IGUALA, Mexico — With borrowed shovels and pick axes, the farmers drove battered pickups to a series of suspicious clearings in the countryside, jumped out and started digging.
“Hey, hey, it’s a spine,” one of the men, part of a citizen police patrol, called out last week, fishing out what appeared to be a piece of spinal column. Soon came other fragments — a rib? a knee bone?
Five mass graves have been discovered in the hunt for 43 students who disappeared last month after clashing with the local police — and a half-dozen more secret burial sites like this one are being tested to determine the origins of the remains inside.
Even with hundreds of soldiers, federal officers, state personnel and local residents on the trail, the search has not discovered what happened to the missing students. Instead, it has turned up something just as chilling: a multitude of clandestine mass graves with unknown occupants on the outskirts of town, barely concealing the extensive toll organized crime has taken on Mexico.
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The 43 students were reported missing after the local police, now accused of working with a local drug gang, shot to death six people Sept. 26. Prosecutors say they believe that officers abducted a large number of the students and turned them over to the gang. The students have not been seen since.
President Enrique Peña Nieto has declared the search for the 43 students his administration’s top priority. But if anything, the hunt is confirming that the crisis of organized crime in Mexico, where tens of thousands are already known to have been killed in the drug war in recent years, may be worse than the authorities have acknowledged.
The federal government has celebrated official statistics suggesting a decline in homicides in recent months. But the proliferation of graves in the state of Guerrero — including at least 28 charred human bodies that turned out not to be the missing students — has cast new doubt over the government’s tally, potentially pointing to a large number of uncounted dead.
Relatives of the students, who were training to be teachers and planning a protest against cuts to their college, agonize over the discovery of each mass grave. Some have given up searching on their own, convinced criminals and politicians know where they are but are not saying.
Many still believe the students are alive, joining the distressed fraternity of relatives of the thousands still missing from the drug war in Mexico. Such cases are rarely solved.
Hours before the latest graves were found, María Oliveras, the mother of Antonio Santana, one of the missing students, lit a candle and prayed at the campus where she and other relatives are holding a constant vigil.
“I just want to know how he is, where he is and what he is doing,” she said. “When they find remains, I don’t want to believe it is him. You have to believe he is alive and for some reason they haven’t turned him over.”
In his first two years in office, Peña Nieto has focused on revamping the economy and drawing foreign investors, earning praise from some economists who say he has set the stage for future growth.
But critics argue that in the process, Peña Nieto has largely overlooked the lawlessness of towns like this one, 120 miles south of Mexico City, the evidence of which lies literally just under their surface.
“Impunity is the main motivation for these numerous disappearances,” said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official. “We must remember that only 1 in every 5 murder cases is solved in Mexico, whereas in the U.S. it’s 2 out of 3 cases. This is due to impunity, weak institutions and a decentralized search and localization process.”
It will take a couple of weeks for authorities to test all of the new remains discovered in recent days. Prosecutors have confirmed the corpses and remains in at least five mass graves uncovered so far are human, but they have not yet tied them to any of the students.