MEXICO CITY – María Isabel Cruz Bernal says she saw it all. She’s seen mothers cry because they couldn’t find their children, parents who got upset because they got only a few fragments of bones, relatives who had nervous breakdowns because they got the wrong bodies, and families who spent years looking for them – just to get your loved ones leftovers in badly sealed garbage bags.
“We have 52,000 unidentified bodies across the country, but we don’t know if there are any more,” said Cruz Bernal, 52, leader of Sabuesos Guerreras (which translates as “warrior bloodhounds”), a civil society in the state of Sinaloa one of over 70 groups that make up the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico (MNDM), an organization that recently published a report entitled “The forensic crisis in Mexico. “
“We live by searching in the mountains and rivers, without knowing that many of them may be in a common grave,” said Cruz Bernal of the missing.
Monday was that International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. In Mexico City, more than 50 relatives of the 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 spread of two “parallel and overlapping” crises: more missing people and more unidentified bodies. The report documents two numbers: 91,318 missing persons have not been found (since 1964 when records began) and more than 52,000 dead were not identified due to errors and delays in the Mexican forensic system.
López Obrador was holding his usual morning conference when family members started chanting slogans like, “Because they were caught alive, we want them alive!”
The researchers warned that 52,000 is the minimum number of unidentified deaths recognized by government agencies; they appreciated “that there are many more”. They also highlighted that 60% of remains are found in mass graves in public cemeteries, which have inadequate records and have a “high probability of loss of corpses.”
“Many of the victims do not have an investigation folder, and we are very suspicious of this,” said Martín Villalobos Valencia, member of the MNDM, which contributed to the analysis and preparation of the report.
Violence acts as a catalyst: there have been 340,000 murders in the country since 2006, equivalent to the disappearance of the entire population of a city like Newark, New Jersey. Last year alone, the country had 27.8 homicides per 100,000 population, one of the highest rates in the world.
In Mexico, disappearances are also being compounded by migratory flows, the forced relocation of loved ones who have been forced to leave their homes due to death threats, the lack of formal complaints in many cases and, in general, the poor efforts of the authorities, families and investigations.
María Teresa Valadez Kinijara, 52, had to travel for three days to take part in the Zócalo protest. As she screamed, she burst into tears remembering Fernando, her brother, who had disappeared in Guaymas, Sonora.
“Since the state is not doing anything, I became an investigator. I got the videos of my brother’s kidnapping and helped identify the person who kidnapped him. But he has been detained since 2015 and has not yet been tried for Fernando’s disappearance. What we are going through is very desperate. I received threats and had to leave Sonora. I haven’t seen my mother in two years, ”she said, sobbing.
According to the report, Baja California (with 9,087 unidentified people), Mexico City (6,701), Mexico State (5,968), Jalisco (5,738), Chihuahua (3,943), Tamaulipas (3,788), and Nuevo León (2,077) are over 70 from percent of all unidentified corpses. 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 communal graves because we will find that at least a third of the disappearances we sisters, wives and mothers have cried our entire lives, then it turns out that the authorities hid them there, ”said Cruz Bernal, dismayed.
You and Villalobos Valencia are relatives of missing persons. Cruz Bernal has been looking for her son in the Sinaloa desert 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 labyrinth
Both family members and human rights activists agree that the increase in violence caused by the actions of criminal groups such as drug cartels – coupled with a security policy that focuses on the militarization of public safety – has led to more killings and enforced disappearances, that overwhelm the country’s forensic services.
The research shows that Mexico is not ready to face the death rate. Forensic facilities do not have the necessary staff, civil servants are not adequately trained, and in general the jobs involve low salaries and fixed-term contracts.
According to the report, only 4,111 experts are engaged in personal identification-related activities while they also perform other duties, which explains the continued delay in investigations. On August 31, 2020, authorities from 11 countries admitted that 6,176 reports were still pending.
Aside from technical issues such as outdated protocols, old databases, and a lack of material and equipment, the MNDM emphasized that forensic services lacked independence.
“Usually the State Department instructs forensic scientists or criminologists what to do. But, like in other countries, they should be autonomous because prosecutors are often not trained to recommend anything, and that adds to the delays in identification and in all investigations, “said Michelle Quevedo, a spokeswoman for the MNDM.
In addition, a Recent study by the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organization, found that from 2018 to 2020, fewer than a third of the more than 23,000 people listed as missing were recognized as victims of certain crimes that are being investigated by the authorities.
“We don’t have reliable information,” said Jacobo Dayán, a researcher at the Universidad Iberoamericana who specializes in human rights issues.
There are also inefficiencies in the various 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 of its forensic infrastructure. On Monday, the government announced the creation of an extraordinary forensic identification mechanism that families had advocated, said Karla Quintana, director of the National Search Commission.
Although the family groups praised the announcement, they warned that it would not be easy for the agency to work in Mexico’s tangled bureaucracy.
“We will put pressure on the federal government to provide sufficient resources to make the mechanism work and consolidate its work program,” said Villalobos Valencia. “It is necessary that the prosecutors cooperate and seek help. We do this out of love for our families, so we won’t neglect the whole process. ”
In addition, Mexico announced on Monday that once the Covid-19 protocols allow, the UN Enforced Disappearance Committee can visit the country to develop a joint program of work to improve forensic activities.
However, experts and family members said it was not easy to reform forensics and attack the underlying crisis – the rise in violence.
“We must not forget that there is between 94 and 98 percent impunity in this country,” said Quintana, emphasizing that despite tens of thousands of complaints, there have been no more than 40 enforced disappearances.
The mothers keep looking
Meanwhile, Cruz Bernal travels endlessly through the dusty streets of Sinaloa from morning to evening. Shovel in hand, she searches the deserts and wasteland for her missing son as she reads investigative files and files until her eyes water. She said that she and others sometimes reach graves and flee in fear because people are shooting at them.
In Mexico, women tend to be the most devoted members of the family to searching. They leave everything to devote themselves to the preservation of memories and to find remains, bones, corpses or anything else that brings them closer to the whereabouts of their loved ones.
They say they are looking for treasure and avoid talking about corpses or dead. They often receive death threats forcing them to leave their home and region. In July, Aranza Ramos was murdered in Sonora while looking for her husband.
“They murder us, those who are looking for our disappearance,” said Cruz Bernal sadly. But her face lit up when she remembered that Sabuesos Guerreras, which she founded four years ago, already has 850 wives and three men who have found more than 190 bodies and 18,860 charred fragments – and they have 55 too People found who were missing and came to life.
“We started out as four women and they said we were crazy because we came to turn this upside down and we won’t stay locked up,” said Cruz Bernal. “We will continue to perform the tasks of the government. I believe that when someone you love disappears, your fears will also go away. “