The search. Following metaphorical traces in an urban margin.

Receipt: April 27, 2023

Acceptance: July 01, 2023


In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón launched the war on drugs as a strategy to dismantle large criminal networks focused on drug trafficking. However, the war has claimed the lives of thousands of people, many of them found in clandestine graves. By focusing on a day of searching for victims of forced disappearance, this ethnographic essay describes and analyzes one of the great marks of brutality left by that very security strategy. A focal point throughout the pages lies in reflecting on the different ways in which, rather than how, actors claim ownership of the lifeless bodies located in graves. From the mothers who dig in the earth to find the bodies of the dead. treasures to the State apparatus that tries to control the process.

Keywords: , , , ,

the search: following metaphorical footprints on a city's margins

Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched the war on drugs in 2006 as a strategy to dismantle vast drug trafficking networks. That war has cost the lives of thousands of people, many of whom are buried in mass graves. By focusing on a single day in the search for bodies, this ethnography describes and analyzes one of the brutal aftereffects of this security strategy. One key topic is the different ways in which actors stake out the rights of the lifeless bodies in these graves, from the mothers who dig into the earth to find treasures (treasures) to the state apparatus that attempts to control the process.

Keywords: disappeared, search, secret mass graves, bodies, Mexico.


This ethnographic essay analyzes from an anthropological approach a search journey in a country with more than 100,000 missing persons and a forensic disaster, understood as the overcrowding of the national morgues with more than 52,000 bodies waiting to be identified. Accompanying a team made up of searching mothers,1 state authorities and activists, we will enter one of the urban peripheries of Guadalajara considered a "risk zone", but where, paradoxically, there is hope for families of missing persons, since, according to information received, there could be clandestine graves there. By combing the territory and following the metaphorical footprints of the absent (I will further elaborate on this concept later), diverse interactions are revealed that involve registers of sovereignty that demonstrate how ways of relating to and claiming the bodies of the victims emerge from the diversity of actors that participate in the search, who collaborate or collide at times. Thus, this document is presented as an ethnographic moment that condenses the relationships woven by the violence of the war on drugs.


The day before, we had agreed that our meeting point would be at the entrance of the office of the State Commission for the Search of Persons of the State of Jalisco (Search Commission, from now on), whose building is located right next to a large park that during the last century had been the site of a large park in the state of Jalisco, where we had been able to find people who had been searching for them. xx was one of the most popular recreational centers in the city: the Agua Azul Park. Today it is still a place where some families go on weekends to have picnics and lie on the lawn under the shade of the large tree canopies. Since its origins, this area has been stigmatized for being located on the avenue built over the San Juan de Dios River, the Calzada Independencia, considered as a sort of border that divided the city in two: to the east were located the neighborhoods of artisans and workers. To the west, the center of the city and the place of residence of the ruling and economic elites was established since its foundation, although the enormous growth of the city has been diluting this appreciation. With the passage of time the city has overflowed, demolishing and creating new borders, other centers and more peripheries that compartmentalize the territory. Proof of this is that clandestine graves have been found in multiple neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area, although almost always in areas classified as violent or at least "difficult". Today we will go in search of graves in a property located right next to neighborhoods that, from the point of view of Veena Das and Deborah Poole (2004), could be described as margins, understood as edges that separate a person or a space from a center, which can be racial, political, economic and/or geographic. The margin thus refers to a process of constant segregation that symbolically and literally delimits subjects, placing them on the edge, at the limit of legality and what is morally acceptable. This process of exclusion needs the territory to expel there the people who are relegated from the center on which a given society gravitates.

Before leaving, an official from the Search Commission approaches the spokesperson of the collective that is organizing this search to tell her that he needs to speak with us, since it is imperative to present the context of the place we will be visiting. They want to present us with a document that summarizes the elements that characterize these neighborhoods along with a breakdown of the degrees of marginality and the record of gangs that have been detected in the surrounding area. The official repeats that this information is important. Some mothers are upset because the meeting will take time away from the search; besides, with winter approaching, it gets dark earlier. Somewhat nervously, the speaker talks about the crime rates, the low levels of schooling and even the lack of internet access in these neighborhoods. Important data to understand what is going on there, but which contribute little to what we have planned, the faces of some of the women seekers seem to say. One of the ladies points out that, although all this seems to be very relevant, we cannot delay any longer: "This should have been done before, because they are taking time away from us", says Mrs. Mirna. The speaker speaks in a rushed manner and asks for a few minutes to mention only the final part, which is fundamental for today.

We will go to a large property located in a neighborhood that is surrounded by one of the most polluted dams in all of Mexico. It is recommended to bring special glasses and masks, something we were unaware of. "Hence the importance of holding these meetings beforehand," says the collective's spokeswoman. Later I will find out that the work team is new and the context analysis they are presenting to us is the first one they have done. In the future, the idea is to have these presentations at least three days before the searches. Due to the contamination rates, the exhibitor tells us about the tools we need to keep ourselves safe. Mouth covers we can get them easily, in fact they are part of the mothers' search toolbox, but not the goggles, which resemble the goggles skiers use to cover their eyes in the snow. The dam we will go to is called El Ahogado and, according to an investigation by the University of Guadalajara, "8 million cubic meters of sewage produced in the entire southern part of the Metropolitan Zone are stored there, which are then discharged without any treatment into the Santiago River" (University of Guadalajara, 2009). It is in this context that the speaker alerts us to the need to cover our skin from contamination and dengue fever, which has become one of the main public health problems in the city.

Romina, a member of the collective, interrupts to say that we can't wait any longer and that we need to leave for the dam. We put picks, shovels, gloves, water and some cans of Coca Cola in the trunk. Once in the truck, we talk about the hot weather in the city, the construction sites that hinder traffic and the fact that we forgot to buy a first aid kit -not knowing at the time that we will need it later-. Among the hustle and bustle inside the van, someone comments that it is Lourdes' birthday and we start singing in chorus to congratulate her. We clap, we joke, but Lilia says she feels guilty just for laughing. Silence covers an ephemeral moment of joy amidst the uncertainty.

Of all of them, Carolina is the quietest. Today's search is focused on her case. Her son Mariano is about to celebrate three years since his disappearance. I want to emphasize that there is a close link between disappearances and the forensic disaster, as often among the bodies found in clandestine graves or awaiting identification at the forensic services are some of the people previously reported missing (mndm, 2021: 13). The war, we were told, was a strategy to contain the expansion of criminal groups dedicated to drug trafficking. More than fifteen years later and with the opposite result that has claimed the lives of thousands of people, some researchers, such as Oswaldo Zavala (2022), have proposed an alternative hypothesis to understand the war. Zavala firmly asserts that the so-called cartels "do not exist," and that, in reality, this narrative has served to justify the rise of a militarized right wing and a prohibitionist regime. To a large extent, different thinkers such as Federico Mastrogiovanni (2019) and Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera (2017) point out that the war on drugs hides a model of territorial dispossession, of nature and of life itself. An extractivist model that not only manufactures drugs, but also exploits mines and other "resources" throughout our territory.

How to link dispossession with disappearance? According to Johan Rubin (2015: 9), disappearance is a forensic category that was born in the 1970s, when scholars from various disciplines were trying to find a way to be able to include in a single legal definition cases of violence against civilians. Thus, this category applies to missing bodies. In other words, disappearance is itself a liminality whereby people have been excluded from the order of the living, but cannot yet be included in the order of the dead, as they are relegated in a limbo, to a non-existence marked by uncertainty. Rubin (2015: 10) emphasizes that disappearance, whether committed by other civilians or in complicity with authorities, is not a goal, "but a tactic at the service of various strategies with different objectives, such as may be social control or genocide." As Sayak Valencia (2010) has previously postulated, the population is the human reserve that the extractivist model needs to feed itself, to stay alive. Carolina is not sure why or how her son disappeared, but she blames the war and the government; however, the only thing that matters at the moment is that she has been told that her son is near the dam. It is common, among these collectives, to receive anonymous information in the form of messages or calls about the location of graves or the probable whereabouts of missing persons, which generates illusions, hope and expectations, but also fear. As Adriana, one of the mothers, told me: "We don't know if it is true, if it is a trap to ambush us. But, above all, many of the references they give us are of lifeless bodies, so you hope that it is not your son, but you also hope that it is, to end this martyrdom".

What I am interested in delving into here is that it is precisely these indications of information, as knowledge that they analyze, that are one of the great incentives that induce my interlocutors to constantly circulate through the territory as they follow the metaphorical traces of their loved ones. By metaphorical footprints I mean rumors, conversations, information provided by authorities, as well as news that shed light on the path and point to possible directions to find the location of missing persons. Although these metaphorical traces often contradict each other, since rumors and official sources do not always coincide, I invoke the metaphorical as an interweaving between the real and the unreal, between certainty and doubt. In the data they receive there are degrees of abstraction that require a work of interpretation on their part. Lorena says that they hope to find something with the data they have. In this sense, from an anthropological perspective, we can unravel the idea of metaphorical traces through the lens of the performancebut situated in the Mexican context. As a set of actions or act of creation -in this case the tracking of graves-, the performance The following of metaphorical footprints is above all a moment of agency that unfolds with each step as an embodied experience that nourishes and produces collective knowledge based on rumors, intuitions, news and research. The following of metaphorical traces is above all a moment of agency that unfolds with each step as an embodied experience that is nourished and produces collective knowledge based on rumors, intuitions, news and governmental investigations.

All performance requires an audience, in this case it is the agents representing the State themselves who are being questioned for their lack of cooperation and omissions in not bringing back the missing. But if we go beyond this moment and understand the search as a process, the population is also part of the audience: "Here we are, in the face of everyone's indifference," Sandra told me during a grave search a week earlier. "Everyone" as that indifferent collective body they exhort during their protests. "You who watch, join in," these women often shout as they close streets across the country, as they interpellate passersby. A public that is also reached through the publications made on social networks by the collectives, and by the news programs that send their journalists to cover every time a grave is found.

But there is another type of spectators, apparently silent, whom the mothers summon by means of prayers, crying and the removal of the earth. As Isaias Rojas-Perez (2017: 109) explains, crying is a region of language, a call that testifies and claims the impossibility of reappearance. Thus, in the tracing of graves, elements are conjugated that invoke the absent to emerge from the earth. And while they cannot articulate, the mothers ask them to respond in some way to dig and allow them to eventually return home.

By following in the footsteps left metaphorically by the absent, the mothers enter into a multisensory group experience that combines the emotional, the expressive and all their senses. According to Esther Langdon (2006), a performance The search for graves requires, even if only at times, the participation of all those who are present in the same space to achieve a goal: to find their loved ones. What I am interested in emphasizing in these lines is that during the search for graves there is a collective shredding of multiple sources of information that generates knowledge with each step.

That is to say, the notion of metaphorical traces highlights the role of the body, the way in which the search is embodied through data that tell us where the disappeared were or could be. Especially if we take into account, as Daniela Rea (2021) rightly says, that disappeared is not only a forensic category, but also a place and those who search activate a territory when they walk paths, gaps, fields and other usually inhospitable places. Following the metaphorical footprints is a geographical journey in which emotions are present and the landscape becomes both witness and participant in the search -a point to which I will return later. For now, and following Gastón Gordillo's (2014) reflection on the vestiges left by the waves of violence, it seems important to me to emphasize that what the traces reveal is a landscape of destruction, a geography of war on which the traces left by the mothers of the missing persons are superimposed, who in their interaction with the space produce their own geography of hope.

Furthermore, methodologically, the idea of metaphorical traces ties in with George Marcus' (2001) proposal of a multisituated ethnography, as it is a tool that allows us to navigate between spaces interrelated by our interlocutors and to conduct a participant observation there. In this way we can apprehend the relationships that just interconnect the spaces we traverse as ethnographers. In particular, when guided by the notion of metaphorical traces, I try to emphasize that most of my interlocutors are in constant circulation through the territory and part of my work has been precisely to accompany them during their search processes. No less important, it seems to me, is Marcus' emphasis on the importance of placing our attention on movement, on the body that traces routes and even creates communities as a result of its presence in the spaces it crosses on a daily basis.

Following in the metaphorical footsteps

The map on the cell phone indicates that we are about to arrive. We enter an unpaved neighborhood, with deep potholes and clouds of dirt that form as our convoy passes. "They already know we are here," says Carolina while one of the ladies responds with a questioning, "Who already knows we are here?". This is an area, according to the analysis prepared by the Search Commission, where there are gangs in conflict. We perceive that the deployment of the vans and patrols that accompany us generates noise in the area. Ramona, who is next to me, tells me that she never thought she would be in these neighborhoods where their searches have brought them. In the midst of the war, this city has become a witness, victim and scenography of horror. From his experience in Tijuana, for Humberto Felix (2011), one result of the increase in violence is the resignification of spaces. Therefore, it is not only the way in which fear spreads geographically, but the ways in which spaces acquire a specific dimension in the social narrative linked to episodes of violence (Strickland, 2019; Aceves, De la Torre and Safa, 2004). "You have to be very careful in these places," Ramona asserts. The words of Luis' mother refer me to Andrea Boscoboinik's (2014: 10) argument, "fear is an emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm". An emotion, in fact, shared by several of the searchers.

Following the metaphorical footprints confronts the mothers with the unknown, especially when they go to neighborhoods that have exacerbated their condition of border and margin as a result of the war on drugs, because this is where atrocities caused by a failed security strategy tend to occur frequently. It is these colonies that nurture stories that are aestheticized in the plots of international television productions such as Narcos on Netflix and Zero Zero Zero Zero on Amazon. Meanwhile, in daily life here we live in fear, uncertainty and scarcity. The message Carolina received told her to be careful. We could get hurt since we are in a territory we don't know. Although, more than as strangers, we are read as enemies, or at least as intruders. We are astonished that only three policemen accompany us. Those in charge of the Search Commission say that in one hour elements of the National Guard will arrive to protect us. In reality, they will arrive three hours later. Claudio Lomnitz (2023) points out that territories such as these urban margins are zones of silence because the war has silenced the dynamics of everyday life. Although the author focuses his attention on the risks of journalism, I argue that his proposal can be expanded beyond the vulnerabilities faced by those who work as journalists in Mexico. Lomnitz emphasizes the rumor that mobilizes bodies in the face of fear as a survival strategy in the midst of uncertainty. An example of this is the metaphorical traces that are traced, despite the risks, through a reading of the landscape to find the disappeared. Here, the members of the collectives use their bodies together with the heart -understood as the intersection of love, affection and hope- as a search tool in times of massive violence.

We put on our gloves, pick up our sticks and say a prayer. We hear the roar of truck engines coming from a nearby highway. From this point we see the coming and going of airplanes; the international airport is only a few minutes away from where we are. We enter the most wooded area full of lush mesquite trees that create a beautiful postcard. But under that earth there could be lifeless bodies. The mesquites are our reference: Carolina has been told that Mariano's body (and not only his) could be right among these trees. However, the more you open your eyes, the more you can see piles of rubble everywhere. There are even some houses under construction just a few steps away. The bricklayers peek out curiously, intrigued by our presence. "All this used to be a dam, but in recent years they began to fill it with earth so they could build more houses. Next to it is the dam and we think they dump bodies there. The truth is that it has become very ugly in the area," says Carmen, who grew up very close to this colony, to this margin that now extends even further, devouring itself (Image 1).

Image 1. Photo taken by the author. November 2022.

  What used to be a dam is now covered by soil. New houses will be built on industrial waste. The newcomers will breathe every day the fetid air emanating from the polluted water.  

Assembly in the extermination area

We follow the metaphorical footprints. All those traces that are clues. Knowledge put into practice. We find debris, pieces of clothing and dead animals. We comb the area, but our key point is always the mesquites because there, say the rumors confessed to Carolina: there are bodies that need to return home. We find a group of bones that are soon discarded by the mothers and members of the Search Commission as animal remains. We dig the rods into the earth. "It smells like gasoline," says Luisa, but it is probably the water beneath us. That water that is mined underground and is part of the waste from industrial parks.

To analyze this section I would like to quote Jane Bennett (2022), who talks about the vitality of matter, as well as its link with life, but also about a symbiosis between matter and death that gives birth to assemblages of which we are all a part. Assemblage understood as the union of several elements that interrelate with each other, giving rise to various consequences. Bennett says that we are dealing with functional collectivities. On this occasion, for example, we smell the rods trying to distinguish between the scent of sewage and the smell of death that unite under the earth. Not so far away, the weeds move between the air and the rodents' walk. We are surrounded by what Bruno Latour (2005) calls actants, understood as a source of action that can be human or non-human; that which possesses energy, which is capable of doing things, which is coherent enough to introduce a difference, produce effects, or alter the course of events. Actants are the source of vitality of assemblages. We wonder about the possibility that the bodies are contaminated by the dam water seeping underground. There is a whole ecosystem of which they are already a part. From the worms under the topsoil to the grassland that has grown in this area. In this assemblage there is also a predominance of rubble from the houses under construction. The seemingly disposable finds its place here and creates a new order.

It is an order that generates a particular energy composed, according to Bennett, of diverse materialities that collide, mutate, disintegrate and produce effects. Nora says it well: "There is a strange vibration". Here, I argue, there are intersubjective processes that are produced with and in this assemblage formed by the affections, the conditions of the terrain, the noises, the context of the area, the garbage that surrounds us, the rubble that lies next to the mesquites, the rats that run in the distance frightened by our presence, and suddenly also by an altar of witchcraft that appears in our path. It is a kind of mooring. A candle tied by a black ribbon with women's clothes around it. "Don't touch it," "don't let anyone touch it," we repeat between disbelievers and believers. We begin to bury the sticks right in the circumference of that altar. While we put the shovels in the distance someone shouts: "We found bones". We all go to the spot and indeed a person from the Search Commission affirms that they are human bones. We make a circle and start digging. Nearby more women continue to smell the earth.

The sound of motorcycles prowling in nearby areas, perhaps watching us. "I hope the night doesn't catch us because it's very ugly here," says Leonora, mother of Diego, who disappeared in 2015. The noise of shovels continuing to dig intensifies. More bones are unveiled wrapped in sheets. First a foot peeks out. They are fragments, not whole bodies. Carolina begins to tremble and closes her eyes. She passes out right next to the pit. There is a chance that one of these bodies is her son. In a similar episode witnessed with the mothers of the disappeared in Peru, Rojas-Perez (2017) reflects on that moment through the idea of trauma. Fainting as a traumatic act and reaction to witnessing terror. An experience that exceeds the assimilable. Quickly the ladies begin a prayer around her. Carolina opens her eyes and says, "Look at the trees, the trees!" The leafy canopies beside the pit move from side to side as if there is a great current of air. For these women this manifestation is indicative of the presence of divinity in the quest: it is a message of the energies that are released as bodies are pulled from the bowels of the earth. "Souls that can fly," says Lucia. An assemblage that intercommunicates completely among all its components. An assembly in which even divinity is always latent.

The more we dig, the smell of the bones, of their fragments, increases as flies arrive, but also beautiful white, yellow and brown butterflies flutter among us. Actors that converge just at the moment when life and death come together. One of the policemen tells us to cordon off the area. Thus, suddenly, this space became an area that the State must guard, intervene and process. These bodies are about to be named as evidence. The mothers interrupt him because first they must pray again next to the bodies. The policeman steps back. We hold hands and gather around the grave to form a circle. We pray for the souls of these bodies, for their eternal rest and for their return to their families. Silence takes over the moment. We only hear sobs and the passing trailers on the highway. Mrs. Rosaura asks us to close with an Our Father to honor the bodies.

What was confessed to Carolina made her follow some metaphorical footprints to this point of the city, in this assemblage that we can well call margin or urban periphery. As a collective body, the mothers have been smelling, seeing and feeling the land. Guiding themselves by the trees, dodging the undergrowth, looking closely at the debris. What happens here is a conjunction of encounters between life and death, between energies and temporalities that are markers of sovereignties. Sovereignty understood as the way in which different actors reclaim lifeless bodies. In this way, the temporality of the criminals who try to hide forever the evidence of their brutality under the ground; the temporality of an omissive State that allows and encourages these women to be the ones to search for the victims of war; and the temporality of the mothers who try to reverse the silence and omission by trying to unmask the destruction of war. Without forgetting the temporalities of the other actors who live next to the dam and under the earth. All these temporalities not only intertwine, but at times collide, produce intimacies, contingencies, as well as the unexpected.

The remains we have just found are mostly skeletons. It is impossible to know if it is Carolina's son. But with her fainting I think of what João Biehl and Peter Locke (2017) argue about the legacies of violence when they state that the discovery of a grave is a traumatic experience insofar as it is the crystallization of death. When a body or the fragments of a loved one are found, there is a break in the longing to find them alive. Each one of these skeletons or bodies found receives the name of treasure on the part of my interlocutors. The act of digging is always accompanied by chanting and praying. During this performanceIf there are no authorities to do the forensic work, mothers recover from the earth the body, bones or fragments found, as well as objects of the deceased, when there are any. Lilia Schwarcz (2017) postulates that both bones and objects are inscribed in multiple systems of signification and can tell us different stories about their owners as they are imbued with meanings, sometimes contradictory. With Mariano, for example, in the case of being in this grave, we speak of him as a treasure, but a victim of war at the same time. On the other hand, the energy emanating from this moment of finding, crying, hugging and invoking God through prayers suggests that mothers find a power in the flesh as relics of what is absent in times of war. Relics as body parts, skin, bones, blood, or other personal objects that are vehicles and repositories of signification with a certain sociopolitical force, as Kristin Norget explains in discussing the remains of saints (2021: 359). The socio-political force here lies in the fact that mothers treat with dignity these relics that others consider remnants of the "collateral damage" left by the security strategy. The victims as relics are a reminder that these women are doing the work that the state has failed to do, mostly by being guided by their senses, divinity and heart, by following the metaphorical footprints.

Image 2. Photograph taken by the author. November 2022.

In the search path that follows the metaphorical traces.  

The arrival of the State

After finishing praying, the policeman tells us that it is time to cordon off the area with the classic no trespassing tape. The members of the Search Commission call the Forensic Institute, but they are told that it will take time to arrive due to the overload of work. In the distance we see some vans heading towards the spot where we are. We turn to look at each other. It is a convoy of the Search Commission with the head of the institution. They are returning from a town located in the north of the state where they went to carry out an operation, but it was cancelled due to a confrontation between criminal groups. As they get out of the vehicles, they greet us and enter the cordoned-off area. The police and National Guard look tired after several hours on their feet. It is time to eat. The mothers together with some members of the Search Commission gather in a circle. We talk about the day's journey, although at times words are superfluous. The grounds glow with the light of the sunset and the butterflies that flutter among us. Mrs. Rosaura says that we must continue searching because it is certain that there will be more bodies. I talk to the head of the Commission and he tells me that it is difficult to know how many bodies are in the grave, since they were buried in a very strange way. He calls the Forensic Institute again, he doesn't want it to get dark because this is a "hot zone", that is, a dangerous colony. As the sun gives way to night, gunshots are heard nearby.

Motorcycles roar in the distance. They come and go. The bricklayers have not stopped working, taking advantage of the last rays of the sun. Some very young girls appear out of nowhere and sit in the distance, watching us. "Will they be watching us?" wonders Mrs. Romina aloud. Maybe the girls are watching us, maybe they have only come attracted by this collective body moving back and forth, with ladies guarded by policemen carrying high caliber weapons, with big jeeps and patrol cars parked next to us. Almost as Romina was asking the question, a new grave was found. The head of the institution tells us that "there are sure to be more, this is the perfect area because it is hidden among so many trees, sons of bitches! That's who did this". The personnel of the institution asks the mothers to stop since it is undeniable that there will be more bodies, the best thing to do is to wait for the forensic personnel so that they in the meantime can find the bodies. experts are the ones working in the pits. But the experts are already about three hours late since they were called.

The mothers, although they stop digging, continue scouring the grounds. Others sit in a circle, tired from the long day we have had. In the distance we hear laughter and chatter from members of the Search Committee. One of the ladies says to me, "It's good that they feel like laughing because I only feel like crying," as her eyes fill with tears. "How is it possible all that is happening, all that we are living in this country". He exposes that what we live in Mexico is a destruction. "What the government does is an extermination of the population that it uses for its benefits". In one sentence Lorena condenses not only doubts, but opens that dark archive of public secrets to expose that beyond omission, the government as an abstract entity has a direct participation in the war. Her son was invited to work by a policeman and a few days later he disappeared. She curses the policemen who are with us.

In the distance they continue making their rounds, yawning, talking, laughing. One of the municipal police gives us a look that makes me uncomfortable. "There is no peace, there will never be peace in our society," says another lady. The mothers begin to talk to each other, but each with her own topic. Rather than answering the questions each one formulates, what the social worker and I witness are monologues full of pain. "Because we are sick and we will never heal," Laura says. "Even if we find our children we will never be well," Sofia seems to respond. "I found one of my brothers, but I still have many questions, I lack answers. There is a hole in my heart that I will never be able to close," Maria verbalizes as screams interrupt the moment.

Another grave has been found in this minefield. The third one today. At the news Paola begins to convulse. Her eyes roll back and she says things that we can't understand, the mothers assure us that what we are witnessing is a spiritual possession. Rosaura begins to pray in Latin. They ask the spirit to leave Paola's body, they scream at her to leave. I see out of the corner of my eye that one of the policemen records the moment. Paola returns little by little. Some women embrace each other and burst into tears, more gunshots are heard nearby as the sun goes down. Finally the truck from the Forensic Institute arrives, but only one person comes without the necessary material to do the job. The mothers get angry. They go and complain, they ask to start working immediately in the graves. The forensic expert who arrives with the forensic expert claims that first they must fill out some papers.

The mothers organize themselves so that they can be near the graves and do chain of custody, which means sitting around the burial sites to make sure that the proper protocols are followed by the forensic personnel and the prosecutor's office. "Because then they hide the bones or don't take everything out, plus they don't treat the bodies well," Fatima asserts. They ask to treat the deceased with dignity in the face of indifference. They who talk to the bodies, who pray to them, who sing to them, do not understand the treatment received by the victims of the war. "You know what makes me wonder, that almost all the graves are close to the tires, it seems," Ramona shares with me. We look and there are other tires close to us, scattered: one is about 50 meters away, another a little farther is placed about 120 meters away surrounded by brush. Are they part of the rubble or were they placed by a criminal group to identify the burial sites? This assemblage actually appears to be a war camp. Among the mothers, they discuss whether the tires might be a type of signage to mark the graves. The knowledge begins to be broken down by these women, who walk in the dark on the ground to sink the rods again where there are tires.

Image 3. Photograph taken by the author. November 2022.

Inside are the forensic institute worker, the expert from the Prosecutor's Office, members of the Search Commission and a policeman, actors representing the State, legitimized to be in that space, claiming leadership of the disinterment as well as the processes that will follow. The mothers who did much of the groundwork are now a symbiosis between the public and the chain of custody. Due to the low light, several mothers decide to enter the cordoned-off area to keep a close watch. Some authorities are uncomfortable, but the Political Constitution protects their right as coadjutants in the search and investigation processes.  

I find it revealing the way in which the mothers take part in the tracking and excavation work with the support of members of the Search Commission. However, as soon as the bodies begin to appear, the police ask them to stop and cordon off the site. Rojas, in his study on the dirty war in Peru, notes that "the excavation site becomes a crime scene, a space defined (almost literally) by what is inside and what is outside the law, where only those legally authorized can fully participate in the game of establishing a legal truth" (2017: 80). This can be extrapolated to the Mexican case as mothers are used as a sort of labor force.

The bodies, which are named as treasures, become evidence when the State is deployed in the area. The knowledge that comes from the metaphorical traces, whose source is partly rumor, takes another turn once the authorities begin to fill out the paperwork for their dossiers. From their legitimacy granted by the state apparatus, the authorities present themselves as trained observers, capable of reading clues left by the past and accessing otherwise inaccessible truths. Thus, the past as well as death become objects of official knowledge, which is precisely the knowledge interpreted and traced by the mothers.

But what these women are most interested in is that all the bodies are dug up in a dignified manner. That is why they make the chain of custody. "We have to be vigilant because we don't know," Mrs. Ramona tells me. Her words are proof of the doubts that surround the authorities present. Undoubtedly, both the work of the Prosecutor's Office investigators and that of the forensic technicians can shed light on the cases and contribute to the identification of the victims, but it can also work the other way around, to hide evidence, destroy it or, alternatively, archive it. The bodies and their bones may certainly be evidence, but they are above all, from the point of view of my interlocutors, people who deserve to be treated with respect.

The bonds that the mothers as caregivers have with their children emerged during the search. I am thinking in particular of the moment when the women began to narrate in a circle how they felt as a result of seeing the policemen laughing while they rested. Their oral histories emerged there as narratives storing love, resistance, experience and knowledge about the violence of war. Words that describe negative affects. Words that are used to try to express pain, fear, hatred, but also hopelessness. They weave their own language. They are here searching, resisting, feeling. Romina told me at one point, "my skin is bristling, I feel like we will find more bones. I have a big hole in my stomach". The body as interpreter. The body expressing what it feels as it immerses itself in this place also reminds me of what Das (2000) refers to when she speaks of "poisoned knowledge" to reflect on how some women inhabit the world after having gone through events of extraordinary violence. What Das writes is closely related to the experiences of my interlocutors, who have become searchers and have acquired and generated forensic knowledge, understand the logic of extermination used by criminal groups and know about legal protocols. In other words, theirs is a poisoned knowledge not only because of the language and actions they deploy to re-inhabit the world after the disappearance of their loved ones, but also because the knowledge listed above is poisoned from the beginning, since its very nature is war.

It is already dark and the butterflies have given way to hundreds of mosquitoes that congregate around us. Those with repellent begin to take it out of their backpacks to share some with us. The head of the Search Commission asks that the lights of the jeeps be turned on, more than to scare away the mosquitoes to illuminate the area. The morgue technician brought only one lamp. In the absence of more personnel, some of the members of the Commission put on the classic white suits to help remove the fragments. We can feel the discomfort of some of the ladies because the later it gets, the more risks we run. There is an enemy lurking in the darkness; however, it is only its sound that shakes us: the bullets that have not ceased to be heard due to clashes occurring nearby. In the distance, motorcycles have not stopped prowling, perhaps as part of the constantly moving network of drug dealing.

I approach the members of the Search Committee to listen. The team leader tells me that it is best that we leave soon because of the risks we run. But a group of ladies say they won't leave no matter if they have to stand guard all morning. "We are not leaving until they take out the last bone, because once we are gone the authorities will leave or at night those bastards (the criminals) will come to take them out, or a dog could take the bones, how can they ask us to leave?" The truth is that there are no security conditions and the scarce light barely allows us to see what is in the pits. The light radiating from the jeeps is not enough, it is rather a focus of attraction for hundreds of mosquitoes. The women start a bonfire to chase them away. The Search Commission team proposes to change the plan and split up. They will stay and work accompanied by the National Guard and we will leave escorted by two policemen. The ladies who refuse to leave go to the largest grave where the work continues, insisting that they want to have a progress report. They begin to load the bones from the first pit into the forensic institute's van. It is not long before the clock strikes ten o'clock at night.


The ladies agree that it is time to leave. The van that transports us goes to the front of the convoy, behind it comes the police. The reason is that, if the patrol car goes in front, it would arouse suspicion or reactions among the inhabitants of the neighborhood. We advance slowly along the bumpy road. We receive a few glances from neighbors who are outside their houses. The forensic worker, the members of the Search Commission, the representatives of the Prosecutor's Office and the National Guard have remained on the property. Once at home, after eleven o'clock at night I receive a text message: "Everyone had to leave the site because there were no conditions to continue working". The next day they will return to continue with the disinterment, "they left the bodies to the grace of God", Mrs. Rosana wrote me. In this ambiguous relationship of sovereignties there is one that today ended up dictating the times of the search, a sovereignty that drove us away with the noise of the bullets and before which the National Guard itself decreed that there were no optimal conditions to continue. The next morning one of the morning newscasts in the city announced the discovery of the graves. In a brief call, Mrs. Carolina tells me that she feels better and that a group of mothers is going back to the area to continue with the work. "Continue with the chain of custody. Continue putting her poisoned knowledge into practice.

The host of the newscast refers that the area is complicated, "it is not surprising that graves have been found". "No wonder" is not enough to describe having been there the night before, in that assemblage composed of such diverse elements of which the mothers were part, creating a search that challenged at times the sovereignty of crime to which the State had to yield. The driver refers to the El Ahogado dam as an area "taken over by the cartels". There is minimal mention of the work carried out by the mothers. The words of this man contribute to the amassing of a genealogy of death and extermination, of communities marked by the events of war, of bodies seen as disposable subjects because of their geographical origin. They secrete processes of identity that are imposed on these colonies that have become embedded in stories of fear that circulate in the city.

Image 4. Photograph taken by the author. November 2022.

From the earth emerge the deceased and butterflies flutter among the dead. The sobs flow. We are surrounded by life in this stony landscape. The warm winter sun shines down on us and sneaks through the trees that witnessed the horror, but today also bear witness to the hope that emanates from the bones. It is the possible return home of the missing after tracing metaphorical footprints. This war has destroyed us. Fragmented. But they, they trace search routes in the midst of desolation. They, a glimmer of light in the darkness.  

In the evening I received a message from Carolina to tell me that he was already home. The next day I would go to the morgue to begin the identification process. "Because one of them could be Mariano". This is only the beginning of a bureaucratic process in which families must immerse themselves to claim the lifeless body of their loved ones. Thus, this text has put on the table one part of the process: that of the search in the field, emphasizing all the information resources that the mothers synthesize to trace their searches. Here I have defined this moment as following the metaphorical footprints, because it is the tracing of routes created from clues about the whereabouts of the absent persons. These routes are always marked by uncertainty as they are just clues that contradict each other or come from sources that my interlocutors do not trust. The metaphorical as a representation of how abstract can be the information they receive and the interpretation they must make. Even rhetorical figures of speech, since sometimes the information is altered. On a regular basis, when speaking of metaphor, it is explained that it is used to embellish a description. In this case, some words are exchanged for others due to the violence that frames the context in which the communicative process of sharing news or rumors is inserted.

Carolina, for example, was told that they had seen her son wandering several times in the mesquite area, when in fact her son, already dead, may have been taken there to be buried in a pit. And by following these traces, which usually lead them to places named as borders or urban margins, the mothers produce their own geography of hope, which gives rise to relationships between actors (whether human or not) who are involved in each search that exposes something fundamental: the sovereignties that are linked in the war on drugs, being entities that claim the lifeless bodies from different logics, not always violent. This is the case of the treasure-seeking mothers who interpret all the references they have to find the whereabouts of their loved ones, as in the case of Carolina and her "Flaco".


Aceves, Jorge, Renée de la Torre y Patricia Safa (2004). “Fragmentos urbanos de una misma ciudad: Guadalajara”, Espiral. Estudios sobre Estado y Sociedad 11, pp. 277- 320.

Bennett, Jane (2022). Materia vibrante. Una ecología política de las cosas. Buenos Aires: Caja Negra.

Biehl, João y Peter Locke (2017). “Introduction”, en João Biehl and Peter Locke (eds.). Unfinished:The Anthropology of Becoming. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 1-38.

Boscoboinik, Andrea (2014). “Introduction. Risks and Fears from an Anthropological Viewpoint,” en Andrea Boscoboinik y Hanna Horakova (eds.). The Anthropology of Fear: Cultures Beyond Emotions. Münster: Lit Verlag, pp. 9-26.

Correa-Cabrera, Guadalupe (2017). Los Zetas Inc. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Das, Veena (2000). “The Act of Witnessing: Violence, Poisonous Knowledge, and Subjectivity”, en Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman, Mamphele Ramphele y Pamela Reynolds (eds.). Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 59-92.

Das, Veena y Deborah Poole (2004). “Introduction,” en Veena Das y Deborah Poole (eds.). Anthropology in the Margins of the State. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, pp. 1-32.

Félix, Humberto (2011). Tijuana la horrible. Entre la historia y el mito. Tijuana: colef.

Gordillo, Gastón (2014). Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langdon, Esther (2006). “Performance e sua diversidade como paradigma analítico: A contribuição da Abordagem de Bauman e Briggs”, Ilha Revista de Antropologia, núm. 1-2, pp. 162-183.

Lomnitz, Claudio (2023). Antropología de la zona del silencio. Curso ofrecido en El Colegio Nacional del 7 al 16 de marzo.

Marcus, George (2001). “Etnografía en/del sistema mundo. El surgimiento de la etnografía multilocal”, Alteridades, núm. 22, pp. 111-127.

Mastrogiovanni, Federico (2019). Ni vivos ni muertos. La desaparición forzada en México como estrategia de terror. México: De Bolsillo.

Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México (2021). La crisis forense en México: más de 52,000 personas fallecidas sin identificar. México: mndm.

Norget, Kristin (2021). “Bones, Blood, Wax, and Papal Potencies: Neo-Baroque Relics in Mexico”, Material Religion, núm. 17, pp. 355-380.

Rea, Daniela (2021). “Desaparecido es un lugar”, en Pie de Página, 26 de agosto de 2021. Recuperado de:

Rodríguez, Manuela (2009). “Entre ritual y espectáculo, reflexividad corporizada en el candombe”, Revista Avá, núm. 14, pp. 145-161.

Rojas-Perez, Isaias (2017). Mourning Remains. State Atrocity, Exhumations, and Governing the Disappeared in Peru’s Postwar Andes. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Rubin, Johan (2015). “Una aproximación al concepto de desaparecido: reflexiones sobre El Salvador y España”, Alteridades, núm. 25, pp. 9-24.

Schwarcz, Lilia (2017). “I Was Cannibalized by an Artist: Adriana Varejão, or Art as Flux”, en João Biehl y Peter Locke (eds.). Unfinished:The Anthropology of Becoming. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 173-196.

Strickland, Danielle (2019). Jóvenes, violencia y miedo, la (in)seguridad en el Cerro del Cuatro. Zapopan: El Colegio de Jalisco.

Universidad de Guadalajara (2009). “Condiciones de la cuenca El Ahogado”, Gaceta UdeG, 9 de marzo de 2009. Recuperado de:

Zavala, Oswaldo (2022). La guerra en palabras. Una historia intelectual del “narco” en México (1975-2020). México: Debate.

Valencia, Sayak (2010). Capitalismo gore. Santa Úrsula de Tenerife: Melusina.

Isaac vargas D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Toronto, his project focuses on the analysis of the forensic context in western Mexico. He also collaborates as a researcher for the Drug Policy Program of the cide Central Region, where he coordinates research on the archives of militarization. He is also co-producer of the audiovisual project "Glossary of the war on drugs" (cideJune 2023). He holds a master's degree in Social Anthropology from El Colegio de Michoacán; his thesis deals with the search for missing persons in Jalisco.


Inline Feedbacks
Ver todos los comentarios


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

EncartesVol. 7, No. 13, March 2024-September 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 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, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: March 25, 2024.