Combing history against the grain: reflections on the search and exhumation of mass graves in Mexico

Received: February 19, 2018

Acceptance: May 16, 2018


This article proposes to reflect on the multiplication of illegal burials of human remains in Mexico at the beginning of the 21st century, based on its coercive power as a mechanism of terror, but also on its ability to promote collective action, challenge the official truth and act as an autopsy of the politico-social regime of precariousness and neoliberal inequality. Based on the experiences of the relatives of missing persons in search, the tensions not yet resolved around the right to the truth are raised in the face of the expansion of cruelty that exposes the irregular burial of the dead, and it is invited to think about the epistemological and ethical challenges faced by witness-researchers in these warlike landscapes.

Keywords: , , ,

Combing history "the wrong way". Reflections on searching for and exhuming Mexico's common graves

A reflection on multiplying numbers of illegal human-remains burials in Mexico at the beginning of the twenty-first century, based on their coercive power as mechanisms of terror as well as their ability to propitiate collective action, defy official truths and act as an autopsy of the politico-social regime to which neo-liberal precarity and inequality give rise. Through experiences on the part of family members searching for the disappeared, unresolved tensions are posited regarding the right to truth vis-à-vis the cruelty-expansion that irregular burials of the dead expose; the author invites readers to contemplate the epistemological and ethical challenges researchers and witnesses face in these combative landscapes.

Key words: Exhumation, common graves, forced disappearances, truth.

Lthe first time that I accompanied a group of relatives of disappeared persons on a search for “treasures”1 in Sinaloa, Mexico,2 I attended the implementation of practices and concepts that until then were unknown to me. "Combing the ground" was one of them. The phrase is part of a technical language produced by the expertise of the relatives of disappeared persons and refers to the action of going through the place where the existence of a burial is presumed, making a type of human "rake" with which They propose to review every centimeter of the place, previously marked, exploring the signs that may indicate the presence of a grave with human remains.

This procedure, which has become so daily for hundreds of relatives who have taken it upon themselves to search the earth for their disappeared, evokes the image of Walter Benjamin (2008) when he speaks of “combing history against the grain”, as a way of resisting to the barbarism of history. In other words, “carry out a critique of the ideology of historicism in order to show the other side of history: the history of the defeated, their suffering and their resistance” (Villena Fiengo, 2003: 97).

Seen this way, combing the ground and rolling it around until you find the whereabouts of those daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters that are needed, is to turn the history of the victors around and put the regime of impunity in crisis and not truth with which they protect their political and economic projects.

Unlike the critical exercise proposed by Benjamin and whose purpose is to go to the past to illuminate the present and thus redeem one's own past; the search and exhumation of mass graves3 in Mexico it does not refer to the past, since it has not expired. This present refers to a landscape of war against the population, a war without end, unconventional but increasingly common.4 and naturalized, whose central purpose is to establish the neoliberal model of concentration of power through the dispossession and elimination of entire populations.5

At the international level, exhumations have become tools of truth, justice and reparation, and have radically transformed the ways of managing the traumatic past thanks, among other phenomena, to the strengthening of forensic science and its involvement in the field. of human rights (Rosenblatt, 2015) and the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in post-conflict and post-war periods (Pérez Sales and Navarro, 2007). But what happens in Mexico? What opens and what closes with the exhumation of the clandestine graves? What truth and reparation mechanisms are put in place with these processes? And what meanings do these concepts acquire from the experience of family members and the context of the disappearance?

In addition to trying to answer these questions in the light of my experience as a “witness” (De Marinis, 2017) of the search and exhumation of graves in Mexico, I propose some reflections on the epistemological challenges that this process implies not only for anthropology but also for the social and forensic sciences. Above all, in the spirit of understanding how societies deal with the concepts of justice, truth and reparation from their own knowledge and practices and how they manage the "objective" and "universal" nature of science around the exhumation of human remains.

War landscapes: disappearance of bodies and administration of suffering

Although the figures continue to be a problem to recognize the real dimension of the forced disappearance of people in Mexico, through official statistics it is possible to recognize that 37,436 people disappeared in the last 11 years in the national territory.6 Family groups denounce that this number is far below reality, taking into account that many people have not dared to denounce due to mistrust in State institutions due to the proven collusion with private actors and due to their direct responsibility in enforced disappearances.7 Despite the inconveniences to size the problem, Mexico has been identified by different national and international human rights organizations as a country with a systematic problem of forced disappearances and other human rights violations (GIEI, 2015; 2016; IACHR, 2016; HRW, 2013; UN, 2012). These reports allow us to see that the Mexican case is of overwhelming complexity, since it not only goes beyond the legal categories historically established to account for the phenomenon but also the traditional explanations to account for a historical crime with fairly defined contours (Robledo, 2017).

During my participation in the First National Brigade to Search for Disappeared Persons in Veracruz8 I had the opportunity to receive 29 relatives of disappeared persons, who came to the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos to take genetic samples to be later compared with those of the findings that resulted from the searches. Of these families, 10 had not filed any type of complaint for fear of reprisals:

How am I going to file a complaint if the same police patrol that took my daughter patrols in front of my house and stops at the entrance of my other daughter's school to watch us. It has been two months since my daughter disappeared and I have not approached a government office. It is the first time that I tell this to someone other than my family (Elena,9 mother of a young woman who disappeared in February 2016 in Córdoba, Veracruz).

This "de-citizenization"10 of the subjects for whom the State has lost its mask, showing itself in all its illegitimacy, is consolidated thanks to a “politics of fear” (Calveiro, 2015) that benefits the establishment of power over the territory and bodies and completely misaligns the pact social that hung by a thread in regimes of dispossession, poverty and systemic institutional violence.11 In this field of power rearrangement paced by the rhythm of the market, Mexico has witnessed the amplitude of the spectacle of suffering and cruelty, through the staging of various forms of extreme violence (Nahoum-Grappe, 2002).

Since the discovery in 2010 of a warehouse with 72 bodies of migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, executed with signs of torture,12 But especially after the disappearance of the 43 normalistas from Ayotzinapa, in Iguala-Guerrero, which occurred in September 2014, the existence of graves began to configure a media spectacle of cruelty, which over time has become everyday. Just one month after the disappearance of the 43 young people, more than a hundred bodies were found buried in graves, in Iguala, Guerrero, thanks to the search of the relatives themselves, accompanied by men and women in solidarity from the surrounding communities. The discovery of these remains, which did not correspond to those of the students, revealed the existence of a tragedy that exceeded the borders of the media agenda. From the bowels of the earth, those bodies began to claim their identity, and from the towns and cities, people began to organize to "recover those treasures" and give them their name back.

Thus, while the public speeches and the demands of a large part of the civil associations focused on the tragedy of the young Ayotzinapa students and the demand for their presentation alive, more than 500 families organized themselves in the Committee for the Missing Others. of Iguala, Guerrero, to recover not only the remains found until then in the vicinity of Iguala, and whose identity no one had cared about, but to start what would be a long learning journey in the search for human remains, which would leave developing simultaneously in several states of the Mexican Republic.

Despite the relevance of these actions, especially since 2015, search is not a recent phenomenon. In Tijuana, for example, the first discovery of graves made by relatives of disappeared persons took place on April 6, 2011. In a field on the outskirts of the city, remains were found disposed of with the technique developed by Santiago Mesa, alias “El Pozolero ”, who for years dissolved bodies in caustic soda on the orders of the cartels that operate in this city (Robledo, 2017).13 It is also possible to track citizen searches in Sinaloa since 2011, carried out by residents of the north of the state, who, when interviewed by a local journalist,14 They reported anonymously for fear of reprisals, that most of the victims had disappeared from the municipal police (Valdez, 2014).

In Veracruz, the collective searches began after the arrival of the First National Brigade for the Search for Disappeared Persons, which took place between April 11 and 22, 2016 in Amatlán, Veracruz. This brigade brought together more than thirty relatives from different states of the republic to search the lands indicated by neighbors, who had witnessed systematic and massive burials in this area of the state. This search strategy, which would later be repeated twice (Paso del Macho, Veracruz, in July 2016, and Culiacán, Sinaloa, in January 2017), allowed to generate a space for the exchange of knowledge and practices between search engines and search engines. , as well as strengthening the channels of communication and solidarity between groups in the search field.

To Sinaloa, Guerrero and Veracruz15 The searches for “Los Cascabeles”, members of Grupo Vida de Coahuila, are added.16 who under the leadership of Silvia Ortiz and her husband Óscar Sánchez Viesca, parents of Silvia Estefanía Sánchez, who disappeared in 2006, have become a group of experts in the search for small bone fragments in the middle of the desert. Only during 2015 the group, with an experience of more than 10 years of searching, managed to find 40 mass graves, whose materiality has led the Rattlesnakes to conclude that criminal groups “cook” their victims in drums with acid and then they crush the bones so that they can never be identified.17

Other techniques for the disappearance of bodies that have come to light in recent years include the mass cremations of human remains in the custody of the State by the prosecutors themselves, as in the case of Jalisco;18 those carried out in prisons by illegal armed groups with the authorization and participation of state agents, such as those perpetrated in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, by Los Zetas;19 the burial of bodies in irregular graves by the prosecutors in charge of seeking justice, as in the case of Tetelcingo, Morelos,20 and the disorderly and irregular burial of bodies in the cemeteries under state custody.21

The terror map of these devices is not exhausted in the aforementioned modalities, as the testimonies of the relatives themselves show:

I have 211 disappeared in the association. I have found 46 bodies, I know I have about 30 in the mass grave that we have to go to exhume. So I have more than 100 bodies to find, but I know there are some that I will never find because they were given to crocodiles. For years they had lakes with these animals that fed with bodies and only the bones remained. Then those bones were crushed and buried. We found a burial of many small pieces of bones, but the experts of the Prosecutor's Office said they were from animals, so they left them there, without making a test of anything (Mirna Medina, leader of the group “Las Buscadoras de El Fuerte, Sinaloa, personal conversation, May 12, 2016).

This display of terror, which is configuring a web of senses of normality around extreme violence (Blair, 2004), does not end in the landscapes described above. Other types of daily and systemic violence are added to the exercise of cruelty that not only reaches the body of the disappeared persons, but also that of their relatives. According to Ariadna Estévez (2015), the Stations of the Cross experienced by relatives of disappeared persons —and in general anyone who wishes to obtain justice through State law— constitutes another type of device that is imposed on the body and life of those who seek be recognized as subjects of rights. From the moment of filing the complaint, the next of kin are submerged in a labyrinth of papers, procedures and proceedings that are perpetuated over the years as a form of institutional violence that imposes times and spaces to confine the actions of individuals to a tortuous transit that very rarely culminates with access to justice or truth (Estévez, 2015).

Faced with this life control device that perpetuates impunity and the regime of no truth, many relatives of disappeared persons end up assuming the task of investigating their own cases. For many this is the only way out from the indolence of the institutions that daily injure their condition as subjects:

We have knocked on a thousand doors, all the ones there and to be. I have done the research, I am the one who has done most of the research. There is a way, or we stay at home crying and revictimize ourselves or we go out every day to look for our son (María Guadalupe Fernández, mother of a young disappeared in Jalisco).

This landscape of extreme violence and daily violence is ordered on the regimes of impunity and non-truth. The regime of impunity has to do with the non-existence of criminal responsibility on the part of the perpetrators of atrocious crimes, as well as the minimal administrative responsibility for the incapacity and omission of public officials who block investigations or commit actions that damage the possibilities of obtaining justice (UN Human Rights Commission, 2005).22 But it is also expressed in the lack of strategies that seek to repair the moral insult caused by forced disappearance and related crimes. The regime of no truth manifests itself in the construction of a discourse that justifies the war, classifies the populations based on the construction of the idea of the enemy and insists on the marginal nature of the violence promoted by the State, focusing the imputation of responsibilities in the so-called “organized crime”.

Faced with this landscape of impunity and not truth, clandestine graves become a strategy of oblivion imposed on entire communities that are forbidden to evoke misfortune: “The intentional hodgepodge of unidentified bodies in nameless graves injects significant amounts of disorder, anxiety and division in the social fabric ”(Ferrándiz, 2007: 50). However, as Ferrándiz himself indicates, “the meaning and social and political impact of these exhumed remains depend in turn on the amalgam of memory webs that gradually organize (and often compete) around them” (2007: 51 ). Thus, faced with the universal morality of human rights (Rosenblatt, 2015) and the legitimacy of forensic science, which generally stand as hegemonic discourses to produce meaning and truths around human remains, new subjectivities, relationships, identities and cultures that define diverse and even partial contours around truth, justice and reparation.

Senses and practices around the truth

From a socio-anthropological perspective, it is pointed out that the appearance, circulation and consumption of images of corpses with explicit signs of torture and violence serves a double purpose. On the one hand, it sows terror by exposing cruelty to nameless bodies, and on the other, it encourages the mobilization that seeks to limit the "pact of silence" by exposing the "dirty laundry" that they have wanted to hide (Ferrándiz, 2008 ). This double character around the way of producing and consuming the terror of clandestine graves is related to a deep tension in the senses that the truth acquires in the field of forced disappearance of people, as I will try to demonstrate in this section.

When referring to the truth, the theoretical field of law has established a fundamental distinction between legal evidence (legal truth) and the truth of atrocity (historical truth) (Rojas-Pérez, 2017). The first meaning refers to knowledge about the mode, time and form of the violent act, and in the case of disappearances, to knowledge of the whereabouts of the disappeared person; while the second transcends the singular act and is located in the recognition of atrocities as acts committed against a social group.

In the field of enforced disappearance, the truth implies the “desire to know” as a “basic human need” (Naqvi, 2006: 14), based on the urgency of preventing the psychological torture of the relatives of the disappeared persons, but also to recognize the forms of extermination that have been produced and tolerated as a society, so that they do not repeat themselves.23 So the truth, although it is produced in the public sphere, has a deeply intimate and heterogeneous character that questions the obsession with producing universal technologies for the management of atrocities.

The search for the truth about the exhumations can be crossed by two demands, which are not necessarily contradictory and exclusive, but they can be in tension, as is the case in Mexico today. On the one hand, that of those who insist on recovering the complete truth of the facts exposed through the illegal burial of human remains within a framework of judicialization; in other words, a type of exhumation with political and ideological value (Ferrándiz, 2014) or a judicial search. And, on the other hand, that of those who defend the exhumation as a humanitarian - and therapeutic (Ferrándiz, 2014) - process that attends to the individual and family needs of recovering the existential continuity interrupted by the disappearance.

The truth in the field of the exhumation of clandestine graves is related to a complex field of power in which the relatives of the disappeared persons, public officials, scientists and other involved actors act, whose - asymmetric - relationships produce technologies of being. and knowledge that transcend the limitations of the legal field (Rojas-Pérez, 2017). This field expresses a pluralism in tension with respect to the trajectories of truth and justice, which emanate from the lived experience of the survivors.

Although in recent years a trend has become evident among organizations of relatives of disappeared persons in Mexico towards the search for human remains, not all share the same project. Some groups support the political commitment that responds to the slogan "they were taken alive, we want them alive",24 pointing out the direct responsibility of the State for the disappearances and rejecting the search for human remains, while demanding that the authorities return alive the people for whose disappearance they are considered responsible.

Other sectors of civil society insist on the institutional route, through monitoring and the demand for effective investigations that achieve justice, in a permanent work of collaboration with the authorities to transform protocols, laws and bureaucratic structures that can make the administration more effective. search and investigation into the forced disappearance of persons. Some of these organizations have positioned themselves in favor of the exhumation of clandestine graves, but defending scientific and legal rigor, for which they propose to guard the graves for as long as necessary while guaranteeing a rigorous exhumation, with the purpose of promoting a complete truth, which not only guarantees the identification but also the possible knowledge of those responsible and the patterns of violence. Finally, there are the relatives who independently search and locate clandestine graves, relying on the government for actions to identify the remains and whose exhumations are not linked to truth and state justice processes, since they are oriented towards the objective of identifying and restoring human remains with a humanitarian approach, under the principle that the "Christian burial" has a restorative character in itself:

We are not looking for justice, we have stopped looking for that a long time ago, it is very far away, the only thing we are looking for is our disappeared. We want to know where our family members are, perhaps hoping to hug them again or just to know where they stayed to put a candle for the salvation of their souls (Julio Sánchez Pasilla, from the Vida group, from Coahuila).

This position promotes, on the one hand, a message of the illegitimacy of the State to establish policies of truth and justice and, as a consequence, the production of alternative spaces to achieve these purposes. On the other hand, it is the demonstration of the challenges imposed by a context of permanent conflict, in which the search for graves is carried out in the midst of serious human rights violations, persecution, criminalization and exacerbated precariousness (exposure to harm).

In this context, the National Search Brigade, which has not only been carried out in Veracruz, but also in Sinaloa and Guerrero, does not seek culprits, thereby guaranteeing the safety of search engines in a violent territory in which the State as the main perpetrator of crimes. In the case of the Northern Sinaloa Seekers, "not looking for guilty" is a way of ensuring a type of collaboration with the state government for technical aspects related to the discovery of human remains, especially the identification:

If I told the government that I am looking for those responsible, they would not give me their experts or lend me their dogs. It is impossible for a government to hand over your disappeared to you. Their motto is there is no body, there is no dead, there are no disappeared. The government is not going to hand over the disappeared, it does not suit them (Mirna Medina, Buscadoras de El Fuerte, personal conversation, May 10, 2016).

These types of positions are controversial among those who insist that the government is responsible for searching and exhuming and they do not renounce this requirement. Truth and justice are unfinished categories and in constant dispute by the groups of relatives of disappeared persons and civil organizations that accompany them. The presence of these discourses and practices generates cracks in the hegemonic legal frameworks produced from a Western center; a legal framework that has been exceeded by the specific conditions of those who suffer violence and suffer impunity.

The National Search Brigade has defended citizen searches as a “war against the government” (José Díaz Navarro, from the Chilapa Collective, Guerrero), as a form of disobedience; is to resist the administration of suffering by the institutions: "When I see the stupid things that the government themselves do in the searches, I don't see why I can't do them" (Mario Vergara, Committee for the Disappeared Others of Iguala), " this is a type of civil disobedience, although we do not say so in our communications ”(Juan Carlos Trujillo, National Links). It is the awareness of the death of the State: "We are doing this because there is no State, because they have left us alone" (Juan Carlos, National Links).

The search and citizen exhumation of clandestine graves acts as a type of civil disobedience in the face of institutions that have lost meaning in their role as a unifier of social life; it is also the scene of recognition of citizenship. And, at the same time, it is a type of disobedience in the face of hegemonic discourses that formalize and monopolize the exhumation procedures dictated by the scientific and legal work of human rights.

It is a process that corresponds to the accumulation of grievances over time and the formation of a conscience that marks the State not only as incompetent, but as a criminal State that denies all possibilities of access to justice and truth. But it also tells us about new grammars of claim of relatives of disappeared persons regarding a tradition of struggles that have preceded it.

This knowledge is present in the testimony of the next of kin when they evoke the barriers that have been interposed to achieve the punishment of the guilty, even when the conditions exist for it to be possible. Most of the family members know the identity of the persons responsible for the disappearance, thanks to their own investigations. However, and despite all the evidence provided to the Public Ministry, for years there has been systematic neglect on the part of the authorities, coupled with serious negligent and corrupt practices that prevent justice from being achieved:

I know who it was that took my husband. He was a policeman and it was from there that they took him away. Of course they know who they were, they are the same, for the same reason there will never be justice (Yolanda, wife of a disappeared police officer in San Blas, Sinaloa, personal conversation, April 12, 2016).

This experience repeated by most of the family members that I have had the opportunity to hear and meet during years of field work, indicates not only the annulment of the possibility of justice in the local system, but also in the international system. On the one hand, families feel remote from the possibility of accessing the benefits of strategic litigation to take their cases to international courts, given the scarcity of resources that facilitate access to these spaces, the amount of requirements demanded to promote them and the minimum efficiency of these processes; In terms of the proportion between reported cases and cases sanctioned in these courts, and compliance with the recommendations by the Mexican State, the cost-benefit calculations are not very favorable so far.

On the other hand, according to the diagnosis by Pérez-Sales and Navarro on the exhumation of mass graves in 14 Latin American countries (2007), the search processes and findings that have been accompanied by international organizations have not fully guaranteed access to the justice for the families of disappeared persons, whether they are guided by independent groups or by government authorities. Only the cases of Chile and Argentina seem to have been successful, at least in the punishment of those responsible, but not in the search for the disappeared persons, without which the satisfaction of the right to the truth will always be incomplete.

The renunciation of the State's justice or its subordination to the background responds to the awareness of the power to do here and now: the relatives who are searching recognize that there will not be an encouraging future in which their disappeared are found and prefer to do something while they can , as a form of active resistance and survival.

Although the strategy of not seeking perpetrators can be read by some groups and experts as a renunciation of justice in formal terms and as a way to perpetuate impunity and allow acts to be repeated, the action read from an ethnography that seeks meaning localized allows us to understand the capacity to exercise an act of restitution and critical awareness. This implies understanding that the practice of rights goes beyond the law and is located in the daily ways with which the subjects give meaning and put into motion what justice is for them (Das and Poole, 2008). To attend to these daily practices it is necessary to understand social action from "inside"; that is, taking into account its “emotional color”, which drives it and not only the pre-established structures that rationalize human practices (Illouz, 2012) and pigeonhole them in morally pre-valued categories. This opening leads us to consider other aspects to understand what meanings the truth acquires in the specific field of disappearance of persons in Mexico.

The restorative and destabilizing capacity of exhumations

The literature on the exhumation of human remains has insisted on the restorative capacity of this act, which is assumed as a “resistance to oblivion” (Pérez-Sales and Navarro, 2007), which is why it is one of the most relevant scenarios among the forms of healing of the victims' communities (Beristaín, 2000). In the context of the searches for family members that I have had the opportunity to accompany, exhumation is an action that generates political and ethical breakdowns in at least three aspects: 1) it allows the family member to take charge of their own experience, as a subject producing history and knowledge; 2) it returns humanity to a body that has been stripped of this condition, and 3) it allows the restitution of the remains of the disappeared person to their relatives in some cases.

Furthermore, exhumations are destabilizing acts because they undermine the fear imposed by acts of terror and corrode the private experience of suffering, fostering collective action; they challenge the truth that has been imposed with the disappearance of crimes, and function as a social autopsy that indicates the existence of power regimes that act on life and death.

I will try to develop these aspects in the following sections, noting that these are provisional proposals to understand a process still in the making. I will try to locate the scope and limits of these collective processes in a field of strong tensions and constant transformation.

Restorative capacity

The "power to do" represents a resistance to the paralyzing forms of fear imposed by terror and the administration of suffering. Thus, the search acquires an agency character, inasmuch as it provokes the mobilization of individuals and groups around a common interest. Allied bodies on the move in search of other bodies:

I am not proud to be a seeker or to have a missing child, but I do like knowing that we can return a child to a mother, a husband to a wife. Sometimes we want our hands to be claws, when we have signs of a body we want to have claws to dig in, we want it not to be a person, but to be an animal. When we find ourselves in the body we can start to cry, then when we realize that it may be one of us we pray, we give thanks. No one has the right to take them away, to do that with anyone (Mirna Miranda, Las Buscadoras de El Fuerte, personal conversation, May 11, 2016).

This action does not pursue merely individual interests, but is configured as a type of collective solidarity in which the searchers not only look for their loved ones but also for all missing persons. It is an action that mobilizes emotions and affects, putting them in front of a political subject little approached by the social sciences, which has characterized emotions as irrational irruptions of the state of mind and political action as that produced by the rationality of the agents . More recent approaches, especially from feminist approaches, have brought emotions out of silence, removing the exclusivity that biology and psychology had on them, disciplines that usually place them in the individual and private field of life. According to these approaches that could be framed in the so-called “emotional turn”, emotions do not only belong to the sphere of the intimate and the pre-political, but they are produced in social interactions, being produced and producers of the social world .

At this point, it must be emphasized that this approach breaks with the rationality / emotion dichotomy and assumes that emotions, far from interfering in rational decision-making, can promote it (Elster, 2002). So, by focusing on the way in which the actors “feel” the participation, we are giving an opportunity to find there indications of how they experience social life (Otero, 2006).

The search moved by love, pain, indignation, anger and hope produces areas of affective intensification (Reguillo, 2017) in which exchange, co-presence, conversation are increased, articulating the common from the ability to affect and be affected. The geography of the search and of the exhumation acts here as the zone where affective orientations are condensed that manage to mutate the emotional experience: “shame mutates into pride, fear and loneliness, into anger and demand; sadness, as sad passion, finds hope that another world is possible ”(Reguillo, 2017: 151).

This emotional condition of the collective action also reveals the legitimate nature of the search, understanding legitimacy as something that goes beyond and that even subverts the legal. Legitimacy is given by the implementation of an ethical solidarity mechanism that opposes the indifference and cruelty with which suffering and violence are administered. Thus, the agency rests on the collective act of doing something that, although it may be illegal, is legitimate due to its human and political consequences.

The search that gathers subjects around a common interest constitutes a type of emotional community, which emerges in the midst of chaos and mistrust, promoting the possibility of collective action and moral support. This experience provokes the construction of bonds of affection that go beyond local limits. The exchange of knowledge and the moral support that organizations and family members provide to others in the same condition is essential in this process.

However, the emotional community is not necessarily limited to the relatives of missing persons. In the case of the searches in Amatlán, Veracruz, the National Brigade was based at the Church of the town, where Father Julián Verónica and his community of committed laity offered shelter, lodging, food and spiritual support during the search. On repeated occasions, the members of the religious community expressed their support and gratitude to the families of disappeared persons for promoting the search in a place decimated by silence and fear. Similarly, in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, the searches are accompanied by men and women in solidarity who point out graves, support the work of dissemination or donate materials and food to support the action of the seekers.

The exhumation of clandestine graves is also restorative because it allows recovering the human condition of the bodies piled up in the ground, burned and severed with the purpose not only of ending life, but above all with their condition of humanity. He seeks to recover the lost bond between the body and his name. The act of unearthing and bringing these bodies back to the living world to be placed in their rightful place restores the value of these lives. This purpose, however, is one of the most difficult to achieve due to conditions that prevent effective identification:

We are looking everywhere and there is no way for the authorities to advance in the identification. There are bodies and remains piled up in the offices and laboratories waiting to be compared with the DNA samples they have. We need a national forensic search and identification system. As we are now, it is useless to search if we do not identify (Blanca Martínez, Director of the Diocesan Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios, participation in the Search Table during the MPNDM meeting, May 9, 2016).

The absence of independent local experts begins to create an important void in the exhumation processes in Mexico. Although the search has been self-managed, identification remains in the hands of state and federal authorities, who have demonstrated their inability to deal with the volume of unidentified remains. Against this background, some citizen actions such as the formation of the Mexican Forensic Anthropology Team, the installation of a genetic identification laboratory at the service of relatives by the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos, and the Citizen Forensic Science initiative that has been proposed the construction of a biobank of genetic samples under the custody of civil society, these are encouraging initiatives, although insufficient when there is a scenario with great needs.

Destabilizing capacity

Among the destabilizing consequences of the exhumation of human remains by family members is the alteration of the state of fear that undermines the private experience of suffering, fostering collective action. In the case of Veracruz, it was possible to identify a generalized state of fear that prevents families from approaching to report the events and organize to search. The arrival of the brigadistas from other states to Amatlán de los Reyes meant, according to the residents, an encouragement to break the silence, not only among the families of the disappeared persons, many of whom had not even dared to report, but also among the population that approached to point out possible clandestine burial points and extermination sites. During my stay in this community, I had the opportunity to receive two families who brought information about burial points located in Paso del Macho, a nearby town, which was also pointed out by anonymous complaints that arrived at the church with small maps or anonymous writings.

Fear, however, is not a feeling that is completely eliminated. The security conditions where exhumations are carried out are a challenge for seekers. Many of them have faced threats for their work:

Once I was looking for the hill. I would go to the hill to walk around looking for my son. Sometimes I would arrive at a ranch like a ghost and the laborers would stare at me as if to say, this one where she came from! Once I ran into a group of bad guys who stopped their truck next to me and asked me where I was going. I couldn't stand it and I started crying, I told them I was looking for my son, to let me look. Tears of gold that you cry, my lady! ”The bad guy told me and they continued on their way (Chely, mother of a missing young man in Piedras Negras, Tamaulipas).

Despite this reality, the relatives affirm that "they killed everything, including fear." The multiple types of violence that they have had to face over the years allow them to relativize the risk and develop a type of resistance in which their own integrity is put at stake:

It is the job of all the families that we manage to dominate fear, although now there is more fear than before, we all need each other, because the disappeared belong to everyone, and they have already put us into this fight and give it a hard time as Miguel Jiménez's grandmother used to say. White "to GOD begging and with the mallet giving" I WILL LOOK FOR YOU UNTIL I FIND YOU one day we will achieve it (Mario Vergara, Committee The Others Disappeared of Iguala, communication by What'sTOpp, November 30, 2015).

The exhumation of clandestine graves also challenges the regime of untruth that has been imposed with the disappearance of crimes. The unearthing allows history to be combed against the grain and, although it does not reach the ideals of legal truth, it promotes the breakdown of the dominant version, which consists above all in denying that the events occur and minimizing their relevance.

Finally, the exhumation of clandestine graves acts as a social autopsy that indicates the existence of a regime whose center is "the generalized instrumentation of human existence and the material destruction of bodies and populations" (Mbembe, 2003) that imposes itself by denying dignity of the subjects. The exhumation reveals this expansion of violence towards sectors that until now were considered safe with respect to their citizenship and that have been reconstituted as different types of body (Das and Poole: 2008); bodies that no longer matter, bodies that embody the enemy or the uncomfortable, expendable subject.

What opens and what closes with an exhumation?

The forms of resistance take uncertain trajectories, not necessarily opposite, but always divergent from the established powers. “They usually operate from the areas assigned as control spaces, reversing them. They move in long-term processes and comprise thousands of strategies that are constantly modified, in which mobility is a decisive aspect ”(Calveiro, 2015). The specific struggle of the relatives of disappeared persons in the field of the search for human remains preserves the memory of old resistances that "update" in the changing circumstances of the global world "to rehearse practices of struggle and organization capable of overcoming fear and, in parallel, to the power networks that implement it ”(Calveiro, 2015).

The relatives of disappeared persons who are looking for their loved ones among the graves refer to the construction of a category of “embattled” victim25 (Castillejo, 2016), tired and determined to resist the forms imposed by the administration of suffering and the framework of possibilities for action that have been assigned to them. The search for human remains goes beyond the formalities established by the canons of truth and justice, key concepts of the transitional scenarios established not only in national laws of reparation and administration of pain, but also in scientific devices that mark the rationality on the duty to do. They then become acts of resistance to the pre-established forms of reparation, limited by the languages and practices of what is enunciable and what is allowed, and constitute a challenge for the understanding of the languages of pain in all its diversity and complexity.

In Villoro's words, it is an illegal but legitimate act, which opens the possibilities to advance towards the establishment of a space of resistance "if in Mexico trying to fight for justice becomes an illegal act, welcome the illegality" (Villoro in UAEM, 2016, May 31). In this scenario of ethical and political dilemmas, the victim who waited for justice and spent hours among the bureaucratic labyrinths of government offices, gives up playing this game and promotes new forms of organization that point to localized notions of reparation, truth and justice. . Faced with this, those of us who accompany these processes are forced to expand our own frames of reference, through —and exclusively— a dialogical epistemology that allows the horizontal circulation of meanings between the subjects who act in the field of exhumations.

Field work in the environment of searches for human remains poses not only strong ethical and emotional dilemmas, but also a challenge to the safety and integrity of those who participate in these processes, given the conditions of violence present in the places where they are found. carried out and the ambiguous nature regarding the margins of the legality of this practice.26

The challenges in this context are enormous and are not fully assimilated by the writer of this article, perhaps due to the existence of what Robben and Nordstrom (1995) call “existential shock”, referring to the possible impact on the researcher of lack formative to take on certain challenges. Francisco Ferrándiz (2008), who has accompanied the exhumation of graves of repression in Spain in recent years, points out that ethnography "at the foot of the grave" requires gradual emotional training and a consensual development of the role that the social anthropologist in this space traditionally dominated by archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and other "hard science" professionals. To face the emotional challenge, it is important to recognize that the communication of suffering experiences allows the creation of an emotional community "that encourages the recovery of the subject and becomes a vehicle for cultural and political recomposition" (Jimeno, 2007: 160). This phenomenon not only happens to the survivors, but also to those who decide to accompany them, who they assume to be a “witness” of the atrocities and their traces.

Given that there is a historical annihilation of the veracity of the testimony of those who have suffered violence, especially of subjects historically marginalized from the spaces for the construction of truth, the figure of the “expert” witness becomes important, because it allows to accredit the testimony together with the collection of evidence and theoretical foundation (Stephen, 2015 in De Marinis, 2017). The role of the witness involves not only observing reality, but also communicating it. For this reason, it is necessary to activate a type of cognitive justice that puts at the center the knowledge and feelings of those who seek, recognizing the scope of their own languages to account for situations that exceed the possibilities of enunciation about the atrocious, and questioning the limits of technical and scientific languages to contain this reality.

Assuming this, in my case, participating, has resulted over the years in the need to create work networks that open the horizons of interdisciplinary dialogue, with the purpose of gazing into the graves from complex approaches, especially from the dialogue between social anthropology, physical anthropology and forensic archeology, but above all, from the communities' own knowledge and their strategies for managing violence.27 This exchange of knowledge requires a fundamental epistemic break that rests on intercultural translation and on the humanizing and dignifying nature of the process of recovering human remains.

On the one hand, in what corresponds to the recognition of bodies buried clandestinely, the first epistemic break has to do with incorporating other perspectives on the human body, beyond its biological and physical character, so common in the exact sciences that dominate the exhumation practices. In relation to the recognition of family members as possessors of knowledge and experience, it implies the implementation of dialogic and collaborative methodologies that challenge the dichotomous categories that reproduce and institute inequality in the field of exhumations between “expert” knowledge and other knowledge (civilized / savage, science / superstition, nature and culture).

A last point has to do with the challenge of facing the processes of search and exhumation of human remains in democratic regimes that do not correspond to the transitional or post-conflict justice frameworks in which anthropologists and other forensic humanitarian professionals have traditionally participated.

The plurality of trajectories of search and exhumation of human remains that we are currently witnessing in Mexico places family members and society as a whole facing strong ethical and political dilemmas, about which we will have to continue discussing and producing knowledge. What follows these search trajectories will not only correspond to the families of missing persons. At the end of the day, the “body manufacturing” devices (Rojas-Pérez, 2017) of the criminal powers, including the clandestine burial of human remains, question not only the relatives of disappeared persons. Its stain effect reaches us all.


Benjamin, Walter (2008). Thesis on history and other fragments. Mexico: Itaca / UACM.

Beristaín, Martín (2000). "Justice and reconciliation: The role of truth and justice in rebuilding societies fractured by violence." work notebook, Hegoa Notebooks, no. 27. Available at:, accessed on December 26, 2016..

Blair, Elsa (2004). "The punitive policy of the body:" economy of punishment "or mechanics of suffering in Colombia". Political Studies, no. 36, January-June, pp. 39-66.

Calveiro, Pilar (2015). "Policies of fear and local resistance". Athenea Digital, vol. 4, no. 15, pp. 35-59.

Castillejo, Alejandro (2016). Conference: "Testimony, victims and struggles for the truth: Critical reflections from Latin America for the case of Ayotzinapa", May 16. Mexico City: Institute of Legal Research-UNAM.

Mexican Commission for the Defense and Protection of Human Rights (CMDPDH) and Mexican Institute of Human Rights and Democracy (IMDHD) (2013). Access to justice in Mexico: The constant impunity in cases of human rights violations, CMDPDH, IMDHD Mexico. Recovered from, accessed December 26, 2018.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) (2016). Ssituation of Human Rights in Mexico, Organization of American States, OEA / Ser.L / V / II, Doc. 44/15.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) (2018). "Case of Alvarado Espinoza and others vs. Mexico, judgment of November 28, 2018 ”. Recovered from, accessed December 26, 2018.

Das, Veena and Deborah Poole (2008). "The state and its margins: Comparative ethnographies". Notebooks of Social Anthropology, no. 27, pp. 19-52.

De Marinis, Natalia (2017). "Ethnographing (in) terror: Witnessing and building political-affective communities: Reflections from a field experience". MESO workbooks, No. 5, pp. 9-21. Recovered from, accessed December 12, 2018.

Elster, Jon (2002). Alchemy of the mind, rationality and emotions. Barcelona: Paidós.

Estévez López, Ariadna (2015). "The Human Rights Crisis and the Device for the Administration of Suffering: Public Necropolicy of Victims, Defenders and Journalists in Mexico". The Everyday, no. 194, pp. 7-17.

Ferrándiz, Francisco (2014). The past underground. Contemporary exhumations of the civil war. Barcelona: Anthropos.

_________________ (2008). "Lto ethnography as a minefield: From daily violence to post-war landscapes ", in Margaret Bullen and Carmen Díez Mintegui (coords.). Theoretical Challenges and New Practices. XI Congress of Anthropology of the Federation of Anthropology Associations of the Spanish State (FAAEE), pp. 89-115.

_________________ (2007). "Exhumations and politics of memory in contemporary Spain". Hispania Nova, Journal of Contemporary History, no. 7. Recovered from, accessed December 26, 2016.

UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (2012). Mission Report to Mexico, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico, Mexico, p. 27.

Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) (2016). Ayotzinapa Report: Progress and new conclusions on the investigation, search and attention to the victims. Mexico: IACHR.

_______________________________________________ (2015). Ayotzinapa Report: Investigation and first conclusions of the disappearances and homicides of the Ayotzinapa normalistas. Mexico: IACHR.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2013). The disappeared of Mexico, the persistent cost of an ignored crisis. USA: HRW.

Illouz, Eva (2012). Why love hurts: a sociological explanation. Spain: Katz.

Jimeno, Miryam (2007). "Language, Subjectivity and experiences of violence". Antipodal, no. 5, July-December, pp. 169-190.

Mbembe, Achille (2012). “Necropolítica, a critical review”, in Chávez Mac Gregor, Helena (academic curator). Aesthetics and violence: necropolitics, militarization and mourning lives. Mexico: University Museum of Contemporary Art, pp. 130-139.

_____________ (2003). "Necropolitics". Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 11-40.

Nahoum-Grappe, Véronique (2002). "Anthropologie de la violence extrême: le crime de profanation". Revue Internationale des Sciences Sociales, no. 174, pp. 601–609.

Naqvi, Yasmin (2006). "The right to the truth in international law: fact or fiction?". International Review of Red Cross, June, no. 862 of the original version.

Nordstrom, Carolyn, and Antonius Robben (eds.) (1995). Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Open Society Foundations (2016). Undeniable Atrocities: Confronting Crimes Against Humanity in Mexico: Confronting Crimes Against Humanity in Mexico. New York: OSF.

Pérez-Sales, Pau and Susana Navarro García (2007). Resistance against forgetting: Psychosocial work in exhumation processes. Barcelona: Gedisa.

National Registry of Missing or Disappeared Persons (RNDPED) (2018). Recovered from, accessed June 25, 2018.

Reguillo, Rossana (2017). Insurrectionary landscapes. Youth, networks and revolts in the civilizing autumn. Barcelona: Ned Ediciones.

Robledo Silvestre, Carolina (2017). Social and Political Drama of Grief: The Disappearances of the War on Drugs in Tijuana. Mexico: The College of Mexico.

Rojas-Pérez, Isaías (2017). Mourning Remains State Atrocity, Exhumations, and Governing the Disappeared in Peru's Postwar Andes. Stanford: Stanford University Press California.

Rosenblatt, Adam (2015). Digging for the disappeared. Forensic Science after atrocity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Autonomous University of the State of Morelos (UAEM) (2016). Communiqué: "If in Mexico trying to fight for justice becomes an illegal act, welcome the illegality: Villoro", May 31. Recovered from, accessed December 26, 2018.

Urteaga, Maritza and Hugo César Moreno (2015). "Corruption and impunity versus Justice and Law in Mexico ”, in José Manuel Valenzuela. Juvenicide: Ayotzinapa and precarious lives in Latin America and Spain. Barcelona: Ned Ediciones, pp. 79-98.,

Valdez, Javier (2014). "Sinaloans organize brigades to search for the bodies of missing relatives and friends." The Day, 15 th of May. Recovered from, accessed December 26, 2018.

Vilena Fiengo, Sergio (2003). "Walter Benjamin or history against the grain." Journal of Social Sciences (Cr), vol. II, no. 100, pp. 95-101.

Inline Feedbacks
See all comments


ISSN: 2594-2999.

Unless expressly mentioned, all content on this site is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Download legal provisions complete

Encartes, vol. 4, núm 7, marzo 2021-agosto 2021, es una revista académica digital de acceso libre y publicación semestral editada por el Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, calle Juárez, núm. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte Norte, A. C., Carretera escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, núm. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, México, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, e Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, núm. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434. Contacto: Directora de la revista: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Alojada en la dirección electrónica Responsable de la última actualización de este número: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Fecha de última modificación: 15 de abril de 2021.

The texts on this site were translated from Spanish to English using Google Cloud Translation.