In at least eighteen municipalities of the country, forensic services are facing a severe crisis. The lack of economic, human, and technological resources has resulted in the stacking of more than 26 thousand corpses and thousands of bone fragments unidentified. The families of the missing persons are the ones who are paying for this situation: they undergo DNA tests that end up in dead files.


What is a body when someone deprives it of a name, a history, and a surname?

Sara Uribe

‘I am looking for my daughter in the world of the living, of the dead, everywhere. Where they tell me [that she may be], there I go. The truth, it hurts not…’, Manuel Ramírez’s voice gets broken and, at the same time, his eyes get wet; he takes deep breaths and, after a little moment of weakness, he continues: “it hurts not to find [the whereabouts of] my daughter. Suddenly, I get tired. I feel bad, frustrated. I feel I have failed my wife for not finding our daughter. That fills me with pain. I feel bad about myself. However, only God will decide when we will find my daughter.’

For his family and him, the first hours with no news of Mónica Alejandrina became days, months, and then years. It has been Fifteen years since they started carrying the pain of her absence; fifteen years of fruitless search that, hopelessly, has run into insensitive authorities, bureaucrats who do nothing to find Monica and the thousands of missing persons of this country. Around 45 thousand people are in that condition.

When the disappearance occurred – in the proximities of the Martín Carrera metro station in 2004 – Mónica was studying Psychology at the Iztacala Faculty of Higher Studies, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Her neighbors Jesús Martín Contreras Hernández and Marlon Gaona Espinoza were found guilty of such acts and sentenced to imprisonment. Nonetheless, no news on the fate of the young student was discovered.

The world of the deaths that Mr. Manuel visits with the hope of finding even just the remains of Mónica is where also hundreds of relatives of missing persons go. In other words, they go to the forensic medical services that stack thousands of humans remains, most of which end up in mass graves without giving the beloved ones the chance to say goodbye, to bury or incinerate them and thus seek resignation.

Grace Fernández believes that it is very likely that one of the 26 thousand unidentified corpses in Mexico is his brother’s, Dan Jeremeel Fernández. She has been looking for him throughout the Republic for over ten years, since the militaries made him disappear in Torreón, in the state of Coahuila, in December 2008.

‘Statistics and experience suggest that missing persons could be in one of the forensic medical services [Semefos] across the country. Every unidentified corpse has a name, a surname, and a family who is searching for them’, explains the young woman in the interview.

In Mexico, 60 forensic services depend on district attorney’s offices. Contralínea carried out an hemerographic review which reveals that at least 18 entities are collapsed or present anomalies (Aguascalientes, Baja California, Chihuahua, Mexico City, Coahuila, Estado de México, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Morelos, Nayarit, Nuevo León, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Tabasco, and Veracruz).

When someone experiences the disappearance of a beloved person, they go to the identification area of the forensic services, which keep a register of the deaths of unidentified people.

According to Grace Fernández – one of the founders of the Moviemento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México, MNDM (Movement for our Disappeared in Mexico) – the human right to identity is fundamental. That is why it is necessary to name the thousands of unidentified corpses and bone fragments, guarantee a dignified treatment, and return them to their families. They do not deserve the denigrating treatment they are given in the Semefos due to overcrowding.

On that, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that every person has the right to recognition of its legal identity. For the Mexican situation, the Ministry of the Interior (Segob) claims that ‘the right to identity represents the basis through which it is possible to access the other rights that laws and treaties enshrine. The right to identity, indeed, allows the individualization of each person, making it unique and irreplaceable.’

Margarito Perez Retana Cuartoscuro

A humanitarian crisis

The crisis affecting the forensic medical services is linked to the violent context that Mexico has been experiencing for over a decade. Currently, 80 people are murdered daily, most of which end up in morgues.

No one denies this crisis. Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez – undersecretary for the department of Human Rights, Population and Migration of the Segob – acknowledged that the current balance of the tragedy is 40 thousand missing persons, more than 1 thousand 100 clandestine graves and 26 thousand unidentified bodies. He made this statement on February 4, during the presentation of the implementation plan of the General Law on Forced Disappearance of Persons (Ley General en Materia de Desaparición Forzada de Personas).

At the international level, this complicated situation is well known too. There are thousands of corpses, and tens of thousands of [bone] fragments both unidentified. Moreover, no minimum actions necessary for their identification can be carried out,» denounced Jan Jarab, representative of the Office in Mexico of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), through a letter sent last May to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The international advocator added that Mexican public forensic services are overwhelmed by the high volume of work they face; by the insufficiency of human and material resources to carry out their tasks; and by the technical skills that are needed.

During the interview with Contralínea, Jesús Peña – deputy representative of the OHCHR in the country – points out that the Mexican government has already accepted that the forensic system is in crisis. He adds that the authority ‘has expressed its will to work out a solution along with the affected families. How great it is that the work that the civil society organizations had been doing has led to recognition. We hope that as soon as possible, this work turns into concrete actions able to overcome the current situation.’

Grace Fernández, desperate, points out: ‘These severe violations to human rights [mass murders and disappearances] have been occurring since 2006. Moreover, they were not able to strengthen the [forensic] institutions throughout the last 12 years. How much longer do they think it is necessary to strengthen them? It has been ten years since I started looking for my brother.’

Following Dan Jeremeel’s disappearance, the young woman- who is a public accountant – became an activist and joined the tens of families in Coahuila organized in the United Forces for Our Disappeared in Mexico. The latter was founded before the wave of disappearances that the ‘war’ against drug trafficking– declared in 2006 by the then-president Felipe Calderón – caused in Coahuila.

Despite the crisis of human rights, the figures of missing people have not been updated since April 2018, when the Executive Secretariat of the National System for Public Security ceased to be responsible for the National Registry of Missing Persons (Registro Nacional de Datos de Personas Extraviadas o Desaparecidas) of both federal and state jurisdictions. From then on, it became to correspond to the National Commission for the Search of Missing Persons (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas) whose current leader is Karla Quintana Osuna. It is nevertheless estimated that the number of victims is around 45 thousand.


The ‘war’ against drug trafficking: the trigger of the current violence

The ‘war’ against drug trafficking represented the trigger of the violence that Mexico is currently experiencing. Indeed, ‘it was not a war against drug trafficking, instead, against people. It was an exercise of legitimacy in light of the illegitimacy used by Felipe Calderón had to win the polls’, says Senator Antares Guadalupe Vázquez, a member of the Human Rights Commission.

In this context of violence, the deputy representative of the OHCHR, Jesús Peña, points out that many cases of abuse have been committed in Mexico. For instance, they have violated the human right to physical integrity; the right to live when murders or torture are committed; the right to justice, when forensic services that are crucial elements to determine the occurrence of the violation and to investigate and identify those responsible are not trustable. Furthermore, they have violated the right of society to know the truth, to know what happens in their country’.

On the other hand, the legislator of Morena’s party, Antares Vásquez claims that the right to truth is ‘that right belonging to the families who have been seeking their sons, parents, grandparents, sometimes for years, without knowing where they are or what happened to them. How can they live in peace if they do not know where their relative is?’

So far, since the beginning of the six-year term of Andrés Manuel López Obrador – from December 5, 2018, to June 3, 2019 – 14 thousand 133 intentional homicides have been registered within the country, documents the Security Report of the National Security Commission.

In addition to the above, data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography show that between 2007 and 2016, 304,889 people died violently; and official and press records indicate that in 2017 the figure exceeded 29 thousand murders and, in 2018, it reached 34 thousand.

Tens of thousands of these corpses are stacked in the forensic services in Mexico.

Senator Antares Guadalupe claims that the treatment of the corpses and bodily remains is inhuman. The least a person deserves is a human treatment at death and a final disposition depending on the family’s wishes: cremation, burial, anything, but the relative’s final rest is the only way for a family to find peace.’

Families notice that not only forensic services but also other authorities – which do not coordinate to prevent such a crisis – reserve an inhuman treatment to bodies. On that issue, Grace Fernández criticizes that the Attorney General of the Republic, Alejandro Gertz, and the Secretary of Citizen Security and Protection, Alfonso Durazo, do not work in synergy. ‘The Ministry of the Interior, headed by Alejandro Encinas and his team, is the authority that must work closely with the families. However, it is not enough’.

The activist that quitted her job two years ago to devote full time to the search of her brother adds: ‘if one of the gears does not move, everything creaks.’ Therefore, she says, ‘what we expect from the current government is honesty and the ability to recognize if they do not know how to proceed. It is exactly what other governments did not do. They just denied, minimized and criminalized the victims because they were not skilled’.

According to Senator Antares Vázquez, in this area, ‘an extensive work is required because cultural changes need to be made. Moreover, there must be a political will that now there is.’

‘They have never mistreated us. However, they do not investigate!’

Adela Alvarado, along with her husband Manuel Ramírez, has been searching for her daughter Mónica Alejandrina since December 2004. She explains that the forensic medical services in Estado de Mexico performed on them several genetic tests because, as they say, science moves forward, and they need new samples.

‘They have never maltreated us, even in the meetings that we have with public ministries they look after us, offer us coffee, some candies, but they do not investigate. I am not looking for a hug, a kiss, a coffee, or a glass of water. I want them to investigate. That is how the PRI party’s system works: they pat you and tells you: ‘come in, take a sit. What would you like? Some water? A sandwich? Everything boils down to this, but this is not what we want.’

According to Jaime Gómez Sánchez, head of the District Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de Justicia) of Estado de Mexico, in the Semefos of that state there are 3 thousand 275 unidentified bodies (Excélsior, “There are five thousand 930 unidentified corpses; data from the District Attorney’s Offices and Semefos”, October 11, 2018)

The actual figure may be higher, as only from January to April 2019, they have registered 1 thousand 196 homicides in Estado de Mexico, shows the 2019 report on the incidence of crimes in the ordinary jurisdiction (Incidencia delictiva del fuero común 2019), of the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security.

Manuel Ramírez explains that in the past when his daughter disappeared, forensic medical services in Estado de Mexico were not well-organized. ‘Now they have organized the Semefos in areas. At that time, however, we were going to Texcoco, Amecameca, Nezahualcóyotl y Tlalnepantla’.


A chronic problem

Senator Antares Vázquez affirms that there is a chronic problem in the country’s forensic services. Furthermore, she remembers that when she was studying Medicine and was going through the Semefo in Mexico City, located in the street Niños Héroes, the stench of dead people was intolerable. She even assures that it was impossible not to notice bodies’ fluids.

‘We were not experiencing the current crisis. The Semefo was coping with the lack of refrigerators. Everything that has to do with expert services has been neglected in this country, so preventing people from accessing justice because situations go unpunished.’

According to one of the experts of the Institute of Forensic Sciences (Incifo) – who requested anonymity as he is not allowed to talk to the press – ensures that this problem does not exist anymore. Indeed, unlike what occurs in other states, the Incifo counts on an identification department that has a ‘quite large archive compared to all the cadavers that enter without identifying. Moreover, it has enough space to house all the corpses that [sic] are found daily in the municipalities.’

However, Mónica Alejandrina’s father affirms that it is impossible to access forensic registers in the Incifo. ‘They only take note of our details, but they do not let us enter. They say that if they find something, they will call us. They do not let us see books or photos because, according to them, they are too strong. Nonetheless, we see these kinds of things every day. I am a doctor, and I can bear it.’

On May 22, PhD. in Law, Zoraida García Castilla – coordinator of the bachelor’s program in Forensic Sciences at the UNAM – pointed out that the problems affecting the Semefos are structural. Hence, it is essential to detect and correct them.

In the official act of the public apology to Lesvy Berlín Rivera’s family, the researcher said that it is vital to train experts so that they have a human rights perspective. ‘Forensic services need attention, support, better wages, more personnel, modern infrastructure, and resources to be able to work. However, above all, they need to coordinate among them and with the Public Ministry. It is the moment to think about it.’

Groups of families and human rights advocators do their part: they are physically in the fields, searching, opening graves, subsidizing Mexican State’s work, warns Grace Fernández. «Why is the State not doing it? Is it because they are not willing to, are they unable to, is it not convenient for the State? Why are groups those who are filling Semefos with remains? What else do we have to do? Do we also have to start making DNA identification? Do we have to take Semefos’ job and start doing autopsies? What else does the State want us to do?’

The path of the General Law on Enforced Missing Persons

When Grace Fernández and her mother started looking for Dan Jeremeel, the victim’s relatives were not organized. Due to the lack of authorities’ answers, the paths of people, groups, and organizations from different parts of the country crossed. Now they are fighting together for justice.

‘We understood that we were going to be stronger together. Although there are many more organizations, the Serepaz, and the Centro Diocesano para los Derechos Humanos Fray Juan de Larios (Fray Juan de Larios Diocesan Centre for Human Rights) helped coordinate and brought the groups together. That is how we began to have more incidence with the families to implement the General Law on Enforced Missing Persons.

The General Law was drafted in the Senate by three negotiating parties: the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of the Interior – with the then undersecretary Roberto Campa – and the technical team (lawyers and families) of the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico.

‘With the Commission we were discussing, collaborating, but they did not provide them with resources. Hence, it was impossible to advance. In the end, if there are no resources to strengthen that will, it is impossible to progress’, says Grace.

Adela Álvarez, who is seeking her daughter, Mónica Alejandrina, and a member of the MNDM, explains that there have been more interactions with Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government compared to the previous administrations.

According to Adela, not everything that has been done in the past is bad. An instance of this, she says, is the Law on Enforced Missing Persons. However, she wonders: ‘What is the purpose of having a legal instrument if there is no political and financial will to put it into practice? We said to the current government what we could recuperate in order not to start from scratch again, as it would mean delegitimize families’ effort.’

Senator Antares Guadalupe Vázquez notices that previous governments disregarded the administration of justice: there is ‘a terrifying delay’ in such an area. Regarding the forensic crisis, she says that due to impunity and lack of justice, ‘corruption has prevailed in the country’s expert services.’

Extraordinary forensic identification mechanism needed.

Due to the urgency of identification of corpses and bone remains, the Movement for Our Disappeared in Mexico requested the Mexican State to create an extraordinary forensic identification mechanism before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in Kingston, Jamaica.

In the framework of the 172nd session of the IACHR, the Movement participated in the hearing entitled ‘Enforced disappearances and the proposal of an extraordinary forensic identification mechanism in Mexico.’ In that occasion, the Movement recommended the creation of a particular body, with technical and administrative independence, own resources, international technical and financial support, to address the forensic problem regarding the identification of people.

‘We want it to be an extraordinary mechanism because the rate of violence and deaths has not decreased. Indeed, forensic services keep on receiving corpses. The forensic system is sinking, and there is no way that they will improve in the identification process. We believe that they need to ask for international help which is different from the assistance they can get in the justice system in the expert services because we do not trust such an institution’, says Grace Fernández in an interview.

According to the information of the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security, from January to April 2019, 14 thousand 620 murders have been registered at the national level. In other words, 121 killings occur daily, without considering deaths by other causes which in some cases also implicate forensic services, such as accidents, natural deaths, or deaths due to illness.

The forensic identification mechanism is supported by the United Nations Organization, which has urged the Mexican State to involve families, civil organizations and academic institutions in it, with procedures for evaluating work quality, transparency and accountability. Besides, the UN has requested the Mexican State to adequately employ forensic information so that it may contribute to identification and investigations.

Jesús Peña, the deputy representative of the OCHR in Mexico, says during the interview that in spite of the numerous names attributed to this mechanism, all the proposals ‘refer to a type of technical assistance that allows to address the current situation of forensic emergency and to identify cadavers and bone remains’.

Grace Fernández comments that the MNDM has a strategic alliance with the Forensic Team (a group made up of the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team, Mexican anthropologists and the International Red Cross), with whom they have carried out diagnostics on the Mexican system. They are currently working on the proposal of the extraordinary mechanism while discussing with the Ministry of the Interior and the National Search Commission.

‘It is still hard for them [the officials of the federal government] to understand it: they recognize that there is an urgent need of identification [of cadavers], but they do not support the implementation of an extraordinary mechanism. They want to bet on the National Forensic Institute. How long will it take for them to create it if it is going to require the support, collaboration, and coordination of the states that have not wanted to invest in this for years?’, asks the member of the Movement for Our Disappeared.

Distrust in the country’s expert services

The distrust in the country’s expert services has led the families of missing persons to request independent specialist opinions. «How great would it be if there was no one who would tell them [the experts] what to say so that they could give certainty to the families,» says Fernández.

Seamlessly, he points out that ‘organizations provide the majority of independent financing. The problem is not that we do not trust the expert’s work, but we do not trust the institution that they represent. We do not believe that they have technical autonomy.’

According to Manuel Ramírez, Mónica Alejandrina´s father, it is frustrating being unable to find people either alive or their bodies. The few they can locate is thanks to the work of families, organizations, and groups who carry out searches with their means. Nonetheless, even when the remains are found, there are no public resources to perform DNA tests and thus identify corpses.

One of the functions of the Executive Commission of Victims Attention is to finance independent expert opinions. However, Grace Fernández comments that only a few of them have been paid, ‘because the Commission intentionally slows down expert assessments, instead of favoring them.’


Isaac Hernández

(Translated by: Federica Antoniani)


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