STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now we will report on the other mass graves in Mexico. This story revolves around a dismaying detail of the search for 43 missing students. While looking for their graves near the town of Iguala in Guerrero State, Mexican authorities repeatedly found the graves of dozens of other people, which is why this story is called "Mexico's Mass-Grave Heartland." Many people in that region want to know if the accidentally discovered bodies may be their relatives. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On the patio of a church in Iguala, dozens of people gather in the early morning. They're wearing tennis shoes and jeans, and they're ready to head into the hills in search for graves and hopefully the bodies of their loved ones. Guillermina Sotelo Castaneda's wearing a black T-shirt. It reads - son, as long as I haven't buried you, I'll keep searching. Sotelo's son disappeared without a trace two years ago.
GUILLERMINA SOTELO CASTANEDA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: I heard on the news that citizens were out searching the hills for bodies and I came, she says. Sotelo heard that news in Candor, North Carolina, where she and her husband live. She took the first flight she could to join the search.
SOTELO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Who will look for my son if not me, she says. Sotelo says no one trusts the authorities. She says she reported her son's disappearance more than two years ago, and nothing was ever done. Mario Vergara Hernandez, whose brother was kidnapped in a town near Iguala, came to the church a month ago and started volunteering. He says the search parties have uncovered dozens of clandestine graves. Officially, authorities say they found only 11 graves with 38 bodies. They declined to say whether any have been identified. Vergara says for more than two years he didn't look for his brother. He was too scared. But since the case of the 43 missing students came to light and the public protests grew larger, he got braver.
MARIO VERGARA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: I think all our fear turned into anger, he says. In the past month, he says the volunteers at the church have registered more than 300 cases of kidnapped or disappeared people in and around Iguala. Maura Varella Victor says she too decided to finally come forward. She says last July, masked armed men came into her town of Cocula, Guerrero, and broke into her house. Her husband and two oldest children were able to run out, but she and her youngest son couldn't.
MAURA VARELLA VICTOR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: The men told us to get on the floor and put our hands out she says.
VICTOR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: I begged them please don't take him. He's just a kid, she says. He's only 15. According to his U.S. birth certificate, her son was born in San Bernardino, California, when the family lived there working in the orange orchards. Varella's husband Gabriel silently stands next to his wife. Tears slowly stream down his cheeks as she continues. She says the men picked her son up and took him away. She could hear them arguing outside the door whether to leave him or shoot him there. She says she heard a shot fired, but there was no blood on the sidewalk. A neighbor told her she saw her son in the back of the men's fleeing truck.
VICTOR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: I asked President Obama to help us here, she says. My son is an American citizen, and she says the U.S. has strong laws not like in Mexico. We need help. NPR could not verify any of these stories. Officials in Mexico's attorney general's office did not reply to repeated emails and phone inquiries. Volunteer Mario Vergara Hernandez says the family members will keep pressuring authorities to look for their loved ones and will keep searching for bodies - even if all they find are bones.
HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Those bones belong to a family, he says. If we bring them to that family, then they can finally stop crying and hopefully find some peace. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Iguala, Guerrero.
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