Search For Missing Students In Mexico Turns Up Graves Of Others

Dec 16, 2014
Originally published on December 16, 2014 1:22 pm

On the patio of a church in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, dozens of people gather in the early morning. They're wearing tennis shoes and jeans, and are ready to head into the hills outside the city of Iguala to search for graves and hopefully the bodies of missing loved ones.

Guillermina Sotelo Castañeda is among them. She is wearing a black T-shirt that reads: "Son, as long as I haven't buried you, I'll keep searching." Sotelo's son disappeared without a trace two years ago.

"As soon as I heard on the news that citizens were out searching the hills for bodies and I came," Sotelo says. She heard the news in Candor, N.C., where she and her husband live. She took the first flight she could to join the search.

"Who will look for my son, if not me?" she says.

No one trusts the authorities, she says. She reported her son's disappearance more than two years ago, Sotelo says, and nothing was ever done.

The case of 43 students who were kidnapped more than two months ago and are presumed to have been killed by corrupt police and drug traffickers in Guerrero has spurred these families' renewed efforts.

During their search for the missing students, officials have discovered nearly a dozen clandestine graves in the hills surrounding Iguala, where the students were kidnapped. But none of the more than 30 bodies found inside were those of the missing 43.

Now, residents in the region say the bodies may be their loved ones, and they've organized search parties to do what they say authorities have failed to do.

Mario Vergara Hernandez, whose brother was kidnapped in a town near Iguala, came to the church a month ago and started volunteering. He says the search parties have uncovered dozens of graves. Officially, authorities say they have found only 11 graves with 38 bodies. They declined to say whether any have been identified.

For more than two years, Vergara didn't look for his brother because he was too scared, he says.

But since the case of the 43 missing students came to light and the public protests grew bigger, he got braver.

"I think all our fear turned into anger," he says. In the past month, he says, the volunteers at the church have registered more than 300 cases of kidnapped or disappeared people in and around Iguala.

Maura Varella Victor says she, too, decided to finally come forward. She says last July, masked armed men came into her town of Cocula, Guerrero, and broke into her house. Her husband and two oldest children were able to run out, but she and her youngest son didn't get out in time.

"The men told us to get on the floor and put our hands out," she says. "I begged them, please don't take him, he is just a kid, he is only 15."

According to his U.S. birth certificate, her son, Carlos Alberrán Varela, was born in San Bernardino, Calif., when the family lived there working in the orange orchards.

Varella's husband, Gabriel, stands silently next to his wife. Tears slowly stream down his cheeks as she continues.

She says the men picked her son up and took him away. She could hear them arguing outside the door whether to leave him or shoot him there. She says she heard a shot fired, but there was no blood on the sidewalk. A neighbor told her she saw her son in the back of the men's fleeing truck.

"I ask President Obama to help us here. My son is an American citizen," and, she says, "the U.S. has strong laws, not like in Mexico. We need help."

NPR could not verify these stories. Officials in Mexico's attorney general's office did not reply to repeated emails and phone inquiries.

Volunteer Mario Vergara Hernandez says the family members will keep pressuring authorities to look for their loved ones and will keep searching for bodies — even if all they find are bones.

"Those bones belong to a family," he says. "If we bring them to that family, then they can finally stop crying and hopefully find some peace."

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