This article first appeared in El País on 17 February 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).
Missing in Mexico: “It’s not enough to hand over a sealed box then say, here’s your child”
by Pablo de Llano (El PAÍS)
– Argentine forensic scientist, Mercedes Doretti speaks about the challenges in her work – her team collaborates with Mexico on unidentified bodies
Mercedes Doretti (Buenos Aires, 1959) has helped identify human remains in Argentina, Peru, postwar former Yugoslavia, El Salvador, and the Philippines. After more than thirty years of work she is convinced that governments must deal transparently with the families of the dead.
“Sometimes the problem doesn’t lie with the identification techniques, but in credibility. Sometimes there’s an overblown secrecy to the cases. And the relatives are people who have had the worst thing happen to them: to lose a husband, a son, a daughter. Obviously one wants to know what happened. How did they die? How were they identified? Words don’t suffice. It’s not enough to hand over a sealed box then say, here’s your child. Forensic identification is not an act of faith.”
Doretti, who helped establish the reputable Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, is in Mexico to work with the federal attorney general on the analysis of remains from three massacres of migrants, emblematic of the north of the country’s drug violence. Two massacres from Tamaulipas (in the same township in San Fernando 72 bodies appeared together in one grave in 2010, and in 2011, 193 bodies were distributed between various graves), and another massacre at Cadereyta in Nuevo León where criminals tossed cut up torsos from 49 people across a highway early one morning. Another area she is helping with includes the final identification of 13 young people murdered in Mexico City in 2013 after they had been kidnaped from a nightclub.
Just this week controversy has arisen over another northern Mexican case. Authorities in Coahuila state announced the discovery of narco-graves and, after several days of contradictory information that still has not been verified, the region’s victims called the search operation “a farce.”
In Mexico, the work is difficult but possible. It depends enormously on political will.
The words of a family member of a disappeared person from Coahuila in an interview with this newspaper reflect the problem of the authorities’ lack of credibility. “If they tell them they are ours, we won’t accept it. We need proof. They can’t just hand them over and act as if the problem is solved.”
Questions about Mexico’s disappeared surged from 2006 to 2012 as a result of the strategy of the full-on assault against drug traffickers. The government confirms that 70,000 citizens died during that period, with about 25,000 of those fatalities unidentified. Add to those 26,000 unresolved disappearances.
Doretti thinks that Mexico confronts a complex challenge, and gives the Argentine example up by way of comparison. “We went through a similar situation, with a very high number of disappeared people. We had to construct a national databank of disappeared family members and an exhumation program that lasted many years. All of this implied that time strengthened the process. The work is difficult but not impossible. It depends enormously on political will.”
Besides the specifics of Mexico’s situation, the Argentine forensic scientist talks about the regional program developed by her team. The Borders Program (Proyecto Frontera). She is building a network of databanks along the American migration corridor, from originating Central American countries to the biggest destination, the south of the United States, passing through Mexico, a huge space along the way.
The databanks require shared labor between public agencies and NGOs in every country. They collect information about the disappeared by interviewing families and taking DNA samples. Doretti explains that an inter-regional system for information sharing does not exist. The network they are building began to operate in 2011. They have added 633 cases and identified 67 migrants.
Her team has an inter-regional identification plan for migrants
Her ambition for Project Borders is that it have the wherewithal and sufficient support to resolve the current situation. Most migrants who disappear without trace vanish forever into a black hole of general lack of interest and institutional inefficiency.
The forensic scientist stressed that these problems don’t just occur in developing countries but also in some poorly resourced local communities in the United States.
She gives the example of Brooks County, Texas, where in 2012 they found 127 migrants’ bodies. The county has no morgue. They failed to identify the bodies as a result, and buried them in a grave. When people found out what happened, protests began and a few months ago Brooks started to send its bodies to another county with a morgue.
Many other Texas counties continue in a similar situation to Brooks: each unidentified body gets thrown down a hole and it’s there a person’s story finishes. A person who traveled thousands of kilometers in an attempt to grow and thrive and who once had a name.
Journalist Pablo de Llano reports for El País from Mexico. You can follow him on Twitter @pablodellano. This story first appeared under the title, “No basta que te entregen un cajón cerrado y te digan acá está tu hijo,” available at: http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/02/11/actualidad/1392131582_931829.html.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.