The Mexico City-based team of reporter María Verza, video journalist Fernanda Pesce and photographer Marco Ugarte built trust with investigators, gaining exclusive access to a gruesome cartel “extermination site” in northern Mexico where a forensics team searches for the remains of some of Mexico’s nearly 100,000 missing people.

AP’s judges praised this all-formats effort, which might have won Best of the Week had it not been for the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

The story started with the AP trio traveling to a new cemetery for unidentified remains Tamaulipas state, meeting with those involved in searching for and identifying the missing. Verza asked the head of the team about some of Tamaulipas’ most notorious cartel extermination sites and he offered to give AP exclusive access to the site he found in Nuevo Laredo, a busy trade crossing on the Mexican border with Texas.

After AP secured the necessary state and national approvals, the official personally drove the journalists to the site where forensic technicians, working under armed guard for their safety, sifted through dirt, rock and bone. After six months of work at the site in Nuevo Laredo, investigators still can’t offer an estimate of how many people disappeared there. Countless bone fragments were spread across 75,000 square feet of desert scrubland, and in a single room of a ruined house, the compacted, burnt human remains and debris were nearly 2 feet deep.

Since authorities announced the discovery of the site in September 2021, no other media had been given access — AP's coverage continues to stand alone. The package illustrates the challenge Mexico faces in finding and identifying its missing, a task where human remains are often measured by weight rather than by individuals. And a companion story by the team gives voice to families of some of the disappeared.

The story played widely, and despite moving in the early days of the Ukraine invasion it scored AP’s highest reader engagement of the week. The work drew attention and compliments from the head of Mexico’s government agency overseeing the search for missing persons, and Antonio Garza, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Molly Molloy, who runs a prominent group email list devoted to the U.S.-Mexico border, wrote that it was “One of the best reports I have seen on the extraordinary numbers of ‘the disappeared’ in Mexico.”