Missing In Mexico: Drug War Victims Unearthed In Mass Graves

In recent weeks, Mexican authorities have extracted body after body from a series of clandestine graves in the northern state of Tamaulipas. Now comes the challenge of matching the remains to the country’s growing number of drug war disappearances.

Missing In Mexico: Drug War Victims Unearthed In Mass Graves


It has been almost a year since Moisés Cruz Camacho went missing. The 20-year-old tech school student from Monterrey just up and vanished last April. "His phone didn't work anymore; he just disappeared," his sister Rebecca told the San Antonio Express-News as she stood outside the Tamaulipas Attorney General's Office Forensic Medical Service Center in Matamoros, Mexico.

The 19-year-old woman is one of dozens of relatives who have traveled to the northern Mexican city to provide investigators with DNA samples. The family members can only hope the sample don't match any of the decomposing bodies that authorities have been digging up in recent weeks in mass pits found near San Fernando, in northern Mexico's Tamaulipas state.

As of last Friday, 145 bodies have been recovered in Tamaulipas since work on the clandestine graves began late in March, according to government officials. In Durango state, the attorney general's office said it located a mass grave with the remains of 17 victims, including three heads and four skulls.

The Mexican government has begun offering cash rewards to anyone with information about locations of other burial sites. And on Friday, President Felipe Calderón said he will reinforce security on highways and roads in four border state of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila and San Luis Potosí. Witnesses tell Mexican investigators that gunmen have been stopping buses, and forcing passengers off.

That is exactly what happened to 20-year-old Gerardo Martínez, 20, who left his native Irapuato in Guanajuato state on March 27 with his brother-in-law and nephew on a bus trip to Matamoros. From there, they intended to cross the border and continue to Missouri where they had job offers, say family members. The three were reported missing after their cell phones went dead. The driver told police that armed gunmen stopped the bus and ordered the men out. The young man hasn't been seen since.

"We can only wait," Gerardo's 21-year-old wife Isabel told the Mexican daily El Universal. "I try to stay calm but there are days I can't stand it and I start to cry."

So far, 45 people have been arrested in connection with what appears to be a rash of mass executions, including 16 police officers from San Fernando who are suspected of helping drug traffickers. The latest major arrest was announced Sunday by the Mexican navy, which seized a Zeta cartel leader named Martín Omar Estrada Luna, aka "El Kilo," in San Fernando. Estrada is thought to be responsible for the murder and kidnapping of more than 200 people, including migrants and bus passengers.

The notorious Zetas drug gang and the Gulf Cartel has put Tamaulipas under siege as they wage a bloody war for control of lucrative drug routes to the United States. More than 30,000 people have died in drug related violence since President Felipe Calderón declared a war on the cartels shortly after he took office in 2006.

In a report released March 31, a UN fact-finding team suggested that at least 3,000 people have disappeared throughout Mexico since Calderón took office. Mexican government officials originally questioned the numbers contained in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Just days later, however, authorities unearthed the first group of bodies in San Fernando.

Tamaulipas government officials have so far refused to impose a state of emergency, saying that curtailing the rights of ordinary citizens won't solve the abductions.

San Fernando was the site of a massacre last August involving 72 men, many of them Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants trying to reach the United States. The victims reportedly refused to cooperate with traffickers, who demanded they smuggle narcotics across the border.

Martin Delfín

Photo - Sarihuella

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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