Shortly after midday on Friday, the mayor of the Jalisco town of La Barca appeared before the cameras of Televisa – Mexico’s largest television network – to invite the entire country to come to his town for the annual patron saint street festival.
Sitting alongside Mayor Eduardo Espinoza in the main square were the local historian, the owner of a popular local restaurant, the parish priest, the head of the organizing committee and representatives of different local civic organizations.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of things happening in the municipality, but in La Barca there is peace and everything is running as normal so we can kick off our fiesta Sunday,” said Espinoza of the National Action Party (PAN) in his office after the broadcast.
The celebrations, which were getting underway with colorful street stands and children running through the park, were interrupted only momentarily when a truck carrying armed federal police officers whizzed by.
Less than two kilometers away, officials from the Mexican Attorney General’s Office and the army were working to exhume bodies found in 25 common graves located near a river bank on the outskirts of La Barca. At least 67 have been recovered; some of the bodies were hogtied and showed signs of torture.
No one has come forward to claim the bodies of the victims.
In La Barca there is peace and everything is running as normal so we can kick off our fiesta Sunday”
The discovery was made on November 9 when investigators had been searching the Lerma river for the bodies of two judicial officers who had been turned over to the local drug cartel, Jalisco Nueva Generación (New Generation), which has been operating in the area since 2007. Twenty municipal police officers from Vista Hermosa, in nearby Michoacán state and who were arrested in connection with the disappearance of the two government officials, told investigators about their fate.
At the time of Espinoza’s interview, the exhumations had not been announced to the press. Town officials claim that those victims must have come from Michoacán state, which stands across the river from La Barca.
“There have been some surprising incidents that have taken place outside of La Barca, but in La Barca we do not have any serious crime. Sure there is petty crime like anywhere else, but there isn’t a high incidence rate,” the mayor said.
When asked if the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel was present in La Barca, Espinoza only repeated that his town doesn’t have a high crime rate.
Was he surprised by the discovery of the graves?
“Of course, it is something that is not only shocking but is also surprising what they are discovering there. This is something we are not going to deny that it is happening, but it is a problem that is far from our normal way of life,” he said, adding that the images were also giving the false impression that La Barca was a dangerous place.
Espinoza said that the area where the bodies are being exhumed is not easy to reach from La Barca but much easier from Michoacán state.
Espinoza and other officials, including the parish priest, José Luis Pérez, who arrived four years ago, also put blame on criminal elements from parts from the neighboring state. “I came to a town that is affectionate, friendly and which comes together in need. Maybe you are going to ask me about the 58 [the number of bodies that had been found at the time of the interview] found in common graves? Those bodies are not from here. They buried them in La Barca, but none of them were from here. Remember, we are on the border with the state that is under siege, Michoacán,” the priest said.
But the version of the story changes when people on the street are interviewed. A woman walking about two blocks from the main square admits to frequently "hearing gunshots."
“We are aware that people disappear and the violence has increased, but it is between them,” she said without going in specifics.
An agent from the public prosecutor’s office warns journalists to leave the area where the exhumations are taking place. “Be careful, you must leave. It is very dangerous here.”
Drug trafficking is not a new plague in Jalisco. In the 1980s, the Guadalajara cartel was active in the area. Now the Jalisco Nueva Generación operates in the state.
“There are two reasons for Jalisco’s strategic importance for drug traffickers,” said Alejandro Hope, an investigator. “First, it is isolated geographically and it has complicated orography in some areas. The second reason is the Puerto Manzanillo, which serves as an entry point for chemicals to make synthetic drugs.”
Hope recalls that in 2007 authorities confiscated the largest haul of cocaine in Mexican history in Jalisco. But in his opinion, La Barca is being used as a dumping ground for corpses. “Because no one bothers them, they pick up people in other areas and come here just to dump bodies.”