DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Mexico, officials call it the statistic of horror. More than 61,000 people there have disappeared without a trace. Most vanished after the government launched its so-called war on drugs more than a decade ago, and now many families of the missing have resorted to searching mass unmarked graves for the remains of their loved ones. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Teresa Figueroa (ph) steadies her balance with a hand on the shoulder of her friend Rosa Maria Velasquez (ph). She climbs into white hazmat coveralls and zips up.
(SOUND OF ZIPPER ZIPPING)
KAHN: The two women, both in their early 60s, are preparing to enter a crime scene.
ROSA MARIA VELASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Velasquez has been searching for her son Manelick (ph) since he went missing three years ago. She is skinny and tall, with a long face and graying temples. Teresa Figueroa's son Raul (ph) disappeared in 2013. Neither wanted to talk about their sons' cases. Many of Mexico's victims got caught up in the drug war. Others have run afoul of corrupt officials or police - some just common crime victims. Why they went missing doesn't matter, the women say.
TERESA FIGUEROA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "They have the right to be searched for, and we have the right to search for them," says Figueroa, whose high, painted brows frame her sunken, sad eyes. The women have traveled hundreds of miles from the northern state of Baja California to this abandoned house in the woods outside Poza Rica, Veracruz. They've joined hundreds of others on an annual search for the missing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: A group leader calls on six suited-up mothers to go in. Lifting up the yellow police tape, they shuffle past several uniformed agents.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIFTING ASH)
KAHN: Inside the crime scene, the women stand at opposite ends of a giant wooden frame sieve filled with ash and shake, hoping to uncover bones, fragments or teeth. The ashes were found inside and all around a large oven out back. Locals say the grounds were used by a cartel to torture, kill and incinerate rivals. Local authorities have investigated the site, but families of the missing say they didn't do a thorough job.
MARIO VERGARA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "It's an embarrassment for the Mexican state that we, the families, are the ones doing the searching," says Mario Vergara Hernandez (ph), whose brother was kidnapped eight years ago and never seen again.
HERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) They are the specialists. They have the salaries, the technology and the money to do the work, and they don't. Our technology is just our feet, our shovels and picks.
KAHN: Remains discovered three years ago at the site have still not been submitted for DNA identification. Local investigators and federal authorities declined to comment, and police at the scene refused to talk to reporters.
MANKY LUGO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "In my case, the police haven't done anything. I've done it all," says Manky Lugo (ph), who's been looking for her son Juan Francisco (ph) since June of 2015. Lugo, with her gray hair wrapped in a bright green bandana, carries a long metal stick. She's called over when searchers think they might have found a hidden burial site.
LUGO: (Through interpreter) I plunge the stick in as far as I can and then pull it out and smell the tip. If it smells like dead body, it's positive. It's terrible, but you have to smell it. That's my job now.
KAHN: Lugo has developed this prized but gruesome skill in a country where more than 3,600 clandestine gravesites have been discovered. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has pledged to do more to help relatives and identify remains. The government did provide vehicles, gasoline and police security for the relatives' annual search. But on the last day of the two-week gathering, dozens of family members filled the steps of Poza Rica's city hall to demand more.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).
KAHN: They carried placards with pictures of their missing sons and daughters and chanted, where are our children? Where are they? They want local investigators to search 12 suspicious sites they uncovered and process bone fragments and teeth they found in the ashes at the abandoned cartel house. Teresa Figueroa and Rosa Maria Velasquez, the friends from Baja California, stay close by each other. They look tired from the physical work, but Velasquez says she's emotionally revived.
VELASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I feel useful here helping out." She says, "I may not have found my own son, but maybe I helped another family find theirs."
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Poza Rica, Veracruz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.