Migrants Gone Missing: Healing and Closure for Families, Thanks to Forensic Science

The Colibri Center works with forensic scientists to help Central American families identify loved ones who died crossing the border.

(Photo: Courtesy ColibriCenter.org)

Jun 11, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Yael Grauer is a freelance writer and investigative reporter.

When a U.S. citizen files a missing persons report with the local police department, a series of events is usually triggered: DNA samples can be taken, key information is analyzed using an international database, and psychosocial support is often offered. But for many Central American families whose loved ones have gone missing while crossing the U.S.–Mexico border, that process is virtually nonexistent.

“The position of these families makes their search incredibly difficult because it’s across international borders, or just borders of invisibility and marginalization within the United States,” says Robin Reineke, cofounder and executive director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tuscon, Arizona.

Formed in 2006 and located in the Pima County medical examiner’s office, Colibri is a nonprofit NGO that assists families by collecting detailed missing persons reports and working with forensic scientists to help identify those who have died along the U.S.–Mexico border. With more than 2,000 records on missing persons, the center’s database is the largest of its kind in the nation and the only one that is neither country- nor region-specific and open to all families regardless of citizenship or nationality.

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More than 6,000 migrant deaths were recorded between 1998 and 2013, mostly due to treacherous travel conditions and exposure to harsh weather. Many who cross the border are also vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, or forced labor, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But death estimates are also incomplete and only account for bodies found and recovered on U.S. soil. In addition, there is no nationally uniform procedure to investigate the death of migrants; practices vary from county to county and state to state. Many remains found in Texas, for example, have not yet had DNA samples taken, and the state has no comprehensive DNA database to match remains of unidentified migrants with reports of missing ones.

What complicates matters is that most families of missing persons are either undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. or foreign nationals living in Mexico or Central America. Although some families receive assistance from police, many are either turned away or are afraid to file a report in the first place.

“In my experience and observation of this problem, it really does boil down to the dehumanization and systematic marginalization of immigrants and their families,” says Reineke.

When families of the missing go in search of help, they turn to a variety of sources, ranging from search and rescue groups to journalists and NGOs. Some contact morgues and examination facilities directly or turn to social media. This creates an enormous decentralization problem—one that Colibri’s database was developed to address. When a body is recovered, detailed profiles are created, including photos of clothing, tattoos, scars, other markings, dental conditions, and more. Colibri also develops trusting relationships with families of the missing, providing advocacy and psychosocial support. Most families hear about the center’s services through Spanish media reports and word of mouth.

Below, some examples of personal belongings recorded by the center and used to identify the deceased:

(Photo: Centro Colibri/Flickr)

(Photo: Centro Colibri/Flickr)

(Photo: Centro Colibri/Flickr)

(Photo: Centro Colibri/Flickr)

For Reineke, taking calls from family members frantically searching for loved ones can be difficult, and making a call about a probable match isn’t any easier. But getting even bits of information can often help a family begin the process of healing. “We do a lot of calls in between where, you know, now it’s months, now it’s been years, now it’s his birthday, now a daughter is turning four, and they still don’t know,” she says. “The pain of not knowing. I can’t tell you how many families have said that the pain of not knowing is far worse than knowing and being able to begin to grieve and move on.”

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Reineke recalls one case in which Colibri program manager Chelsea Halstead wrote up a missing persons report for a Guatemalan woman who disappeared in the summer of 2013. Some identifying features included that she was elderly, short, and had full dentures. About a year later, Halstead noticed a potential match.

“She saw a skull in a photograph in the Pima County records that had no teeth, upper or lower. She thought about this woman from Guatemala and took a look at the reports side by side, and everything was consistent all the way down,” Reineke says. The dental features, the woman’s height, the location, and the estimated time since death all fit the missing persons description. Halstead submitted an identification hypothesis to the doctor and forensic anthropologist on the case, as well as to the Guatemalan consulate, which paid for a DNA comparison. The results came back as a positive match, and the woman’s remains were returned to her family in Guatemala for burial.

Reineke has traveled south herself to provide identification services. In the summer of 2011, she went to Guatemala to meet with a group of families whose loved ones had crossed in the summer of 2010 and had all gone missing. Working alongside a forensic anthropologist from the Pima County medical examiner’s office, Reineke was able to make predictive matches for six families of the missing.

“There were families of about 10 young men who were still missing, and the difference in the meetings between the families was very palpable,” she recalls. “The families of the missing young men were distraught, sleepless—the wife of one of them was in a long-term hospital stay. You know what it’s like to be in that human experience when you talk to someone who’s not doing well, and that’s how I felt talking to the families of the missing.”

But when she met with the families of those who had been identified, she noted that the conversation was much more relaxed—even playful—in comparison with those of the families of those still missing.

“They were grieving, she says, but it felt as though their lives had a different kind of fullness.