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Mexico town searches for missing, seeks answers

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DURANGO, Mexico (AFP) – Armed men arrived at Jose Esparza's house in the northern Mexican desert town of Cuencame during the night in January 2009 and dragged away his two brothers and sister.

"After that, they came for more people from the town every Friday," Esparza said.

The kidnappers stopped coming in December 2009, when the corpses of several beheaded police officers were dumped in the town square.

To this day, the family has no idea what happened, but suspect drug gangs may have been involved in the disappearances in a region which lies on trafficking routes, amid a wave of drug violence, which has left some 37,000 dead across the country since 2006.

Reports of missing people have escalated across Mexico along with the violence, which shot up after the government of President Felipe Calderon deployed tens of thousands of troops across the country to take on the gangs.

Almost 5,400 people have disappeared in Mexico since December 2006, according to the National Commission of Human Rights.

Esparza has now fled to San Antonio, Texas, from where he continues to document the people missing back home.

He has recorded 200 similar cases in Durango state since 2009.

At the time of the abduction of his siblings, Esparza's mother tried to seek refuge with her eight grandchildren at the local police headquarters, but the police chief was too scared to let them in. One month later, the police chief himself was kidnapped.

State prosecutors distanced themselves from the case, saying that organized crime was a federal offense. But the federal prosecutor's office told Esparza that kidnappings come under the jurisdiction of state authorities.

Durango hit the headlines in recent weeks after the discovery of 218 bodies in six hidden graves in the state capital, also called Durango.

Fear has risen along with the body count, which has now surpassed the 183 bodies also found buried in northeastern Tamaulipas state in recent weeks.

But the macabre discoveries have also raised hopes among the families of the missing.

The search for bodies and graves could now move outside the state capital to towns such as Cuencame, according to Juan Rosales, deputy state Public Security Secretary.

Meanwhile, Esparza, an aeronautical mechanic, continues to investigate from a distance, connecting with a network of locals in the town of 33,000 inhabitants, which lies on the edge of a lake.

Locals believe many bodies were thrown into the water, although state authorities said an underwater search had provided no clues.

Esparza claimed that a group of divers searching for a drowned child last year said that they had seen more than 40 bodies lying under the lake.

Several other families, too frightened to be named, said they believed bodies lay in at least three other lakes.

The Durango Human Rights Commission received 35 reports of disappearances in 2009 and 70 in 2010.

Unlike in other regions of Mexico, there are no non-governmental groups investigating those cases and dozens more which were not reported officially.

Some blame the disappearances and killings on the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, known to operate in the area. Others point to the increasingly visible Zetas gang.

Residents fear speaking out but desperately want to see the disappearances investigated, said one woman, declining to be named, whose son was shot dead as he returned home from work in July.

"We're in the middle of nowhere, abandoned and in the crossfire," she said.

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