The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Mexico, a grim truth just below the surface

Protesters march in Iguala, a town in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, demanding to know what happened to the 43 students who have been missing since Sept. 26. Officials fear the students were massacred by gang members and police. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY -- Really, it should not have come as a surprise that the 28 bodies found in mass graves outside the town of Iguala do not correspond to those of any of the 43 student protesters who went missing there three weeks ago.

The forested hills above Iguala were a well-known human dumping ground, according to the families who live nearby. They often saw pickup trucks with tinted windows driving late at night up through the cornfields into the brush, followed by snaps of gunfire.

But they didn’t dare say anything.

This week’s announcement by Mexican prosecutors that the 28 corpses appear to belong to a different set of victims was heartening perhaps only to the families and classmates of the missing students, who attend a nearby teachers college. For them, it was a new strand of hope that the 43 may still be alive.

But for the rest of Mexico, it was yet another stop on a carousel of horrors, deepening the sense that there are clandestine graves all over the country, into which an untold number of Mexicans have vanished.

Scratch the surface a bit and the ghastly secrets emerge.

Rights groups point to the list kept by the Mexican government with the names of more than 22,000 people who have gone missing in the past eight years. No one knows how many have been lost to cartel funeral pits like the ones found outside Iguala.

“We don’t have the complete test results” from Iguala, Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam told reporters, adding wearily that the discoveries “have confirmed the dangerous nature of the criminal organization that operated in this area.”

The mass graves there are not the first and certainly not the largest uncovered in recent years. But they have shattered President Enrique Peña Nieto’s public relations push to shift international attention away from Mexico’s security failures.

Once more, many here are asking how the country can possibly tout its modernization efforts if it continues to be a place where gangsters casually kill and bury their victims, often with government complicity, while the rest of the society is too intimidated to stop them.

“From Mexico’s Moment to Mexico Murder,” wrote columnist Carlos Loret de Mola in El Universal. “That summarizes the change in international perceptions of our country in the short time between the approval of the reforms” backed by the president “and the explosion of criminal violence in Iguala.”

Farmers living on the outskirts of Iguala told reporters that they have long seen strange vehicles driving up into the hills where the graves were found. They say it’s hardly the first time bodies have turned up, describing the area as a giant cemetery.

“Sometimes we heard gunshots, but other times we didn’t hear anything because we had music playing or the dogs were barking or we slept through the noise,” one woman told the Milenio newspaper. “I just shut my door and that was it.”

The 28 bodies found so far were pulled from five graves, prosecutors say. But since there are at least eight more burial sites in the area, it’s possible that the students ended up in those. Authorities haven’t said how many dead were recovered from the other graves or who they think the victims were.

The wait for answers is draining the patience of the Mexican public and especially the students’ classmates, who are demanding that authorities find them or free them if they’re alive. On Monday, a group of protesters stormed government offices in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo and set them ablaze.

One of the criminal suspects who may have known about the fate of the 43 students, Benjamin “El Benjamon” Mondragon, died Tuesday, allegedly shooting himself after a standoff with police in the nearby state of Morelos.

Mondragon was a leader of the Guerreros Unidos, the gang blamed for the graves outside Iguala and the disappearance of the students after clashes­ with local police on the night of Sept. 26.

The territory where the Guerreros Unidos operate is along the strategic smuggling corridor between Mexico’s ports on the Pacific coast and the capital.

It was in this area that one of the first mass grave sites of Mexico’s drug war was discovered in 2010, near Taxco, just down the road from Iguala. There, forensic teams found dozens of bodies at the bottom of an abandoned mine ventilation shaft.

Many of the victims were found bound and gagged, and were thought to have been thrown alive down the 500-foot shaft. Recovery teams rappelled down and returned with the remains of dozens of corpses.

Asked to clarify how many victims were ultimately found in the mine, officials reached by phone in Guerrero on Wednesday said they did not know. “We didn’t have computers then,” said Tulio Armenta, a spokesman for the state prosecutor’s office.

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.