The cemeteries are filled with the nameless

This investigation was carried out over four years,collecting testimonies, visiting cemeteries, coroners’ offices, interviewing officials and specialists, and filing freedom of information requests.Some of that information was only released after legal challenges. In all that time, little or nothing has changed: there are people searching for disappeared family members and there are unidentified dead buried in common graves.

By: Hasta Encontrarles

This investigation was carried out over four years,collecting testimonies, visiting cemeteries, coroners’ offices, interviewing officials and specialists, and filing freedom of information requests.Some of that information was only released after legal challenges. In all that time, little or nothing has changed: there are people searching for disappeared family members and there are unidentified dead buried in common graves.

Photos and text: Marcos Vizcarra


The day the gravediggers die, they will take with them the records of hundreds or thousands of people who were buried in common graves as “unidentified.” They are the only ones who know where those bodies are, where they came from, and how they died.

-How many bodies are here?

-The most recent were 11… but there are several. Over here are another two, and over there another five… and here are some 20 or 25… altogether there are more than 30 in this cemetery".

Wilfredo Álvarez Guerrero has been digging graves in Villa Unión, a town to the south of Mazatlán, for more than 16 years. When I interviewed him in 2016, he was sitting on his motorcycle, a set of keys dangling from his right hand. He was on his way to close the gate.

Se detuvo extrañado al ver que frente a él había dos hombres de pie en el barandal color blanco a la entrada del panteón preguntando por fosas comunes.

When they asked about common graves he sighed, turned off the motorcycle, and began walking, insisting that they follow. After 30 meters or so, he began to describe how over the previous 10 years, he saw mortuary employees and agents of the prosecutors’ office bringing unidentified bodies.

“They haven’t come for a while, there’s no more space, but they brought them and buried them,” he says, while he walks toward a calabash tree, a regional species that was heavy with softball-sized fruit. Suddenly he stopped.

“Here it is”

“And where are the people?”

“Here, in front”

“But this is just a mound, where are the crosses?”

“Sometimes we put some sticks, but they get knocked down.”

“And these lumps are the common graves?”

“Yes, sir.”


This was at one of the cemeteries in Villa Unión, on the road to El Walamo, in the south of Sinaloa.

It is a graveyard with more than 100 tombs covered with a layer of dust and ash from the trash that is burned nearby. It contains the bodies of the residents from nearby towns, and also those unidentified bodies that the state government and funeral home employees bring from other municipalities.

“Here are two girls that they brought from Mazatlán. First one, then the other, and now the city council doesn’t want them to bring more,” Wilfredo says, pointing to a rock that seems to serve as an improvised headstone.

- “¿Two girls?”

“Two girls. Young.”

What happened in Villa Unión is something common across Sinaloa. There are another 11 cemeteries where unidentified and unclaimed bodies are buried. They are total unknowns, hidden now under mounds of earth or slabs of cement. 


 There are common graves, like this one, that are unrecognizable at first glance, but there are also others, such as those in Los Mochis or Culicacán, where the bodies are organized in lines marked by crosses of wood or metal, with hand-painted white numbers serving as identification.

Among all these graveyards, there are more than a thousand bodies that were buried between 2005 and 2016, and which lack any identifying forensic record, according to information from a freedom of information request.

The state Attorney General’s office did not conduct genetic tests, claiming that it lacked sufficient infrastructure (laboratories and specialists), and that is why the bodies were sent to the common graves. In fact, in response to other requests for information, the institution notes that it is not certain where the majority of those registered as “N.N.” (“No Identification”) are located.

En 2017 hubo una reforma a la constitución del Estado y la Procuraduría General de Justicia, que dependía del Gobierno estatal, pasó a ser la Fiscalía General, un organismo autónomo. Ese cambio ha sido la excusa para negar información, entre esa el paradero de las fosas comunes.

“This office does not have records prior to 2017” reads one of the responses to a freedom of information request, a request that when submitted in previous years to the prosecutors office had been answered with a list of cemeteries in Mazatlán, Ahome, and Culiacán. Nevertheless, the responses were incomplete, since in the cemeteries there are books and workers who are preserving the information in their memories.

“They are in rows”

“What do you mean?”

“Yeah, one, two, three, and four,” Wilfredo says, pointing to a patch of earth grown over with weeds.


“How do you know that’s a grave?”

“Because here is one, there’s another, and then another.”

“But how are you sure?”

“It’s that they’re set apart… here I put this marker, and here is one.”

“This stick is a marker?”

“It points in the direction where it is. Look, here’s a stick and there are three rows, here’s another stick and there’s another.”

The cemeteries that contain the bodies in the south of the state are in Villa Unión, municipal cemetery #3 and #4 in Mazatlán, and the Aeternus graveyard.

In Culiacán, the state capital, and where there are more than a million inhabitants, there is only one site, in the Colonia 21 de Marzo neighborhood.

In the El Évora agricultural region there are another four graveyards, in colonia Solidaridad, Jardín Altares, and Sedano cemetery in Salvador Alvarado municipality, as well as the Alhuey municipal graveyard in Angostura.

In the north, there are three sites: in Villa de Ahome, the Panteón Centenario de Los Mochis and the Panteón San Juan Bautista in El Fuerte.

There are more than a thousand bodies buried in these graves from the so-called ‘war on drugs,’ during which more than 13,000 people were killed in shootouts and massacres between criminal groups, paramilitaries, and government forces.

There were bodies that were left unrecognizable, abandoned in public parks or residential areas, streets and highways where the crimes were committed. Others were hidden in clandestine graves and have been recovered by the men and women who formed collectives to search for the missing across the state. According to federal government statistics, there are still 4,880 open cases.

Those who were not identified were left in the common graves or in warehouses of corpses, as happened in Mazatlán, where the attorney general’s office modified a building intended for use as a forensic lab into a crypt, because the cemeteries could hold no more bodies.

Those who are now in common graves as “N.N.” are men and women, perforated by bullets, tortured, with bruised skin and shattered bones. They are profaned corpses, in black bags, piled below the earth or in mausoleums without name. If they are lucky, they have a numerical epitaph, and if not, they become part of the landscape of death, forgotten, and at risk of being exhumed by funeral businesses that buy the cemetery space. Those who have been buried without identification are the missing pieces for families that perhaps are looking for them now. The are the irrefutable evidence of the forensic crisis in the state of Sinaloa. A crisis created by the attorney general’s office.

“If there’s not a registry, there will be an administrative disappearance, which would be the second disappearance of the body,” explains Hugo Soto Escutia, the forensic consultant for the International Red Cross in Mexico, as he describes the significance of the state’s practice with unidentified persons.

“Common graves traditionally lack registries, and the registries they do have are elderly people, the gravediggers who work for the municipalities, because the municipalities, they lose the registries.” 

What the forensic consultant means is that the sole registries are the memories of those who watch the burial grounds, or the administrators of the cemetery, who sometimes keep record books the characteristics of the bodies, or at least where they are buried.

For example, in municipal cemetery #3 in Mazatlán, there is one of these books, where it is noted that in May 2016, nine unidentified bodies arrived from Culiacán. Those bodies were buried in walkways or between tombs, and the locations can only be found by asking the gravediggers who work there.

The Attorney General’s office does not have the majority of these records, they were lost during the administrative transfer in 2017 when the body became independent.

“In the case of the bodies that are not registered, those are cases that are not recent,” remarked the head of the office’s investigative body, Ireida Paredes Leyva in 2017. 

“The recent cases are registered. What we are doing now is making the registry.”

On August 10, 2016, the forensic genetic laboratory run by the investigative service began operation. Since then, and according to state code, all bodies of unidentifiable murder victims should be processed to retrieve forensic information.

In four years, the lab processed 1,465 samples, according to information requested from the agency. And through DNA samples, fingerprints, dental records, surgical implants, scars, and tattoos, the laboratory succeeded in identifying 676 people. The rest are in common graves or warehouses waiting to be claimed by their families.

Nevertheless, before the laboratory was built, those tests were only done at the request of family members. In 10 years, 77 analyses were done with the support of the federal Attorney General’s office. Ten more were done in the forensic laboratories of Sonora and Guanajuato. All those cases were identified and claimed by their families.


“The prosecutors’ office, I tell you, they don’t want to bury,” says Rubén. It is October 2016, and he is pointing to six coffins within a chapel at the Altares cemetery in the south of Guamúchil. The smell is unbearable, a combination of decomposing flesh and rotten eggs. The coffins contain the bodies of six people, deposited there since 2014.

“Why not?”

“Honestly… we went once, and the boss told us… the owner said that we should bury them, but we couldn’t,” Rubén replies.


“Right, because we can’t bury them until it is authorized by the prosecutors’ office.”

On the outside of the coffins are white sheets, on which are written dates and names of towns. Rubén explains that two of them had died in an accident, and the other four had been shot. None had been claimed or identified. 

“What is the writing?”

“It’s so that they don’t lose control,” he says.

Rubén, whose name has been changed to avoid retaliation, works for the Emaús funeral company.

He is one of those who handles processing and registering the bodies of the dead who enter the cemetery.

When he granted the interview, he revealed a scene worthy of a horror film: a chapel, with the image of Christ, and six deteriorating coffins. It smelled of putrefaction. There were dead maggots on the floor, the traces of the decomposition of the six people who had been stored there for two years, because the state government would not authorize their burial.

In Sinaloa, funeral companies frequently bury bodies in common graves. The attorney general’s office has four morgues, but only utilizes one, which is located in Culiacan. 

In 2005, with the increase in violence in the state from criminal groups in the so-called ‘war on drugs’, the authorities were overwhelmed and requested assistance from funeral companies to conduct forensic work in their facilities until a proper infrastructure could be constructed.

The companies negotiated collectively and reached an agreement: as managers and owners have explained, in exchange for storing bodies until they could be identified, they would be allowed to work directly and without competition. They organized and coordinated with the authorities to work shifts, during which the undertakers would collect bodies from the scenes of the crimes and take them to their offices, where forensic investigators would examine them.

If the people are unidentified, they stay there, but after three days—according to sanitary code—the funeral home can request permission to bury them in common graves.

“The projection is that we will stop utilizing the spaces of funeral homes once the forensic offices in the north, center-north, and south are totally functional,” announced the attorney general’s office in an official document obtained through freedom of information request. Nevertheless, four years after those facilities were constructed, they have yet to be used for this purpose.


What is happening in Sinaloa is a display of the national forensic crisis.

During an international meeting on new forensic search tools in July 2019, Mercedes Doretti, the Mexico director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), explained that there is a continual crisis of violence and disappearance in the country, which can not be resolved solely with searches by families of the disappeared.

She underscored the necessity of an extraordinary forensic identification mechanism, a project that would attempt to process and identify all the bodies and remains that are currently held by the state in cemeteries, refrigerated warehouses, and other institutions.

“There should be 200 professionals who are finding, exhuming, and analyzing each body to be very sure that the information is gathered correctly, particularly the genetic material, because that holds the key to answers for many families,” she notes, after providing a list of statistics, which she described as an institutional paradox.

“The great problem in Mexico is that there is an attempt to win through numbers, when the really important thing is making sure that the mechanisms that already exist actually function properly.”

Although those numbers, provided by the National Search Commission, also provide a series of answers, such as revealing that there are 8,116 unidentified bodies in 263 forensic offices as of July 2019.

The numbers also tell of the other 37,443 bodies with unclear information about their death from 2006 to 2019, the majority of which were buried in common graves.

Doretti has explained that this extraordinary mechanism would require the construction of forensic cemeteries—that is to say, locations containing only unidentified bodies, who after being exhumed from municipal graveyards could be examined and processed to create new records.

“We are talking about huge challenges: the families of the disappeared who have gathered evidence and remains that are unidentified for whom it is urgent to determine why more identifications are not happening,” the director said.

Forensic cemeteries are different than traditional graveyards: they only contain remains or bodies of those who have not been identified by family members, and the preparation of the crypts or graves includes special material to best preserve the genetic material, which implies another challenge: creating a database of the families of the more than 72,000 disappeared in the country.

“The material is already there for most of the families in Mexico—because in the past 15 years I’ve only rarely encountered a family that had not provided blood for a genetic analysis—you have to assume that many of the unidentified bodies already have processed DNA samples.”

The proposal to construct the forensic cemeteries is being coordinated by the Subsecretariat for Human Rights, a part of the Interior Ministry, which announced in 2019 the construction planning for 15 cemeteries.

The states chose for the initial process were Veracruz, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Guerrero, Michoacán, Baja California, Colima, Nayarit y Tamaulipas.

In none of those are there currently forensic cemeteries, but there are common graves.

The construction of forensic cemeteries would serve to facilitate the localization of disappeared persons, but it would also depend on the economic projects of the attorneys general and the mechanism.

For example, the state Attorney General in Sinaloa indicated, in documents obtained through freedom of information requests, that exhumations would need to occur at 12 municipal and private cemeteries in order to conduct forensic analyses on the hundreds of bodies buried there.

“The exhumation of bodies from common graves will begin once projects that are currently underway are completed and once there is a forensic cemetery, which will require new investigations to attempt to identify unidentified bodies,” the document notes.

If those exhumations occur, they will acknowledge what families of the disappeared have known: that the barbarity came not only from the violence of criminal groups but from state institutions. 

If that happens, all those who have kept the registries of common graves in their memories could rest. They can die without having their conscience haunted by the knowledge that they alone knew where unidentified bodies were buried. They will have completed the task handed to them by officials who should have been returning bodies to families.

This work was made by Espejo Magazine, Juan Panadero, the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies of the University of California at San Diego y Mente Interactiva.

Cecilia Fafán, Michael Lettieri, César Hernández, Marcos Vizcarra, Alexis Rubio, Josué David Piña, Jimena Rivera, Mariel Yee, Nidia Azucely, Dante Aguilera Benitez, Hëb Martinez and Vivi Santana participated in this first edition of Hasta Encontrarles.