The world was shocked when Mexican authorities uncovered seven clandestine mass graves containing at least 226 drug war victims in Durango this past April and May. However, the only truly surprising detail about the mass graves was that they weren’t discovered sooner.

The murder rate in Durango skyrocketed after President Felipe Calderón declared war on organized crime in late 2006. The number of executions soared 1,401 percent from 67 in 2005 to 939 in 2010. With 910 murders so far in 2011, Durango is set to surpass 2010’s murders by the end of June.

As the executions continue unabated in Durango, it is obvious that Calderón’s unsubstantiated assertion that 90% of Mexico’s murder victims are members of organized crime is simply untrue. The government couldn’t even identify 54 of the 226 bodies in Durango’s clandestine mass graves—that is, 24% of the victims—so it reburied them in a municipal mass grave.

Even when victims are identified, the government rarely investigates their deaths. In 2010, the government didn’t even bother to open investigations into 95% of the 15,273 murders that occurred in the country that year. When missing miner Fernando Rodriguez Maturina turned up dead and wrapped in a blanket a few months ago in Durango, police told his widow that she shouldn’t push for an investigation. “The police officer who gave me his remains told me that because he was wrapped in a blanket, it was a message that we shouldn’t investigate the death,” María Flores de Santos recalls. “He told me that it was best if I didn’t stir up trouble.”

In Durango, the raging violence doesn’t discriminate between narcos and civilians, or between honest police and corrupt police. Durango is a war zone, and everyone is caught in the crossfire. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the peace movement refuses to discriminate between victims.

When the Citizens Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity arrived in Durango on Monday night to protest the drug war, thousands of locals from across the social spectrum turned out to greet it. The widows of murdered police officers marched in downtown Durango alongside the families of people disappeared by corrupt police. Families of civilians murdered by organized crime marched together with families who openly admitted that their murdered loved ones had gotten “into trouble.” Regardless of which side of the war their loved ones were on before tragedy struck, their grief and outrage brought them together to demand an end to a drug policy that has only brought death and destruction to Durango.

It seems as though everyone has lost at least one family member to drug war violence in this state, and after years of neglect and disdain, they are desperate for anyone to listen to their plight. Even the janitor who works at the school where the Caravan rested on Monday night took advantage of the abundance of sympathetic ears to tearfully announce that they just found her cousin in one of the mass graves. This afternoon her family has to try to claim the 22-year-old’s body. Her neighbors who have already been through the process prepared her for the long, frustrating, and sometimes futile struggle to get an unsolved murder victim released from government custody. It’s almost always a battle for victims’ families, even if the government has no intention of actually investigating the murder.

Many protesters in Durango carried signs that decried corruption in the State Police. Ivana Hernandez says that State Police were responsible for the forced disappearance of her cousin Adán Salazar two months ago during a routine traffic stop. Witnesses saw the police put him in their patrol car, but his detention was never registered. Hernandez’s family filed complaints with the government, but the State Police claim they never had him in custody. The investigation has gone nowhere.

Several march participants—including one woman whose cousin survived a police kidnapping—claim that Durango State Police detain victims and then deliver them to organized crime.

Police Families Join the Peace Movement

Despite the peace movement’s strong criticism of the police’s role in the drug war and the widespread belief that most police officers are corrupt, many police widows feel drawn to the movement for the same reason all other drug war victims are: they are unable to find sympathy and justice anywhere else. “It hurts me so much how they criminalize the victims, thinking that they deserve what happened to them,” says Gloria Aguilar, the wife and mother of three disappeared Monterrey Transit Police officers. “I’ve heard so many times, ‘But they must’ve done something to have been disappeared.”

Widows and mothers of seven murdered Federal Police officers protested the government’s abandonment of their loved ones both in life and death. The seven were kidnapped on their way to Ciudad Hidalgo, where there were supposed to shut down a corrupt municipal police department. “They didn’t even give them a vehicle or a per diem,” recounts officer Pedro Alberto Vázquez Hernández’s sister-in-law. “So they had to pass the hat for gas money, and they convinced a friend to drive them. That friend disappeared with them. They were kidnapped November 12, 2009, from a gas station in Morelia, Michoacan.”

Even though several suspects bragged to Mexican investigators that they participated in the kidnapping and murder of the eight men, the government refuses to declare the police officers dead so that their widows can collect death benefits and remarry. The government also hasn’t recovered the men’s bodies. Every time a new mass grave is discovered, the widows and mothers must travel to that state and review photographs of the cadavers in the local morgue.

Flor Susana Gómez, the widow of a Durango State Police officer, argues that the government’s treatment of police widows is callous and illogical. “We receive a monthly pension of six thousand pesos ($521 dollars) with which we have to feed, dress, house, and educate 3-5 children. Durango state law prohibits us from re-marrying and working,” says Gómez.

“This is yet another tragedy of this absurd war on organized crime, knowing that soldiers and municipal, state, and federal police are nothing more than cannon fodder for politicians.”

Former municipal police officer Oscar Hernandez resigned from his department in Mexico State and joined the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity. “I quit because my son asked me if I was corrupt, and it made me think,” he says.

“My last nine months on the force, they sent me to work in the federal Confidence Control program [the program that screens police departments and purges corrupt cops], and it’s even worse there. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the more corrupt it is!”

Hernandez has a message for police officers: “They’re turning the police into nothing more than killing machines. Quit and join the movement!”

Overcoming Fear

Durango’s residents know that they risk their lives by speaking out against the violence. But so many of them have lost so much already that they don’t see any other option. “If I turn up dead one of these days, thank you,” declared Vivien Echavari, whose three sons were gunned down in Durango. “Because then I will be with my sons.”

Mar Grecia Oliva Guerrero from the University of Durango urged her fellow Duranguenses to overcome their fear and speak out against the war. “How long will it take you to wake up and do something so that this stops? Tomorrow it could be your child or your parent! Will you do something today, while you still have your family, or will you wait until tomorrow, when you’re in a clandestine mass grave?”

Kristin Bricker is freelance reporter and contributor to the CIP Americas Program.  F. Santiago Navarro contributed to this report.

For on-going coverage of the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity, check in frequently here and on our AmericasMexico Blog, and for Spanish-language reports and audios.

1 Comment

  • John Lindsay-Poland
    Posted June 28, 2011 10:17 pm 0Likes

    Thank you so much for these powerful reports. They are amazing and vividly bring to an English-speaking audience the importance of this movement.

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