The Grave Hunter: Men’s Journal

Guadalupe Contreras knew death was in the field. It was a September morning in 2017, and the 60-year-old former mason had met a dozen or so people, dressed in boots and scruffy jeans, on the outskirts of Veracruz, Mexico at an area called Colinas de Santa Fe. In a sandy pasture, surrounded by green hills, Contreras and the others rummaged through heaps of shovels and surgical masks. Then, one by one, they took five-foot iron rods, fanned out, and began hammering them into the earth. Each time they pulled out a rod, they sniffed the end for decay. They were searching for bodies. They were searching for their loved ones.

They worked for hours in the torrid heat and found nothing. Around midday, Contreras bashed his rod into the ground again. This time, the tip had a familiar smell, reminiscent of cheap perfume and rotting meat. He had breathed it hundreds of times. It followed him everywhere. It clung to his clothes and his hair and his thoughts. He set the rod on the ground and called for the others. He knew what awaited him down in the dirt.

The body wasn’t Contreras’ first. He makes his living finding corpses and has proved adept at the job, even compared with other grave hunters. The particular body he found that September day had been dismembered, wrapped in four plastic bags, and buried about three feet underground—no doubt the handiwork of a drug cartel. When Contreras looked inside the bags, “there was still flesh on the bones,” he said recently. Since 2014, he has recovered some 300 bodies in similarly unmarked narco graves, many at Colinas de Santa Fe. The site is probably the largest clandestine mass grave ever found in Mexico. More than 250 bodies, in 150 burial trenches, have been recovered at the site since Colectivo Solecito—a group of families whose relatives have vanished, and for whom Contreras now works—discovered it in 2016. And the search is far from over…

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Image: Sebastian Casteneda Vita/ Men’s Journal

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