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Students chant slogans in front of the Attorney General Office on 15 October in Mexico City, during a protest supporting the 43 students missing in Iguala, Guerrero State.Mexican officials made a stunning announcement this week: The 28 bodies recovered from a series of mass graves outside the town of Iguala are not those of 43 student protesters who went missing there three weeks ago.

This news has given the students' families and classmates a strand of hope. They have demanded that authorities find the students or free them if they're still alive. The anger boiled over Monday, when protesters stormed government offices in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo and set them ablaze.

But to the rest of Mexico, the news that the 28 mutilated, charred corpses correspond to another group of victims is a new stop on a carousel of horrors. It has deepened the sense that there are clandestine gravesites all over the country into which an unknown number of Mexicans have disappeared.

Scratch the surface a bit and the ghastly secrets emerge.

Rights groups point to the list kept by the Mexican government with the names of more than 22,000 people who have been reported missing in the past eight years. No one knows how many have been lost to cartel funeral pits like the ones found outside Iguala.

"We don't have the complete test results," Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said Tuesday, looking weary, adding that the discoveries "have confirmed the dangerous nature of the criminal organisation that operated in this area."

The mass graves there are not the first and definitely not the largest uncovered in recent years. But they have shattered President Enrique Peña Nieto's public relations push to shift international attention away from Mexico's security failures.

Once more Mexicans, and many observers elsewhere, are asking how the country can possibly tout its modernisation efforts if it continues to be a place where gangsters casually kill and bury their victims, often with government complicity, while the rest of the society is too intimidated to stop them.

"From Mexico's Moment to Mexico Murder," wrote columnist Carlos Loret de Mola in El Universal. "That summarises the change in international perceptions of our country in the short time between the approval of the reforms" backed by the president "and the explosion of criminal violence in Iguala."

Locals in Iguala have told reporters that they saw criminals going back and forth to the gravesites for months but didn't dare say anything.

The 28 bodies found were in five graves, prosecutors say. But since there are at least eight more burial sites in the area, it's possible that the students ended up in those. Authorities haven't said how many dead were recovered from the other graves or who they think the victims were.

But the wait for answers is draining the patience of the Mexican public, and especially the students, who are planning protests Wednesday in Mexico City and elsewhere.

One of the criminal suspects who may have known about the fate of the 43 students, Benjamin "El Benjamon" Mondragon, died Tuesday, allegedly shooting himself after a standoff with police in the nearby state of Morelos.

Mondragon was a leader of the Guerreros Unidos, the gang blamed for the mass graves outside Iguala and the disappearance of the students after clashes with local police on the night of 26 September.

The territory where the Guerreros Unidos operate is along the strategic smuggling corridor between Mexico's Pacific Coast ports and the capital.

It was in this area that one of the first mass gravesites of Mexico's drug war was discovered in 2010, near Taxco, just down the road from Iguala. There, forensic teams found more than 60 bodies at the bottom of an abandoned mine ventilation shaft.

Many of the victims were found bound and gagged, and were thought to have been throw alive down the 225-metre shaft.

That nightmare was soon eclipsed by others: burial pits found in 2011 on remote ranches near the town of San Fernando, an hour south of the US border, stuffed with nearly 200 victims. Many had been innocent travellers pulled off passenger buses and beaten to death by a psychotic cell of the Zetas drug cartel.

That year, prosecutors began to unearth gravesites around the city of Durango, and by the time they were done, they'd found more than 300 corpses.

In February, forensic teams in the border state of Coahuila said they uncovered perhaps the biggest secret graveyard yet, with the body parts of as many as 500 victims dumped over a span of several years.

Nick Miroff – The Washington Post
Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the US-Mexico borderlands to South America's southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
Image: Omar Torres / AFP / Lehtikuva