Residents look for their missing relatives in mass graves near Iguala, on October 24, 2014. Photo published on the Facebook page of the Iguala Front for Dignity.

Exasperated by the authorities' lack of effectiveness, residents of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, are excavating numerous mass graves to try to locate the bodies of hundreds of locals who have gone missing in recent years. It’s a risky endeavor, since the region is plagued by criminal organisations.

Their search began when 43 students from the Rural Normal School of Raúl Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa in Iguala disappeared on September 26. Their goal was to look for these students, as well as the bodies of all the others who have disappeared.

Since then, only the remains of one student have been formally identified. On January 27, the Minister of Justice declared that the students had been murdered and incinerated by a criminal organisation. However, Argentine forensic experts, who were commissioned by the families of the missing students, found numerous irregularities and faults in the official investigation.

A search carried out October 24, 2014. Video published on the Facebook page of the Iguala Front for Dignity. 

"We found items belonging to missing persons, buried only 20 centimetres deep"

Fernando Velazquez (not his real name) is a member of Front for Dignity, a group of Iguala citizens created after the 43 students’ disappearance. They’re pressing the government to solve all missing persons’ cases.

Before the disappearance of the 43 students, residents had never carried out any searches in the mass graves near Iguala. There are dozens in this region, where hundreds of people have disappeared in the last five years.

Search on October 24, 2014. Video published on the Facebook page of the Iguala Front for Dignity. 

On October 24, we went to excavate mass graves that had been found by residents on a hillside. That day, the Union of the Peoples and Organisations of Guerrero State (UPOEG), a vigilante group, led the search with the help of residents of Iguala. There were also members of human rights groups, such as the National Commission on Human Rights. There were about 40 or 50 of us. We had thought that the police would be monitoring the area, but we didn’t see them. Instead, we saw members of organised crime, but only from a distance.

We found a wallet with an identity card inside belonging to a missing person. It was a little burnt, but the name of its owner, Santiago, was still legible [his name has been changed here]. We posted his name on our Facebook page, and family members contacted us the next day. Santiago had disappeared in September 2013. We also found plastic bracelets.

On October 24, 2014, searchers found a burnt wallet with an identification card in it. Photo published on the Facebook page of the Iguala Front for Dignity. 

We also found plastic bracelets. We published photos of the bracelets on Facebook, and again, family members recognised them. We found these objects buried about 20 centimetres deep into the ground. We also found new mass graves that day.

Bracelets found during searches on October 24, 2014. Photo published on the Facebook page of the Iguala Front for Dignity. 

"We often find ropes"

On February 13, I returned to the spot where we found the identity card, accompanied by Santiago’s family. They wanted to know precisely where we had found it, because they hope to do DNA tests on human remains found nearby. They want to identify his body in order to be able to file an official complaint with Mexico’s prosecutor general.
The day before, other mass graves with human remains had been located in the same area. The authorities had decided to conduct searches there, which they do not do systematically.So there were already scientific expertson the scene, exhuming the remains. Soldiers were guarding the area, so this time we were able to walk around without fear of meeting criminals.

A search on October 24. Video published on the Facebook page of the Iguala Front for Dignity.
We found other, new objects nearby that seemed to indicate that people had recently camped there – probably members of a criminal group. We also saw ropes, which are often found in the area. We believe were used to tie up victims before they were killed and buried.
 "Armed men stand guard near the mass graves, but it’s clear that they’re not police officers…”
Families often don’t dare to look for their missing relatives themselves, because of death threats and assassinations conducted by criminal organisations. [On February 13, Norma Angélica Bruno Román, a member of the Committee of families of enforced disappearance victims, was murdered by two men in Iguala.] As you approach the areas where the mass graves are located, you’ll often see armed guards, but it’s clear that they’re not police officers.
 "Families do not trust the local authorities because of their ties to organised crime"
Families are often too scared to complain when their loved ones disappear. They don’t trustthe local authorities, because of widespread collusion between police and organised crime. In Mexico, and especially in Iguala, justice is hard to come by.
For example, Arturo Hernández Cardona, a leader of a local social organisationwho criticised the municipality of Iguala, was abducted and murdered in 2013, but nobody was ever tried for his murder. [According to a witness, it was the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, who had him killed]. Shortly after the 43 students’ disappearance, the mayor of Iguala was arrested in connection with the case. However, the rest of the municipal team remains in place, and continues to deny the existence of criminal violence in the area.
Mass graves are not unique to Iguala. In Mexico, vast swathes of which are plagued by criminal groups, about 4,000 corpses have been found in 400 mass graves uncovered in the past eight years.