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- 05-02-2012, 11:35 PM #1
800 skeletal remains in Chihuahua still not identified
800 skeletal remains in Chihuahua still not identified
By Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera / EL PASO TIMESelpasotimes.com
Posted: 05/02/2012 12:23:48 PM MDT
CIUDAD JUAREZ - The identities of nearly 800 skeletal remains found between 2007 and December last year in the state of Chihuahua - 135 in this city - continue to be an unsolved mystery, state authorities said on Tuesday.
During a tour of the state's forensic services department in Juárez, technicians said they have obtained genetic profiles of each one of the remains, but they still haven't been able to determine their identities because none of the 791 victims has matched the genetic material samples provided by relatives searching for missing people in the state.
The lack of positive matches in these cases means the victims came from other states or countries, or that their relatives never provided a sample of genetic material.
Daniel Ricardo Jaramillo, general director of the state's forensic services department, said he has shared the genetic database of the unidentified victims with Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, or CNDH, which is putting together a national database to identify individuals who disappeared outside of their home state.
Under the CNDH's system, the states would deliver database updates every three months. Chihuahua became the first state to contribute to the project when Governor César Duarte submitted the state's database to the president of the CNDH in February, Jaramillo said.
The information in Chihuahua's database could put an end to years of uncertainty for many relatives of missing people in other Mexican states, Jaramillo said.
"We know we're at a crossing point," he said. "Imagine the people who saw their relatives leave and their only reference was that they were heading north, toward the United States, and that's the last thing they ever knew from them."
The problem of missing people and skeletal remains found in the open, particularly of young women, has haunted Juárez for more than two decades.
The anthropology area of the forensic services department currently has in its custody the unidentified skeletal remains of 51 women - 41 that remained from a previous study conducted by a team of Argentine forensics experts, four found in 2010, two found in 2011 and four found this year.
Forensics experts have obtained genetic profiles for all of the remains - except for two of the most recent ones - but they haven't matched any of the DNA samples provided by relatives of missing young women.
On Tuesday, officials with the forensic services department gave a tour to members of the press of the state's laboratories on genetic forensics, criminal forensics, anthropology and ballistics to explain their operations and boast their state-of-the-art facilities.
During the tour, Jaramillo highlighted recent efforts to identify skeletal remains buried by state authorities in common graves before 2004. Last year authorities exhumed 128 individuals - 123 men and 5 women - buried between 1996 and 1997 with the purpose of trying to determine their identities using methods that didn't exist more than a decade ago.
So far forensic experts have been able to identify a 19-year-old woman, Myriam Glizeth Bernal Hernández, who went missing in July 1996.
In response to the many complaints that state authorities have received regarding the long periods of time it has taken them to determine whether a skeletal remains belongs to a missing person, forensic experts explained the processes they must employ to identify a victim.
Eberth Castañón Torres, coordinator of the genetic forensics laboratory, said they can obtain a genetic profile from an ideal sample - like blood taken from a living person or who had just recently died - within three or four days.
But even though the state's laboratories are among the most modern in Mexico, the forensics team said that the wait can drag for three or four months if authorities are only able to retrieve incomplete skeletal remains or if they have been out in the open for too long. Exposure to heat, the concentration of salts in the region and scavenger animals can damage skeletal remains even more.
"No matter how good our equipment is, if the sample is too eroded, it will prolong the process," Jaramillo said.
Time can extend even longer like in the case of Hilda Gabriela Rivera Campos, a 16-year-old woman whose remains were found in 2009, but were not given to her family until last year.
Forensic experts said other causes for delays were the workload of the eight persons working at the genetic laboratory and the current limitations of science and technology.
Castañón said they currently have around 2,000 samples of all types - hair, blood, semen, urine, among others - collected so far this year that are still waiting to be analyzed. That was the approximate amount of samples they would collect and analyze in an entire year before the current period of violence began in 2008, he said.
Another factor is that current processing methods may be insufficient to obtain DNA samples from excessively eroded remains - such is the case with 17 male skeletal remains under the forensic services department's custody since 2005.
However, as technology improves and new methods become available, new tests are implemented, which occasionally yield better results.
"We have samples that have been in the labs for years and we haven't been able to obtain results," said Oscar Villanueva, coordinator for the state's forensic services department in Juárez.
Castañón said they conduct new tests on remains from which they were unable to obtain DNA samples one or two times each year.
Another impediment, perhaps more serious, is the current language of the state's law on genetic database regulation, which prohibits forensic experts from producing and presenting a genetic study without an official request from a state investigator.
"We can't do anything without a specific petition from the investigative authorities," Villanueva said.
Jaramillo said the state's general legal department is currently going over changes to the law to allow forensic experts to have a more active role in producing evidence.
Tuesday's tour also included a visit to the laboratory where forensic experts clean and measure skeletal remains and the room where they keep unidentified remains. Currently, authorities have in their custody 32 boxes with evidence and 69 with skeletal remains found between 1996 and 2012.
Other facilities included the ballistics laboratory, where they try to match bullets with the weapons they were fired from. Since 2010, the forensic services department has processed 1,104 weapons and more than 37,000 bullet casings and projectiles.
Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6129. Follow him on Twitter @AlejandroEPT.
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