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Photos: Digging for the disappeared in Mexico

GUERRERO STATE, Mexico — On a recent Sunday morning, about 50 relatives of the disappeared arrived at the main plaza in Iguala, a Guerrero town, carrying shovels, pick-axes and machetes.

They had one task in mind: scouring the rocky ground outside of town, in the groves of prickly huisache trees, in hopes of locating clandestine graves that might hold human remains.

A discovery like that could mean resolution to the agony for at least a few families of the more than 20,000 people who have disappeared since 2006 in Mexico’s drug-related violence.

Even before the kidnapping by municipal police of 43 teaching students from the streets of this same town two months ago, members of the Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero State (UPOEG), an armed community police force active in the mountainous southwestern regions of the state, were actively searching here for burial sites.

But the case of the 43 students — who were apparently massacred by criminal gangs working with police and whose cases remain unsolved — has only galvanized relatives of the disappeared who are fed up with official inaction. Families who have until now rejected even reporting their missing kin for fear of reprisal are beginning to see the value of the civilian volunteers' efforts.

On this Sunday, the UPOEG leaders were working alongside a team from the Citizens Forensic Science group, formed only a few weeks earlier. Together they hope to create a biological data bank using DNA samples from family members of the disappeared. The volunteers jumped onto truck beds and loaded into cars for the half-hour trip to La Laguna, the area outside Iguala where the UPOEG suspected there was clandestine graves.

Their search of a nearby zone in La Joya had previously turned up a grave where the federal attorney general’s forensic specialists exhumed eight bodies. But then, abruptly, the attorney general's office abandoned the pursuit, even though there were signs of more burials. Outraged relatives, steeled by new anger over the 43 and fed up after years of fearing retaliation, took matters into their own hands. Many are now coming forward to register the names of their missing family members and offer blood samples for DNA testing.

The first site uncovered in La Laguna revealed a femur. During the long day under a scorching sun, volunteers found seven graves, six of them holding human remains.

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UPOEG leader Miguel Angel Jiménez acknowledges that the vigilante forensics work is illegal, but says that families are out of options. Indeed, the police seem to have accepted the help. Earlier, Jiménez had called federal police and demanded they cordon off and guard the graves the citizens' brigade had found. Heavily-armed teams moved in just as the search party’s vehicles headed down the rocky hills back to Iguala.

Father Oscar Mauricio Prudenciano González, of Saint Gerard’s Catholic Church, has provided church facilities and moral support to the families of the disappeared. He is backing the effort of the Citizens Forensic Science group to encourage people to come forward and register their missing family members and provide DNA.

But this nascent movement to pressure the Mexican government to recognize the human tragedy of the drug war relies most on the union of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who have experienced the horrors of narco-violence in the flesh. Now they're trying to convince neighbors and friends with disappeared loved ones to come forward, as well.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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Keith Dannemiller/GlobalPost

With the help of the UPOEG (Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero State) community police, the Catholic Church and a citizens forensic group, relatives of the disappeared search for clandestine graves in the hills around Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. Since the disappearance of 43 Guerrero students in nearby Ayotzinapa, more concerned family members have come forward to demand closure in the cases of their missing loved ones. Here, a citizens' brigade gathers in the main plaza of Iguala in preparation for the search.