Half a ton, 500 kilograms, over a thousand pounds of human remains in the form of ash and bone fragments have been found in La Bartolina, near Matamoros, Mexico. That’s what has been found to date in an effort to uncover what happened in this notorious place, just 12 kilometers from Brownsville, TX.
This “clandestine cremation site” or a “place of extermination,” once reportedly used by the Gulf Cartel, was identified in 2016, but not much about it has been reported officially until now. Karla Quintana head of Mexico’s National Search Commission in her semi-annual report revealed that this site has been being processed for the past five years, the last two by her office.
1,000 pounds. Let the weight of that sink in. How many people could that possibly have been? No one knows. What went on in La Bartolina was an extended atrocity. Some say that the cartel used the area from 2009-2016. How could something so horrible go on for that long and on this scale?
There are two things that might answer this question: the normalization of disappearance; and a fear-based abandonment of the region.
While families of the disappeared are working in remarkable ways to find their loved ones, often doing complex investigations themselves, disappearance in Mexico has also become normalized. Kidnappings happen a lot and we have gotten much too used to hearing about them.
The Mexican government’s registry of the disappeared contains about 88,000 names and covers the period of 2006 to the present. 21,000 of those on the list have disappeared during the AMLO administration. Kidnappings, disappearances and the findings of remains are all linked. While the Bartolina findings are historic in nature (they happened in the past), this year alone 71 people have disappeared on the road between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey.
The AMLO administration should be given credit for acknowledging the problem and assigning serious people to run the National Search Commission. But we have all gotten too accustomed to talking about disappeared people. This is not normal or at least it shouldn’t be.
Then there is the rational fear-based avoidance of places like Tamaulipas. This state feels like the land everyone gave up on. Criminal organizations decide the parameters of what gets reported by the media and can shut down cities at will with outbursts of violence. No one wants responsibility for what happens there, so national authorities keep their distance. Searching the US State Department’s travel advisory page for Tamaulipas shows this message, “Do Not Travel due to crime and kidnapping.”
At both the national and international level organizations seem to have decided that Tamaulipas is too dangerous to even try doing anything about – best to just steer clear. When I ask humanitarian organizations why they don’t work in Tamaulipas, the answer is almost always because their security protocols – designed to keep their own workers safe – don’t allow it.
So that leaves us what we have now, an area where locals and migrants passing through, are in serious danger and few from the outside are even willing to witness their plight.
I am not cavalier about the risk. It is real. But we know what you get when no one from the outside is watching. You get 1,000 pounds of ash and bone.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson