After Vice President Harris’ trip to Mexico, and on the same day the White House published the U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Cooperation Fact Sheet, local press in Sinaloa reported the finding of what appears to be a clandestine crematorium. These seemingly unrelated events would hardly call for a joint discussion if it were not for the announcement of a Partnership to Resolve Disappearances Cases in Mexico.
According to the fact sheet, the partnership “will work to expand forensic capacity and partnerships to help solve the more than 82,000 cases of missing persons and disappearances in Mexico, potentially bringing closure to tens of thousands of families and ending impunity for offenders.” This is a commendable effort and one I expect can demonstrate the benefits of bilateral cooperation, not because more agreements are signed in D.C. or Mexico City, but because of its potential for helping thousands of families who continue to search for their missing loved ones.
To be sure, as my colleague Michael Lettieri has explained, insufficient forensic capacity is directly responsible for exacerbating the disappearance crisis, but it would be a fool’s errand to think that the country’s forensic crisis is solely a question of state capacity. As the projects Hasta Encontrarles (Until We Find Them) and ¿A dónde van los desaparecidos? (Where Do the Disappeared Go?) have documented, the forensic crisis includes lack of political will, negligence, and revictimization.
Take the case of Sinaloa covered by local journalist Marcos Vizcarra. Through his research he found that graveyards in the state contain thousands of bodies in common graves lacking a proper registry. Even worse, in cases where there was a record, freedom of information requests revealed that the Attorney General’s office lost the records during an administrative transfer in 2017 when the body became independent. Arguably, losing records of unidentified bodies and their burial location is not the result of missing skills but just another example of the dehumanizing narrative of the war on drugs that creates persons who are worth grieving and others who are disposable.
Collectives such as Sabuesos Guerreras, who located the abovementioned clandestine crematorium, have been revictimized, on multiple occasions, by some local authorities who dismiss their demands on the grounds that their sons and daughters met their fate by hanging out with the wrong crowd. But even if their children were criminals, they respond, they deserve a proper burial, not to mention formal proof by the state that they indeed participated in illicit activities.
The point is not if USAID, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, and the FBI should attempt to fix challenges created by negligence since it is certainly not their purview nor how U.S.-Mexico cooperation should unfold. The takeaway is that framing Mexico’s forensic crisis as only a matter of training lab technicians and enhancing forensic analysis capabilities will necessarily fall short of the laudable goal of providing closure for thousands of families.
As the partnership begins to take form, US government agencies and their Mexican counterparts, need to consider how questions of state capacity are exacerbated by lack of political will and negligence. Mexico’s National Search Commission has undertaken a serious effort in resolving this human rights emergency, but the forensic crisis will not be abated unless local dynamics are factored in. This requires serious engagement with investigative journalists who have covered disappearances and the families who continue to do work that should be done by state authorities.