~ This report was originally published on April 26, 2017 ~
A ranch with hundreds of bones, ashes, clothes, and other evidence was found in Tihuatlán, and subsequently abandoned by the attorney general’s office three months ago.
TIHUATLÁN, Veracruz.- “What we found was horrific… that is what happens to those who disappear in Mexico,” Mario Vergara Hernández says, during a trip to the “La Gallera” ranch in this northern region of Veracruz.
He is a man who carries the stench of blood and bones under his fingernails since October 2014, when he became one of the country’s most active citizen searchers for hidden graves. Since then, he has led teams not only in Guerrero—where his brother Tomás Vergara Hernández was kidnapped—but in many other states.
His work with the National Search Brigade for the Disappeared, a group formed by relatives of the missing in April, 2016, has led to the discovery of clandestine graves in Sinaloa and Veracruz.
His unsettling experiences as a searcher—unearthing mass graves and identifying human remains—are well known in Mexico since he first began the expeditions following the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. This is why the mothers of the María Herrera Collective of Searching Family Members in Veracruz sought him out for help exploring a clandestine cemetery and possible death camp that they had learned of thanks to information provided by criminal groups. The crime scene is in the community of Rancho Viejo in Tihuatlán.
According to multiple sources, it had been investigated superficially by the state attorney general’s office on February 2 this year, but for reasons that remain unclear, authorities suspended the investigation and chose not to reveal information about the discovery to either the state’s various collectives of family members of the missing or the public in general. The site was abandoned.
The “La Gallera” ranch is on the border of Tihuatlán and the municipality of Poza Rica. The citizen investigators found dozens of pieces of evidence there, a stunning revelation for the thousands of families still searching for missing relatives in Veracruz.
The main ranch house contained an additional surprise: an incinerator that contained large quantities of ash. The searchers seem sure that bodies were burned there. Outside, some 22 graves were found with presumably human remains.
In many places around the house—on stairways and halls—there are fading red stains. “Blood from someone dragged through there, or a bag of remains,” say the guides who are leading reporters on a tour of the site.
Despite this evidence, neither federal, state, nor local authorities have returned to the ranch, and news of it was not made public.
But the citizen searchers were brave enough to investigate, to gather all the resources that their anguish permitted. And they uncovered this place that the authorities abandoned, hid, or dismissed.
“Despite it all, we are here. And we will keep going until respectful treatment of victims becomes the norm,” says Vergara, as he leads a group of reporters from La Silla Rota on a tour where they will see the bones, ashes, clothes, and other evidence at the site.
When asked about the ranch, the attorney general declined to comment. Neither the spokesperson nor the attorney general offered a response to the discovery.
Reporters from La Silla Rota accompanied members of the collective on their third visit to the ranch. The entrance to the property is less than a kilometer from “Gómez Autoparts”, a business belonging to PRD mayor Gregorio Martínez that was raided in June, 2015, following reports of stolen property there. Ten people were arrested, but the business continues to operate.
To reach the ranch, you walk 200 meters across a rocky plot lined with barbed wire. Three kilometers away, the Poza Rica-Tampico highway. Past the ranch, the Cazones River.
It is not the farthest corner of the world. It is hard to believe that neighbors had no idea about what was happening here. It would have been worse for someone brought here from far away, a destination that spelled death. It would have been an “inescapable hell, there was no way out,” one of the guides remarks. The searchers who offer the tour have requested to remain anonymous.
At the ranch, the noise from the city is lost among bird calls and the buzz of insects. Despite what happened here, and despite the government having previously investigated, the property is not guarded by any authorities, nor is there any attempt to prevent access. A strip of yellow crime tape that once marked a path is tangled on the ground among the trunks of jacaranda trees. It is one of the many indication that the police were once here.
“You can see how meticulous the authorities were,” says one of the guides, showing clothes, rubber gloves, forensic equipment, and trash bags that had been used and left on the floor, as though the police investigators had hurried to leave.
The ranch house is two stories, with six rooms. Two balconies on the front are covered in tiles. All the rooms are painted pink. Its appearance is in stark contrast to what occurred there, but it offers few clues about the original owners.
Their story is ominous. “It was taken from them. In 2011, the owner’s relatives were kidnapped and as ransom they asked for the ranch. That was six years ago. Imagine everything that happened here in those years, how many bodies there might be here,” comments one of the mothers who is leading the tour.
The women enter the main room, and display the photos they took on their first visit. The images reveal blood streaks on the walls from the bedrooms to the back door. “These stains are from bags that were dragged out before being buried,” a young man assures us.
In the main room the marks are almost invisible now, but there are white forensic gowns and plastic gloves on the floor, along with Styrofoam plates and discarded food. A sign says “Visitor’s Area”, which had marked the space where the activists from the collective had been allowed on their first visit on February 1.
A few steps away, in the middle of an average-sized room, is the stone oven, which might have once been used for brickmaking and that the attorney general’s office told the residents might have been used to make “zacahuil,” a kind of giant tamale eaten in the region.
In and around the oven are piles of ash containing fragments that, based on their experience, members of the collective claim are likely human bones.
“We’re no longer surprised by evil and cruelty, that’s why we can’t say that this isn’t a place where bodies were ‘cooked’; it’s happened in so many other parts of Veracruz,” says the young man.
“This heap of ashes is full of remains,” says one of the family members, the wind blowing soot on his face. The largest bone fragments were turned over to the attorney general as part of a bag of evidence. They yet to receive a response with a forensic report.
Two: Signs of a Death Camp
The story begins ten months ago, when Veracruz was still governed by Javier Duarte de Ochoa—the disgraced former governor currently in a Guatemalan jail awaiting extradition to Mexico to face corruption and criminal charges.
In a meeting with local authorities and a human rights representative from the federal government on April 26, 2016, Jesús Jiménez Gaona demanded to know if there were clandestine graves in the north of Veracruz, particularly in Poza Rica where his daughter, Jenny Isabel Jiménez Vázquez and three friends had disappeared in 2011.
Distraught, Jiménez Gaona had reached out to organized criminal groups, and his efforts yielded 36 locations where people might have been murdered, in the municipalities of Gutiérrez Zamora, Papantla, Coatzintla, Poza Rica, and Tihuatlán.
Jiménez Gaona’s discovery—in a country where there are at least 26,000 disappeared according to official statistics—represented hope. In Veracruz alone there are 2,133 people reported as disappeared since 2006. In the last seven years alone 535 cadavers have been exhumed from clandestine graves in 43 of the state’s municipalities.
Scant months after registering his petition with the authorities Jiménez Gaona was working to form search brigades when, on June 21, 2016, he was attacked while driving in Poza Rica with his wife. The gunmen killed him and wounded his wife, leaving the search brigades terrified and they dropped the request to visit the sites… but only for a few months.
After Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares took office—the first ever opposition governor in the state—the family members again requested permission to conduct a search between Tihuatlán and Poza Rica. They had more information, and suspected that criminal activity had occurred at the La Gallera ranch. They believed Yunes Linares’s campaign promise to make the issue of the disappeared a fundamental part of his administration.
Nevertheless, the response from local authorities was not what they hoped.
“They tried to scare us… but our plans couldn’t be ruined again,” one of the members of the collective says, asking that her name be kept secret out of fear. The authorities had warned them that in that area there were six criminal groups: two cells of the Zetas (35 and 52), the Gulf Cartel, Jalisco New Generation, Los Arroyo, and Cárteles Unidos.
Finally, on February 1, the families finally forced the state attorney general, Jorge Winckler, to investigate the ranch. And the investigation found traces of bodies.
“You can’t imagine everything we saw… we witnessed the exhumation of five men and one woman from three graves. Four faces were still visible, and the tattoos were there: a Santa Muerte on a forearm and the name “Lupita,” the initials E and S on the right arm, two names on the chest, “Ali Dalatiel and Francisco Javier.”
“That is what we remember about the bodies, and we hope that their families recognize them,” says a woman from the collective whose relative went missing in Poza Rica in 2011. “The smell of rotten flesh was overpowering. The police told us that the search dogs had become “stressed” and were unable to find any more graves.”
Members of the attorney general’s office also found clothing from at least 20 people, among them children and adults, along with bags, suitcases, and parts of a dismantled truck with plates from Mexico State.
Family members demanded that the investigators search every corner of the ranch, and that was how they found the oven full of ash. Everyone knew that it would not be the first “human cooker” found in Veracruz.
In March, 2016, following the disappearance of five young people from Playa Vicente, Veracruz in Tierra Blanca, police found more than 10,000 burnt bone fragments at the El Limón ranch in the municipality of Tlalixcoyan.
According to three members of the criminal group arrested for the disappearance, the victims had been killed at El Limón and then burned in clandestine ovens, and what remained was ground in a sugarcane mill and finally thrown in a river at the foot of the property.
That is why the activists demanded that the authorities consider the La Gallera ranch as an incinerator, but the response bounced back quickly, “we don’t rule it out, ladies, but if people were burned here there would be charred remains and you saw that the six bodies here were intact.” Without even examining the ashes, the agents left the oven behind and declared the search complete. That was why the members of the collective decided to continue.
Three: The Real Search
“We realized that there were suitcases of clothing, children’s outfits, shoes, and we said, ‘it’s impossible there are only six bodies here,” says Ernesto, an activist who advised the collective in 2016.
The collective filed for a permit with the state to return and conduct an independent search on the property with the support of the National Search Brigade for the Disappeared, which was finally granted on February 27.
On March 1 they returned and demonstrated once again to the authorities that wherever officials find something, the relatives of the disappeared will find exponentially more. And this time, they were not alone. With the support of the National Search Brigade, over ten hours of work with shovels, axes, and a wooden probe used to detect buried corpses by smell, they found 22 pits with at least 100 bone fragments, suggesting dozens more victims were buried there.
“The remains were burnt and dismembered, and we found the skull of a child—about five years old—that had been split in half, it was stained with soot, and half-covered in ash,” remembers one woman, sobbing, as she sits on a stone outside the ranch house.
“When we were done with the hard work that the officials wouldn’t do, we gave them a bag full of ashes and bones, and asked them if they were the same as the remains from the oven. But they didn’t do anything, and now that we’re here for a third time, we’ve realized that the ashes are all over the floors,” seethes another member of the group.
Celestino Espinoza Rivera, the lawyer in the Tierra Blanca disappearance, the attorney general’s office has operated in a careless and unprofessional manner: “they arrive one day, only because they are pressured by the collectives, and once that pressure ends, they abandon the remains, they are not preserved, tagged, or documented… it is wholly deficient. The evidence is left on the ground, exposed to the air, and it is contaminated now, and it is impossible to know if it has been altered because there is no security guarding the property. Animals could have gotten in, or the same criminals could have come back to destroy evidence.”
Since then, the authorities have remained silence about the case, and nothing is known about the evidence and human remains that the collective delivered to them. “We put our trust in the attorney general because they promised to give us a report in a timely fashion. Today, the ranch is abandoned and evidence is strewn on the floor… We are afraid to share everything we found here, but we also need answers,” says one of the mothers who is visiting the ranch for the third time.
Four: Promises and Uncertainty
Almost three months since the discovery of graves at La Gallera, the state has not released any information about the 22 other graves found by the collective, nor have they delivered the promised information including the number of remains, and possible genetic information that could be compared to that of relatives.
“Veracruz is a cemetery,” lamented Alejandro Solalinde, the activist priest who last visited the state on March 22. When La Silla Rota reached, him for comment, Solalinde observed that “In front of me, Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares promised the eight collectives that he would do everything possible to find remains, and thus I think this is challenging his credibility. It would be a shame if, given everything that happened with his predecessor, he too lacks the political will to address this.”
In that meeting, Yunes said: “I agree that it is vital to find the truth, with or without the authorities, but I would ask that the authorities be part of it; my government wants the truth. We have not tried to sweep this under the rug.”
“The attorney general cannot simply stop searching a property, that is not a serious investigation. If Jorge Winckler cannot manage it, because he has other responsibilities, he should delegate someone who will conduct a true investigation,” Solalinde chides.
Julio Hernández Barros, the former head of the Victim’s Commission and a victims’ rights expert agrees: “It is a huge mistake by the authorities to have left the scene unguarded, without establishing a true chain of custody for the evidence that is found, and they should be held responsible for that. These are some of the most basic principles of criminology—to gather evidence, catalog them, preserve them… those who suffer are the victims who are denied the right to know the identities of those who were found there, denied the right to truth, to justice, to the principles of dignity.”
The patience of the collectives has run out. While so many people in Mexico seek clues to find their missing, the information they need is being covered up. “They need to stop hiding the places, to stop ignoring, stop covering up, stop keeping silent, because that silence and stalling is, for the families, a sign of complicity,” Ernesto concludes.
This report was produced by La Silla Rota’s Special Investigations Team and written by Miguel Ángel León Carmona and directed by Sandra Romandía. It was originally published under the title “El campo de exterminio que el gobierno de Veracruz ocultó” and is available at: http://lasillarota.com/especialeslsr/el-campo-de-exterminio-que-gobierno-de-veracruz-oculto/146575
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute.