Mexico’s citizen detectives take forensic studies into their own hands

Independent Web registry allows families to report disappearances and safely store evidence without police interference

Araceli Rodriguez holds a photo of her son Luis Angel León, a federal policeman who disappeared in 2009 while on a mission in western Michoacán state.
Al Jazeera

MEXICO CITY — Nearly eight weeks since they disappeared in the hands of local police and drug gangs in Iguala in Guerrero state, the case of Mexico’s 43 missing students has entered a new stage, one of intense scrutiny of the remains found at several mass graves.

But victims’ families face no shortage of challenges.

“There is a total lack of forensic culture and expertise in Mexico,” said Arely Cruz, 28, a co-founder of the Ciencia Forense Ciudadana project, or Citizen-Led Forensics. She and research partner Ernesto Schwartz, 32 — both Mexican academics at Durham University in the U.K. — have teamed up with families of the disappeared to launch an independent Web registry that will allow citizens to report disappearances directly, without police involvement, and safely store all the information and evidence they collect. 

As a security precaution, the case files will be stored at Durham University, a project sponsor, and DNA evidence will be analyzed in a forensic lab in Washington, D.C.

While the Mexican government announced last year they had compiled a list of 26,000 missing people, there is no such national do-it-yourself registry available to the public. In its place is pervasive skepticism in the authorities’ ability and willingness to conduct investigations. In many cases, families admit they don’t report their missing to the police. They often don’t trust them, and many fear corrupt officials. Some files get misplaced in a massive bureaucracy, they say. In other cases, sensitive information is allegedly lost.

Ernesto Schwartz, left, and Arely Cruz are co-founders of the Citizen-Led Forensics project, an independent Web registry that will allow Mexicans to report disappearances without police involvement.
Al Jazeera

“How can citizens trust their government to bring them justice if the same authorities are involved in the crimes? There is something schizophrenic about this idea that the state commits a crime and then you demand the state to bring you truth and provide all the experts,” said Schwartz, who hopes their citizen bio-bank or database will “spark true, radical change from the ground up."

In the face of violence and government negligence, families across the country have been organizing in their communities for years to help one another search for missing loved ones.

“We had to become private detectives to conduct our own investigations and even collect forensic evidence,” said Araceli Rodriguez, whose 24-year-old son, Luis Ángel León, a federal policeman, disappeared in 2009 while on a mission in western Michoacán state. Rodríguez is among the 16 families of desaparecidos who are launching the forensic database with Schwartz and Cruz.

Rodriguez said that after criminals from a local drug cartel confessed to killing her son and burning his body in the mountains, she went to the crime scene to collect evidence on her own because the authorities did not.

“They didn’t even ask me basic questions like ‘Does he have a tattoo? What color is his hair?’ They really don’t know how to put together a case file. I’m the one who came up with the idea of collecting grains of dirt from the ground at the crime scene,” she said. She sterilized a little jar and put some dirt in it “in case there were traces of my son’s blood.”

Fernando Ocegueda, 58, another member of the citizens’ group, said he investigated his 23-year-old son’s disappearance for years. Criminals dressed as federal police broke into his house in Tijuana and took his son away in 2007. Ocegueda said he helped in the investigation and the men were eventually jailed, but they never confessed what they did to his son or where his body could be. 

Ocegueda decided he wanted to help other families investigating their own disappearance cases and founded Baja California’s United Association of the Families of the Disappeared. It conducted an independent search for the site where a criminal known as El Pozolero (the Stewmaker) confessed to dissolving the bodies of 300 victims in acid. In 2012 the group identified what was supposedly a cockfighting ranch, La Gallera, and found 1,000 teeth and more than 4,000 gallons of liquefied human remains, which it handed over to the attorney general’s office.

Despite all the evidence the group provided, Ocegueda said, the families never got any results back.

“The federal government still hasn’t been able to do any DNA testing of the remains, and we’re very concerned about that,” he said. “But even if that were to be the last thing I do in this world, I know I will find my son, and I’ll give him a Christian burial so that his mother can finally live in peace, so that she can close the circle,” he added, holding back tears.

‘I don’t trust the government. They might just make something up and show us some random bones to keep us quiet.’

Maria Olivares

mother of a missing student

While the families and the rest of Mexico try to make sense of the horrific events of Iguala, hopes for a legal resolution and emotional closure seem impossible with so much distrust in the government.

As a result of this distrust, forensic investigations of sensitive cases in Mexico are already often in the hands of foreign experts.

In the case of the missing students, a group of Argentine forensic experts have said that two dozen bodies unearthed more than a month ago near Iguala do not match the DNA of any of the missing students. And Mexican authorities have sent bone and teeth fragments from the latest gravesite, at a trash dump, to a team of experts in Austria to be analyzed.

“I don’t trust the government,” said Maria Olivares, whose 20-year-old son, Antonio, is among the missing students. “They might just make something up and show us some random bones to keep us quiet. I’ll only trust independent DNA results from the Argentine commission.” 

Meanwhile, nearly daily protests — some violent — continue across the country as many Mexicans reject government allegations that the students were killed and incinerated by a drug gang. Their demand: that authorities keep searching for the students.

Human remains were found at a garbage dump outside Cocula, near Iguala, Nov. 8, 2014. Bone and teeth fragments have been sent to a team of experts in Austria to be analyzed.
Henry Romero / Reuters

“We are redoubling efforts to find the students and will spare no human or technological resources,” said Mexico’s security chief, Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, during a recent visit with the families in Guerrero.

Just a few days earlier though, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam showed a chilling video confession, in which suspects from the brutal drug cartel Guerreros Unidos re-enacted how they allegedly killed the students and incinerated their remains at a dump in Cocula, about 15 miles from Iguala. According to the confession, they let the grisly bonfire rage for 14 hours, then put the ashes in plastic bags and dumped them in a river.

For the upstart Citizen-Led Forensics, the stakes of the challenge couldn’t be higher. More than 120,000 people have been killed or gone missing in Mexico since 2006 in what is now the biggest humanitarian crisis in Latin America.

Schwartz has no doubt his country is in a state of warlike emergency.

“In eight years of drug war,” he said, “the number of the disappeared and dead in Mexico is already half that of those killed or missing in Colombia’s 50-year war.”

Cruz and Schwartz have an initial budget to gather 1,500 DNA samples from the families of missing people. They will use these samples to examine a first round of 450 missing-person cases. Eventually, as they secure more funding, they hope to track all reported killings or disappearances in Mexico, including those of foreigners. 

A test case is underway.

On Sept. 12, Citizen-Led Forensics initiated the first known independent exhumation ever done in Mexico. They worked with experts from Peru to exhume the alleged remains of Brenda Damaris, a young woman who disappeared in northern Mexico in 2011. The remains originally returned to her family allegedly included two skulls and clothes they didn’t recognize. Because of discrepancies, the family had been asking authorities for DNA testing for two years. They’re now waiting for the independent results.

Families of the disappeared across the country want forensic investigations to be used first of all to find their loved ones alive, not just in a grave — a feeling the parents of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School share.

For many families, the term “forensic” is itself traumatic.

“For people like us, who went through such a tragedy, when we hear the word ‘DNA,’ we think death. This word for us is like a wall. It takes us a lot of work to deal with it,” said Lucia Baca, a member of Citizen-Led Forensics. Her son, a 33-year-old engineer, disappeared on a highway near the northern city of Monterrey while he was heading to Texas for a trip in 2011. 

But the citizen-led project, in Schwartz’s and Cruz’s vision, aims at redefining what “forensic” means.

“We are called forensic not so much because we’re doing forensic DNA tests in a lab but because we are a forum, in the old sense of the Latin word. Like the ancient Romans, we are a group of citizens getting together to share information and disputing it in an open, public space,” said Cruz, as she sat at a round table with some of the 16 families from Citizen-Led Forensics who gathered from different states to define their strategy in support of the Guerrero families.

By the end of the meeting, the group decided to offer 500 DNA tests to analyze the remains of bodies unearthed while searching for the missing students.

“The government is very interested in finding those 43 now because the world’s attention is on it,” said Schwartz, when he and some of the group were taking part in a Nov. 8 flash mob protest in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square. “But there are hundreds of other bodies there. What’s going to happen to all these? Are they going to go back to the mass grave without an identity?”

“Inequality somehow filters down even to the dead,” he said. 

He and Cruz want families of the missing, who have the most at stake, at the center of the searches so they can drive the investigations and be “the owners of their own data,” he said.

“The state doesn’t have a monopoly on truth,” Schwartz said. “What we need is transparency.”

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