Latin America & Caribbean

The 'crying women' at Mexico's mass graves

Shrine in Dona Berta's shack
Image caption Dona Berta has built a shrine to her loved ones in her shack

Tres Valles is so small that deaths in the town are announced by a loudspeaker mounted onto a car roof.

Benita Fuentes was the latest member of this tight-knit community to have passed away, so an official from the town hall drives around the potholed streets playing a recorded message giving the time and place of her wake.

An elderly woman, Ms Fuentes slipped away in the night from natural causes. But the spectre of death, of violent death, lingers over Tres Valles at present.

The sleepy town was catapulted into the news in Mexico last month after at least 31 bodies were discovered buried at a ranch just walking distance from its picturesque main square.

There are local rumours that another 10 bodies were found that were not officially declared.

Those deaths did not receive the same dignified recognition by the town hall as Benita Fuentes's.

Rather it was the vultures circling overhead that alerted people to the bodies.

The graves were found at a ranch called El Diamante, a nondescript patch of countryside in the eastern state of Veracruz.

The area is green, lush and thick with jungle. Twitchy policemen inside a patrol car guard the blue gate, preventing anyone except forensic investigators from entering the site.

Photos published online, however, suggest that what lies just beyond the brow of the hill is as disturbing a scene as has ever been uncovered in Veracruz.

The remains of men, women and at least one child were found, many of them dismembered and decapitated.

'Crying woman'

Tres Valles was the latest of 246 graves discovered in Mexico over the past three years, according to official figures.

In her wooden shack on the outskirts of the town, Alberta Diaz, known as Dona Berta, is slowly recovering from the emotional turmoil of burying five members of her family - her daughter, Rosalia, and four of her grandchildren.

Ms Diaz recalls the shock of finding out they were missing.

Image caption Dona Berta says her grandchildren did nothing to deserve such a death

"They took them on a Friday, but I didn't realise until the following morning," the grief-stricken 61-year-old explains in a barely audible voice.

"Five days later, the newspaper said some bodies had been found and published her [Rosalia's] name and her nickname, Bailarina [dancer]."

Rosalia, along with four of her children - the youngest just 15 years old - had been killed and buried in the mass grave at El Diamante.

After the bodies were exhumed, the state security secretary in Veracruz said the victims in the grave "weren't decent people", implying they had links to one or other of the two drug cartels battling for superiority in this region of Mexico - the Zetas and their rivals the Gulf Cartel.

Though it pains her to admit it, Dona Berta is prepared to accept that her daughter was involved in organised crime. But she insists her grandchildren did nothing to deserve such a brutal end.

"It made me very sad to read their death certificates. My daughter's said: 'Stab wounds and slit throat'. I couldn't sleep last night after reading them, each one the same: dismembered, dismembered, dismembered," she sighs.

"If my daughter had done something wrong or owed a debt, her children shouldn't have had to pay for it."

Macabre pilgrimage

The nearest big town to Tres Valles is Tierrablanca. There, living in the same abject poverty as Dona Berta, is Elvira Gomez, another mother who travelled to El Diamante that day looking for her children.

Elvira has spent eight months on a macabre pilgrimage, visiting mass graves and morgues in the search for her sons, Rodrigo and Juan.

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Media captionElvira Gomez: "I don't know why they took my sons."

"There is a myth in Mexico about the crying woman, La Llorona (who walks the earth suffering for her lost child)," Elvira says choking back the tears.

"Well, it's not a myth, it's true. I'm one."

Unlike Dona Berta, however, she does not accept that her sons, aged 18 and 21, were involved with the drug cartels.

She is adamant they were picked up one day by the local police.

Image caption The entrance to the El Diamante ranch seems a non-descript piece of land

She says they have not been seen since. "I don't know why they took them. We're working people, peaceful people. I don't know what the problem is."

Wrong circles

The interior minister recently stated that there were only 8,000 missing people in Mexico.

After accusations that the figure was a gross underestimation, the government revised it upwards to 16,000. But many human rights organisations say the real figure simply is not known.

What is clear, though, is that the problem affects families at both ends of the social spectrum.

Juan Rene Chiunti is a deputy for the governing PRI party in the Veracruz state parliament. His brother has been missing, feared dead, for 15 months.

Yet he insists the vast majority of people who vanish or end up in graves like Tres Valles moved in the wrong circles, often with the implicit knowledge of their families.

"Today those same family members cry: 'Oh, my poor son, where is he?'" he says.

Well, the first question I'd ask those families is: 'What did your son work in or study? Let's start there.' When you can answer that question satisfactorily, then we can see whether or not he was a good person."

"But if he was on the wrong path, we have a saying around here: he who walks badly, ends badly."

As we leave Tres Valles, we are told that another mass grave has been found nearby, this time with eight bodies inside.

Elvira Gomez, and other desperate mothers like her, were doubtless already on their way there, to see if they too can start to grieve.

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