The Grave Hunter


Men's Journal - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Brem­ner

One man has un­cov­ered hun­dreds of bod­ies in mass graves in Mex­ico. But there’s one he’ll never stop search­ing for: his son’s.

GUADALUPE CONTRERAS KNEW DEATH was in the field. It was a Septem­ber morn­ing in 2017, and the 60-year-old for­mer ma­son had met a dozen or so peo­ple, dressed in boots and scruffy jeans, on the out­skirts of Ver­acruz, Mex­ico, at an area called Coli­nas de Santa Fe. In a sandy pas­ture, sur­rounded by green hills, Contreras and the oth­ers rum­maged through heaps of shov­els and sur­gi­cal masks. Then, one by one, they took five-foot iron rods, fanned out, and be­gan ham­mer­ing them into the earth. Each time they pulled out a rod, they sniffed the end for de­cay. They were search­ing for bod­ies. They were search­ing for their loved ones.

They worked for hours in the tor­rid heat and found noth­ing. Around mid­day, Contreras bashed his rod into the ground again. This time, the tip had a fa­mil­iar smell, rem­i­nis­cent of cheap per­fume and rot­ting meat. He had breathed it hun­dreds of times. It fol­lowed him ev­ery­where. It clung to his clothes and his hair and his thoughts. He set the rod on the ground and called for the oth­ers. He knew what awaited him down in the dirt.

THE BODY WASN’T CONTRERAS’ FIRST. He makes his liv­ing find­ing corpses and has proved adept at the job, even com­pared with other grave hun­ters. The par­tic­u­lar body he found that Septem­ber day had been dis­mem­bered, wrapped in four plas­tic bags, and buried about three feet un­der­ground—no doubt the hand­i­work of a drug car­tel. When Contreras looked in­side the bags, “there was still f lesh on the bones,” he said re­cently.

Since 2014, he has re­cov­ered some 300 bod­ies in sim­i­larly un­marked narco graves, many at Coli­nas de Santa Fe. The site is prob­a­bly the largest clan­des­tine mass grave ever found in Mex­ico. More than 250 bod­ies, in 150 burial trenches, have been re­cov­ered at the site since Colec­tivo Solecito—a group of fam­i­lies whose rel­a­tives have van­ished, for whom Contreras now works—dis­cov­ered it in 2016. And the search is far from over.

Since Mex­ico’s drug war be­gan in 2006, some 37,000 peo­ple have “dis­ap­peared” through­out the coun­try, and 3,600 in the state of Ver­acruz alone. But Martín Gabriel Bar­ron Cruz, a crim­i­nol­o­gist at Mex­ico’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Crim­i­nal Science, be­lieves that the num­ber of dis­ap­pear­ances may far ex­ceed the of­fi­cial toll, ow­ing to gov­ern­ment and po­lice cor­rup­tion and a fear­ful pub­lic. “Peo­ple don’t know who to trust,” he told me this spring, “so they do noth­ing rather than risk putting them­selves or other rel­a­tives in dan­ger.”

Over the past sev­eral years, how­ever, fam­i­lies of the van­ished—rather than rely on the au­thor­i­ties—have taken re­cov­ery ef­forts into their own hands and turned to grave hun­ters like Contreras for help. “It’s not a job you do to get rich,” he told me. The work isn’t easy, so “you have to have a good rea­son to do it.” And he does.

On that Septem­ber day in 2017, Contreras, un­like the griev­ing moth­ers and fa­thers with him, had no real ex­pec­ta­tion of find­ing a rel­a­tive at Coli­nas de Santa Fe. But he knew the pain of hav­ing a loved one dis­ap­pear; he’d

en­dured it him­self. He’d lost a son. That’s why he’d come. That’s why he keeps search­ing.

ON A SATUR­DAY MORN­ING IN MAY, I fol­lowed Contreras into a for­est 40 min­utes out­side Ver­acruz. Thin and griz­zled, with a wispy mus­tache, he looks older than his 60 years, but he moved through the un­der­growth nim­bly. He first gained at­ten­tion for his work in 2015 when he found 68 bod­ies in the hills out­side Iguala, his home­town, in the south­west­ern state of Guer­rero. But his work has since brought him here, to Ver­acruz, on the gulf, some 400 miles away. As his ap­pren­tice, a man named Gon­zalo, cleared the brush with a ma­chete, Contreras scanned the ground. “It’s un­likely we’ll find a body,” he said in Span­ish, cough­ing through ci­garette smoke. “But you never know. This is Mex­ico, af­ter all.”

In other Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries, such as Chile and Ar­gentina, de­sa­pare­ci­dos, or the dis­ap­peared, have tended to be po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents whom au­thor­i­ties or ri­val fac­tions abduct and kill to neu­tral­ize as a threat. But in Mex­ico, or­ga­nized crime bears much of the blame for the van­ish­ings, and for 150,000 con­firmed


deaths over the past decade. Car­tels, in a strug­gle for dom­i­nance, have dis­ap­peared not only jour­nal­ists, politi­cians, and ri­val gang mem­bers but also in­no­cent civil­ians, and they’ve in­fil­trated pol­i­tics and law en­force­ment to ex­er­cise and fur­ther re­in­force their con­trol. María Mora is a mem­ber of Colec­tivo Solecito whose son was al­legedly kid­napped by plain­clothes po­lice of­fi­cers in 2014. “Where do we go if the peo­ple who are rep­re­sent­ing us won’t help or are in­volved in the crime?” she asked me. “What can we do?”

Contreras and other grave hun­ters have pro­vided an an­swer. “We are forced to do what the gov­ern­ment won’t,” he ex­plained, as he kicked through the brush. “If the state will no longer work for us, then we have to work for our­selves.”

We soon came upon a clear­ing. When hunt­ing for bod­ies, Contreras looks for clues, like al­ter­ations in soil color, de­pres­sions in the dirt, or dis­turbed veg­e­ta­tion. “If you see any of those signs, that’s when you have to stick the rod into the ground,” he said. “Then you take it out and sniff.” He ham­mered a fourand-a-half-foot rod into the earth, ex­tracted it, and lifted it to my nose. It smelled like damp soil. Had the aroma been foul, “that’s when you dig,” he said.

As we con­tin­ued, he walked back and forth in a line, in­spect­ing the ground closely. “Look at that!” he sud­denly shouted. A few yards away, a rag cov­ered in red blotches lay strewn among the weeds. He rushed over and straight­ened the tat­tered fab­ric with his rod. He knelt, picked it up, and dug his nails into the stains. Then he sniffed. “False alarm,” he said. “It’s just red paint.”

“There are so many traps like that,” Gon­zalo ex­plained. Some trees smell like rot, and buried trash and buried an­i­mals can also lead a search astray, he added.

As we headed back to the car, Contreras be­gan to ex­plain how he ended up in this macabre line of work. “I didn’t come look­ing for vi­o­lence,” he said. “It came look­ing for me.”

BE­FORE CONTRERAS DUG FOR CORPSES, he made tomb­stones for them, hav­ing spent most of his adult life as a ma­son. He was well liked by his col­leagues and worked hard to sup­port his wife and their five chil­dren. Most days, he went from home to work and back un­event­fully. In his free time, he en­joyed drink­ing beers with friends. “It was a good life, an easy life,” he re­called.

Per­haps his fa­vorite pas­time was watch­ing soc­cer with his 28-year-old son, An­to­nio, with whom he was close. Slim with wavy black hair, An­to­nio was Contreras’ third child and shared his fa­ther’s fa­nati­cism for the game. Contreras cheered for Club De­portivo Guadala­jara and An­to­nio for Club Ne­caxa, so when­ever the teams played, they’d de­mand that who­ever’s club lost had to wear the win­ning team’s jer­sey for a week. Even af­ter An­to­nio moved out to live with his girl­friend, he stopped by reg­u­larly for ad­vice or to bor­row a few pe­sos from his fa­ther.

Then, one day, in Oc­to­ber 2012, An­to­nio dis­ap­peared.

It was a Mon­day, and An­to­nio, an elec­tri­cian and me­chanic, had spent the week­end at the shop where he worked while his boss ran er­rands. That morn­ing, An­to­nio, re­lieved of his du­ties, set off on the new 150cc scooter he’d bought sev­eral days be­fore.

What hap­pened next re­mains un­cer­tain. But based on in­for­ma­tion Contreras later gath­ered, An­to­nio first vis­ited a friend’s house and chat­ted for a few min­utes be­fore driv­ing to a car deal­er­ship to pay off a debt. Next, he stopped for a Corona. “Af­ter that, we know noth­ing,” Contreras said.

Contreras was at home when he heard the news; he re­fused to ac­cept it. Contreras was a ca­pa­ble man. A man who built and fixed things. A man in con­trol of his life and ev­ery­thing in it. But sud­denly, he had no idea what to do. He didn’t trust law en­force­ment; he feared that if he came for­ward, the rest of his fam­ily might suf­fer the same fate as An­to­nio. And though he didn’t want to ad­mit it, nei­ther out loud nor to him­self, he knew that his son would not come home alive. He knew that An­to­nio was dead.

Days passed, then weeks, and no word from An­to­nio or his kid­nap­pers ever came. Contreras’ shock turned to pain. He grew des­per­ate to find out what had hap­pened, to know the truth. He be­gan vis­it­ing aban­doned build­ings, garbage dumps, rough neigh­bor­hoods, the homes of drug deal­ers—look­ing for tips or clues. “I was con­scious of the dan­ger, but I wasn’t scared,” he said. “These things don’t re­ally mat­ter you when you’ve lost a child.”

Then, in Fe­bru­ary 2013, af­ter nearly a year with no trace of his son, Contreras had a break­through: A guy he knew from his old neigh­bor­hood, who had con­nec­tions to or­ga­nized crime, agreed to find out all he could about An­to­nio’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Within weeks, he con­firmed Contreras’ deep­est fear: An­to­nio had been killed. Lo­cal delin­quents had robbed and mur­dered him for his new scooter, then buried him out­side the nearby ham­let of Mex­cal­te­pec. Worse yet, An­to­nio had known his killer. “One of the guys had gone to school with my son,” Contreras said. “It was eas­ier to mur­der him than to risk An­to­nio go­ing to the po­lice.”

Contreras’ wife, Guiller­mina Mata, strug­gled to come to terms with the news. Grief­stricken, she stopped tak­ing her cir­rho­sis pills, and Contreras feared that she was let­ting her­self die. In Au­gust 2013, his sus­pi­cion be­came re­al­ity. Hav­ing re­fused treat­ment, she died in a hos­pi­tal, leav­ing Contreras alone for the first time af­ter 36 years of mar­riage.

Guiller­mina’s death fur­ther rocked Contreras and his four sur­viv­ing chil­dren. “My life part­ner left me in what was al­ready one of the worst mo­ments of my life,” he said. Yet he didn’t stop his search. His chil­dren wor­ried about his safety and begged him to cease, fear­ing that they might lose him, too. But he re­fused to re­lent. He felt as though a part of him were miss­ing, a part that he had to find.


He needed proof that An­to­nio was gone. He needed a body. He needed to keep look­ing: “It kept my mind fo­cused; it gave me a rea­son to carry on.”

In Novem­ber 2014, he and the other rel­a­tives of de­sa­pare­ci­dos formed a col­lec­tive, called Los Otros De­sa­pare­ci­dos, and be­gan scour­ing the hills out­side Iguala and Mex­cal­te­pec for signs of their loved ones. Af­ter three days of toil­ing, Contreras found his first body. But it wasn’t An­to­nio’s. Still, peo­ple some­times spent months search­ing for a grave to no avail; Contreras had un­cov­ered one in days.

Over the next year and a half, he found 67 more corpses, in­clud­ing those of seven po­lice­men. He was ef­fec­tive, in part, be­cause he had searched for death be­fore. In the early 1970s, as a Red Cross vol­un­teer, he’d re­cov­ered corpses and dug graves af­ter nat­u­ral dis­as­ters dev­as­tated his home­town. “He wasn’t scared,” Juan Jesús Canaán Ramírez, a founder of Los Otros De­sa­pare­ci­dos, later told me. “Nor was he re­pulsed or in­tim­i­dated by the hor­ri­ble smells.”

One thing did un­nerve Contreras, how­ever. “Ev­ery time I was search­ing,” he said, “I felt an anx­i­ety that, at any mo­ment, I was go­ing to dis­cover my son.”

BY 2016, AF­TER NEARLY TWO YEARS OF look­ing, Contreras had lit­tle idea whether he was any closer to find­ing An­to­nio. But he in­tended to keep roam­ing the hills out­side Iguala un­til he did. But his plan soon di­verged.

On Mother’s Day of that year, in Ver­acruz, hun­dreds of miles away, mem­bers of Colec­tivo Solecito were tipped off about the mass grave at Coli­nas de Santa Fe. They were handed a note, pre­sum­ably by car­tel mem­bers, which al­leged that Ver­acruz state gover­nor Javier Duarte and the lo­cal po­lice had aided in the dis­ap­pear­ance of their rel­a­tives. (In 2016, Duarte fled Mex­ico af­ter be­ing charged with em­bez­zle­ment and work­ing with or­ga­nized crime. In 2017, he was ex­tra­dited from Gu­atemala and awaits trial.) The note also in­cluded a hand-drawn map to the sandy clear­ing out­side town. “I sup­pose they felt sorry for us,” Lucía Díaz, one of Colec­tivo Solecito’s found­ing mem­bers, told the press. “Maybe they were think­ing of their own moth­ers.”

Un­sure of how to comb the area, the group hired Contreras, who had by then gained no­to­ri­ety for his grisly dis­cov­er­ies, and two other searchers from Iguala. In the first week, they found noth­ing. The sandy soil made dis­tur­bances or ab­nor­mal­i­ties in the earth hard to iden­tify. “But when we started to find the bod­ies,” Contreras said, “we didn’t stop.”

Within weeks, the three men had lo­cated and dug up 75 un­marked graves. Af­ter­ward, the other men re­turned home, but Contreras pledged to stay in Ver­acruz and help Colec­tivo Solecito, which, in turn, agreed to pro­vide him with board and a mod­est weekly wage. But he didn’t take the job for the money. He knew that there were more bod­ies to be found and ex­humed, even if An­to­nio’s prob­a­bly wasn’t one of them. He had a duty to find them, since so few other peo­ple could.

AF­TER TREKKING THROUGH THE WOODS, Contreras and I stopped by Coli­nas de Santa Fe, where he now works most days. An armed po­lice of­fi­cer stood be­fore the pad­locked en­trance, en­sur­ing that jour­nal­ists, like me, couldn’t en­ter, so we parked out­side the gate. In the nearly three years since Contreras moved to Ver­acruz, his life has fallen into a pre­dictable rou­tine. Each morn­ing he wakes at 7, dresses, and gath­ers the iron rods, shov­els, and other sup­plies he needs for the day. Af­ter break­fast, a fed­eral po­lice of­fi­cer picks him up and drives him here, to Coli­nas de Santa Fe. At night, he re­turns to the house he shares with two other gravedig­gers, eats sup­per, smokes cig­a­rettes, and calls his fam­ily.

It’s a mo­not­o­nous life, and Contreras’ work has numbed and jaded him. But in many ways, he’s still like the other moth­ers and fa­thers of the dis­ap­peared. He strug­gles with the in­cer­ti­tude of An­to­nio’s van­ish­ing, and when no one is around, he still cries for his son. He misses his four kids and 22 grand­kids. (“They ring me with their prob­lems all the time. I’m miles away, and I can’t solve any of them.”) But his work in Ver­acruz puts needed dis­tance be­tween him and his grief. Re­turn­ing to Iguala would likely prove over­whelm­ing and force him to think about An­to­nio more than he al­ready does. At least in Ver­acruz, he’s help­ing oth­ers in their suf­fer­ing, rather than drown­ing pri­vately in his own.

On the last day I spent with Contreras, we vis­ited a ceme­tery 50 min­utes north of Ver­acruz. The head­stones and tombs were dusty and some ill-kept. But un­like those at the mass burial sites, at least each grave had a name.

As we walked a dusty path, Contreras ap­peared nei­ther con­tent nor sad, de­ter­mined nor re­signed—only dis­tant. He mo­tioned to a tomb that had a six-foot cru­ci­fix. He said the plot be­longed to Oc­tavio Colorado Mora, a lo­cal me­chanic. Ear­lier that af­ter­noon, I’d spo­ken with Mora’s mother, who al­leged that, in May 2014, po­lice of­fi­cers had ab­ducted her son from his home. They didn’t ask for ran­som, she said, so she didn’t know what be­came of him un­til Jan­uary of this year, when his re­mains were iden­ti­fied. “I found him in the Coli­nas de Santa Fe,” Contreras said.

Of the hun­dreds of bod­ies that have been re­cov­ered at Coli­nas de Santa Fe, Oc­tavio’s is one of only a dozen or so that have been iden­ti­fied. The low con­ver­sion owes mostly to ad­min­is­tra­tive prob­lems. Mex­ico, un­til re­cently, didn’t have a na­tional DNA data­base, and most state foren­sic de­part­ments are un­staffed or lack suf­fi­cient fund­ing. As a re­sult, cases are of­ten de­layed or lost, or DNA analy­ses never car­ried out—an­other ob­sta­cle for fam­i­lies in search of the van­ished. Mean­while, bod­ies con­tinue to fill Mex­ico’s morgues.

Guadalupe Melo Santi­este­ban heads the In­sti­tute of Foren­sic Medicine at the Univer­sity of Ver­acruz, where coro­ners per­form au­top­sies. “Last year, we re­ceived so many bod­ies from un­marked graves that they were spilling out of the mortuary and onto the street,” she said. Her team had to put up a tent in the back­yard so that the pub­lic wouldn’t see the bod­ies.

But un­til some­thing changes, jus­tice and death re­main in limbo. Sev­eral fam­i­lies I spoke with told me that the ques­tion of whether a loved one was dead or alive had de­stroyed their lives, much as it has Contreras’. “If my son is dead, I’m pretty sure we’ve al­ready found him,” Contreras told me. “I searched all of Mex­cal­te­pec, and I found 18 bod­ies there. But be­cause the DNA hasn’t been pro­cessed, I won’t know for a long time.”

In the mean­time, he must live with un­cer­tainty. He doesn’t want the past to loom over the present or to have to won­der whether An­to­nio has al­ready been found. “All I want is for this to end,” he said.

As we walked back to the car, I watched as two young men, who seemed to be cry­ing, laid f low­ers at a grave. Contreras glanced at them, per­haps with envy, per­haps with sad­ness. But he said noth­ing. He just hauled him­self into the back seat and stared ahead. To­mor­row he’d wake at 7 a.m. to start search­ing again. And each time he smelled death at the end of his rod, it would cross his mind, how­ever briefly, that maybe the dis­cov­ery would free a fam­ily of doubt, that maybe this time, he’d find some relief down in the dirt—if not for him­self, at least for some­one else.

Contreras holds a photo of his son. Op­po­site, from top: fam­ily mem­bers of de­sa­pare­ci­dos; Contreras and Rosa Gar­cía Ramón, a mem­ber of Colec­tivo Solecito.

Contreras smells the end of an iron rod to de­ter­mine whether a body might be buried un­der­ground.

Contreras stops by the tomb of Oc­tavio Colorado Mora, a me­chanic whose body he found at a mass-burial site.

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