What problems did you find with the Mexican forensic investigation of this case?
In some cases, Mexican laboratories were just not that experienced on doing DNA on bone samples, but in other cases I think there was willful misconduct. These remains had gone through several DNA analyses in Mexican state and federal laboratories, and they came back with different results. It was one of the few places in the world where we arrived and the families said, "We don't trust DNA." There were other problems as well. Some forensic experts produced results based on anthropological techniques that contradicted most of the DNA results. Some of the remains were not with their original clothing—they had male clothing on them. In one case most of the biological and documental evidence had disappeared—we found the spine at the medical school.
So what we did was start from scratch. We read all the different forensic results for the eight cases. We ran new DNA tests of the eight bodies, comparing them not only against these eight families but against 75 families that were part of a larger DNA database of missing women. This is how we confirmed some of the original identification and found misidentifications as well.
How did spending time in the border region introduce you to the plight of immigrants?
Working in Juárez was very hard—hard to get the information, hard to get the files and hard because of direct obstruction from officials. At the end of our work there, we had 50 female remains that did not match any of our families. So we thought these girls must be coming from somewhere else, either from another state in Mexico or from Central America, but there was really no fluid, efficient mechanism in place to exchange data with these places.
How have you tried to solve the problem?
What we are trying to do with the Missing Migrants program that we started in 2009 is improve the search of missing migrants among unidentified remains by creating a regional exchange system. We take background information interviews with the families to know when the migrant left; when was the last time that that person called; what else the family found out after that person stopped calling; what was the route that the person was thinking of taking; were they planning to cross by Arizona, by Texas, by California; was that person going with other people or just by themselves. Then, we collect the antemortem information—the classic dental information, fracture data, anything that can happen to them in life.
Previously, in most of these cases, unless there was a specific hypothesis related to a body, families were not asked to provide blood samples. There isn't a regional system, and a lot of people were not getting identified. We are setting up forensic banks in El Salvador, Honduras and Chiapas, Mexico, to collect background and physical information about missing migrants as well as blood samples from relatives. Each family will now have its forensic file ready to be considered against any morgue or place that has remains in the U.S. or Mexico. There was nothing like this before.
What is the biggest scientific challenge to identifying the remains of migrants?
Because these migrant cases involve people from several countries where we don't know yet how large the problem is, even with the support of DNA, it is often complex to distinguish between a random and a real match, which creates several technical and practical challenges. We have to test as many relevant relatives per family as possible and often perform complementary and additional genetic testing, combined with background and antemortem data to see if an initial genetic result is random or biologically significant. We now have 710 relatives tested in Chiapas, Honduras and El Salvador corresponding to 272 missing migrants.
You're even testing relatives here in the U.S.
Yes, the rhythm of this office has changed. Families here in New York or in the United States now call about once a week and tell us, "My daughter, my son, whoever, has disappeared and are missing."
How many remains have you identified from these families living in America?
We have identified eight from Arizona and one from Texas, with five more in process. We are just starting to exchange information. The main goal is to provide a better service to families who have a missing migrant. That's the main thing—to respect them, to be transparent and to provide them with the best available technology that exists.
Brendan Borrell is a writer based in New York City and is researching the plight of missing migrants with a grant from Investigative Reporters and Editors.