Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, December 10, 2018

"If only they had let me touch his skull": Forensic knowledge from mothers of the dissappeared

Translated by El Profe for Borderland Beat


Mothers are experts in the knowledge of their children's bodies, in their medical histories, and in their daily practices, which are part of what forensic sciences call antemortem information.

By R. Aída Hernández Castillo (CIESAS-GIASF)
Photographs: Social and Forensic Anthropology Research Group (GIASF)
In the last two years I have joined the walk of organizations of relatives of the disappeared, constituted mainly of mothers and wives, who, faced with the inability of the Mexican State, have taken on the task of searching for the human remains of their relatives in clandestine graves.
As happened with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, or with the Mutual Support Group in Guatemala, it is mostly mothers who have mobilized in the search for their children, politicizing their maternal identities to transform all the disappeared men and women into their sons and daughters. The labeled T-shirts used in the marches or in the search days have changed from "I will look for you until I find you" to "We will look for them until we find them." Their identity as "mothers" has been  politically mobilized in order to obtain the solidarity of civil society and the logistical support of local institutions in the face of what they consider a "relative protection" of organized crime groups that control the area. (1)
Mothers are "experts" in the knowledge of the bodies of their sons and daughters, in their medical histories, and in their daily practices, which are part of what forensic sciences call antemortem information. Through the search, they have also become experts in the analysis of the context of violence that made their disappearance possible. One of the mothers from Sinaloa shared that when they found the body of her son, the forensic technicians of the prosecution had not allowed her to approach or have any physical contact with his remains, so she had to wait several months before receiving DNA analysis results.

                  Memory workshop with Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte. Photo: GIASF
She was convinced that if she had been allowed to touch her son's skull, she would have been able to recognize it with touch. "My fingers know every inch of that head. I've seen him and felt transformed since I first took him in my arms when he was born. You do not know how many times I stroked his head when he leaned on my legs," she argued. When I shared this story with a forensic physical anthropologist colleague, she smiled incredulously at what seemed to be a more sentimental anecdote about the stories of relatives of the disappeared. The conviction of the mother and the disbelief of the physical anthropologist made me reflect on the hierarchies of knowledge that have been established in the forensic field and on the need to recognize the knowledge and experiences of the relatives in any project of truth and justice that can be promoted.
In the historical moment that we are living in Mexico, where some spaces for the search of justice seem to be opening up, it is a priority to listen to those who have more experience in the search and finding of disappeared persons: family organizations. Faced with the temptation to export models of transitional justice that do not consider the historical, cultural, and regional specificities, the local knowledge of the relatives is fundamental not only for the search and identification of the disappeared, but also for the development of alternative forms of transformative justice.
As academics committed to social justice, we have the responsibility to confront the hierarchies of knowledge that have been established with the so-called "forensic turn" (2) that has institutionalized a pyramid of knowledge that has genetics at the top, followed by physical anthropology and archeology; and in the lower part of the pyramid the social sciences. Scientific knowledge has been imposed on the local knowledge of relatives, who are seen as mere "testimonies of secondary victims."
In our experience working with an organization of mothers and wives of the disappeared known as Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte, we have carried out Memory Workshops that have been fundamental for the documentation of their findings and the subsequent georeferencing of the graves they have found. These spaces have allowed us to recognize the deep knowledge that the members of this organization have, not only of the physical geography of the North of Sinaloa, but also of the political and social context that enables and reproduces violence. On top of the creation of maps, knowledge has been shared about the origins and manifestations of the different types of violence in the territories.

                  Memory workshop with Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte. Photo: GIASF
Appropriating the forensic knowledge obtained in the multiple spaces of confluence and formation of the movement of relatives of the disappeared, and using their local knowledge about the geography of violence, Las Rastreadoras have begun to destabilize the hierarchies of knowledge established by the "forensic," legitimizing their own knowledge.
Only from a respectful dialogue that recognizes different experiences and knowledge, as well as the different ways of being and occupying space in the world, and the different ways of imagining justice, can we contribute to the construction of a comprehensive and inclusive peace agenda that our country so urgently needs.

* The Research Group in Social and Forensic Anthropology (GIASF) is an interdisciplinary team committed to the production of socially and politically relevant knowledge about the forced disappearance of people in Mexico. In this column, Con-ciencia, members of the Research Committee and students associated with the Group's projects participate (See more: )

(1) This position assumes the existence of some kind of ethical-moral reserve in the perpetrators of violence, who will respect the figure of the mother. However, the "pedagogy of terror" has crossed all ethical and moral limits. Respect for "the Mexican mother" is no longer part of the code of the assassins, nor of the security forces with which they are colluded. The mothers of the disappeared are at the center of the violence, as shown by the murders of Marisela Escobedo in Chihuahua, Sandra Luz Hernández in Culiacán, Miriam Rodriguez in Tamaulipas, and Cornelia San Juan in the State of Mexico, to name the best known cases.
(2) The term in English that has popularized is "forensic turn." Ror a critical reflection on this paradigm, the work of the Spanish anthropologist Francisco Ferrandez in can be consulted. 

1 comment:

  1. Completely sad and heartbreaking... these mothers need some form of closure... that final last touch of their loved one.... maybe this is the story of the drug war people do not want to acknowledge and live in denial about...


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