Guerrero’s Mass Graves: Mexico’s Tragedies and International Implications

The Guerrero region of Mexico is home to a diverse community of farmers and metalworkers. Guerrero is home to both over 1,700 prehistoric archeological sites, and in the last month it has been identified as the site of at least twelve mass graves. The graves were uncovered by authorities in search of the 43 students who disappeared from the city of Iguala on 26 September 2014. Prior to their disappearance, the students of Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa planned to protest what they considered discriminatory funding and hiring practices by the local government in favour of their urban counterparts. They were intercepted by the police force, allegedly ordered by the mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, en route to a conference celebrating Villa’s public service. The confrontation left 6 students dead, 25 wounded, and 43 gone without a trace.

Image courtesy of rainy city, © 2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of rainy city, © 2014, some rights reserved.

The action, or lack thereof, taken by the Mexican government in the weeks that followed highlights the realities of a system riddled with corruption. Widespread public outcry swiftly called for the mayor’s arrest; however the warrant was not issued until October 22nd, almost a month later. Prior to the international media coverage, few resources were deployed in search of the students and criminal prosecution was limited.[1] Media campaigns applied pressure on the international community to intervene; at which point conditions in Guerrero were condemned by the UN, human rights groups, and several nations. Conspicuously absent from the party was Mexico’s neighbour to the north, the United States. John Ackerman, Editor in Chief of the Mexican Law Review, believes the US withheld commentary on the state of human rights abuses in Mexico to avoid antagonising pro-American President Enrique Peña Nieto.[2] The desire to stay uninvolved does not counteract the reality that it is the United States that bears a considerable responsibility for Mexico’s current state of instability and, as a result, possesses a unique capacity to spark positive change.

The uncovering of Guerrero’s mass graves is a stark reminder that tragedies like these are nothing new. Iguala’s story gained international traction amidst what is apparently rampant violence in the region. Only three months prior, in the town of Tlatlaya, 22 young people were shot and killed outside of a warehouse. Mexican authorities initially reported the casualties as gang related, however, this was later proven inaccurate and the Mexican army was identified as responsible for the deaths.[3] With stories like these often left unreported, Iguala provides the international community with an opportunity to support a country fighting a war on multiple fronts.

Prior to the onslaught of international media attention, the mayor and his wife faced no criminal repercussions, and the resources deployed in the search for the missing students were limited. The mayor was eventually issued a warrant and arrested November 4th, however despite the advertised mobilisation of federal police and investigators across Guerrero, the 43 students remain missing.

As a major trade partner with strong economic ties, the United States plays a key role within the international community in Mexican domestic and foreign affairs. Each year, the US funnels millions of dollars in military aid to Mexico, often supplying weapons to the very government officials working alongside the cartels; a cache further compounded by the illegal flow of US arms south of the border. [4]

With military grade weapons banned under Mexican law, the illegal assault weapons trade from the United States thrives with gun shops at the border bringing in huge profits each year. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office reported an estimated 87 per cent of the arms intercepted in Mexico were traced back to the United States.[5] In return, the United States provides the drug trafficking industry with their largest market, valued at anywhere from $18 to 39 billion annually by the US Justice Department.[6]

By 2011, at least 2,000 of the illegal arms circulating in Mexico were intentionally planted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). In an operation dubbed ‘Fast and Furious’, assault weapons were sold to known ‘straw purchasers’ (middlemen who purchase guns in their name on behalf of another), and then traced the weapons as they changed hands, hoping to discover and dismantle some of the most powerful trafficking rings. Ultimately ‘Fast and Furious’ resulted in 20 charges made against traffickers, none of them the initially targeted cartel leaders. The ATF lost track of over 2,000 weapons in the process, one of them found at the site of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s murder, another used to kill Luis Lucio Rosales Astorga, a police chief in the state of Jalisco, and at an estimated 170 additional crime scenes in Mexico.[7]

The intentional introduction of weapons to dangerous criminals was widely regarded as a botched, unethical operation, infringing on Mexico’s sovereignty and arguably violating international law. Former Attorney General Eric Holder initially claimed no prior knowledge of the operation until May of 2011, however subsequent investigations revealed Holder was sending briefings on the operation up to a year prior. There was no legal action taken against those involved in the ‘Fast and Furious’ operation.[8]

Discussions of criminal persecution in the aftermath of ‘Fast and Furious’ were limited by the American media’s fleeting attention span. In a phenomenon not limited to the United States, those deaths caused by domestic policy in a foreign country, among foreign citizenry, rarely survive beyond two or three news cycles.

Rather than a foreign power with an advanced economy, the American media portrays Mexico as a source of illegal immigrants riddled with violence and corruption. This perception can lead to a passive acceptance that violence in Mexico is an inherent reality of an unstable state, an acceptance that has allowed 12 mass graves in Guerrero to go unreported until now.

The violence and corruption endemic in Guerrero’s drug trade is not confined to Mexico’s borders. The pressure applied by the international community in search of the missing students of Iguala illustrates the role the international community has to play in the reform of the Mexican government. As a member of that community and a deeply intertwined ally, the United States has a particular role to play in righting the wrongs of the past and incorporating policies that stem the flow of weapons and money into the hands of those who abuse it.


[2] Ibid.




[5] Shifter, M., 2012, ‘Countering Criminal Violence in Central America’, Council on Foreign Relations, Council Special Report No. 64.






One Reply to “Guerrero’s Mass Graves: Mexico’s Tragedies and International Implications”

Leave a Reply