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Mexico: establishing the fate of missing migrants in the region

09-05-2012 Interview

The first meeting of forensic experts from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico was held on 23-24 April in Mexico City. Its aim was to facilitate the identification of mortal remains, particularly those of migrants who die en route to the United States.

In this interview, Anne Montavon, ICRC protection coordinator for Mexico, Central America and Cuba, stresses the importance of finding out what has happened to migrants who go missing in the region.

What is the nature and extent of this problem?

Hundreds of unidentified bodies are buried every year in Mexico and Central America. Many are those of migrants who die in tragic circumstances en route to the United States.

Remaining in the dark about the fate of a family member, whether a parent, sibling, spouse or child, is a source of unbearable suffering and pain. People who endure such an ordeal often find it very difficult to rebuild their lives and they have to live with the anguish and uncertainty of not knowing what happened to their missing relative.

Families need to have news of their relative and, if the person is dead, they should be able to mourn their loss. Above all, they need closure to the cycle of pain. Forensic science gives families the answers they need in order to say goodbye and honour the memory of a relative.

Who attended the meeting, what was on the agenda and what did they set out to achieve?

Forensic institutes and representatives of the foreign affairs ministries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras attended the meeting. Mexico sent representatives from forensic services at federal level and from the states of Chiapas, Durango, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The Federal District's Forensic Service and other agencies working in this sector also sent representatives.

The aim of the meeting was to develop coordination and communication mechanisms to help identify remains that could be those of a migrant.

They discussed the contribution that forensic science can make in the context of migration and sought ways to improve the exchange of information between the different agencies and countries involved. They also looked at setting up common procedures that would make it easier to search for and handle mortal remains.

The purpose of such efforts is that families find out what has happened to their relatives and receive the best possible support throughout this difficult process. To achieve this, it is vital to step up support services so families report these cases and receive the necessary follow-up. We also need to improve the collection of information about people before and after their death. If this information is detailed and standardized, the identification process is easier.

Why does the ICRC work on issues related to missing persons, and on forensic matters in particular?

Preventing disappearances, restoring family links, and tracing missing persons are all part of the ICRC's mandate to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence.

Forensic science can make a real contribution to tracing missing people by identifying remains. This is why the ICRC set up its own forensic services in 2003, to provide guidance and training to experts in countries around the world.

How long has the ICRC been working in the field of forensics in Mexico? What is currently being done?

Since 2010, the ICRC has been engaged in dialogue with the Mexican authorities, with a view to reducing the number of people who are buried without being identified. By providing training and advice for forensic experts and agencies working in this field in Mexico, the ICRC is facilitating the identification of remains, support for their families and coordination between agencies.

A national meeting of forensic services was held in 2011, in conjunction with the Federal District High Court. At this meeting, a working group made up of forensic experts from several Mexican states and supported by the ICRC forensic services presented a draft common forensic protocol and identification forms.

Meetings have also been held on anthropology, forensic odontology and forensic science in relation to the identification of mortal remains. By managing remains properly and supporting the families of those identified, forensic science can be a vital tool in efforts to mitigate the consequences of migration in humanitarian terms. As such, it is a central focus of the ICRC's activities in the region.

Apart from Mexico, has the ICRC provided forensic support to any other countries in the region?

Yes, most recently in Honduras, in the wake of the Comayagua prison fire, in which more than 360 people died. The ICRC supported the authorities' forensic efforts, mainly by helping to identify the victims and providing psychological assistance for their families. Three ICRC forensic experts offered their assistance and made recommendations about what practices to adopt at the different stages of the response, from recovering the bodies to handing over and disposing of the remains.

The ICRC also plans to extend its forensic activities to other parts of Central America; this regional meeting is an important step in the right direction.


Photos

Anne Montavon, ICRC protection coordinator for Mexico, Central America and Cuba. 

Anne Montavon, ICRC protection coordinator for Mexico, Central America and Cuba.
© CICR

Tenosique, Mexico. Migrants from central America aboard a freight train. Every journey brings the risk of death from accidents or violence. 

Tenosique, Mexico. Migrants from central America aboard a freight train. Every journey brings the risk of death from accidents or violence.
© ICRC / A. Argotte

Tenosique, Mexico. Migrants from central America board a freight train. Every journey brings the risk of death from accidents or violence. 

Tenosique, Mexico. Migrants from central America board a freight train. Every journey brings the risk of death from accidents or violence.
© ICRC / A. Argotte

Mexico City, Mexico. Women stand outside the Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe carrying photos of relatives who have disappeared. 

Mexico City, Mexico. Women stand outside the Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe carrying photos of relatives who have disappeared.
© Reuters