“Nothing like CSI”
“It’s nothing like CSI. I wish it was more like that, or more modern, but it’s primitive. The situation is primitive.” This is Aldo Ledon Pereira, representative of Voces Mesoamericanas (a migrant advocacy group) describing the state of criminal investigation in Mexico today. Ledon’s organization is working in conjunction with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) on a project called Proyecto Frontera (Border Project) which is undertaking the painstaking task of creating a national DNA database. “The goal of this project is to improve communication amongst prosecutors’ offices, to follow up on locating missing persons and also create a protocol for unidentified corpses…The dream or ideal is to have a regional system that covers Central America and Mexico.” He added that it could be 15 years before Mexico has its own DNA database that could be used to match unidentified bodies to missing persons reports.
Proyecto Frontera started when a co-founder of EAAF, Mercedes Doretti, went to Ciudad Juárez to help identify the remains of murdered women. It was a Herculean task: “there was no way to find genetic information.” Doretti (recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant”) started her work in the 1980s by investigating disappearances during Argentina’s military dictatorship. “From its inception, EAAF’s multi-stage process has involved exhaustive historical research and interviews to locate clandestine graves; painstaking excavation and documentation of remains; determination of cause, manner, and time of death of victims; and the return of identified victims’ remains to families.” Doretti has worked all over the world in countries wounded by years of conflict. According to Doretti, in Mexico “we have a very severe humanitarian crisis since there are over 25,000 missing persons according to the attorney general’s office, so there are 25,000 families waiting for answers.” Through her investigations in Ciudad Juárez, Doretti discovered that authorities had misidentified several women whose remains had been returned to their families; this led to a condemnation of Mexico’s judicial system from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. But it was just the beginning for Doretti.
EAAF has co-founded DNA databases in Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas and through them has been working to provide answers to the scores of families throughout Central America and Mexico whose loved ones have vanished on a perilous trek to the United States. The organization currently has 448 open cases. In March 2012, EAAF and other human rights organizations filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to request that Mexico create an International Forensic Commission to properly identify the remains found in several mass graves discovered in Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Durango.
“The main problem is always access. If there isn’t the political will to investigate, you may have all the evidence in the world, you may have all the experts, all the funding, but you’re not going to be able to do it,” Doretti told an interviewer for Scientific American in October 2012. In discussing her experiences with the cases of the murdered women in Ciudad Juárez, Doretti was very critical of the Mexican authorities and their investigative misconduct. “These remains had gone through several DNA analyses in Mexican state and federal laboratories, and they came back with different results. It was one of the few places in the world where we arrived and the families said, ‘We don’t trust DNA.’ There were other problems as well. Some forensic experts produced results based on anthropological techniques that contradicted most of the DNA results. Some of the remains were not with their original clothing—they had male clothing on them. In one case most of the biological and documental evidence had disappeared—we found the spine at the medical school.”
The lack of resources, infrastructure and training is exacerbated by an apathetic attitude from law enforcement toward an ever-increasing number of cases. Family members are often ignored or sent away, even told they should do their own investigation. And there is denial; neither Felipe Calderón’s administration nor the current Peña Nieto government has fully acknowledged the extent of the damage. As Ledon says: “No country is prepared to see so much death, so much systematic violence.”
El Universal, ONG solicitan conformar sistema regional de ADN (Sept 29 2012)
Scientific American, Forensic Anthropologist uses DNA to solve real-life murder mysteries in Latin America (Oct 8 2012)
MacArthur Foundation: Mercedes Doretti
Animal Político, Proyecto Frontera: Buscando la identidad de 25 mil desaparecidos (Mar 25), En México ya hay avances para un banco de información de ADN (Mar 28)