in a State riddled with graves and disappeared people, would be synchronized with the oil production of the area, inferred Miguel Ángel Trujillo Herrera: among the hundreds of oil wells and tufts flaming in the middle of the thickness of the vegetation in the hills, from the barrels, the flames of the “human kitchens” also roared, as it is called the practice in which people were dismembered, put in metal containers of 200 liters of capacity, arranged inside like in a grill, and dissolved in chemicals or fuel, which until now, the seekers have not been able to precise. The effectiveness is such that there are no bones left, or they simply end up extremely damaged.
While the field search squad was working with security of the National Guard or Federal Police, Miguel and other seekers went out to explore other points without security. Out of 30 places, Miguel went to 12 and found signs of "kitchens". Sometimes the remains of the abandoned barrels stayed, which not even the junk sellers dared to carry away. Some other times, only the testimony of residents or some anonymous informant, who claimed to have seen something or even participated, such as the sister of an alleged “cook” who gave them information by mobile messages.
For example, in the community of El Aguacate, in the south of Papantla, the barrels they used to throw garbage in began to disappear one day, a villager told Mario Vergara. Soon they were found up in the hills.
The María Herrera collective refused to believe it. One of its members was contacted, through a taxi driver, with a person who claimed to be a "cook" himself. First, she was told that he did not know about her son and the group of friends with whom he disappeared in 2011, because he did not receive them. The last time they talked to each other, in 2016 and after five years of searching, she was requested to be at the Papantla park, and asked her ti give them $250 (5.000 pesos).
"They told me: you will never find your son again. Do not search for him anymore, because your son was ‘cooked”. That was the last time she paid for information. “It was very hard for me, but in the end I thought that they had only made this because of the money, since the kitchens were not true. I refused to believe that. Of course, now when the Brigade comes and we are on the search and find this, you cannot imagine how I felt: realizing that is very difficult for us to find our children”.
Maricel exhales the despair that they feel during the last days of field activities. She agrees that with the National Brigade they confirmed something they were resisting to, that they scratched like a cruel lie to discourage them. Now she calls it barbaric.
In the final report, the Fifth Brigade makes the "kitchens" in the north of Veracruz public and demands the Prosecutor's Office to investigate. However, through other ways, they would also make everyone know about the collusion between the authorities with the criminal gangs, and that the "kitchens" were already known by the federal authorities, without having done anything about it.
They knew about it since 2011, when Felipe Calderón Hinojosa was still President of Mexico, who implemented the strategy that would be known as the "War on Drugs," when Mexico had the lowest rates of intentional homicide.
The key is in the document that they hand us to document this omission: the preliminary investigation PGR/SIEDO/UEIARV/073/2011, that includes a statement made on August 31 of that year by Karim M. C, detained by the Secretary of the Navy and presented before the Specialized Unit for Investigation of Assaults and Vehicle Theft of the Subattorney's Office for Specialized Investigation in Organized Crime.
The press release no. 279/2011 of the Secretary of the Navy mentions Karim as “plaza boss” and includes six police officers linked to the crimes of both kidnapping and homicide of 80 detainees, according to prior investigations PGR/VER/VER/V/467/2011 and PGR/SIEDO/ UEIDE/570/2011. The note indicates that they dismantled an encrypted digital telecommunications network operated by Los Zetas in northern Veracruz. The note indicates that they dismantled an encrypted digital telecommunications network operated by Los Zetas in northern Veracruz.
In the statement to the SIEDO, Karim said he worked as an inter-municipal police officer in Poza Rica between 1996 and 2007, but he quit and then, in 2010, he joined Los Zetas until he was promoted to become a “plaza boss”. Throughout the sheets flanked by the footprints and signature of the declarant as well as official stamps official stamps, Karim not only explained the way in which the criminal organization operated, but also remarked the collusion of Los Zetas with the Intermunicipal Police of northern Veracruz, the Ministerial Police and the Federal Police.
In the sheet foliated with number 607, he reported that he monthly delivered about $19.000 (386.000 pesos) to the Intermunicipal Police of Poza Rica-Tihuatlán-Coatzintla, and, for that reason they were not intercepted whiles in the zone. The money for the Police “payroll” was obtained from extortion or "soil fee" imposed to those ones selling piracy, an activity for which they obtained almost $25.000 (half a million pesos) a month. He also spoke of other businesses such as fuel traffic.
Karim was arrested in possession of a driver's license with a different name, which he would later clarify that it was bought for $100 (2.000 pesos) at the Poza Rica Transit Office with a person dedicated to sell false identifications. "It's a matter of investigating the members of the police corporations," he said.
But in addition to eluding this collusion, the most remarkable thing is that since then, he provided insights into the existence of "kitchens". At the end of the statement there are screenshots of Google Maps, where Karim signaled with a circle where these acts were committed.
"That the approximate point that used to perform as a kitchen, where people were cooked by Los Zetas’ hitmen” can be read, handwritten, at the foot of a georeferenced image. There are at least two ranches between Poza Rica and Cazones, "El Palmito" and "Del Abuelo," where people were “cooked," both "rivals" and victims that were kidnapped. According to the statement, the entrance to the first ranch is near to where military checkpoints were established. There, behind a false gate of which they had the padlock key, one kilometer away from the federal road, the declarant told the authorities that he saw when his colleagues took two people away and two 200-liter metal containers, where, he explains, people were “cooked”. Four hours later they came back without those two individuals, but he did not know “what they did to the bodies of the people that were murdered and calcined”. Since that statement dated August 2011, the federal authorities could get an insight that, in the north of Veracruz, the practice of “cooking” was performed on people deprived of their liberty, in addition to the active collusion between police authorities and organized crime. Despite knowing the names of ranches and locations on Google maps, something that had been doing nine years ago was never revealed. It was not until the Fifth Brigade searched in the region and that constant presence of barrels, but not of human remains, in addition to the testimonies from neighbors who heard screams or saw the fire dancing among the thick foliage that did not belong to a Pemex building, when the reality of the "kitchens" gained strength. Disappearances by combustion would become the answer to the lack of solid evidences during the field searches which lasted almost two weeks, but it would also mean less hopes of peace to give to a family.
The María Herrera collective agrees on the involvement of the Intermunicipal Police and the Traffic officers with the criminals. In some cases, by detaining and handing innocents over, and in other occasions, by allowing criminal groups to operate with impunity. After finding out that his brothers' phones showed activity where the Intermunicipal base was located, Miguel Ángel Trujillo concluded that they were hurt in that place, and then, handed over to Los Zetas. The authorities were complicit in all ways.
“There are only kitchens in Poza Rica," says Yadira, for whom the results are painful. It does not mean that they had not found positive points, but it was the reason why they did not find human remains. "We found the ashes, the stained ground… unfortunately, people there were abused in that way. We will no longer find their remains.”
"I have the feeling that I will never find him again,” laments Maricel.
Ángel Raymundo Castro Ortiz disappeared on the 16th of March 2015, at the age of 19. He had gone on vacation to Papantla to visit his girlfriend, and he would record a rap album by the time he came back to Mexico City, explains his mother, María de los Ángeles Ortiz. The boy traveled in a shared taxi, and from that moment on, his trail disappeared. Supposedly, as soon as he arrived at the taxi site in Poza Rica, he would have been detained by the Intermunicipal Police, three months before that corporation was dismantled. What had started in a cheerful way, suddenly was blown away into pain for Maria when she discovered many of those “kitchens," where bodies were vanished without leaving a trace. This leads her to think that they are not going to find their loved ones that are missing, and to reflect about some people’s lack of humanity. Why was there a need to disappear people if they were already murdered? They should have been left exposed for them to have a place where they could be mourned, she insists. Because, when a loved one is gone like that, the only option available is crying when going to those places, when going out to search for them, because they have no idea where they are.
"For real, that is a huge, huge pain. With that, we can feel like we are dying a little bit more, since we are already like living dead”. Maria is unable to hold back her tears when having in mind the discovery made by the Fifth Brigade in the north of Veracruz. For her, the Government’s "kitchens" of collusion and concealment are hopelessness and a stake through the heart. With this, she breaks herself, as if the last shovelful of dirt had been thrown to you.
Keep on searching for the others
The original publication is available via the following link:
There is still so much to investigate, things that we still do not know. Which materials did they really use to burn the bodies? Acid, hydrocarbons, or a mixture of both? That is why the work of the National Brigade does not end with these two weeks. Putting a spotlight on the situation of "kitchens" in the northern area of Veracruz, is not only aiming to lodge a complaint nor demanding for an official investigation of these places, but also to stop the practice, because there is no certainty that there are no active "kitchens" left. This is what Miguel Ángel Trujillo denounces: that if the “kitchens” had started to be investigated nine years ago, when a detainee revealed the locations of the ranches where the practices took place, maybe many people would not have been reduced to bones.
One of the achievements of the Brigade is the “intervention” they made to the authorities. Juan Carlos Trujillo says that after speaking with the police corporations of the region, they had talks with the municipal authorities of Tihuatlán and Poza Rica, having an opening with the authorities of these municipalities; they also hanged plaques on the Town Halls’ walls.
When they touched on the issue of disappearances with civil servants, despite being born and/or raised in the region, they said they were unaware of the depth of the problem. Juan Carlos considers that they were able to sensibilize them when, for example, in Poza Rica, technically all the officials cried, but beyond that, they asked the brigadistas (members of the brigade) if there was something they could do as people to change this situation. Poza Rica, Tihuatlán, Papantla and other municipalities in the northern area of Veracruz will become model municipalities to treat and prevent disappearances, a proposal has been devised by Juan Carlos, as a way of acting before the crime happens, not until later. The project will go to the Ministry of the Interior, the National Search Commission, the Attorney General of the Republic and the Government of the state of Veracruz. The seekers say that stories are the only thing that remains after searching for their loved ones. That is the reason to register memories: there is a proposal from the collectives, that a memorial or a place of peace should be built in “La Gallera," in addition to the authorities committing themselves to not leaving this place abandoned, so that they no longer continue to function as an active point of disappearances.
In the end, in this area, like in many parts of the country, all that remains is to keep on searching. The regional collectives do this work in a methodical way, after getting prepared in forensic anthropology and attending to experiences such as the National Brigade, which could be considered as “a university for seekers.”
"Why are we looking for them?"
"Because we love them.”
Love is that one thing that motivates them to search, despite being aware that they will not find much in the north of Veracruz. Although the fact of the very few possibilities to find her son Iván, an idea that hurts Maricel, she becomes stronger for the María Herrera collective, so she recovers her serenity and adds that she no longer fights only for her own story, but also for the others’. Because the woman, the one that used to search for her son every single day while hugging his picture, for a period that lasted years in Poza Rica and its surroundings, is no longer alone: she found other people she can walk with, as the Brigade's motto says:
"By searching for the others, we found ourselves.”
That is the reason she will continue to search for the others, for those who are just beginning this path and for those who will come, although there is no longer hope for their own.