The small copper horseshoe Mario Vergara Hernández keeps in the pocket of his jeans isn’t there for good luck. It has another purpose altogether. “Since I started looking for graves, I carry this horseshoe in my pocket, because if they find me in a common grave, the metal won’t disintegrate,” said Vergara Hernández, palming the charm as we sat beside a hole he was helping to dig. “I told my mother that if I disappear, she should tell the government to look for the metal. I just hope they bury me with my pants on.”
With that, he stood and declared that the hole he and two other men—both of them fathers whose sons had been disappeared—were digging didn’t contain any corpses. With pick and shovel, they had dug to a level of clay that was undisturbed; there could be nothing buried further beneath it. While the men dug, the women waited under a tree, a light breeze relieving the near-100-degree heat and extreme humidity. They had come to this spot after a tip by a local drug runner, who said his own family members had been secretly buried near a large tree in a field outside of the city of Iguala, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.
Every Sunday, Vergara Hernández leads a group organized under the name Los Otros Desaparecidos de Iguala (The Other Disappeared of Iguala) into the hills surrounding the city. They’re akin to a self-taught search team, comprising family members of people who have been disappeared from the region. The group works off hand-drawn maps, messages on WhatsApp and Facebook, and tips from folks who, somehow or another, have seen bodies being buried late into the night. When we arrive at the site the searchers fan out, expertly scanning the ground, looking for upturned soil or disturbed plants as they hunt for mass graves, with the hope of identifying a loved one.
Los Otros Desaparecidos de Iguala came together after the infamous disappearance of 43 students by local police in concert with local paramilitaries two years ago, on September 26, 2014. But it wasn’t until the discovery of 38 bodies in the weeks following the disappearances that the media storm began. As grave after grave was turned up outside of Iguala, Argentine forensic experts identified the remains of Alexander Mora Venancio, one of the 43 students. The other 42 young men are still disappeared.
The bodies kept coming as mounting protests against the mass disappearances brought out more and more family members from Iguala. “The tragedy of the 43 happened, here in Iguala, and the parents held marches, and my sisters went and said that they too are missing their brother,” said Vergara Hernández, whose brother Tomás has been missing since July 5, 2012. “There, they met more families who brought photos of their disappeared family members, and that is how Los Otros Desaparecidos de Iguala was formed.” Since they started searching in November of 2014, the group has found 145 bodies. Sixteen of them have been identified and returned to their families for burial.