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Forensic Crisis

Over the past two years, an average of 20 people per day have gone missing in Mexico. Disappearances are the most important human rights issue in the country, with 75,269 registered disappearances occurring since 2006. Since 2018, 1,257 clandestine graves have been discovered, containing 1,957 bodies. Most of those have been located only with tremendous effort by citizen-led search groups.

Some disappearances are cases of kidnapping by armed criminal groups, while others are extrajudicial detentions by police or military officers. Due to frequent collusion between security forces and criminal groups, many families choose not to report disappearances to local authorities, fearing threats or reprisals. In most instances, the disappearance is only the beginning of victimization for families.

High-profile cases—such as the abduction of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college by municipal police officers in 2014—illustrate many of the challenges surrounding delivering justice in disappearance cases. Investigators routinely mishandle or lose evidence, DNA testing of physical remains is unreliable and distrusted by families, officials treat victims with disdain, and cases remain unresolved years after the event. These experiences are common across Mexico.

While the search for the disappeared in clandestine graves attracts understandable international attention, Mexico faces a technical problem of potentially greater magnitude. There have been more than 275,000 registered homicides since 2006, but many victims have not been returned to their families. According to documentation obtained by Quinto Elemento Lab, Mexico’s forensic institutions have been unable to identify 38,891 bodies over this period and have buried 27,271 of these in common graves. Families searching for missing loved ones within this bureaucratic system face a range of obstacles, including fragmentary or inaccurate physical descriptions, missing burial records, and mislabeling of physical remains. Of the 1,957 bodies recovered since 2018, only 806 have been identified and only 449 have been returned to families.

This “forensic emergency” is a human rights crisis of political making. Funding for state justice systems is insufficient—the budget for these institutions is equivalent to less than 1% of what is spent on security—and those state judicial bodies allot an average of only 3% of their budget to forensic services. The country has only around 2,600 forensic specialists for a population of 130 million. Underfunded and understaffed, forensic institutions have been unable to operate properly. Emergency measures have included contracting the processing of unidentified bodies to private funeral homes. In one case, after morgues reached capacity, officials in Jalisco stored unidentified bodies in a trailer, a practice uncovered after residents complained of the smell.

Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s federal government has taken steps to address the situation. It has provided substantial resources to the National Search Commission to undertake efforts to locate missing persons and to improve the registry of disappearance victims and the DNA database. It recently inaugurated a federal forensic facility in Coahuila to aid with the identification of remains, and there are plans to construct four more centers. Importantly, Mexico has also recently recognized the authority of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearance to receive and examine complaints in the country. It has also established the framework for the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification to address the backlog of unidentified remains, though funding and implementation have lagged. The 2021 budget for the National Search Commission was cut by 3.4%, while the Extraordinary Mechanism still lacks a director and dedicated resources.

Insufficient forensic capacity is directly responsible for exacerbating the disappearance crisis. The failure to locate the disappeared, and the failure to identify and return remains that are in the possession of the state represents a systemic violation of human rights. Family members of disappeared persons experience ongoing revictimization as a result.

The crisis undermines both rule of law and public trust in Mexico. The pervasiveness of disappearance as a crime underscores the government’s inability to control violence and eradicate corruption within security forces. Persistent impunity for perpetrators of disappearances reflects a lack of both political will and technical and investigative ability. Investing in forensic capacity will reduce impunity for all violent crimes.

Author: Michael Lettieri

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