VERACRUZ, Mexico — The Colinas de Santa Fe neighborhood on the outskirts of this port city looks like hundreds of other residential housing developments built across Mexico in recent decades. Streets are lined with identical brick homes — bungalows with two bedrooms, painted pink, blue or green and advertised as being close to a shopping mall. Yards are cluttered with children’s bikes, basketball hoops and satellite dishes. But on the edge of the estate, investigators announcedin March, fields for grazing cattle hid thousands of decaying body parts, including more than 250 skulls, buried in a number of pits.
Drug cartels are widely believed to be behind the mass grave. Most of the victims are yet to be identified. A mother living a few blocks from the field said she had no idea it was there. In April, residents filed a complaint that the smell of rotting corpses being unearthed was seeping into their homes.
I’ve covered Mexico’s violence since 2001, but I am still dumbstruck by the extent to which normal life seems to carry on next door to such terrors. A study released last month found that at least 1,400 bodies were dug up from mass graves across the country between 2009 and 2014. And those are just a fraction of the 176,000 murders that police have counted here over the last decade.
At the same time, Mexico has a trillion-dollar economy and is the eighth-most-visited tourist destination on the planet. The government denies there is an armed conflict going on.
How can we understand this paradox and classify this bloodshed? Is it simply a horrendous crime problem, or is it an actual war? The question is not merely academic — it affects real-life decisions, like those of judges who decide whether people fleeing the violence can be classified as refugees.
The truth is that the conflict is neither just crime nor civil war, but a new hybrid type of organized violence. We will never understand its nature until Mexico truly investigates how these mass graves came about. And that investigation includes the role of the state itself.
On Monday, the former governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, was extradited from Guatemala to Mexico to face charges of working with organized crime and embezzling state funds during his tenure from 2010 to 2016, when the mass grave at Colinas de Santa Fe was discovered. Some of his top aides have also been arrested. When the size of the grave was revealed, the new state prosecutor, Jorge Winckler, told reporters: “It’s impossible that nobody knew what was going on here, with vehicles coming in and out. If that wasn’t with the complicity of authorities, I don’t know how it was done.”
The site was discovered not by the police but by mothers searching for their disappeared children. One of them, Maria de Lourdes Rosales, was trying to find her son, a 25-year-old customs worker who was abducted by a group of gunmen in 2013. After the police found no trace of him, she joined other family members of the more than 30,000 people who have disappeared across the country to demand justice. “You live with great pain every day,” Ms. Rosales told me. “You are missing something in your life, in your heart, in your soul, and your only goal is finding them.”
One day, when a group of mothers were marching in protest, a car drew up and a mysterious man got out to give them a hand-drawn map showing where the mass grave was. The mothers went to the site and began digging. Only after they unearthed clothes and human bones did the state forensics teams take over.
In June, the mothers found yet another mass grave in Veracruz State, after somebody sent a map to one of them on Facebook.
These cases illustrate key features of Mexico’s drug war. Most of its victims are not killed in battles — shootouts between armed groups, or clashes with the police and soldiers — but are dragged away by gunmen or are assassinated in hits. When the Mexican government last released a breakdown of cartel-related murders back in 2011, the data showed that 79 percent were those types of killings.
Justice is rare. One study found that four out of five murders in Mexico go unpunished. Security forces do take on the cartels in parts of the country, but the police and officials are also caught working with the criminals, and even killing for them. Days before Mr. Duarte’s arrest, a former governor of the neighboring Tamaulipas State was arrested in Italy, after being indicted in Brownsville, Tex., on several charges, including drug trafficking.
The cartels make billions smuggling heroin, cocaine and crystal meth to America, as well as from a portfolio of rackets from kidnapping to oil theft. That money is used to bribe police and politicians, who in turn help the cartels to eliminate anyone who stands in their way to making more money. The victims are not only rival cartel operatives but also include customs workers who won’t take bribes, inconvenient journalists and many who simply witnessed the wrong thing at the wrong time — “civilians,” all.
Yet at the same time, for many Mexicans, life goes on in apparent normality — with no tank battles or aerial bombardments. This is what separates the conflict from a civil war, even though the death toll is comparable. The pattern of killing is perhaps most similar to that of the death squads of a dictatorship. And in Colinas de Santa Fe, children could play obliviously while at their doorstep was a mass grave akin to those left by the Islamic State.