A history of violence

A decade of unmarked grave discoveries in Mexico

Beneath Mexico lies the grim toll of the country's brutal drug war.

In recent years Mexican authorities have uncovered 201 so-called fosas clandestinas or “clandestine graves,” containing 662 decaying bodies and piled bones of mostly unidentified victims of what appears to be violence related to the drug war and human-trafficking networks.

The following map, based on a data set provided by the Mexican government under a freedom of information request, attempts to visualize the spread of drug war violence by locating unmarked graves where human remains have been found in recent years. The data, although official, is most likely incomplete. Some media reports and watchdog organizations suggest there are far more unmarked grave sites and corpses than the government is admitting to.

Given the unreliability of drug war statistics, this map is not intended to be definitive. But with Pope Francis expected to address narco violence during his visit to Mexico next week, this map offers a snapshot of the legacy of death that the drug war is leaving across the country.

Full methodology explained below.

Unmarked graves and bodies found from August 2006 to June 2015

In 2006 then-President Felipe Calderón declared war against the country’s drug cartels.

Student Massacre

Guerrero: 244 bodies in 104 unmarked graves

Guerrero, a hotbed for poppy cultivation, is one of the Mexican states most troubled by the drug war. Cartels and splinter groups regularly fight each other to control the heroin trade to the U.S. But Guerrero made headlines in September 2014, when 43 student protesters from a rural college known as Ayotzinapa were kidnapped by a criminal gang that was working in cahoots with local police. A government investigation said the bodies were burned and disposed of in a nearby garbage dump and river. But that version was contested by independent organizations, prompting President Enrique Peña Nieto to launch further investigations. Forensic teams continue to investigate but haven't made any significant progress.

So far, the government says the remains of only two of the 43 students have been identified through molecular testing. But in searching for the missing students, more than 60 unmarked graves totaling 132 bodies were found, none of which belonged to the students they were looking for.

Authorities continue to uncover grave sites in Guerrero. In the weeks prior to New Year's Eve, authorities in the town of Chichihualco uncovered a grave containing 19 charred and dismembered corpses.

Acapulco, the state's famous resort town, is experiencing a wave of violence that's taking a toll on local businesses and tourism.

Under Narco Control

Tamaulipas: 125 bodies in 15 unmarked graves

Tamaulipas was first thrust into the international spotlight in 2010 when Mexican authorities uncovered a warehouse in the municipality of San Fernando with the corpses of 72 Central American migrants. The government blamed the massacre on The Zetas cartel, who a year later were linked to another 193 bodies uncovered in several unmarked graves.

The border state sits on a key drug route to the United States, which makes it disputed territory for the Gulf Cartel and The Zetas. In the border city of Reynosa, street shootouts and narco-roadblocks with buses or burning vehicles have created a climate of fear. Tamaulipas is also a route for the flow of U.S. firearms that contribute to deaths south of the border.

And the state never fails to make sensationalist drug war headlines. In May 2015, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel brought down a military helicopter with an RPG rocket. A month later, the U.S. Department of Justice disclosed it had indicted a former state governor on charges of money laundering.

Organized crime in the northern state appears to be reaching unprecedented levels of sophistication and innovation. Local authorities recently uncovered a network of 39 narco cameras that were placed in plain view on the streets to monitor the movements of police and military.

The Missing Women

Estado de México: 17 bodies in 4 unmarked graves

Estado de México, on the border of Mexico City, has a serious femicide problem.

In the home state of President Enrique Peña Nieto, women account for more than two-thirds of all young people who go missing, according to some reports.

Authorities have yet to identify clear motives. But analysts believe rampant impunity enables many women to be killed, kidnapped or lured into the sex trade.

In July 2015, the government recognized the disproportionate number of women killed in Estado de México by issuing a so-called “gender alert,” prompting several municipalities to take more measures to protect women.

There's a New Cartel in Town

Jalisco: 75 bodies in 37 unmarked graves

Jalisco is home to one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most powerful cartels: Jalisco New Generation. The group got its start in 2011 known as Los Matazetas, or the “Zeta Killers,” working as muscle for the Sinaloa Cartel. Following the death of a top Sinaloa lieutenant, the group splintered and became its own mini-cartel, which rapidly expanded from Guadalajara to fight for turf in surrounding states. The cartel's rapid expansion was aided by internal disputes in other cartels and the second capture of Sinaloa boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

In recent months, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has participated in bloody skirmishes with government forces. In May 2015, Mexico’s National Security Commission informed Mexican federal police had engaged in a shootout in the bordering state of Michoacán, where 42 alleged Jalisco New Generation gunmen were killed— an unusually lopsided outcome that led some to question the government’s version of events.

The rise of Jalisco New Generation and its turf wars with the Knights Templar and The Zetas has littered Jalisco with unmarked graves.

At the border

Chihuahua: 54 bodies in 3 unmarked graves

Chihuahua, home to the border city of Ciudad Juárez, is known for hundreds of unsolved femicides, though some claim the city is experiencing a rebirth and security has improved.

Violence in Juárez was making headlines before the drug war.

By 2005, a year before the government officially declared war on the cartels, organizations like Amnesty International estimated some 370 young women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua had perished, and at least one-third of the victims had suffered some type of sexual violence.

In 2008, then-President Felipe Calderón deployed the army in the streets of Juárez to counter a rising homicide rate provoked by a surge in narco violence. But despite the show of force, little was done to resolve the femicide crisis, which has continued unabated since the early 1990s.

Authorities have determined that many female victims share similar characteristics: young and impoverished, many working at the maquiladoras or factories, with dark hair and skin, and often tortured or raped before being killed. But investigators have not been able to identify clear motives or solve many of the crimes.

The vigilantes

Michoacán: 26 bodies in at least 4 unmarked graves

Michoacán is a state that gave birth to the ruthless Knights Templar Cartel, an organization mostly known for mixing cult-like religion with narco trafficking. It's also the place where many residents took justice into their own hands by organizing armed autodefensas, or vigilante groups.

The vigilantes and narcos started their own turf war for everything ranging from control over the state’s avocado trade to influence on social media. The vigilante groups soon became the same type of monster they were created to fight. Some started to engage in drug trafficking activities, while others started an indiscriminate witch hunt against anyone accused of being a narco. It created a gruesome cycle of violence and revenge that has blurred lines between good and evil.

In 2014 the government attempted to restore order in Michoacán by arresting some prominent vigilante leaders, while allowing others to continue operating as a new police force. Today, the state is disputed between Jalisco New Generation, the Michoacán Family Cartel, the Knights Templar and what remains of the vigilante groups.

Silencing the press

Veracruz: 28 bodies in 2 unmarked graves

Veracruz has had a string of corrupt governors who have been accused repeatedly of having links to organized crime. For journalists, reporting on the drug war without getting killed has become a daunting task.

Independent organizations claim that some 14 journalists have been executed here since 2011. One of the most notorious killings is that of photojournalist Rubén Espinoza, who fled to Mexico City after facing several threats against his life. Last August, Espinoza and four women were found murdered in a Mexico City apartment.

For many years now, Veracruz has been in the spotlight for its bloody turf war between the Zetas, Jalisco New Generation and the Gulf cartels.

But what is happening with Veracruz journalists appears to be part of a larger national trend. Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists claim that in Mexico fewer than 10% of crimes involving slain journalists are solved.

Forced disappearances and drug war deaths

The Attorney General's latest accountability report shows that almost half of all registered disappearances between September 2014 and June 2015 took place in the states of Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Guerrero and Coahuila.

The data also ranks Chiapas, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Nuevo León, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas and Veracruz as the states with the highest rate of reports alleging forced disappearances at the hands of federal, state and municipal police as well as the army.

These statistics seem conservative when compared to independent reports that estimate disappearances in the thousands. For example, the accountability report notes that from September 2014 to June 2015 authorities located 48 missing people, finding 36 alive.

When President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012, some independent estimates already put the drug war death toll well above 60,000. According to government stats, more than 50,000 people were murdered during Peña Nieto’s first three years in office. It's unclear how many of those deaths are connected to the drug war, but human rights activists claim a substantial percentage.

The Mexican government does not have a concise way to distill drug war killings from the overall homicide numbers. But even if the government were to earmark more resources toward improving crime databases, compiling reliable statistics could still represent a daunting task in a climate of fear where many crimes go unreported.


The set of government data on which the map was based can be accessed here. The document was given to Fusion through a freedom of information request submitted to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR) via the National Institute of Transparency and Access to Information (INAI).

Based on independent research and the analysis of other investigations and media reports, the government statistics seem inconsistent and incomplete. For example, the data for the April 2011 massacre of San Fernando, Tamaulipas shows 120 bodies found in 14 unmarked graves. However, media reports show 193 bodies found in 43 unmarked graves. There are other unmarked graves findings that were reported by the media but are not included in the registry given to Fusion.

Experts claim the Mexican government has yet to improve official registers and statistics involving drug war-related killings.

Areas controlled by organized crime can limit the capacity of the state to accurately report on unmarked graves. The country’s institutions are not properly trained nor tasked with distilling homicides that are directly related to the drug war.

Critics claim institutions that are not fully autonomous from the federal government, like the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), have a tendency to downplay drug war-related killings.

The unmarked grave data provided to Fusion by INAI states all databases and official registers containing information related to missing and disappeared persons were transferred to the National System of Public Security’s center for information.

The center's open registers detailing missing person reports can be accessed here.