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 600-some 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. Instead, I have developed what could be a universal standard. What I call the Unlocated Persons Data Standard will create a path toward transparency and better sharing and analysis of data.
As a Knight Nieman Visiting Fellow in 2017, I researched various parameters and methodologies and interviewed Harvard and MIT professors, journalists, activists, and experts in digital development, history, public health, law, and human rights. With input from NGOs and activist groups, I designed the standard based on international human rights law terms and methodologies, federal and local descriptions of crimes, and forms used by civil society organizations.
The standard I’ve come up with contains eight categories including details about the missing person’s life and disappearance, genetic information and DNA samples, and possible perpetrator(s).
The Unlocated Persons Data Standard aims to organize information so it is easier for all to reference and crosscheck. For example, I recently spoke with Mirna Nereyda Medina Quiñónez, a mother searching for her missing son in the northern state of Sinaloa. She heads up Las Rastreadoras, a group of mothers who search clandestine graves for their missing relatives. In July, she found some of her son’s remains, and she asked that they be subject to DNA testing. This painful process took a month and half. If the standard I am suggesting had been in use, the authorities might have realized sooner that they already had some DNA-tested samples from her son.
My next step is to partner with a human rights organization that will use the standard as they document cases. Perhaps there is an organization that will support further development of the standard, but hopefully this is the first step toward creating transparency and demanding justice for all missing persons in Mexico.