~ This story was originally published on March 22, 2017 ~
“Criminals came to recruit fishermen in Alvarado because they saw that there was no work here. They gave people a skiff for shrimp fishing and gas to use all morning, but at night, you belonged to them and they would send you to pick up bodies, sometimes all the way from Boca del Río. Now we know where they were taking them to bury.”
Those are the words of a resident of El Arbolillo, a small community of fishermen and musicians located in the south of Veracruz that, from now on, will be remembered as the site of the third largest clandestine cemetery in the state. The 47 bodies found there had been brought in black trash bags, with the complicity of the Gulf of Mexico.
Last Thursday, March 16, 2017, a convoy of Marines seized a ranch located in the municipality of Alvarado, along federal highway 180. State and federal authorities had been notified that there, toward the back of the property, “beneath four palm trees” they would find buried human remains. The report was true.
The anonymous tip did not exaggerate: in 72 continuous hours of exhumation, state forensic investigators found remains from 47 individuals. The ranch of El Arbolillo became the most imposing of the few tombs found in the small town’s cemetery.
It was a crime that, despite its magnitude, left not a single mark on the earth. There were no reports of outsiders entering the ranch through the main gate. The ranch of El Arbolillo continues to function, two campesinos were pruning trees nearby.
The grave was discovered in the rear area of the ranch, next to a lagoon that empties into the Río Blanco—the largest river in Veracruz. The Marines confirmed the claims of residents, confirming that only a few meters away from the grave was a launch where skiffs could be beached.
“Those bastards were wicked, but it doesn’t surprise us. We would have finished them off, but now they’re protected by human rights and it’s impossible to do our job well,” commented one Marine who was tasked with interviewing visitors to the ranch.
It is midday on Saturday, March 28. While the resident watches the exhumation from afar, he asserts that criminals have been recruiting boatmen in the region since 2014. He explains that the trips began with drugs, and ended with bodies.
The clandestine work of the fishermen occurred before dawn, cloaked by the stillness of the morning and hidden by the vast wilderness of the Gulf, whose extents were impossible for the Navy to patrol.
“The delinquents took advantage of the lack of work here and preyed on people’s hunger. The principal instructions were to transport drugs from Mandinga, Alvarado, and then to bring bodies from Boca del Río,” he continues, gazing around the ranch.
The route he describes is about 44 kilometers long, from the mangrove-lined lagoon at El Arbolillo to the port of Veracruz. The illicit activity occurred despite the presence of the naval academy, in the community of Antón Lizardo, where last August President Enrique Peña Nieto attended the graduation ceremony for the cadets.
Along the route there are also at least seven “high priority” naval installations, which are guarded by land and sea.
The Arbolillo Graves and the Relationship to Colinas de Santa Fe
On August 2, 2016, the mothers of the Solecito Collective began their work searching the property near the Colinas de Santa Fe subdivision, outside the port of Veracruz. There, more than 250 bodies have been found to date. The violence in the port city produced regular disappearances and murders. The searchers asked themselves, where will the bodies end?
At the end of investigations at the Arbolillo grave, the state attorney general, Jorge Winckler Ortiz confirmed the identification of four bodies there, victims who had disappeared from the Veracruz-Boca del Río area between September 3 and October 3 in 2016, when the Solecito Collective had taken custody of the property in Colinas del Santa Fe and security forces were operating in the area around the site.
The first of the identified victims were a family from Queretaro (Dolores P., Javier S., and Karen S.) who on September 3 went missing on a weekend trip to their beach house in Alvarado. According to relatives, the three (a sister, brother-in-law, and 19 year-old-niece) were heading to the Festival of Beer in the port of Veracruz. They left the house in Alvarado around 7 p.m. and disappeared.
The second case in which a victim was identified, according to Winckler, was that of Isaías J.H., 29, who according to case file 1582/2016, disappeared on September 6 in 2015, in Boca del Río.
The bodies of those four people were taken 54 kilometers to the mangrove lagoon in Alvarado, despite the operations of state and national security forces.
Hearing that, the resident who told of how fishermen were forced to collaborate with organized crime looks at the river, then back at the graves at the Arbolillo ranch, and offers a final explanation, “here, we are all scared, the degree of wickedness surprised us, but the majority knows that there is nothing to do but not hear, not see, not say anything.” Then he turns, and walks slowly away from the mangroves, as buzzards circle above.
Miguel Ángel León Carmona reports for e-Veracruz. This story was originally published under the title “Usaban pescadores para llevar cuerpos a ‘El Arbolillo’, en Veracruz” and is available at: http://www.e-veracruz.mx/nota/2017-03-22/estado/arbolillo-el-tercer-cementerio-clandestino-mas-grande-de-veracruz
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute