Drugs war strains Mexico's forensic investigators

Member of a forensic team gives instructions to his colleagues at a crime scene in San Nicolas de los Garza, neighbouring Monterrey, 5 July 5, 2011. Mexico is trying to train more staff who are qualified to investigate crime scenes

Walk past the modern facilities of Mexico City's forensic headquarters and it is hard to imagine that the building hosts one of the grimmest aspects of Mexico's war on drugs.

Inside are dozens of unidentified corpses - most believed to be the victims of the drug gang violence that has engulfed parts of this country.

They were found in clandestine graves in the north of the country - a macabre twist to the bloodletting that has seen some 40,000 people killed since late 2006.

Some mortuaries in the violence hot spots - mostly in the north near the US border - have been overwhelmed by the discovery of hundreds of corpses.

"We only have facilities to deal with 20 bodies," Dr Jose Gutierrez Silva, head of the forensic service in the city of Durango told the BBC.

"We had to hire two trucks that are specially fitted to hold corpses."

Tortured victims

To date, some 250 bodies have been found in several mass graves in the state of Durango.

Julian Miglierini visits Mexico City's Forensic Medical Service

It has been a similar story in the north-eastern state of Tamaulipas, where more than 190 bodies were unearthed earlier this year near the town of San Fernando.

That is why many bodies have been brought to the capital.

At Mexico City's Forensic Medical Service (Semefo), work continues to try to give a name to the victims stored in temperature-controlled vaults behind two heavy metal doors.

The hope is that a positive identification means a body can be handed over to grieving relatives.

Mexican officials say the number of forensic staff employed at a national level is now 1,500 - up from 454 a decade ago.

Some states, like Durango, have opened new forensic laboratories over the last few months, while the while the main university, UNAM in Mexico City, is set to introduce a new degree course next year to train people in forensic science.

But the expansion of the forensic service will take time - while the victims keep turning up.

"We support states in the north of the country by receiving these bodies because they don't have facilities to keep them for long," says Dr Macario Susano Pompeyo, technical director of Semefo.

"And since they keep on finding bodies, that makes their work more difficult."

About 120 of the Tamaulipas bodies, some mutilated and bearing the signs of torture, were moved to Mexico City.

So far, less than a quarter of the corpses has been formally identified. None of the victims, Dr Pompeyo says, had any links with criminal groups.

"They were migrants making their way to cross the border with the US," he says.

That could explain why few families come looking for their loved ones.

"Many of them do not even know if their relative is missing or dead," says Dr Pompeyo.

Missing or murdered?

That is not the case of Maximo Bazaldua, who believes his brother-in-law Rafael, could be among the bodies at the Semefo facilities.

The last time he heard from him, in March 2010, Rafael was on a bus on his way to the US.

Mortuary workers transport a coffin to be buried along with other unidentified bodies found recently in mass burials, at the cemetery Valle de los Sabinos in Durango 3 June, 2011. Limited storage means some unidentified victims have already had to be reburied

Over the phone, he told his family that the bus he was on had been stopped in Tamaulipas at a supposed checkpoint near San Fernando.

Mr Bazaldua's efforts to find his brother-in-law have so far been unsuccessful.

The search involves dealing with different departments, a lot of bureaucracy and costs money travelling to and from Tamaulipas.

"We're about to give up," he says.

Rafael seems set, for the foreseeable future at least, to remain on the list of some 6,000 people who have gone missing in Mexico since 2006, according to human rights groups.

As for the bodies in Semefo's vaults, their destiny contains a grim irony.

If in about a year, no relative has claimed them, they will be buried again in mass graves.

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