Crisis Forense (Forensic Crisis)

Country/area: Mexico


Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 22 Sep 2020

Credit: Marcela Turati, Efraín Tzuc, Alan Sánchez, Omar Bobadilla

Project description:

“Crisis Forense” (Forensic Crisis) is an investigation published in September 2020. This investigation, based on public records, reveals the collapse of the forensic system in Mexico. In a country where 80.000 people are missing, we found that the Mexican morgues have received almost 39.000 bodies since 2006 that remain unidentified.

To visualize and share the data we designed:

  1. National map of morgues.
  2. Interactive that shows the number of unidentified bodies in each state and where they are sheltered
  3. Interactive database to consult and download information like where each body was found, the cause of death and current location.

Impact reached:

Our investigation put together the first database that shows the extent of the forensic crisis in Mexico, something that no authorities had done before. We built the first official and solid data about the forensic crisis in Mexico from all 32 states and the federal government. Our investigation was taken up by the most important national media and media abroad such as The Guardian (England), Univision (USA), El Diario (Spain), Ciper (Chile), and Infobae (Argentina).

Human rights organizations and collectives of people missing families are using our information to demand for an Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification that the federal government has created but has not implemented.

In Mexico, the government estimates that over 80,000 people are missing, and their families look for them, even in the morgues. However,  neither local or federal governments had ever informed the public the number of non-identified bodies under their custody, their characteristics nor where they are at the moment. The result is that families have to seek for their loved ones in each morgue where public servers denied them information and the databases they have. That is the first step to recover their identities and deliver the bodies to their loved ones.

Besides, the data and the tools we designed have allowed families of missing people to pressure the morgues’ public servers because now they know the specifics of the cases. They have told us that we filled an unattended government responsibility and information gap.

Our database is being used by several local journalists to investigate places where bodies were found, what happened with them and where they are sheltered now after consulting our interactive database.

Techniques/technologies used:

This investigation is based on more than 200 public information requests to each forensic authority of the 32 states of Mexico and the federal government.

We used Excel to build a database l with 38,891 rows, each one representing an unidentified body. We analyzed the data with RStudio to obtain numbers for each state, gender, year of register, place where the body was found, and place where it is sheltered.

This database was the source for the interactive tool that was built with React.js that allows users to choose any of the 32 states and federal government and show the distribution for year and sheltered place: https://quintoelab.org/crisisforense/#interactivo

The database was uploaded directly to our private server as a CSV. It is queried on the back-end using the wpDataTables plugin, which uses a jQuery Javascript library called DatatablesJS. For displaying such a huge database, this last plugin allows users to add custom filters and makes sure the whole database is accessible for everyone who wants to save it and keep it for future queries, even if only a fraction of the database was meant to be saved. It is a highly flexible tool: people can put filters, search by words and download just their selection. It’s available here: https://quintoelab.org/crisisforense/datos/

We made up another database with the information of each morgue address. The addresses were geolocalized using https://www.gpsvisualizer.com/geocoder/ and uploaded to CartoDB as an interactive map: https://bit.ly/3oGRAgx

All the databases and the documents we received from the forensic authorities are available in their original version on Dropbox for anyone to download.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The government’s opacity related to human rights violations is common in Mexico. We achieved to collect information from 33 different forensic authorities at the state and federal levels, even when some of them denied us the information or we had difficulty accessing it.

Since the start of the so-called ‘war against drugs’ 14 years ago, Mexico faces a humanitarian crisis due to the massive and systematic disappearances of people. However, no authority has reported the number of bodies that remain without identity. Nonprofit organizations, academics or media couldn’t get this data either. We know how many people are missing, how many murders and t crimes have been committed but the forensic crisis was completely hidden.

Another obstacle in this project was the disparity in the register of the non-identified bodies from one state to another: we had to normalize the data, scrape documents in PDF, and sometimes transcribe hundreds of pages..

We made what the Mexican government promised but never delivered for over a decade, even when the Mexican law obligated the national attorney to do so.

We wanted our work to be useful, so we designed the map and interactives to help people to understand the forensic crisis in our country and incentive them to use this information. We knew we couldn’t analyze and understand all the data we got, that probably local journalist and families who seek for their lovely ones could recognize places, could link dates or simply ask more questions to the database, so we built an interactive easy to use database so anyone can use and, hopefully, find some clues to give the identity back to an anonymous body.

What can others learn from this project?

We believe in the importance of journalism that provides solutions or gives a social service, in this case illuminating an extremely painful social problem linked to the disappearance of people.

We are convinced that our work can be an example and inspiration to create investigative journalism based on public records, to make databases, and to build interdisciplinary teams with programmers and designers to create tools that help people understand and promote the use of information.

With our story, we published our methodology: from the elaboration of the requests of information and the design of forms to systematize the heterogeneous data we received to the methodological decision we took in some complex cases. This is public here: https://quintoelab.org/crisisforense/como-hicimos-crisis-forense/, and we will translate to English soon.

We use the scrolly telling format to explain our main findings and combine the data with several stories that accompany the special ‘Crisis Forense’, so people can see that this big problem isn’t just a number problem but a crisis with faces and families fighting for justice.

We made tutorials to explain how to use the interactive database and created an email address for tips, comments, and criticism.

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