May 26, 2024

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Trailed by search dogs and police, María de Jesús Soria Aguayo and more than a dozen volunteers walked carefully through fields of weeds and dry earth with their eyes fixed on the ground Wednesday.

On the fringes of Mexico City, the group was looking for human remains and other evidence after volunteer searchers said the site might be the location of a clandestine crematorium.

The search came after Ceci Flores, a leader of a group seeking the bodies of Mexico’s missing, announced on social media late Tuesday that her team had found bones, clandestine burial pits and ID cards around a charred pit on the southern outskirts of the city.

However, Ulises Lara, Mexico City’s chief prosecutor, disputed the claims Wednesday night, saying that officials found 14 bones and all were of “animal origin.”

“We can confirm that it is not a crematorium, nor from a clandestine grave,” he said.

Flores’ announcement on social media a day earlier had gained attention because it was the first time in recent memory that anyone claimed to have found such a body disposal site in the Mexican capital.

If such a site were found, it could be a blow to Mexico’s governing Morena party in the runup to June 2 elections. Morena says violence in Mexico hasn’t rippled to Mexico City while it has controlled the local government.

The search Wednesday underscored the slog many Mexican families face as they seek the remains of the 110,000 people declared missing amid cartel violence.

The volunteers, like Soria Aguayo, are mostly the mothers of the disappeared. They have formed their own independent groups to search in violence-torn swaths of Mexico.

The “madres buscadoras” — “searching mothers” — usually aren’t trying to convict anyone of their relatives’ disappearances. They say they just want to find their remains. Many families say not having definite knowledge of a relative’s fate is worse than it would be to know a loved one was dead.

“I started my own search alone, tracking with my own hands and searching alone in the countryside,” said Soria Aguayo, 54, whose son’s remains were recovered in Veracruz state in 2022. “My promise to these women is to continue searching until we can’t any more … because there’s still many (bodies) we haven’t found.”

The Mexican government has spent little looking for the missing, so the volunteers conduct their own hunts for clandestine graves where cartels hide their victims.

If the volunteers find something, the most authorities will do is send a police and forensics team to retrieve remains, which in most cases are never identified. The government also hasn’t adequately funded or implemented a genetic database to help identify remains.

The searches increasingly have deadly consequences. At least seven of the activists searching for some of Mexico’s missing have been slain since 2021.

Volunteer groups have been angered by a government campaign to “find” missing people by checking their last known address, to see if they have returned home without advising authorities. Activists say it is just an attempt to reduce the politically embarrassing figures on the missing.

In discussing some of the evidence found earlier at the site, Lara, the Mexico City chief prosecutor, said Wednesday morning that police went to the addresses listed on the ID cards recovered and “found that both of the people to whom those cards belonged are alive and in good health.”

Lara said one of them, a woman, told officers that her ID card and cellphone were stolen about a year ago, when thieves snatched them from her while she was stuck in traffic. While that ruled out the possibility the woman’s body could have been dumped there, it suggested criminals had used the site to dispose of evidence. In the wooded and rural fringes of Mexico City, it is not unheard of for criminals to dump the bodies of kidnapping victims.

After hours of searching through fields on the rural outskirts of the Mexican capital, volunteers came up with little other than frustration.

While some in the group cast doubt that they would find any bodies, Flores said they planned to press on in their search, adding they had already spent two days searching the area following an anonymous tip. Volunteers like Flores often conduct investigations based on tips from former criminals.

“If they don’t search, they’re never going to find anything,” Flores said.

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