VERACRUZ, Mexico - Guadalupe Contreras has helped find hundreds of bodies in what may be the largest mass grave ever found in Mexico, located in Colinas de Santa Fe, northeast of the port of Veracruz.
He says it's important for him that families find their loved ones after a disappearance, even if the end is tragic. That is his reward and his satisfaction. But for Contreras, it's also personal. Deep down, he is motivated because he wants to find his missing son.
He did not go in search of this work. Instead, had no other choice after his 28-year-old son, Antonio Ivan Contreras Mata, an electronics engineer, disappeared in 2012.
"Before all this, I was a bricklayer. I had my wife, five children and a normal life, from home to work, from work to home," Contreras, who goes by 'Lupe,' said in an interview with Univision News. "I'd arrive tired, get comfortable, nice-and-easy, watch TV, have dinner and end the day. It was the good life. But since the disappearance of my son, everything changed."
More than one hundred mothers who make up the Colectivo Solecito of Veracruz, an organization that looks for missing people, petitioned Contreras to help. So he moved from his native Iguala, Guerrero, to the state of Veracruz, to search for bodies.
Iguala is also no stranger to disappearances. In September 2014, 43 students from a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa, near Iguala, disappeared and are presumed dead, sparking a major human rights outcry and accusations of local police complicity with drug gangs.
In Veracruz, the searchers began digging last summer after they received an anonymous tip about the site, in the form of a hand-drawn map.
The gray-haired, 60-year-old recalls that authorities in Colinas de Santa Fe did not initially allow him to roam freely with his machete and brown steel rod. They wanted him to search for graves only in designated areas.
"I was fed up and I said to them: 'What is this? Are you going to let me work?' I was even joined by an expert from the forensic police who also complained. As soon as they gave us freedom to work where we wanted, we found the first grave in a matter of hours, and from then on we kept finding more and more bodies," Contreras said.
He has helped find more than 250 bodies, believed to be the victims of criminal groups involved in the drug trade.
The origins of the search
In 2014, two years after the disappearance of his son Antonio and two months after the Ayotzinapa case in which dozens of students went missing, Miguel Ángel Jiménez Blanco, a member of the Union of Peoples and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), arrived in Iguala. He taught Contreras everything there is to know about finding graves.
"Mr. Miguel Angel Jiménez Blanco has since passed away, but he taught me how to search. I started two years after the disappearance of my son. My first find was on November 18 (in 2014) in a place that we called the cornfield," Contreras said.
His knowledge of the countryside and the mountains have helped him notice abnormalities in the land and soil, which is needed to detect clandestine graves.
He says he is not an expert but that he has an instinct to smell death.
Contreras has found more than 300 corpses around the country. That has provided some closure for families who suffered the disappearance of a loved one.
He has not stopped looking for Antonio since 2012. It is a kind of therapy, he says.
"My other four children tell me to stop and ask why I bother taking the risk of looking for him. But there is no way I will stop until I find him. The day I find him, I retire. And let me be clear: I am not looking to find whoever is responsible. I just want to find my son," said an emotional Contreras.
Discovery in Colinas de Santa Fe
Univision News talked with families in the port of Veracruz who dread the possibility that their relatives will be found in the graves of Colinas de Santa Fe.
So far only two of the 253 recovered bodies have been identified. Contreras found them with the help of mothers from the Colectivo Solecito of Veracruz, and the hand-drawn map. He says he feels proud that two families can now regain some peace of mind.
Contreras goes to Colinas de Santa Fe almost every day. He uses just a steel rod, which he bores into the ground and then sniffs for any scent of decomposing bodies. "You have to have a strong stomach to put up with the smell," he said.
But much work remains to be done. So far, only about a third of Colinas de Sante Fe has been explored.
And he suspects there are four other hidden graves in Veracruz, just as large as the one he already found.