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Mass Secret Grave In Eastern Mexico Could Be Country's Largest, Official Says

Bodies are still being recovered from a clandestine grave in Mexico's Veracruz state that a local prosecutor says could turn out to be the largest in the country. Jorge Winckler Ortiz, the state attorney general of Veracruz, says that at one large site, 250 skulls have been found, with more excavation to be done.

Winckler says the bodies are those of people murdered by gangs, with the complicity of the government. He added that officials had also deceived families who asked for help in identifying whether their missing loved ones might be in the graves.

"Veracruz is a huge grave, when they finish opening the clandestine cemetery in the state it will be seen as the largest grave," Winckler said on the Televisa network, "because for years organized crime has disappeared and murdered people with the complicity of the authorities."

The comments represent the most direct official acknowledgement of the scope of mass graves in Veracruz, the Gulf coast state east of Mexico City that has been a stronghold of the brutal Zetas cartel.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reported last fall, relatives of people who've gone missing during Mexico's drug wars have grown impatient in Veracruz. As the government failed to act, mothers and other family members took on the grisly task of recovering bodies from mass graves.

From Carrie's report:

"Government officials put the number of Mexico's missing at around 28,000. Some were crime gang members, others just caught up in the violence and associated corruption. However, two years ago, the case of 43 students kidnapped and presumably murdered in Guerrero awoke the nation to the plight of the missing and sparked a movement by relatives searching for clandestine graves.

"Groups have formed in several Mexican states. In Veracruz, the mothers have unearthed nearly 100 graves. Authorities removed 42 bodies so far. And by the time they get through all the graves, it's estimated that as many as 400 bodies may be found, the largest discovery of its kind in Mexico."

The authorities in Veracruz no longer include its former governor, Javier Duarte, who led the state for eight problem-plagued years but is now living as a fugitive. Shortly after he resigned his post in October, a warrant was issued for Duarte's arrest on charges of racketeering and money-laundering. He's accused of diverting millions of dollars in public funds to bogus shell companies.

In December, Winckler was elected to serve as the top prosecutor in Veracruz through 2025.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.