‘A Body, Any Body’
In Veracruz, the missing are not only buried in secret graves. They are also recorded in small black books, where their names and details are lost to the modern age.
The state’s forensic laboratory chief, Rita Adriana Licea Cadena, pulled out a ledger. In it, she said, were the names of thousands of individuals who had turned over their DNA in the hope that it might match some of the remains disinterred from mass graves across the state.
But no one had been able to computerize the records, which were drawn from 2010 to 2013, some of the most violent years in the state. In notebook form like this, the data was virtually useless. No one could realistically search the DNA samples to find a match.
“We just don’t have enough people to do the work,” she said this March.
Outside her offices, a family sat quietly in the lobby, hoping for some news. The families come often, asking questions no one can answer.
“One woman came into my office crying, asking me to give her a body, any body, so she could bury it as her son,” said Mario Valencia, the official in charge of all forensics in the state. “I told her I could not: ‘How can I take someone else’s child to satisfy your grief? What about their grief?’”
The cause of the disappeared was often a forgotten one — until 43 college students vanished at once on Sept. 26, 2014, forcing a national reckoning in Mexico.
The students, who were preparing to become teachers, were heading to a protest in Mexico City. They had commandeered a fleet of buses to get there, a practice more or less accepted over the years.
But that night, the police opened fire, creating a panic that left at least six people dead. The remaining 43 students, frozen in fear, were rounded up by the police and turned over to a criminal gang that the officers were working for.
The motive for the attack has never been fully explained, and after more than three years, only one of the student’s remains has been positively identified.
After the mass abduction, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans poured into the streets in protest. The entire world was shocked. Mexican officials had not only failed to find the students. Some were clearly complicit in the crime.
Scenes of relatives hunting in the forested mountains of Guerrero for mass graves, equipped with little more than picks, shovels and blind resolve, reinforced the extent of the phenomenon.
The public pressure helped lead to a new law, enacted this month, to combat disappearances. Its passage has given some hope that the proper resources and attention might be paid to an issue long bled of both.
“It will not solve the problem, but it’s a start,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the director of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mexico, who helped shape the legislation. “The challenge will be implementing the law.”
On paper, the Law Against Forced Disappearances creates a national registry of the missing, something that is currently maintained piecemeal across multiple lists, by multiple agencies. It should also bring more resources, for forensic investigations and the management of precious DNA information.
“Attending to the disappeared is my main priority, both as a public official and as a human,” said Roberto Campa, the subsecretary for human rights in the country’s interior ministry.
But in Mexico, laws are seldom the issue; on paper, they are often perfect. Rather, change hinges on the will and capacity to enforce them. On this score, advocates for the disappeared have tempered their hopes.
A highly touted legal overhaul, completed last year to replace an antiquated system, is facing an attack from the government that put it into practice.
Amid new laws to protect the nation’s media, more journalists have been killed this year than in any other in recent history.
Meanwhile, anti-corruption efforts passed with great fanfare this year have been met with scandal after scandal and a refusal to investigate.