As applause rang out at a nearby international arts festival, Bibiana Mendoza unearthed human remains from a secret grave in a Mexican region where wealth, culture and cartel violence meet.
The 32-year-old woman, who is searching for her missing brother, arrived at the site in the city of Irapuato, Guanajuato state, after local residents reported seeing a dog with a human hand in its mouth.
“While people from all over the world were celebrating Cervantino, we were digging up bodies, and at the same time I felt it was pointless because they were burying more people elsewhere,” said Mendoza, founder of a women’s collective that searches for missing people.
Since that day in late October, she and a group of forensic experts have exhumed 53 bags of remains that authorities are trying to identify, Mendoza said.
Around 300 victims of gang violence have been found dead in similar circumstances in Guanajuato, an industrial hub home to factories owned by foreign auto giants, in recent months.
Irapuato, an hour from the state capital of Guanajuato, is the second most unsafe community in Mexico, according to official figures.
Cartel turf wars have earned Guanajuato the unenviable title of Mexico’s most violent state, with more than 2,400 murders from January through September this year — nearly 10 percent of the national total.
Nearly 3,000 other people disappeared over the same period.
Despite the bloodshed, the once-peaceful state of 6.1 million people is a major tourist destination.
Its colonial-style capital, as well as the picturesque town of San Miguel de Allende, attracts thousands of foreigners every year.
Most of the violence happens out of sight of the tourist trail.
On November 9, nine people were massacred in a bar in Apaseo el Alto, just over an hour from Irapuato.
Aside from some bloodstains on the sidewalk and discarded security tape, life in the community went on as if nothing had happened after that.
Images in the local press showed bodies piling up in pools of blood, broken glass and bottles, and a message from a cartel claiming responsibility for the attack.
Five massacres in Guanajuato in the past five months have left 50 dead, shocking residents who are no strangers to violence.
“Seeing corpses lying on the street with messages is something new for us,” Mendoza said.
Mazda’s Salamanca plant – the largest outside of Japan – runs like clockwork, producing around 815 vehicles a day, some for export.
Toyota, Honda and General Motors also have factories in the state.
Transportation infrastructure, a supply network and a skilled workforce are some of the attractions of Guanajuato, which has the sixth highest economic output of Mexico’s 32 states.
Industry insiders say they have seen no impact of the violence on the companies’ activities and expansion plans.
“We have not heard of any investments being canceled or cut back due to uncertainty,” said Hector Rodriguez, local head of the employers’ association Coparmex.
“Chickens don’t stop laying eggs because they’re scared of coyotes,” he added.
Crime in the region is the result of a bitter turf war between the Jalisco New Generation and Santa Rosa de Lima cartels.
According to security expert David Saucedo, Guanajuato is a key corridor along drug smuggling routes between Pacific ports and the United States
“It’s part of the fentanyl and cocaine routes,” he said.
The gangs fund their war with local drug sales and fight for control of nightclubs, Saucedo added.
According to Guanajuato Security Officer Sophia Huett, nine out of 10 homicides in the state are linked to drug trafficking.
Although state authorities are making arrests, it won’t do if the cartels aren’t fought nationally, she said.
Exhausted from her unsuccessful search, Mendoza no longer wants excuses.
“I hate to hear the (state) governor say he’s going to deliver a safer Guanajuato. I hate hearing the President (Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador) say what’s happening isn’t his fault,” she said.