, VERACRUZ, Mexico, Sep 19 – Martha Gonzalez used to have the soft hands of a homemaker.
But they have grown callused and leathery since she started digging up bodies in search of her son, Alberto, one of Mexico’s tens of thousands of missing people.
Gonzalez lives in Veracruz, in eastern Mexico, a state with an ugly record of corrupt politics and turf wars between drug cartels — a toxic mix that has caused an explosion of violence, leaving the countryside littered with secret graves.
Gonzalez’s son, a policeman, was abducted in 2013 at the age of 25.
Alberto Valenzuela had joined the municipal police force in the town of Ursulo Galvan less than two months before, hoping to save enough for him and his girlfriend to get married.
He and six other officers went on a routine patrol the evening of January 11, 2013, and never came back.
Locals say they were abducted by state police. But the official investigation went nowhere.
Frustrated, Gonzalez took matters into her own hands.
She and the other officers’ mothers began excavating a series of mass graves discovered in the Santa Fe hills, just outside the port of Veracruz.
They learned how to do the job in the Solecito Collective, a group of 187 people — nearly all women — who search for their missing loved ones in unmarked graves.
“I’ve had to learn to dig and use a machete to search for my son,” said Gonzalez.
At first, she cried every time she found a human bone.
“I had never seen one before,” she told AFP.
“I would cry whenever we found someone’s clothing, women’s combs, taxi drivers’ uniforms — lots of them. But not anymore,” she said. “Now we just think about finding our sons.”
– Thousands of bodies –
Gonzalez believes her son was abducted on the orders of Arturo Bermudez, the state police chief under former governor Javier Duarte. She doesn’t know why.
Duarte, the governor from 2010 to 2016 for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds and presiding over an explosion of violence.
He is now in jail facing corruption charges — as is Bermudez, his alleged accomplice.
But no officials have yet been charged over the 3,600 people who have gone missing in Veracruz since 2006, according to the new government.
Under Duarte, the state became one of the most violent in Mexico, registering more than 4,500 murders.
More than 300 bodies were found in mass graves.
Solecito’s members suspect there are many more.
They learned of the Santa Fe graves last year on Mother’s Day.
Some young men approached them during a protest march and handed over a hand-drawn map to the site.
“Bodies,” it said, next to a cluster of crosses.
– ‘Like death row’ –
Basilia Bonastre is one of the founders of Solecito, which started as a WhatsApp chat group for people with missing relatives and became a formal organization in 2014.
She recently found her son’s body, nearly five years after he went missing.
Her son Arturo, a 20-year-old nursing student, was on his way home on December 1, 2012 when he was detained by police.
In all, eight young men were arrested that night in Ciudad Cardel. None was ever seen again.
Bonastre, 49, has just received the results of DNA tests confirming that a skull excavated from the Santa Fe graves is her son’s.
The remains of five others taken that night were also identified.
The news confirmed what Bonastre had long suspected.
Still, she didn’t speak or leave the house for days.
“I was crushed. I secretly hoped to see him alive again,” she said.
Wary of the authorities, she is demanding a second DNA test.
“I want to be 100 percent sure that every bone they give me is his,” she said.
There are more than 30,000 missing persons in Mexico. The number has exploded since 2006, the year the government deployed the military to fight the country’s multi-billion-dollar drug cartels.
The drug war has taken down several kingpins, but also unleashed a wave of bloodshed. Since it began, at least 180,000 people have been murdered nationwide. Less than one percent of crimes are ever punished.
At the Santa Fe site, 137 graves have been found so far, containing 280 bodies. Just nine have been identified.
“We’re all waiting to see who will get the news next,” said Rosario Sayago, 38, who is searching for her missing husband.
“It’s like being on death row.”