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'We live searching': Mexico families look for the missing, while 52,000 aren't identified

A woman looking for her son, part of a group pushing for forensic reform, is undaunted by the risks. "I believe that when someone you love disappears, your fears go away, too.”
Image: A woman cries at the  Glorieta de los Desaparecidos monument in Guadalajara, state of Jalisco, Mexico, on Aug. 29, 2021. The monument displays photographs and data of missing persons.
A woman cries at the Glorieta de las y los Desaparecidos monument Sunday in Guadalajara, Mexico. The monument displays photographs of and information about missing persons.Ulises Ruiz / AFP - Getty Images

MEXICO CITY — María Isabel Cruz Bernal says she has seen it all. She has witnessed mothers crying because they can’t find their children, parents upset because they’ve been given only a few bone fragments, relatives going through nervous breakdowns because they received the wrong bodies and families searching for years — only to get their loved ones’ remains in poorly sealed garbage bags.

“We have 52,000 unidentified bodies across the country, but we don’t know if there are more," said Cruz Bernal, 52, leader of Sabuesos Guerreras (which translates as “warrior bloodhounds”), a civil association in Sinaloa state that is one of over 70 groups that make up the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico, or MNDM, an organization that recently published a report called “The Forensic Crisis in Mexico.”

“We live searching the mountains and rivers without knowing that, perhaps, many of them are in a common grave,” Cruz Bernal said of the missing.

Two women hug at the Glorieta de las y los Desaparecidos monument in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sunday. Ulises Ruiz / AFP - Getty Images

Monday was the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. In Mexico City, more than 50 relatives of people who have disappeared gathered in front of the country’s National Palace, where the office of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is located.

The groups’ report documents the expansion of two “parallel and overlapping” crises: more missing people and more unidentified bodies. The report documents two figures: 91,318 people missing haven’t been found (since 1964, when the records began) and more than 52,000 dead haven’t been identified, because of failures and delays in the Mexican forensic system.

Relatives of missing people and activists paint a mural that reads "Where are they? Our children" during a memorial Sunday to mark the International Day of the Victims of Forced Disappearance in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

López Obrador was holding his usual morning conference when family members began chanting slogans like “Because they were taken alive, we want them alive!”

The researchers warned that 52,000 is the minimum number of unidentified dead people recognized by state agencies; they estimated “that there are many more.” They also highlighted that 60 percent of remains are found in mass graves in public cemeteries, which have inadequate records and a “high probability of loss of bodies.”

“Many of those who are buried do not have an investigation folder, and that fills us with great mistrust,” said Martín Villalobos Valencia, a member of the MNDM who collaborated in the analysis and the preparation of the report. 

Violence emerges as the catalyst: Since 2006, there have been 340,000 homicides in the country, the equivalent of saying the entire population of a city like Newark, New Jersey, had disappeared. Last year alone, the country had 27.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest rates in the world.

In Mexico, disappearances are also complicated by migratory flows, the forced displacement of relatives who must leave their places of origin because of death threats, a lack of formal complaints in many cases and, in general, the weak efforts of the authorities to find the families and carry out investigations.

María Teresa Valadez Kinijara, 52, had to travel for three days to participate in the Zócalo protest. As she shouted, she burst into tears as she remembered Fernando, her brother who disappeared in Guaymas, Sonora.

“Since the state does nothing, I became an investigator. I got the videos of my brother’s kidnapping, and I helped identify the person who took him away. But he has been detained since 2015 and has not yet been processed for the disappearance of Fernando. What we are going through is very desperate. I have received threats, and I had to leave Sonora. I have not seen my mother for two years,” she said between sobs.

The report says Baja California (with 9,087 unidentified people), Mexico City (6,701), the state of Mexico (5,968), Jalisco (5,738), Chihuahua (3,943), Tamaulipas (3,788) and Nuevo León (2,077) account for over 70 percent of the total unidentified bodies. There are about 4,000 mass graves, the researchers said.

“It is not convenient for the state to identify so many remains that they have in the common graves, because we are going to find that at least in a third of the disappearances, we sisters, wives and mothers have cried all our lives, and then it turns out that the authorities had them hidden there,” Cruz Bernal said with dismay.

She and Villalobos Valencia are relatives of missing people. Cruz Bernal has been searching for her son in the deserts of Sinaloa since 2017 and is still investigating the whereabouts of her sister-in-law, a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who disappeared 17 years ago.

A bureaucratic maze

Both family members and human rights activists agree that the rise in violence triggered by the actions of criminal groups such as drug cartels — coupled with security policies focused on the militarization of public security — has led to more murders and disappearances that overwhelm the country’s forensic services.

The investigation highlights that Mexico isn’t prepared to face the volume of mortality. Forensic institutions don’t have the necessary staffs, officials don’t have adequate training, and, in general, the jobs involve low salaries and temporary contracts.

According to the report, only 4,111 experts are engaged in activities related to human identification, while they also perform other tasks, which explains the continual lag in the investigations. As of Aug. 31, 2020, authorities from 11 states admitted that 6,176 expert opinions remained pending.

Beyond technical problems, such as obsolete protocols, old databases and the lack of supplies and equipment, the MNDM emphasized that the forensic services lack independence.

“Normally the Public Ministry orders forensics or criminologists what to do. But they should be autonomous, as in other countries, because many times the prosecutors are not trained to be able to recommend anything, and that increases the delays in the identification and in all the investigations,” said Michelle Quevedo, a spokeswoman for the MNDM.

In addition, a recent study by the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization, revealed that, from 2018 to 2020, fewer than a third of the more than 23,000 people who are classified as missing were recognized as victims of specific crimes that are being investigated by the authorities.

“We do not have reliable information,” said Jacobo Dayán, a researcher at Universidad Iberoamericana who has specialized in human rights issues.

There are also inefficiencies involving the different agencies and chains of command, experts say.

A new mechanism and new hopes

In 2019, Mexico acknowledged the crisis at a public hearing, as well as the emergency facing its forensic infrastructure. On Monday, the government announced the creation of an Extraordinary Forensic Identification Mechanism, which families had been advocating for, said Karla Quintana, director of the National Search Commission.

Although the family groups lauded the announcement, they warned that it wouldn’t be easy for the agency to work in Mexico’s tangled bureaucracy.

“We are going to pressure the federal government to designate sufficient resources so that the mechanism can work and consolidate its work program,” Villalobos Valencia said. “It is necessary that the prosecutors collaborate and allow themselves to be helped. We do this out of love for our families, so we are not going to neglect the whole process.”

In addition, Mexico announced Monday that as soon as Covid-19 protocols allow it, the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances will be able to visit the country to develop a joint work program to improve forensic activities.

But experts and family members said it wouldn’t be easy to reform forensics and attack the underlying crisis — which is the rise of violence.

“We must remember that in this country there is between 94 and 98 percent impunity,” Quintana said, emphasizing that despite the tens of thousands of complaints, there have been no more than 40 convictions as a result of forced disappearances.

The mothers keep searching

Meanwhile, from dawn to dusk, Cruz Bernal travels endlessly through the dusty roads of Sinaloa. Shovel in hand, she searches the deserts and wastelands for her missing son while reading investigation folders and files until her eyes water. She said that, sometimes, she and others reach gravesites and flee in terror because people shoot at them.

In Mexico, women are usually the family members most dedicated to searches. They leave everything to dedicate themselves to preserving memories and finding remains, bones, bodies or anything else that brings them a little closer to knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones.

They say they seek treasure and avoid talking about corpses or the dead. They often get death threats that force them to leave their homes and regions. In July, Aranza Ramos was murdered in Sonora as she searched for her husband.

“They are murdering us, those seeking our disappeared,” Cruz Bernal said sadly. But her face lit up when she remembered that Sabuesos Guerreras, which she founded four years ago, already has 850 women and three men who have found more than 190 bodies and 18,860 charred fragments — and they have also found 55 people who were missing and were alive.

“We started as four women, and they said we were crazy, because we did come to turn this upside down, and we are not going to stay locked up,” Cruz Bernal said. “We will continue to do the government’s job. I believe that when someone you love disappears, your fears go away, too.”

A version of this story was first published on Noticias Telemundo.

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