Bloody handprints on walls, stained clothes, plastic cable ties, machetes and, as one person observes, the crunch of bones beneath a thick blanket of ash. Amid sobbing, families of some of Mexico’s estimated 60,000 disappeared absorb the scene at La Gallera ranch in northern Veracruz.
A few metres from an abandoned single-storey house, an outdoor brick oven was once used to make the traditional corn dish zacahuil. After the Los Zetas cartel took over the ranch in 2011, however, it was used to incinerate its victims. In this part of Mexico, someone explains, brutality has stained language: "to zacahuil" can now mean to cook humans.
In one of 12 “kitchens” recently discovered by families in northern Veracruz, volunteers and forensic examiners in white protective suits and face masks use sieves to search for fragments of human bones, teeth and nails in mounds of compacted grey ash.
Los Zetas, originally founded by Mexican special forces deserters, some with US training, started as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, a crime group from northeastern Mexico, before breaking away. While Los Zetas has itself fragmented, it was known for torture, beheadings and massacres of civilians.
More than 250,000 people have been killed since former president Felipe Calderon launched the so-called "drug war" in 2006, a conflict of shifting alliances and ever-increasing numbers of armed groups, dogged by persistent allegations that elements of the Mexican state are deeply intertwined with organised crime.
Mexican government figures indicate that at least 60,000 people have been "disappeared" since 2006. Yet a 2015 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found only six federal court convictions for the crime of forced disappearance.
Disappearances have been carried out by state forces, crime groups, or both together, with motives including kidnapping people for sex slavery, organ harvesting, forced labour, ransoms, repression of political activists and journalists, and gender-based violence.
Indicative of the state’s inability or unwillingness to take action, this most recent search at La Gallera was initiated by the Fifth National Search Brigade for the Disappeared, a grassroots initiative of families and volunteers.
Escorted by heavily armed federal troops, the brigade spent two weeks in February searching northern Veracruz for hidden and mass graves, as well as the “living disappeared” in prisons, hospitals and in the streets.
Groups also collected DNA samples from the public to form a database and attended mortuaries, where consistent administrative errors were discovered, stoking fears of a “double disappearance” of unclaimed bodies.
Such state negligence led the search brigade to demand an “extraordinary mechanism” for northern Veracruz, a call made in the presence of representatives of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico.
Standing on the terrace of the house, “Ángeles”, who is searching for her son, Ángel, speaks through tears: “I have no doubt that those bones are from human beings. Maybe they’re from my son, or the children of my comrades, and we’ll never find them.”
Her son was kidnapped along with two friends in March 2016 in the city of Poza Rica, which borders the municipality of Tiahuatlán, the site of La Gallera. Ángeles believes her son was kidnapped by Veracruz state police officers and subsequently disappeared. She explains she has received no word from authorities about the investigation.
Disappearances by police, and botched or non-existent investigations, are a recurring theme in testimonies. A prominent example was the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa college in Guerrero in 2014. An official report found the students were kidnapped by municipal police officers, handed over to a drug gang and then disappeared.
To the anger and frustration of families, the “kitchen” at La Gallera is not a new discovery: families compelled authorities to search the site on four occasions since 2017, with each subsequent search yielding new discoveries previously missed by authorities.
Separate searches found six beheaded bodies; children’s skulls; femur, pelvic and jaw bones; and hundreds of bone fragments, some burned.
Allegations of state negligence, or collusion, are strengthened by documents seen by The Irish Times.
"Karim", an ex-police officer and the then Los Zetas "boss" of northern Veracruz, gave a signed statement to federal prosecutors on August 31st, 2011, following his arrest by Mexican marines. He detailed two other kitchens used to "cook people", giving GPS co-ordinates and Google street view photos. Both "kitchens" are located near Poza Rica, close to the killing ground at La Gallera.
Alongside a handwritten chart showing the 2011 hierarchy of Los Zetas, where he places himself third, Karim mentioned the 386,000 pesos (approximately €19,000) he paid each month to corrupt police officers in northern Veracruz; the same area where La Gallera sits, and where Ángeles believes her son was kidnapped and disappeared by state police officers.
Despite the federal government knowing of the existence of the “kitchens” in the area since 2011, it appears no action was taken. The one at La Gallera is thought to have started operating that same year, possibly until the final months of 2016, shortly before authorities conducted their first search after pressure from families.
For Alejandro Salas Álvarez, a solidarity volunteer with the search brigade, the scene at La Gallera was “the worst thing I have ever seen. Worse than any horror film.”
He stresses, however, that La Gallera is not unique: “Practically the whole country is a mass grave”, he says, adding: “The whole world needs to know that people were dissolved in acid in Mexico, because the government allowed it to happen.”
"One day there will be monuments throughout the country, like in Germany. Plaques with faces, names and stories of the disappeared, as a reminder of what happened in these places, and as a way to say 'never again'," Álvarez says.
Dissolved in acid
Mario Vergara takes a break from searching undergrowth. He is looking for his brother Tomás, who was kidnapped on July 5th, 2012, in Huitzuco, Guerrero, close to the site of kidnapping of the 43 Ayotzinapa students.
He explains that searches for the disappeared are thwarted by extermination methods which can leave no traces of victims, such as dissolving bodies in acid or burning them with diesel or petrol, or other manners of physically erasing humans.
“We once went to an area where they were feeding them to crocodiles. Of course there wasn’t a trace,” Vergara says, “So how are we going to make the government understand that people did disappear when there’s nothing left?”
While the vast majority of the 60,000 disappearances occurred before the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador started in December 2018, there is frustration that not enough is being done by the current government.
While a national search commission was set up under the 2017 General Law of Disappearances to help search for the disappeared, Vergara sees it as an “affection” or “symbolic”.
“It’s shameful for the Mexican state that it’s the families who are teaching the ‘experts’ how to search,” Vergara says. “The families are in the hills and fields, while the government is sitting here on the outside.”
In stark contrast to the trauma of La Gallera, however, the searches also displayed the best of humanity: the quiet dignity of families searching for loved ones, and growth of solidarity, community and sense of an extended family.
For Vergara, the trauma of experiencing places like La Gallera must find its counterweight in love and hope.
“After such horrific days – of ovens, of kitchens, of testimonies – we have to get rid of all this, so it doesn’t damage us,” he says. “And the only way for me to do that is to go home and hug my little girl.”