Identifying Mexico's Missing Persons

Nieman Reports, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Identifying Mexico's Missing Persons


Sandra Barron Ramirez, a 2017 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow, is designing a universal standard to organize information about missing persons in Mexico

In February 2015, Justicia Cotidiana ("Everyday Justice") hosted a hackathon for journalists, developers, and designers in Mexico City, Mexico. It was there that I first heard the term "black figure" to refer to the disparity between the number of persons the Mexican government has officially recorded as missing and the actual number of missing persons.

The official police database of missing persons in the state of Coahuila that year had some 600 people. The database of a local NGO had double that number. Similarly, Mexico's official register of missing persons in 2017 listed 33,513 missing persons while human rights activists maintain that the actual number is much higher.

I wondered: How can we begin to demand justice if we can't name all of the missing?

Inspired by the hackathon as well as The Guardian's The Counted project tallying people killed by police in the U.S., I set out on a mission. I soon learned that there are many databases and they are often specific to how a person is presumed to have disappeared, whether by human trafficking, criminal violence, or state forces, the latter having long been a serious issue throughout Latin America.

For example, if a woman disappears and the family goes to the police, the authorities might say, "Oh, she just ran off with her boyfriend." That goes into one database. But if it were an instance of sexual trafficking--which would go into another database--the police, who are often in collusion with human traffickers, might still label it a runaway case. If the family believed the police could be involved in the disappearance, they might not even report their daughter missing.

While a single missing persons database used by local, state, and federal police, NGOs, activists, journalists, and academics would be ideal, it's not a realistic goal in Mexico. …

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