Lupita Urrutia spent a recent afternoon in August sifting through photographs of corpses, limbs and bones in a government forensics office in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. She was looking for what might be left of her brother Ángel, or her nephew David, but she found nothing. When she emerged from the building into the afternoon sun, she broke down in tears.
“There’s a bunch of bones in there and no one will ever know whose they were”, she said to VICE News, wiping the tears from her face.
Urrutia is from the city of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco, an eight-hour motorcycle drive from Guadalajara. Even before she made the trip that day, she and her sister Silvia were close to giving up on the search for the two men. Angel and David disappeared on June 22 2019. Their family lost track of them around 7 pm and found the truck they had been driving in together abandoned in a town just an hour’s drive from the city. The keys were still in the ignition.
There are 73,000 missing people in Mexico, according to the latest government count, and at least 26,000 unidentified dead bodies stored in morgues across the country. Estimates were higher from non-profits, who said there are as many as 37,000 unclaimed dead bodies lying unclaimed.
Many of those who have disappeared are thought to be victims of the violence that has been ravaging Mexico for over a decade, which is in part connected to struggles for power and control between the country’s powerful organized crime networks and government forces. More than 34,600 murders were registered in Mexico last year, and killing this year is on track to beat prior records.
The violence has in turn exacerbated a culture of criminal impunity - few murders are investigated - which sends the message that there are few consequences for bad behaviour.
When President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known by his initials AMLO) took power at the end of 2019, he vowed to prioritize the issue of the missing, and to provide families looking for their loved ones with the justice, and the closure, they sought. This gave hundreds of thousands of people hope that their searches - which for years have rendered few results - might come to an end.
The issue of the ‘disappeared’ became so pressing that families started forming search parties around the country and digging in the dirt themselves in response to what they saw as government indifference or ineptitude in tracking down their missing loved ones. The search parties perpetuated a macabre phenomenon: the unearthing of thousands of clandestine graves around Mexico. Nearly 4,000 such graves have been found since a government-backed crackdown on organized crime began in Mexico in 2006.
But the new system created by the AMLO government has merely served to compound the confusion and ineptitude around the problem, say observers. Databases on missing people and unclaimed dead bodies remain separate, which means that families trying to find missing sons, daughters, husbands or wives are unlikely to be able to learn if their bodies have been discovered.
The sons of Maria de Jesús de León and Angélica Romo were taken by a group of hooded, armed men in Puerto Vallarta in May 2011. Seven years later in 2018, when two trailers full of identified bodies that didn’t fit in Jalisco’s overwhelmed morgues were found, the two mothers went to the State Prosecutor’s office to ask for news on their case. But they found that the investigation had been closed months earlier, they said.
“They told us it was already solved. That’s why they had abandoned the case file: because they said they had already delivered one of the boys’ bodies to us”, recalls Romo.
The authorities claimed De León had received her son’s remains, but she says the government got confused after her family was asked, twice, to identify bodies that the state thought were her son, José Guadalupe. Neither of the two bodies that the family was asked to ID on two different occasions were that of José.
“I felt sad but I said: ok, this is it. Thank God. If it is him, glory to God. And if it isn’t….” remembers De León. “The second time I was more together. ‘I hope it isn’t him’, I thought to myself, and no, thank God it wasn’t him”.
A law on forced disappearances created in 2017 by the previous government obliged Mexico’s federal administration to create additional databases for unidentified bodies and corpses found in hundreds of mass graves around the country, as well as a database of forensic information. The deadline for achieving that was back in 2018. Nearly two years into the new administration, the only registry that exists that identifies victims is that for missing people -- the National Disappeared People Record (RNPD).
The RNPD was created in July 2019 by the National Search Commission - an organ that is part of Mexico’s Interior Ministry, the federal entity focused on national security. The database also details the number of clandestine graves (3,978) and human remains recovered from them (6,625 bodies), as well as the number of people found dead and alive between the 1960’s and 2020. But there is no data to identify these people, or to connect them with the data on those listed as missing.
To search registries of the dead, families have to appeal to 32 different state forensic offices and their hundreds of municipal delegations. Not every state provides them online, and those that do have been slow in digitalizing older records. For example, records available online for Jalisco only date back to September 2018.
“Enforced disappearances work because of a complicated network of actors with differing interests, and their habit of co-opting different state officials and using them not only to facilitate illegal detentions, torture and executions, but also to cover them up,” said James Cavallaro, a former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and head of a special mechanism to monitor the 43 students who were snatched and presumably killed in Mexico in 2014. He is now executive director of the University Network for Human Rights.
Cavallaro says if AMLO really wants to tackle the problem, he needs to invest money and push for real investigations into the missing, as well as admit that it’ll be a long difficult process that could reveal the collusion of potential political allies. “It has to be a commitment and the willingness to suffer in political terms, for years. That’s what it takes.”
This week, after a year since it was first mentioned, President AMLO vowed to process formal permission for the United Nations task force to investigate enforced disappearances in Mexico, unencumbered.
Thousands of people like Urrutia, Romo and De Leon have long given up on finding their missing men alive. But the more time that goes by, the more likely hope is to die as well.
Cover: A soldier secures the area where a clandestine mass grave was discovered at Lomas del Vergel in the community of Zapopan, Jalisco state, Mexico, on January 16, 2020. (Photo by Ulises Ruiz / AFP) (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)