Mexican volunteers search for clandestine crematorium on outskirts of Mexico City

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Trailed by search dogs and police, María de Jesús Soria Aguayo and more than a dozen volunteers on Wednesday walked carefully through fields of weeds and dry earth with their eyes fixed on the ground.

On the fringes of Mexico City, the group began to search for human remains and other evidence after volunteer searchers said the site may be the location of a clandestine crematorium.

The body search comes after Ceci Flores, a leader of a group searching for the bodies of Mexico’s missing, announced on social media late Tuesday that her team had found bones, clandestine burial pits and ID cards around a charred pit the southern outskirts of the city.

More than 110,000 people have been declared missing amid ongoing cartel violence, according to Mexican authorities. In the face of deep impunity, “madres buscadoras”, or “searching mothers,” like Soria Aguayo have formed their own independent groups to look for the remains of their missing loved ones in violence-torn swathes of Mexico.

“I started my own search alone, tracking with my own hands and searching alone in the countryside,” said 54-year-old Soria Aguayo, whose son’s remains were recovered in Veracruz in 2022. “My promise to these women is to continue searching until we can’t anymore … because there’s still many (bodies) we haven’t found.”

Flores’ announcement marked the first time in recent memory that anyone claimed to have found such a body disposal site in the Mexican capital. Soaring violence seen in large swathes of the country in recent years has yet to reach the capital – at least in its most visceral form.

Ulises Lara, Mexico City’s chief prosecutor, said Tuesday morning that police went to the addresses listed on the ID cards recovered and “found that both of the people to whom those cards belonged are alive and in good health.”

Lara said one of them, a woman, said her card and cellphone and had been stolen about a year ago, when thieves snatched her phone and ID card from her hands while she was stuck in traffic.

While that ruled out the possibility the woman’s body could had been dumped there, it did suggest that criminals had used the site to dispose of evidence.

Lara said experts were investigating to determine the nature of the remains found, and whether they were human. The prosecutors office said it was also reviewing security camera footage and looking for possible witnesses.

After hours of searching through fields on the rural outskirts of the Mexican capital, volunteers came up with little other than frustration.

While some in the group cast doubt that they would find any bodies, Flores said they planned to press on in their search, adding they had already spent two days searching the area before finding what they believed to be human remains.

“If they don’t search, they’re never going to find anything,” Flores said, adding she was happy to hear that prosecutors located the people whose belongings were found in the area.

The discovery a clandestine crematorium, if confirmed, would be a political embarrassment for the ruling party, which has long governed Mexico City and claims the capital has been spared much of the drug cartel violence that afflicts other parts of the country.

That is largely due to the city’s dense population, notoriously snarled traffic, extensive security camera network and large police force, which presumably make it hard for criminals to act in the same way they do in provincial areas.

But while the city is home to 9 million residents and the greater metropolitan area holds around 20 million, large parts of the south side are still a mix of farms, woods and mountains. In those areas, it is not unheard of for criminals to dump the bodies of kidnapping victim.

Volunteer searchers like Flores often conduct their own investigations, sometimes relying on tips from former criminals, because the government has been unable to help. The searchers have been angered by a government campaign to “find” missing people by checking their last known address, to see if they have returned home without advising authorities.

Activists claim it is just an attempt to reduce the politically embarrassing figures on the missing.

The searchers, mostly the mothers of the disappeared, usually aren’t trying to convict anyone for their relatives’ abductions. They say they just want to find their remains.

The Mexican government has spent little on looking for the missing. Volunteers must stand in for nonexistent official search teams in the hunt for clandestine graves where cartels hide their victims. The government hasn’t adequately funded or implemented a genetic database to help identify the remains found.

If the volunteers find something, the most authorities will do is send a police and forensics team to retrieve the remains, which in most cases are never identified.

At least seven of the activists searching for some of Mexico’s missing have been killed since 2021.

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