A letter from a mass grave in Mexico | Human rights

The Tapachula Municipal Cemetery in the Mexican state of Chiapas is a vast expanse filled with colorful decaying graves. Headstones from past centuries are cracking and crumbling, and the mess is so great that you have to put up with stepping on the dead to get to certain parts of the cemetery.

Some of the more recent graves still contain remnants of November’s Day of the Dead celebrations – death is much more lively in Mexico than in most other places on the planet. The country is awash in the cempasúchil flower – or Mexican marigold – and mariachis descend on cemeteries for all-night festivities with music, food and drink.

Lying near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, Tapachula has become known as a “prison city” for refugees from Central America, Haiti, Africa and beyond who have been trapped there by the Mexican government – which the United States is constantly pushing to stem the “flow of migrants” northward. And inevitably, some of these refugees disappear into uncertainty.

When I arrived to visit the Tapachula cemetery on January 18, three young men lying on dilapidated benches near the entrance were confused by my request to be directed to the “migrant section.” After a bit of clumsy explanation on my part, something clicked, “You mean a mass grave.”

This was in the farthest corner of the cemetery, people told me, and if I just walked straight as long as I could and then went downhill a little to the right, I would see him there by the wall.

I passed through a kaleidoscope of colors, apologizing all the while to the souls I trampled on and noticing the occasional grave with a Chinese name—a testament to an earlier era of migration. I made my way down the slope as instructed to reach the corner of the cemetery, where I found dirt, grass, a few scattered wooden crosses and miscellaneous rubbish – a distant and desolate cry from the relatively lively landscape above.

The mass graves are, of course, often associated with war – or some kind of “dirty war” waged by Argentina’s right-wing US-backed dictatorship that killed or disappeared some 30,000 suspected leftists in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But here in Mexico, we are also witnessing a US-backed war – and a rather “dirty” war at that. In this war, the unmarked bones in the corner of the city cemetery in Tapachula are only a small part of the victims.

In 2021, I met other victims of America’s war on asylum seekers when I was imprisoned for 24 hours in Tapachula in Siglo XXI, which means “21st. century” and is Mexico’s largest detention center for immigrants. In this prison-city-within-a-prison, I spoke to a number of women who, after fleeing US-induced political and economic calamity in their homelands, reached the final leg of their journey north only to find themselves categorically criminalized .

On top of the mental and physical torment these women have already endured as vulnerable people on the move, some now face possible deportation back to places where their lives were threatened. Many have crossed the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama – another 21st century battleground and mass migrant graveyard, where scores of asylum seekers go in one side and never come out.

The search for a better life can indeed be a deadly business.

There is something about the Tapachula Municipal Cemetery that encapsulates the profound inhumanity of a system that denies refugees dignity even in death, forcing them to die undocumented and unidentified, with no sign that they ever existed. The mass grave also represents an indescribable emotional trauma for the family members of those buried in it, who have no way of knowing that their loved ones ended up in a far corner of a Mexican cemetery.

I returned to Tapachula a year and a half after the Siglo XXI ordeal to see how the 21st century prison city was holding up, and a visit to the cemetery was at the top of my to-do list. Still, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually seen a mass grave – that’s the nature of mass graves, I suppose. Ascending the slope once more, I stepped over more souls until I found two workers restoring a blue-painted tomb.

I explained that I just wanted to confirm the exact location of the grave. He was right there in the corner, the older man said – and he was sure of it because he helped put in the first group of 17 unidentified bodies that arrived in bags. That had been several years ago, he said, but more anonymous bodies had subsequently been added, and now he had no idea how many deceased persons made up the underground congregation.

He himself worked at the cemetery for 35 years and during that time he never felt fear, because “we should fear the living, not the dead”. Truth be told, there is much to fear in a world where the US is allowed to violate international borders at will while fueling an absurdly lucrative “border security” industry that effectively sentences poor people to death.

And as confirmed by more than 17 nameless victims of the nameless war at the municipal cemetery in Tapachula, the entire arrangement fails both the living and the dead.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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