Where are the disappeared from Mexico? Many have been in government graves all along

After learning that her 44-year-old son had been killed in downtown Tijuana, Guadalupe Aragón Sosa went looking for him.

She gave police a sample of her DNA, but they said they found no results when they compared it to a database of unidentified bodies.

She spent hours at the local morgue, flipping through black and white photographs of unclaimed bodies, but her Carlos was not among them.

Guadalupe Aragón Sosa holds a photo of her son Carlos

Guadalupe Aragón Sosa holds a photo of her late son Carlos in Tijuana in 2019.

(Verónica G. Cárdenas / For The Times)

He toured fields and garbage dumps on the outskirts of the city where local thugs were known to bury their victims, probing the ground with a metal rod for a smell of rotting meat. She unearthed a dozen corpses, but not her son.

It was almost a year before he finally learned of his fate in late 2018 – he had been in a government grave the entire time.

Some 80,000 Mexicans have disappeared in the last 15 years and have never been found. Many are now believed to be in government custody, among the thousands of bodies that pass through morgues each year without being identified and end up in mass graves.

The country’s top human rights official, Alejandro Encinas, has called the problem a “humanitarian crisis and forensic emergency.”

“For years, the state abdicated its responsibility, not only to guarantee people’s safety, but to give … families the right to search and find and return home to their relatives,” he said last year.

A recent investigation by the Fifth Element Lab news team revealed through public records requests that there are about 39,000 unidentified bodies dating back to 2006 in government custody.

Dead bodies are stacked in refrigeration units in the morgue

The corpses are stacked in refrigeration units at a mortuary in Tijuana in 2018.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

More than 28,000 of them had been cremated or buried in public cemeteries. Another 2,589 have been donated to medical schools. Most of the others were still in the morgues or could not be located.

Government officials earned praise from human rights defenders when they announced a plan in late 2019 to assemble a team of national and international experts with the aim of identifying all bodies and even bone fragments.

But the effort has stalled amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the realization that forensic challenges are more daunting than anticipated.

“Few cemeteries, almost none, have a good record of the location and number of people buried there,” said Roxana Enríquez Farias, founder of the Mexican Forensic Anthropology Team, a nonprofit organization that has assisted with exhumation plans at the level. state.

Decaying corpses are often stacked on top of each other, sometimes just in plastic bags, and the mixing of genetic materials makes it difficult to obtain useful samples.

“If you are looking for a 17-year-old girl, you will end up with a match for a 43-year-old woman,” said Yanet Juárez, a researcher at the National School of Anthropology and History.

In many cases, the records of the missing consist of nothing more than names and ages, with no family DNA samples or other clues that could help link them to the remains. When the state of Tamaulipas exhumed 265 bodies and several boxes of bones from a public cemetery in 2018, authorities were only able to identify about 30 people.

Finding the body of a missing relative often comes down to a combination of luck and persistence.

People wait in line at the morgue

People line up at the morgue to identify the bodies of their relatives in Tijuana in 2019.

(Verónica G. Cárdenas / For The Times)

“The first time I went to the morgue they told me there were no unidentified bodies, only a child who had already been identified,” said Gladys Quiroz Longoria, who recalled exactly what her 27-year-old son was wearing. day he disappeared and described the clothes to the authorities.

“They always told me there was nothing there … until the day they called to show me photos.”

Her son, Eugenio Alexander Molina Quiroz, had been in the Tamaulipas morgue for the past eight months.

In theory, each time a new body arrives at a morgue it is supposed to be refrigerated until an autopsy can be performed and an inventory of scars, tattoos, cavities, and other features that could aid identification can be made. DNA samples are supposed to be stored in case they are needed later.

But in practice, many coroners simply cannot keep up with the death toll.

The problem made headlines in 2018, when Jalisco state medical examiners ran out of space and stuffed more than 300 unidentified bodies into two tractor trailers that circled the Guadalajara suburbs until residents complained of the smell. .

A similar scandal broke out that year in Tijuana, where the morgue was so clogged that officials began cramming multiple bodies into each narrow refrigeration space and piling corpses on the floor when storage units required cleaning.

In a single day, three dozen bodies can arrive, almost all victims of gunshots. The morgue’s record of most autopsies performed in a single day was 28, but its chief medical examiner at the time said it actually only had staff to perform about 10.

“We live in a civil war,” said the forensic doctor, Jesús Ramón Escajadillo, in an interview that May.

The problem persists. Of the 4,132 bodies that entered the Tijuana morgue last year, a quarter (1,042) ended up in government graves, almost all without being identified.

Scene of a homicide

A paramedic and a police officer examine a homicide scene in Tijuana in 2018.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The violence that grips Mexico began some 15 years ago, when the government launched soldiers into the streets to fight drug cartels. The last few years have been the bloodiest yet, with a record 34,648 homicides recorded in 2019 and 34,515 last year.

At the same time, the ranks of the missing continue to grow, with nearly 7,000 people reported missing last year.

The issue drew international attention after the disappearance in 2014 of 43 students from a teacher’s school in the state of Guerrero, possibly after they ran into a drug trafficking operation.

The case sparked massive street protests and drew the visibility of other families with missing loved ones, many of whom had formed local collectives to search and excavate remains on their own.

Under increasing public pressure, the government of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto approved the General Law of Forced Disappearances, which ordered the creation of federal and state search commissions and a series of databases that would help collate unidentified human remains and persons registered as missing.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who overwhelmingly won the 2018 elections in part by promising to reduce the country’s violence and listen to its victims, met with the families of the disappeared and pledged to help them.

By the past year, search commissions had been established in each state and the government had opened its first Regional Center for Human Identification, in the northern state of Coahuila.

But Encinas, Mexico’s undersecretary for human rights, has acknowledged that progress is likely to be slow.

A book of unidentified corpses.

The unidentified dead are listed in a book for family members to search for.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In some cases, local governments intentionally kept poor records to help cover up crimes, burying corpses they hadn’t even examined, neglecting to assign them identification numbers, and deliberately excluding them from official body counts in custody.

“We have tried to gather clear information to be able to leave behind the tricks and deceptions in cases of enforced disappearances that allowed the authorities of the past to ignore and avoid the magnitude of the problem,” Encinas said last year. “The fact is, the data is devastating.”

The latest setback has been COVID-19, which has officially killed almost 200,000 people in Mexico.

“The expectation, in general, was that the issue of disappearances and identifications would be one of the top priorities of the federal government,” said Humberto Guerrero Rosales, a member of a citizen advisory board on the subject formed in 2018. “But then a global pandemic came. “

Meanwhile, many families continue to search on their own.

After weeks of cleaning the fields for his son, Aragón went to the federal government.

In 2018, at a public event in Tijuana, he cornered the man who would soon be named by López Obrador as the country’s top public security official. The next day, someone from the state attorney’s office called her and told her she was on the case.

Within days, the researchers said there was a possible genetic match. They then showed her photographs that had been taken of her son’s body at the crime scene. They explained that he had died from blows to the head and chest and that he had been buried shortly after the autopsy.

That December, he paid a funeral home nearly $ 1,600 to exhume his body from the government cemetery.

As a gravedigger removed the bags containing the remains of the 13 people who were buried on top of his son, he thought of the other families he knew who were searching for their own loved ones.

“I realized that each bag was someone else’s,” she said.

He buried Carlos next to his father, knowing that he may never know for sure who killed him or why.

A few months later, he returned to the fields surrounding Tijuana. He also wanted to help other families find their children.

Averbuch is a special correspondent. Linthicum is a staff writer. This story was reported in part with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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