Excavating History: The Mexican Mission to Recover the Legacy of Catarino Erasmo Garza in Bocas del Toro

Since February 25, 2024, a big gray ship has been sitting in the bay in front of Bocas Town. It has a French flag, someone from a hotel in Carenero says. At night, you can see a large line of lights illuminating the sky. A new floating bar? What is it about?

Huasteco

Huasteco vessel anchored off the south shore of Isla Colon, all the way from Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Bocas del Toro municipality, @alcaldedebocas on Instagram

The vessel is the logistics ship “Huasteco,” hosting 80 individuals from Mexico who came on a mission: finding the remains of Catarino Erasmo Garza, a Mexican revolutionary who died here on Isla Colon in the year 1895. Who was this person and why are they looking for his remains almost 130 years after?

Catarino Erasmo Garza Rodriguez was born in Tamaulipas, Mexico 1859. He lived in Mexico and Texas where he worked as a journalist, opposing the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico. Persecuted on both sides of the border, he eventually fled to Costa Rica. His name has caught more public attention in Mexico since 2016, when the now president of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (also called AMLO) distributed a book about Garza titled Catarino Erasmo Garza Rodríguez ¿Revolucionario o Bandido?” (Revolutionary or bandit?)

Catarino Erasmo Garza Rodríguez ¿Revolucionario o Bandido?

What do we know about the history here on Isla Colon, Panama? Carlos Fitzgerald, a Panamanian archeologist explains: on the night of March 7, 1895, Garza and a group of armed people entered the island from the mainland in the area of Boca del Drago. They proceeded through the island, reaching Bocas Town and attacked the police station. Based on historic description, it is reasoned to have been located where the fire station is  today. Fitzgerald points out that Bocas del Toro was a strategically important port during that time. We are talking about an era when Panama was still part of Gran Colombia up until 1903. The attempt to take over the police station on Isla Colon failed. Garza was killed in the combat. It is assumed that he was buried with four other companions in a mass grave close to the municipal cemetery.

The current visit from Mexico to Bocas del Toro concerning Garza is not the first one. A delegation was here in July 2023 already, analyzing the area around the cemetery, where they suspected to find Garzas bones. During a presentation of the project on November 11, 2023, where BTV News reported from, Dr. Laura Beatriz Morena, the presidential coordinator of the project, explained details about the tools that were used and what they had found during that expedition: With a so-called georadar, the ground around the cemetery was scanned. They were looking for a space bigger than an individual grave, as the clues lead to the hypothesis that Garza and his companions were buried in a mass grave and without a coffin. “He wasn‘t a, let‘s say, loved person at that moment,” Dr Laura Beatriz Moreno mentions.

Excavation cite at the Municipal Cemetery of Isla Colon

Excavation cite at the Municipal Cemetery of Isla Colon

For some in Bocas del Toro, it might seem unusual to see Mexican presence on the island. What does this project mean from a Panamanian point of view? The two countries have been making efforts to work together in the fields of education and culture, holding an Educational and Cultural Cooperation Agreement since 1997. The agreement establishes that both states will support reciprocal cooperation between universities and other higher education establishments, research centers and other cultural institutions in the humanistic and artistic areas. “Panama fulfills its commitments within the framework with the historical recovery of the mortal remains of the Mexican ex-combatant Catarino Garza, as it is part of the cultural heritage of the United States of Mexico”, Rosemary Garcia, the national subdirector for cultural heritage of the ministry of culture of Panama, explains in an interview with The Bocas Breeze.

Up to now, I found that mostly the vessel in the bay has been noticed by the islanders. In the meantime, the actual key elements of the mission started their work around the cemetery of Isla Colon with their head quarters currently at the old hospital. It is an interdisciplinary team of experts that sound like from a Mexican version of the police crime show “Bones,” consisting of archaeologists, criminologists, forensic anthropologists and Mexican geneticists.  Rosemary Garcia describes some of the activities that are carried out in this stage of the project:

  1. Manual and systematic excavations
  2. Fixation, collection and packaging of the evidence
  3. Samples of fragments of bone remains will be taken with which the genetic confrontation will be carried out
  4. Safeguarding Measures for the samples and bone remains
  5. Analysis of bone remains.
  6. DNA studies, among others.

Part of the team consists of experts who are usually involved in searching for victims of disappearance in Mexico. This time, their expertise brought them to Bocas del Toro. The remains of Garza, if any are found, would be repatriated to Mexico.

Mexican and Panamanian delegations meet aboard the Huasteco vessel upon arrival, February 25, 2024.

Mexican and Panamanian delegations meet aboard the Huasteco vessel upon arrival, February 25, 2024.

Besides this mission there will also be social work carried out by the Mexican delegation. In the past days, some members of the marine division were working on improving the public library at third street. An organized visit to the Huasteco ship for the community of Bocas del Toro was also mentioned but it is still unclear who and how many people will be able to go. “Despite living on an island, many do not know of a ship of the dimensions like this one that is in the bay”, Rosemary Garcia points out what this could mean for the local population.

The mission will continue for approximately 5 more weeks, with a scheduled return to Mexico on April 16, 2024 (date from “Mexico Daily News”). Will they be able to find Garzas remains by then? What will we learn about Bocas’ history through this unique archeological project? Aside from the scientific results, the cooperation forms an opportunity for both the visitors and the people from Bocas del Toro to exchange about history, share stories of the present and connect beyond borders.

The excavation site of Catarino Erasmo Garza at the Municipal Cemetery of Bocas del Toro

Article by Marianna Ortiz

Marianna Ortiz

About the author: My name is Marianna Ortiz, I‘m a Swiss-Mexican girl who loves the jungle and the sea. I enjoy singing “La Bamba“ on the ukulele with my students from BAMA – Bocas Arts and Music Academy, where we bring musical education to kids on Isla Colon, Carenero and Bastimentos. I share my passion for the tropical flora and fauna through nature tours (Jungle Walks Bocas del Toro) and illustrations like in my new year calendar 2024 presenting leaves of edible plants of the area (Have you ever heard of the Dasheen? A plant with heart-shaped leaves and edible roots, cooked in soups). For four years I‘ve been doing my best to explore every corner of the archipelago of Bocas del Toro by land, above and under the sea.

You can see me riding on a bicycle through Bocas Town, surfing or snorkeling at Black Rock, balancing along wooden planks in the mangroves, listening to the cracks of a Manakin bird in the bushes of Solarte, inhaling the scent of the Ylang-Ylang flower at sunset around Big Creek or having a Passion Fruit lemonade somewhere with ocean view and a breeze.

The Bocas Breeze is a digital and print newspaper proudly serving the Bocas del Toro community since 2004; reporting news, advertising local businesses and promoting tourism in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

5 Comments

  1. Thomas Mitchell Poole Reply

    Thomas Poole, here in Denver, Colorado. I lived in Bocas Town in the mid 1960’s, and was Pastor of Beautiful Zion Baptist Church, and also worked in Almirante, and the Indian Villages up the Cricamola River. As is wisely said, You can go away from Bocas, BUT! You can never LEAVE Bocas ! And I cannot! I have been back to Panama many times in the past 60 years, and no one there would remember me. But surely, my memories are beautiful. Federico Pardo, & his wife, adopted me, and loved me, and I loved them! I conducted the Bombero Band while there each Thursday ! My house must be gone by now, but it was a yellow 2 story house, just before the beach curve, near the old Hospital. I became a Concert & Opera Singer in 14 countries. I am in my 80’s now, but I refuse to die before making one more trip to my HOME ! Love!

  2. Trina Cote Reply

    Thank you Marianna for the recent update and your article. Much appreciated! 👍🏼
    Rumor had it that they found Catareno.
    Thanks for all you do in Bocas!

  3. ALEXIS SANCHEZ Reply

    Usted habla de 80 militares mexicanos. La prensa mexicana dice que son 93. ¿Esta segura que buscan a Catarino Garza? Al Che Guevara 8 arqueólogos lo buscaron en Bolivia y el Che había sido ejecutado en 1967. A Garza lo asesinan en 1895 y de acuerdo a Usted son 80 militares. ¿Usted ha visto a los 80 militares mexicanos que dice? . También veo que Usted tiene acceso al cementerio.
    Espero sus respuestas a mis interrogantes.

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