As Mexican president announces police revamp following student atrocity outrage, British-funded project aims to identify human remains buried in mass graves across violence-plagued country.
British forensics experts are working with Mexican parents-turned-investigators whose children have disappeared to create the first independent database of the country’s thousands of missing. The genetic and anthropology experts from Durham University have teamed up with Mexican counterparts and relatives of disappeared people on a British-funded project that could help identify human remains buried in mass graves. They hope to encourage other families to come forward and register their missing loved-ones as Mexico struggles to deal with the horrendous legacy of its bloody gang and drugs wars.
More than 100,000 people have been killed and 23,000 reported missing since 2007. But there is still no database for the disappeared or for the thousands of unidentified human remains lying in mortuaries across the country, many of which were found in mass graves. Even in a country plagued by such atrocities, the disappearance of 43 trainee teachers in the southern state of Guerrero in September has ignited fresh outrage over violence, corruption and impunity. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets demanding the resignation of President Enrique Pena Nieto as gruesome details emerged of the kidnap and probable massacre of the students by an organised crime gang working with local police and politicians.
Facing the biggest crisis of his administration, Mr Pena Nieto this week unveiled sweeping reforms to dissolve corruption-plagued municipal police forces nationwide. The local forces, which often work side-by-side with crime cartels, will be put under the control of state governments in an effort to establish functioning law enforcement. More carnage hit Mexico hours before his announcement, with the discovery of 11 beheaded bodies in the troubled southern state of Guerrero – the same region where the students were attacked in September. Mr Pena Nieto was elected in December 2012 by Mexicans exhausted by the relentless militarised but failed “war on drugs” launched by his predecessor Felipe Calderon in 2007.
The new president declared the disappearances a “humanitarian crisis” and promised to create a reliable national database as the first step to solving the problem, yet the government is reportedly set to slash next year’s budget of its specialised federal search unit. The fate of the missing students has galvanised many citizens to take matters into their own hands.
Letty Hidalgo’s son Roy Rivera, an 18-year-old university student, was last seen being abducted from his home in Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city, in January 2011 by armed men wearing police uniforms.
Ms Hidalgo is one of 16 parents-turned investigators working with the Durham researchers, and independent Mexican and Peruvian forensic scientists in the Transformative Citizen’s Led Forensics Project – funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.
“We are tired of waiting for the state to do its job. We the people have decided to use our power to deliver justice to the families,” she told The Telegraph.
Around 400 people have already registered on the new database, mainly in Guerrero, where many of the families have never filed a police report due to fears about corruption and reprisals. The project has media campaigns and registration open-days planned across the country in coming weeks. It currently has enough funds to pay for 1500 DNA profiles of living relatives, enough to identify up to 500 human remains. The lab tests will be done in the US and all the data stored on secure servers at Durham. 150 families from Guerrero will initially benefit from the project.
Dr Ernesto Schwartz-Marin, a genetics scholar at Durham University and lead researcher in the project, said: “The scale of the problem is huge in Mexico and the justice system is corrupt, but the relatives have shown themselves to be the most resilient and consistent investigators. This is the beginning of a forensic science revolution which challenges the state’s monopoly on the truth.” But leading international forensics experts have concerns about the limits and potential harm caused by well-intentioned ad hoc projects.
They say it is essential to follow the international standards for data and evidence collection, storage and analysis which have helped identify thousands of remains and convict perpetrators in the former Yugoslavia, Argentina, Guatemala and Chile. Recent pictures of desperate families in Guerrero digging for remains in newly discovered graves, risking the contamination of crimes scenes and evidence, has caused further unease.
Dr Thomas Parsons, director of forensic sciences at the International Commission for Missing Person in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina, said:
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel, we have pioneered effective tools and mechanisms which are available to Mexico. What’s lacking is government will.”
But Dr Schwartz-Marin said: “In Mexico the war is ongoing, the disappearances continue, the state seems indifferent and there is no sign of regime change. We need a new model, now.”
Source: The Telegraph