DNA Will Not Solve Mexico’s Unidentified-Body Crisis

Families and the government both hope that genetic information will match the missing and the unidentified.

A trailer carrying more than 100 bodies of unidentified people is driven through the streets of Guadalajara.
A trailer carrying more than 100 bodies of unidentified people is driven through the streets of Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sept. 17.
Ulises Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images

On Sept. 16, the image of a refrigerated trailer box made national headlines in Mexico. It was discovered on a lot in a housing complex under development after the intense smell of decomposing bodies alerted the neighbors. It turned out that the box, containing 157 corpses (some say 273), had been rented by the Attorney General’s Office of the state of Jalisco after the refrigerated chamber of the local morgue, which is capable of storing up to 200 bodies, ran out of space. The bodies had been placed in the trailer box in July and stored for three months in a warehouse in La Duraznera, a neighborhood not far away from Guadalajara’s city center, in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco. After people complained about the smell, the mayor of Tlaquepaque requested that the trailer box be relocated, which led to its September sighting on the lot. National newspapers described it as the wandering “death trailer.”

This was not the first recorded case of Mexico turning to death trailers because there were more bodies than facilities could hold. In September 2010, a trailer transporting the bodies of 56 undocumented Central and South Americans crashed outside the premises of Mexico City’s Institute of Forensic Science, leaving a young pedestrian severely injured. These were 56 of the 72 migrants found in August 2010 in a ranch in San Fernando in the border state of Tamaulipas. By May 2011, 173 remains had been discovered in the area. Just like in other parts of the country, the morgue in Tamaulipas continued to overflow.

Forensic scientists constantly point to the 2010 massacre as a turning point in the country’s history of forensic services. It was the first notorious case in which the number of victims far exceeded the state institutions’ capacities. Since the start of Mexico’s “narco war” in 2006, bodies have been discovered at a relentless pace. One recent study on clandestine mass graves in Mexico suggests that 618 burial sites, 1,829 bodies, and 45,381 fragmented human remains were found in 23 states between 2009 and 2016—and that’s a conservative estimate. Thousands of unidentified bodies are kept in overflowed facilities that lack sufficient human and technical resources. In his investigation of the Jalisco case, journalist Darwin Franco found that between 2006 and 2015, the forensic medical service incinerated more than 1,500 bodies, despite an explicit prohibition of this practice passed in 2013. Incineration was justified as an “administrative solution” to the “sanitary risk” posed by hundreds of decomposing bodies. Around the country, it has become routine to dispose of unidentified bodies to make room for new arrivals. The numbers of clandestine mass graves found and people reported as missing continue to grow.

In Mexico, both searching families and the government often position this emergency of unidentified bodies and disappeared persons as a technological problem, one to be solved by matching the DNA profiles of the dead with those of searching families. Many families keep laminated copies of their DNA profiles in safety boxes, in case their opportunity ever comes. In a country where there is 99 percent impunity for crimes (and that isn’t hyperbole), families imagine that a positive match on a database will restore human dignity or deliver justice.

The government has tried to make that happen over and over—in fact, every two years, it announces the creation of a new national database. But no functional, robust database exists yet. In 2012, Mexican authorities announced the creation of a national genetic database with 15,618 genetic profiles, but it never really took off. Two years later that figure was adjusted to 14,278 profiles. In 2016, the governor of the state of Mexico announced the creation of a new national database, GENMEX, and in 2018 authorities once again spoke of the construction of a “Base Nacional de Datos Única.”

The reality of genetic databases differs drastically from what authorities promise and victims’ families may imagine. The national prosecutor’s office has been charged with aggregating DNA profiles from unidentified bodies to create the so-frequently-referenced (but elusive) national database. For now, the process is dependent on paper: I’ve seen printouts of genetic profiles travel from one office to another, then be manually uploaded to Excel spreadsheets functioning as genetic databases (which are rarely consulted). Although the different states are required to send information to a centralized authority, this often fails to materialize in practice. Each Mexican state, if it is capable of obtaining a genetic profile, maintains its own local data bank, often using disparate technological and database systems (if those are used at all). Family members travel from office to office, leaving multiple DNA samples if they hope to participate in any identification initiatives. This has led to a proliferation of small, incomplete, and heterogeneous databases with unclear norms of governance and cross-national data sharing.

To counter this proliferation and potential duplication of efforts, the National Search System was created in October 2018, but it’s thus far proved ineffective. According to official sources, there are 26,000 unidentified bodies spread across Mexico’s forensic facilities. Genetic profiles for fewer than 2,000 of these bodies have been obtained, and at best, the number of bodies identified with genetics is 126. (It may be even lower than that.) The government subsecretary of the new administration, Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez, announced in February a plan to create a National Institute of Forensic Identification. Referring to Mexico as “one huge clandestine mass grave,” Encinas recognized that the forensic apparatus of the country currently lacks the capacities to face the challenge of death and disappearance. His announced plan to remedy the situation included, of course, a national database to identify persons where genetic profiles once again took center stage.

The Mexican Forensic Anthropology Team (EMAF), a nonprofit organization founded in 2013 to evaluate state investigations of disappearances, believes there is currently an excessive emphasis on DNA. A substantial amount of members’ work as expert witnesses goes into deactivating what they refer to as “the dogma of DNA.” For EMAF, establishing an ethical and responsible relationship with searching families means explaining that “their family member is not going to appear by the work and grace of a cheek swab.” Human identification requires good investigative protocols and forensic appraisals of a diverse set of experts, perhaps more than it requires DNA technologies.

No real progress on identification has been made since the first announcement of a national database, and bodies continue to be found. It remains unclear whether the information of the missing and the information of the dead will ever intersect. The current convergence of citizens’ demands and governmental promises on DNA is not helping. Excessive focus on DNA obscures structural violence and the lack of political will to remedy the situation; it reduces justice to a positive match on a database, and hence feeds impunity. It also overlooks one fundamental feature of data-centered investigations: that genetic profiles do not have scientific value in and of themselves. To be useful, forensic data need to be properly selected, formatted, classified, integrated, and compared—not simply exist.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.