Last week, authorities in the Mexican state of Guerrero exhumed thirty-two bodies and nine heads from hidden graves in seventeen pits on a hill in the village of Pochahuixco, part of Zitlala municipality, a region plagued by wars among several drug cartels. “The discoveries are terrible,” Guerrero state security spokesman Roberto Alvarez said, adding that the remains were taken to the state capital, Chilpancingo, to be identified.
The state of Guerrero was the most violent state in Mexico in 2015, and for the first ten months of 2016 had 1,832 reported homicides, according to the Mexican Secretariado Ejecutivo Nacional de Seguridad Publica. Guerrero is also the state where forty-three teachers’ college students disappeared in 2014.
Mexico’s drug cartels are notorious for burying their victims in hidden graves. According to SBS News, between late 2013 and early 2014, seventy-five bodies were unearthed from thirty-seven clandestine graves dug along the border of western states Jalisco and Michoacan.
News of last week’s discovery brought hopes and fears to the family of Norma Magallanes Benitez, a U.S. citizen who was kidnapped on 21 October 2016 while visiting her family ranch in the municipality of Luvianos, Mexico State. An official with Mexico State’s anti-kidnapping unit — Procuradoria General De La Justicia, Unidad Especializada Del Combate Al Secuestro Y Extorsion — noted that while there is no proof that the female body found in Guerrero belongs to the kidnapped U.S. citizen, Guerrero state authorities plan to contact the families of the individuals whose bodies were found.
The number of U.S. citizens kidnapped in Mexico each year is uncertain due to false reporting and underreporting, but in 2014 the FBI investigated at least 199 kidnappings of U.S. citizens in Mexico, a substantial increase from twenty-six kidnappings in 2006. The number of U.S. citizens reported to the Department of State as murdered in Mexico was 100 in 2014 and 103 in 2015.
Complicating the cartel wars in Guerrero is the fact that residents of affected towns have formed their own armed vigilante groups meant to protect communities. According to federal authorities, however, these groups prevent police and soldiers from moving freely, and they often act on behalf of cartels and gangs. “The army, the state police, they can’t be there with armed groups,” said Guerrero Governor Hector Astudillo, adding that federal authorities could patrol troubled areas but vigilantes would have to stand down and allow police and soldiers to do their jobs . “Withdraw, and we will enter immediately. But for the two to be there at the same time, that is not possible.”