MEXICO CITY — Forensic scientists in the Mexican state of Sonora have recovered 10 more bodies from mass graves near a beach town, raising the total number of bodies and skeletons found in the area since October to 52.
The state attorney's office said Saturday they were tipped off to the desert burial pits by a group of volunteers called Searching Mothers that tries to find missing people. The remains will be taken to the state capital of Hermosillo for possible identification.
The bodies were found near the Gulf of California beach town of Puerto Penasco, known to U.S. tourists as Rocky Point.
Drug and kidnapping gangs often bury the bodies of people they have killed in such clandestine sites.
Authorities began pulling human remains from the burial pits about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Puerto Penascoáat the end of October. A handful of the skeletons still had clothing and decomposing flesh on them.
Mexican forensic personnel are conducting autopsies and asking relatives of missing people in the area to submit DNA samples for comparison.
The discoveries have offered a glimmer of hope to families searching for loved ones such as Rolando Gutierrez, a U.S. citizen who was last heard from while in Puerto Penasco in 2017.
"I feel like this is it -- there's a chance that we might be able to find closure," said Chavie Gutierrez, one of Rolando's five siblings.
"He was a good person, and he deserves peace," she said by phone from her home in Yakima County, in Washington state.
Rolando Gutierrez, affectionately known by his family as Gabby, had gotten mixed up in the drug trade, said a cousin, Crissy Zavala. The burly 44-year-old from Washington state was expected to be back in the U.S. for a niece's 15th birthday in October of the year he went missing. He never made it.
When his weekly phone calls stopped, a sister called area morgues and police stations. There was no trace of him.
"At this point we realize the possibility of finding him alive isn't likely," said Zavala, also speaking by phone from her home in the U.S. "However, this does little to alleviate the pain that is felt daily by his absence."á
Gutierrez's parents gave DNA samples to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Database in the U.S. But Mexican officials are asking that family members of missing loved ones provide samples in Mexico.
The extended family is trying to pool resources so a sibling can travel to Mexico to provide the sample, as Gutierrez's father is too ill to travel and his mother cannot afford to take time off from work as a home health care provider.
"We've been reading very closely about the families in Arizona traveling to give samples," said Zavala. "But for us it would just be financially impossible."
Nogales, on the border with Arizona and a less than two-hour drive from Tucson, is one of the towns in Sonora state where Mexican officials are collecting DNA samples.
The past two years have been complete anguish for the Gutierrez clan. Their missing relative was the oldest of six children in a tightknit family.
He would dress up as Santa Claus for his nieces and nephews, and dance with his mother in the living room at Christmas.
"We knew he loved us and we felt it all the time," said his younger sister, Chavie.
While it would be heartbreaking to discover his remains, it's even more heartbreaking to go on in limbo, not knowing his final resting place, she said.
Zavala said her aunt prays every night that her son's spirit has made it to heaven.
"At this point we need his remains -- his mother wants to bring him home," said Zavala.