STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now we report on a daily routine in Mexico. Each day, for the past two months, a group of mothers travels to an isolated hillside. The mothers put on gloves and masks and start digging. They're searching for loved ones who went missing in Mexico's drug wars. And they've uncovered nearly 100 graves in the port city of Veracruz. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's a little after 7 in the morning. A hot breeze is blowing as the already baking sun rises in the sky. The diggers load up on supplies stored at this modest house in a quiet neighborhood on the northern edge of Veracruz.
ROSALIA CASTRO COSS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "This is my son's house," says Rosalia Castro Coss. "We keep our tools water and food here," she says. The last time she heard from her son, a local sporting goods shop owner, he was with his girlfriend headed to Castro's house for Christmas Eve. That was nearly five years ago.
CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: They never arrived. She says, since then, authorities have done little to find him. It wasn't until this last Friday that investigators finally retrieved her son's cell phone call records. It's this type of inertia or incompetence, Castro says, that sparked the mothers into action.
CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "If we mothers don't have any peace," says Castro, "then until we find our children, neither will the government." There are now more than 50 mothers in the Veracruz group. With their supplies loaded into a van, the diggers set off to the side of the clandestine graves. It's not far, about 10 minutes up the main highway, then to a plot of land down a dirt road.
Government officials put the number of Mexico's missing at around 28,000. Some were crime gang members, others just caught up in the violence and associated corruption. However, two years ago, the case of 43 students kidnapped and presumably murdered in Guerrero awoke the nation to the plight of the missing and sparked a movement by relatives searching for clandestine graves.
Groups have formed in several Mexican states. In Veracruz, the mothers have unearthed nearly 100 graves. Authorities removed 42 bodies so far. And by the time they get through all the graves, it's estimated that as many as 400 bodies may be found, the largest discovery of its kind in Mexico.
Police officers guard the site. No reporters are allowed in. Later in the day, in downtown Veracruz, one of the mothers, Lucia de los Angeles Diaz tells me about the digging. She says it's gruesome. They've found bodies in all stages of decomposition. Some clothed, many stuffed in bags and blindfolded. She says it's hard to keep going back.
LUCIA DE LOS ANGELES DIAZ: When you want to just, you know, quit - the degradation of the human being like this is just too much to bear.
KAHN: Diaz's son, a well-known deejay in the city, was kidnapped from his home three years ago. She says immediately after his disappearance, she thought about suicide. But she's found strength from the other mothers, none of whom are willing to back down.
For example, every month, they demand a meeting with the state's lead prosecutor. On this day, 40 of the women show up 30 minutes early for that appointment. The prosecutor, Luis Angel Bravo, arrives 40 minutes late.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LUIS ANGEL BRAVO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He tells reporters, his responsibility is to investigate what already happened not to speculate why so many victims are buried in one place in Veracruz. Lucia Diaz says it will be months, maybe years before all the remains are identified. Who knows if her son's body is even in there, she says. But she wants to make sure those dumped in the graves are not forgotten.
DIAZ: And now that they are found, they finally get some glimpse of humanity and respect. That's what we really aim at.
KAHN: And she says hopefully some dignity for their loved ones, too. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Veracruz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.