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In January, midway through the government’s search for human remains, Jackie Campbell, who works with Bishop Vera, received a distressed phone call from inmates at the prison in Saltillo, Coahuila’s capital. They told Campbell, who monitors prison conditions for Vera’s group, that inmate Ramon Burciaga, who was serving a prison sentence for kidnapping, had been led out of his cell abusively and then guards entered his cell and emptied it. There is only one reason cells are cleaned out, she said: when an inmate dies.
Campbell said she began calling prison officials and discovered that Burciaga was en route to the prison in Piedras Negras, where some of the killings related to the massacre reportedly occurred. In 2011, he was an inmate in the prison. In a 16-page letter that he later sent to a judge, Burciaga detailed how he was handed over to the GATES, elite state police akin to SWAT teams, whose members were mining the area around Allende for human remains.
He said he was tortured for hours and forced to sign a confession claiming responsibility for the disappearance and killing of at least 100 people in Nava and Allende, where the massacre took place and where the operation had just wrapped up.
Burciaga wrote that agents said, “Tell [the prosecutors] that the Zetas entered [the prison] to bring bastards to burn them.”
He returned to Saltillo the following Monday, and Campbell rushed over to debrief him and photograph his injuries. His confession has not surfaced. Authorities said that inmate confessions and interrogations obtained at the prison were used to launch the operation.
No explanation has been given about whether prison authorities intervened to prevent the killings.
In late April, a working group consisting of representatives of the state government, the United Nations, legal experts and victims’ families represented by Families with United Forces for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, FUUNDEC, forwarded government documents related to the operation to outside forensic experts for analysis.
The working group released a report about the operation that included a review conducted by members of the world-renowned Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which has developed an exhaustive process for investigating human remains tied to disappearances.
The team applauded the scope and intention of the mission while saying that errors in execution were to be expected in a first-time search of this magnitude. However, the experts noted that missing from government’s documents was any sign of a preliminarily investigation or strategy for the operation. No information could be found about the locations where skeletal remains had been found or about the methods of collecting evidence. And it seemed that the often laborious inspections were, in the case of Allende and the surrounding areas, carried out in one day.
Two people with information about the operation told Al Jazeera that remains were found lying on the ground, dismissing claims of the highly publicized discovery of narcofosas.
While the technology used was of considerable quality, the experts could find nothing to confirm that the agents had been trained in the equipment used in the operation. Still unknown are the factors that prompted the operation and its timing, three years after the massacre occurred.
Much like the violence across northern Mexico, the government operation is wrapped in mystery and lingering questions about what occurred, why it happened and who is responsible.
“The state does not act, and it won’t,” said Jorge Verístegui González, a co-founder of FUUNDEC, “because doing so would be to act against itself.”