How Mexican families are using tech to unlock missing person clues

Families of missing persons in Mexico have a new tool in their search for loved ones: social media. By creating a network of civilian investigators and spreading awareness, ordinary Mexicans, mostly women, are searching for justice and answers. 

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters/File
Relatives of missing persons paint a mural that reads: "Where are they? Our children," during the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Aug. 29, 2021. Families of the missing are using tech tools to launch searches.

It takes painstaking leg work for grieving mothers to knock door to door with photos and bereft wives scouring mass graves for clues. Now victims of Mexico’s missing persons crisis can also use technology to track down their loved ones.

From chatbots to mass texts, social media to online guides, tech has transformed the painful hunt that thousands of Mexicans must undertake to find a ransomed relative – or their grave.

“Technology is how we learn from cases around the country; we come together to share experiences and provide guidance to other families,” said Maricel Torres, whose son was kidnapped in 2011 at the age of 17.

A dozen years later and her son remains in limbo, however, hope came for others.

After the teenager vanished, Ms. Torres spent all her days – and sleepless nights – riding cabs around Poza Rica, a city in the eastern state of Veracruz, going house by house for any clues to the whereabouts of her missing son.

All she knew was that on the night of May 25, 2011, Iván Eduardo Castillo Torres went out for tacos with friends then was kidnapped off the street by members of the local police force.

Giving chase was a lonely task for Ms. Torres, who said she felt abandoned by the authorities and sidelined by society.

“I looked for him in every town, house by house, in every public market and every church. But I found no answers; only people who sought to extort us,” she said.

The Torres family used all its savings to pay people who claimed to be the kidnappers or said they had information on his whereabouts. The last time she paid someone for information, she was told her son had been murdered and his remains dissolved.

But a decade on and some things have changed, even if the crisis of Mexico’s missing has only grown worse.

More than 40 collectives – made up of families who have lost a relative – are now using tech to kickstart mass searches and do so within hours of disappearance to increase life chances.

The same apps, online templates, and chat groups are also used to pressure police and officials into more speedy action.

The collective that Ms. Torres launched – Familias en Búsqueda María Herrera Poza Rica (Families in Search María Herrera Poza Rica) – relies on social media to organize relatives of the missing and coordinate search operations in the Veracruz state.

Her group has found execution sites and illegal graves belonging to criminal groups – a job the authorities should be tackling with vigor given the number of missing persons topped 110,000 past year, a 3,207% increase since 2006.

Instead, the search is mainly pursued by ordinary Mexicans, largely women, who band together to scour the country for illegal mass graves hidden in mountains, wasteland, or dry lakes.

The government, too, is using tech to track the missing – from a national DNA database to AI software that seeks out patterns in documents and databases that hold clues on the location of the missing.

The National Search Commission, which coordinates federal and local efforts to search for the missing, did not reply to a request for comment.

Missing Mexicans

As the crisis worsens, civil society groups have launched digital platforms to help Mexicans take immediate legal action and speed up what tends to be an arduous, slow process.

In January, human rights organization Centro Prodh released “No Somos Expedientes” (We are not files), a website that tells families exactly what to do if a person goes missing and how to follow up on a case.

“In a country with dozens of thousands of missing persons, we assume that everyone knows what to do. The truth is that nobody should know what to do, as the responsibility belongs to the authorities,” María Luisa Aguilar, coordinator at Centro Prodh, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Families, however, often face obstacles from local authorities who are charged with leading missing person cases.

She said authorities are often late to launch any search, fail to notify families of breakthroughs, or neglect to carry out the basics of an investigation.

Last year, the Mexican government announced investments in human and material resources around the country to improve the search capacities of local authorities.

The “No Somos Expedientes” website tells families what they can demand within the first hours of disappearance, like the official analysis of social media, phone tracking, or a review of local CCTV footage.

The platform also provides templates of legal documents that families can use to press officialdom and gather evidence.

It shows families how to make authorities follow up on tips and search for illegal graves, or report their case to human rights commissions and so pressure police into greater action.

“The platform does not substitute the actions of the government or the families’ right to have quality legal advice. However, we think it is useful for those families who don’t have access to that,” said Ms. Aguilar.

Three other nonprofits last year banded together to set up SocorroBot, a WhatsApp chatbot that shows distraught families how to file a missing person report and explains what to do should they come upon corrupt police or military.

“These platforms have been important for us to learn about our rights. They help defend ourselves better to the authorities,” said Ms. Torres.

In 2022, after Mexico reached the 100,000 missing persons mark, the United Nations called on the Mexican government to fight impunity, as sentencing has only followed in 35 cases.

Networks and Google Maps

Along with offering tips and how-to guides, tech has become the main tool for families to coordinate what are often messy searches that were once full of holes or fat with duplication.

Facebook and Twitter have for years been used to promote the name and face of missing Mexicans, with photos of lost loved ones now common on social media.

Last year, missing teenager Debanhi Escobar went viral after family and friends turned to social media. Following a review of CCTV footage, authorities found the 18-year-old’s remains in a cistern near where she had last been seen. Eager to discover the fate of their relatives, Ms. Torres said, the collectives map out specific regions in the country that may hide illegal graves or execution sites formerly used by criminal groups.

“That is how we discovered one of the largest cemeteries in the region, where we found fragments of bodies that still need to be identified,” said Ms. Torres.

Years of experience have taught families like hers how to identify grave sites and to distinguish human from animal bones.

“They have learned to read Google Maps ... to use GPS to locate coordinates, to keep photographic records,” said Jesús Peña, representative of the United Nation’s human rights office at a recent press conference.

Such advances, however, are lost on many in Mexico, where rural poverty and digital illiteracy keep millions cut off from the technical advances that might help them uncover loved ones.

“We still need to get to those places where people do not have Internet and disappearances are rampant, and give them the guidance they can’t get,” said Ms. Torres.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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