Last year, a Honduran woman travelling through Mexico in search of her nephew, who went missing while en route to the United States, bitterly told Mexican media: “One day, this country will collapse, from the sheer amount of clandestine mass graves beneath its surface.”
Since then, more graves have continued to surface. Last week, in the embattled western Mexican state of Michoacan, 11 bodies were found in shallow, unmarked graves. A few weeks earlier, in the jungle heat of the southern state of Veracruz, 31 dismembered bodies of women and children were found. Over the last three years, an estimated 246 unmarked graves have been uncovered in Mexico. Many of the bodies that occupy the graves belonged to Central Americans who attempted to flee violence and poverty in their own countries.
In a region plagued by drug violence, the unmarked graves have become so common that the corpses can seem like anonymous victims; they're graying, faceless, and piled on top of one another. The mass graves are found in abandoned yards, uncultivated ranches, scattered throughout the forest, or dug hastily on the shoulder of the road.
Carlos Luis Rivera Valladares was one of the victims recently found in an unmarked Mexican grave. Carlos was from Honduras. He had a daughter. And he was killed in 2012 in what became known as the Cadereyta Massacre. This June, almost two years after his killing, his family was finally able to put recover his remains and put him to rest.
“My brother left because he was powerless,” Carlos’ sister, Maria Cristina, told Fusion on the day of the funeral.
Pallbearers carry one of the victims of the Cadereyta Massacre to a grave site in Villa de San Antonio, Honduras. (Photo by Encarni Pindado)
In her small, dark concrete bedroom in the the sleepy town of Villa San Antonio, 90 minutes outside the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Maria Cristina recounts how her family’s life began unravelling years ago. Their house was burglarized by a criminal armed with a machete. The thief slashed her father’s neck. Her father survived the attack, but was left with serious medical problems. Then he lost a lung from a condition he suffered from after working his whole life in a tobacco factory. Maria Cristina's family could no longer afford to take care of him. “We were so badly in need; my brother was unemployed, and so was I,” Maria Cristina said.
Desperate to help, Carlos and several of his neighbors set off for for the United States in early May 2012. “We didn’t know he was leaving to the U.S.,” his sister said. “We found out the very day he left; he called us from Guatemala.”
Carlos called a second time from the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi to ask for money. His family scrounged up the cash to send. It was the last time they heard from him.
Months passed. Rumors of a massacre in northern Mexico began to arrive in Villa San Antonio. The story was gruesome. In the early hours of Sunday, May 13, 2012, at least 49 headless, limbless torsos were discovered on the side of a highway in the city of Cadereyta, 75 miles from the Texas border. Forty-three men and six women were among the dead. An investigation later revealed many were Central American migrants who had been kidnapped and killed by the notoriously brutal Zeta Cartel.
Still, Carlos’ family refused to believe he was among the heap of dead bodies.
Family members mourn a relative that was killed in the Cadereyta massacre, were at least 47 people were killed, including three from Villa de San Antonio, Honduras. (Photo by Encarni Pindado)
Why these massacres happen
Poverty and violence have been pushing Central Americans toward the U.S. for decades. Sixty percent of Hondurans live in poverty, and with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2013, the country has the highest murder rate in the world.
As Central American migration grew, a profitable underground economy also flourished, led by “coyotes” and “polleros,” guides who sell travel packages to the United States— as many tries as it takes — for up to $13,000. Included in that package are fees to pay off the drug cartels that control the route.
Those who can’t afford a coyote are more likely to get kidnapped or assaulted along the way thanks to kidnapping trade led by the Zetas. Kidnaping survivors report paying ransoms of as high as $10,000.
Still, that doesn’t explain why some kidnappings end in massacres, or who is behind them. In the Cadereyta case, Mexican authorities say they found a Zeta banner and a message written in graffiti near the pile of corpses. A government investigation led to the arrest of Daniel de Jesus Elizondo Ramirez, aka “El Loco.” He confessed he was ordered by various high-ranking Zetas to carry out the killing to send a message to the rival Gulf cartel.
In other cases it’s thought that the killings are intended to send messages to coyotes and families who don’t pay. In an investigative piece in the Central American news site El Faro, Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez wrote that another mass killing known as the San Fernando massacre, which occurred around the time of Cadereyta, happened because a drug addicted coyote spent all his money on cocaine and booze, rather than paying off the Zetas.
More than 300 people in Villa de San Antonio, Honduras, accompanied the coffins of three migrants from the church to the cemetery. The men were killed in the Cadereyta massacre. (Photo by Encarni Pindado)(Photo by Encarni Pindado)
Getting the bodies back
For Maria Cristina and the rest of her family, the wait to find out if Carlos was among the dead found at the Cadereyta massacre site dragged on almost nearly two years. When the forensic team approached them for a DNA test, they balked out of denial that Carlos was one of the victims.
“We figured Carlos couldn’t have been there,” Maria Cristina said. “He’d called us…just two days earlier.”
Eventually, with the help of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology team, which was created in the mid-80's to identify Argentines who were “disappeared” during that country's "dirty war." Carlos' remains were finally repatriated to in July. His family was told the DNA match was positive a day before they buried him.
Many families still don't know if their missing loved ones are among the dead.
“Each case is a learning experience," says Dr. Roberto Herrera, director for the Honduran National Human Rights Commission. " We have not been able to ID all the bodies, and there are many Honduran bodies resting in Mexican territory which we have not been able to locate.”
On the day of the funeral, Maria Cristina's family joined the multitudes that poured out into the narrow streets of Villa de San Antonio to bury Carlos and the bodies of two other neighbors who had tried to make the journey north. The Honduran Human Rights Commission was on hand, but various families asked that the government not to attend the burials.
The funeral procession for victims of the Cadereyta Massacre in Villa de San Antonio (Photo by Encarni Pindado)
“In this country, there is no solidarity," Cristina said. "To begin with, people wouldn’t leave if there were employment possibilities. People would not leave to go looking for the so-called American dream.”
Filmed by Encarni Pindado
Produced by Encarni Pindado and Jared Goyette
Edited by Carlos Navarrete