Situating the Investigation on Clandestine Graves in Mexico

Between the Forensic and Affective Turns

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
Author:
Carolina Robledo SilvestreCIESAS Mexico City, Mexico carolina.robledo@ciesas.edu.mx

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Paola Alejandra Ramírez GonzálezCIESAS Mexico City, Mexico psic.alejandraramirez@gmail.com

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Abstract

Over 90,000 people have been disappeared as a result of the War on Drugs that takes place in Mexico. Most of them are young people from poverty-stricken communities, stigmatised and targeted by an ongoing military campaign for their alleged connection to ‘organised crime’. Drawing on the experience of the search for bodies in hidden mass graves initiated by a group of mothers of those who have disappeared in the state of Sinaloa (Mexico), this article aims to provide a comprehensive reflection of the emotional turn and the forensic turn, from a feminist perspective. Our ethnographic contribution focuses on how Las Buscadoras (The Searching Women) resist rational acts related to the legal and scientific treatment of dead bodies through the mobilisation of symbolic, ritualistic and political community actions that reveal novel forms of affective recognition of and care for the dead. This, we argue, has resulted in a plurality of practices and meanings around truth and justice.

Plus de 90 000 personnes ont disparu en raison de la guerre contre la drogue qui se déroule au Mexique. La plupart d'entre elles sont des jeunes issus de communautés pauvres, stigmatisés et ciblés par une campagne militaire permanente en raison de leurs liens supposés avec le « crime organisé ». S'appuyant sur l'expérience de la recherche de corps dans des fosses communes cachées initiée par un groupe de mères de disparus dans l'État de Sinaloa (Mexique), cet article vise à fournir une réflexion globale sur le tournant émotionnel et le tournant médico-légal, dans une perspective féministe. Notre contribution ethnographique se concentre sur la façon dont Las Buscadoras (les femmes qui cherchent) résistent aux actes rationnels liés au traitement légal et scientifique des cadavres par la mobilisation d'actions communautaires symboliques, rituelles et politiques qui révèlent de nouvelles formes de reconnaissance affective et de soins pour les morts. Nous soutenons que cela a donné lieu à une pluralité de pratiques et de significations autour de la vérité et de la justice.

Don Paz and Las Buscadoras de El Fuerte

Don Paz is a seventy-three-year-old man with brown and tough skin. His eyes have an intense bright amber shade. He offers his words kindly to those who listen to him, leaping from one memory to another. The conversations we had with him,1 at his house next to the highway that connects the city of Los Mochis with the town of San Blas, in northern Sinaloa, are always surrounded by the voices of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share the roof and their upbringing in this humble house where food for everyone is always at hand. When we ask him how many children spend the day at his home, he playfully answers that there are about nineteen, but he does not remember the exact number, because he has fostered some of the kids, but new ones are born all the time. There are children of all sizes and ages, and they always listen carefully to the stories told by their tata (grandfather). Don Paz enjoys talking, even though some memories fill his eyes with tears. In the end, he manages to hide those tears with a quick movement of his sturdy hands.

Don Paz was raised in San Blas, in the heart of an indigenous family from the Yoreme community,2 in the home of his grandparents, who were known in the region for curing rabies, lifting the babies’ soft spot and curing empacho (indigestion). From a young age, he used to go with his grandfather to collect plants for remedies; he later became a lumberjack, which helped him raise his five children.

During his long working hours in the hills, Don Paz had the misfortune of finding some hidden burials which had appeared as a result of animals scavenging or erosion. He had heard about Las Buscadoras on the radio, and decided to contact the leader of the group, Mirna Medina, to point out some places where their loved ones might be found. However, Don Paz had no idea that he would soon also be looking for one of his grandsons, José Manuel, ‘El Calucha’, as they used to call him. He had arrived at his grandparents’ house when he was only two years old, and they raised him as their own. They always remember him as a likeable, smiling and playful boy.

By the time of his disappearance, José Manuel was working eight hours a day at a cranberry packing plant and was married to the love of his life. On 4 April 2017, at the age of twenty, ‘El Calucha’ disappeared when he was trying to cross the Fuerte River in a fishing boat. His grandfather later found out that he was being chased by a group of hitmen and had decided to jump into the water to protect himself, but he was shot, sank below the water and was swept away in the river's current. As soon as Don Paz found out about it, he contacted Las Buscadoras, who, coincidentally, were in San Blas on a different job. They managed to convince a group of divers from the local firehouse to accompany them to look for José Manuel's body, but they had no luck.

On 11 June 2017, two months after looking for his grandson relentlessly, Don Paz was told a body had been seen floating over the river. He went to search the area with his brother-in-law, but they got caught up in the middle of a shooting and had to abort their mission. From a distance, Don Paz could see the body he had been told about and felt desperate about not being able to retrieve it and see if it was El Calucha. He had to wait until the next day, 12 June, when, joined by Las Buscadoras3 and officers of the State Attorney's Office, he returned to the site. He jumped into the river and reached out for the body, holding it tight: ‘I held onto it thinking that if the current took it away, it would have to take me too. The courage God granted me kept me strong.’ Don Paz knew it was his grandson because he was able to take the keys and sunglasses out of the pockets of his pants: ‘Despite the body being torn apart, I knew it was him.’ Don Paz fought against the current to hold the body up until the employees of the private funeral home jumped into the river to take it away: ‘I had it in my possession, and they took it away from me because of the tests that the government has to perform under the law to confirm its identity. What annoyed me the most was the fact that they took it away from me and had it at the funeral home during forty-one days. I had already found the keys and I also had the cellphone. I know it was him.’

Don Paz and his family had to wait more than a month to get the body of El Calucha back and offer him a burial service according to their traditions. The day the body was returned to them, it rained relentlessly, and hundreds of people came to say goodbye in the middle of a Yoreme community ritual locally known as the ‘Dance of the Jews’,4 in which El Calucha used to participate as a child. They placed the deer's head he used to wear for the dances of his community's ritual days under his coffin. Don Paz and his wife, Luna, are not able to talk about this topic, their sadness provokes a lump in their throats and makes their voices break up. They remember him every day with a shrine they built in their house to honour him. They say that sometimes he comes and knocks on the window to ask for dinner: ‘My son is very naughty, but we like it when he comes and visits us; we have faith that he will always be here with us.’

Search in a Violent Context

For over a decade, Mexico has been through a period of serious human rights violations, including the forced disappearance of people.5 This criminal practice acquired a systematic and generalised character6 throughout the national territory from the year 2006 when the then president Felipe Calderón declared a war on drugs. Currently and according to official figures, at the national level there are 94,611 registered cases of missing persons.7 Faced with the inaction of the State to locate the disappeared and the participation that state security agents linked to organised crime groups have had in the disappearance of people, with the passage of time the victims’ relatives have integrated various searching groups, collectives and organisations.

The group Las Buscadoras de El Fuerte was founded in 2014 as a result of authorities’ failure to look for missing people. Back then, four women, including Mirna Medina, who would later become the front woman of the group, started sharing the feeling of despair from a quest that had just begun. Today, the group is mainly composed of rural and semi-urban women from different paths of life and communities, including mestizo women, Yoreme natives, farmers, labourers and housewives who have organised themselves around the search of their missing relatives in mass graves.8 In the northern region of Sinaloa, Las Buscadoras have reported around 730 disappearances in the last ten years.9 Most of the missing individuals are young men between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five who belong to population sectors living in precarious conditions.

As of today, they have recovered 133 bodies, approximately 80 of which have been identified and returned to their families and 54 of those belong to members of the group. These findings have taken place in the municipalities of El Fuerte, Ahome, Choix and Guasave – areas where Las Buscadoras carry out their searches. Most of the mass graves have been found in farmlands, away from the urban centres, where they usually find one to three bodies.

Wednesdays and Sundays are the days set to go out to the fields. Early in the morning, one woman after another arrives at the group's office, the meeting place, located in downtown Los Mochis. They carry with them the necessary equipment: boots, sunglasses, caps, water, a printed t-shirt with the picture of their missing loved one, and long-sleeved shirts to protect their skin from the hot sun and high temperatures of the region. The features of the landscape range from plantations, landfills, drainage channels or riverbanks to semi-desert lands commonly inhabited by all kinds of animals and plants. Before leaving, surrounded by conversations, jokes and hopefulness, they load their tools onto a van: shovels, picks, gloves, machetes and rods.

Usually, around twenty seekers participate in each search. However, this number can vary due to work, health problems or economic issues that keep them from participating in the search. The searching ‘spots’ are places suspected to have hidden burials. They often find out about such spots through anonymous calls or other means through which farmers, shepherds and various neighbours send information to the group, or straight to the families. Las Buscadoras perform the search for and exhumation of bodies in contexts breached by criminality, fear and impunity. In this sense, being natives to the region helps them recognise and understand the territories, as well as the criminal practices surrounding them.

Their understanding of the region has enabled them to perform their searches within a ‘safety’ margin, but it has also restrained them in terms of demanding state justice due to the mistrust they have towards the authorities responsible for protecting them. This mistrust mainly comes from the participation of police officers in disappearance cases, and from the prevalent impunity. Thus, due to the lack of conditions that would enable them to appeal to state justice, they have decided to give it up, claiming that they are looking for neither perpetrators nor justice but just want to find the people they lost.

Through many years of experience in the field, relatives – the term we use to refer to those who share a blood relationship with the missing people – have developed their own concepts and techniques to facilitate the searching task. At the sight of a finding, Las Buscadoras call the emergency number to make the appropriate report and request the authorities to dig out the body. After a while, depending on how far the place is, Ministerial Police Officers, Forensic Services and a private funerary service company in charge of safeguarding human remains until they are identified arrive at the site. Given the women's mistrust of the authorities, they stay at the site to safeguard the body and supervise that it is treated decently during the exhumation.

The women have learned how to demand the official experts ‘do their job right’ based on the skills they have acquired in workshops and the experiences they have exchanged with other families within the country. They also stay on site because it is important for them to get information from the body: physical features, current state of the corpse, clothes and other objects that may ease the identification process.

Around the excavation, Las Buscadoras are filled with memories, thoughts and anxiety in light of the possibility of finding one of their loved ones. However, at the same time, they share expressions of sympathy, affection, mutual support and care to human remains by performing rituals around the body. Usually, after the finding, the women hold hands and stand around the mass grave to make a collective prayer.

In every search, the women not only face constant risks but also significant physical and emotional stress. Nevertheless, for them, searching is not only a primary need to do something to find their loved ones, but also represents a way to relieve their pain. In this sense, the emotionally and affectionally motivated searches break the private–public division of the political space.

Exhumations in Mexico in the Face of the Forensic Turn

The experience of this group brings together technical skills and accompanying collective practices, as well as negotiation strategies with the government. These experiences helped them to create strategies for the recovery of corpses with a humanitarian approach, in a context of systematic impunity, in which the institutions in charge of the search for the disappeared persons and the prosecution of the crime do not respond to the urgency that the phenomenon implies. In fact, during our four years of fieldwork in the region, we only came to know of one case of forced disappearance that was prosecuted. In this case, with two alleged perpetrators in jail, no progress has been made in the search for the disappeared person. In conversation with the families, there is a common idea that there is no possibility of justice for them. To demand it right now would be to risk their lives. In addition, it is important to mention that in these contexts (and in most regions of Mexico), forensic work is carried out by state teams and not by independent ones, which could have a different perspective on human rights and justice in the search of missing persons.

This field of mass grave exhumations in Mexico entails significant theoretical, methodological and ethical challenges for us, the scholars researching these processes. Locating hidden burials takes place in an atmosphere of severe, even extreme, violence, without the formal recognition of the existence of an armed conflict, let alone of a closure or post-conflict, as has usually occurred in other mass exhumation experiences in other parts of the world.

The daily finding of human remains has entailed the gradual incorporation of forensic insight into the practices and discourses of the different agents involved: missing people's relatives, public servants, scholars, and civil and human rights organisations that interact at different levels with international groups. Over the last decade, some international groups have stayed in Mexico through covenants with the government and civil organisations for the follow-up of cases with independent examinations, counselling and training for public servants. But in territories such as northern Sinaloa, forensic knowledge is, above all, the domain of families, who have appropriated the ‘forensic turn’ through an exercise of affective citizen-science and in constant tension with other actors.

The forensic turn includes a set of highly standardised practices of evidence collection, preservation, analysis and presentation that contribute to the clarification of the facts surrounding the crimes, its victims and its assailants (Garibian et al 2017). ‘The age of forensics’ (Weizman 2014) sets a crucial turning point from the use of testimonials to clarify the facts, fostered after the Second World War,10 to the authority of exact sciences as a discourse and a privileged practice in the construction of legal truth.

The epistemic community of the forensic turn could be defined, according to the terms suggested by Emanuel Adler and Peter M. Haas (1992), as a network of professionals whose expertise is important for policymaking in their field: the human rights and international justice field. Non-scientist experts (Davis 2012), such as the relatives of the missing people, activists, journalists and others, are also part of these communities, which are composed of power relationships among their own parties and others.

Whereas the epistemic communities promote their perspective of the world, influencing States, multilateral organisations and transnational agents (Hass 1992), its impact cannot be considered as a completed event, since it is incidental and changes according to the physical and intellectual conditions surrounding each context (Adler 1992).

In Mexico, such languages are adopted mainly by the families with the purpose of demanding greater certainty against the ineffectiveness of the official institutions in charge of the investigation task. The relatives take forensic science courses and learn key concepts about the search for missing people in order to interact with the government and supervise the work of official experts. In the public sphere, the forensic turn has been introduced less effectively, especially in regions far from the centre of the country, where investigative practices based on a penal system unfamiliar with science prevail.

In Sinaloa, and in general in Mexico, genetics has been imposed as the ultimate method to positively identify the bodies.11 The problem is not the use of genetics itself, which has been useful to restore identities to thousands of nameless bodies around the world. The problem is its abuse by laboratories without accreditation, the lack of triangulation of tests that allow families to have greater certainty on restitution of the bodies, the lack of coordination between state entities to exchange genetic data, and the epistemic distance with which this science is imposed through colonial practices that have little dialogue with the knowledge and needs of families in their search and their questions.

In the case of identifications in Sinaloa, the context of the crimes is unknown and the analysis of information from different sources, both to offer an accurate identification and to understand what happened, is omitted. Among Las Buscadoras, a significant number of bodies identified through genetic testing have been returned. One of the cases, Mimi's, is striking because it involves only small pieces of bone from her husband's jaw and skull, and some of his teeth. She does not trust the genetic opinion that accompanied the restitution or delivery of his remains because she does not find in them the known traits of her husband, especially in relation to the teeth. Although years have passed since Mimi received the remains and rendered to them the mortuary rituals, she cannot find peace or certainty that they are really from her husband.

We find here a tension between the expectations generated by the forensic turn in the relatives who search and the official investigation practices developed by the institutions, which do not come close to the humanitarian and guaranteed principles of this epistemology.

An emotional burden, which can be seen in the dealings between the agents and institutions that play a role in the field of enforced disappearance, is added to this already disturbing scenario. The mistrust towards the Mexican State means there are strained relationships with the science coming from the State's laboratories and offices, showing that technical expertise is not enough if legitimacy relations are not established.

Within our task of accompanying groups of relatives who search for those missing and reaching out to organisations and independent experts on forensic sciences, we have been drawn into epistemic and ethical dilemmas around the exhumation of human remains on which we would like to provide some insight in this article. But this is not only an academic claim; it is a ‘stake’, in the sense that it is directed towards mapping the lines that constitute other life forms. In other words, it is guiding us towards the possibility of breaking new ground to understand how the battles around justice could be won through complex knowledge, which includes not only forensic sciences, but also social knowledge, under the understanding that the dimension of the tragedy requires creativity and multiple perspectives, and above all a respectful dialogue between them.

By positioning ourselves as feminist researchers dedicated to the collaborative (Querales 2018) and affective (Robledo 2019) sciences, we find the need to build bridges between the languages and practices involved in the handling of death, the concept of the body, the experience of damage and other aspects that arise in the field of exhumations. In this research-accompaniment work we have found an epistemic and ethical framework in the ‘emotional turn’ that allows us to navigate the density of the practices and senses associated with the search for missing people, promoting an understanding of the phenomenon beyond the framework imposed by the forensic turn and other discourses circulating around this matter, such as that of human rights and transitional justice.

At this theoretical and epistemic intersection, we locate our position: while the forensic turn aims to govern the experience of searching and identifying missing people generating great expectations among families (with respect to the identification and delivery of the bodies, and the judicial investigation), and deep tensions with the government's scientific work, the emotional turn offers a way out to enforce the understanding of the local senses, pondering the universal claims coming from scientific and human rights frames.

In this sense, against the risk of standardising the understanding of the experience of the search for, exhumation and identification of missing people, we set knowledge and local practice as the foundation to understand and create coping alternatives for the dreadful acts that are culturally and socially relevant.

We are not arguing here that they are necessarily contradictory or mutually exclusive paradigms. We argue that the forensic turn can benefit from the critic to positivist science and a sensitive look at the world of affections that circulate around the exhumation of clandestine graves, especially when it comes to science made from the state, which has been a bureaucratic, cold and desensitised practice. But it can also be useful for forensic science in general, which bases its work on the unquestioned idea of modern objectivism, even generating distressing emotional states (Aranguren 2021).

From this perspective, our epistemic stake places the body (dead and alive) at the core, acknowledging that different forms of power and sovereignty are exerted on it (Foucault 1979; Stepputat 2014), and that it is also a starting point for the construction of alliances, skills, knowledge and affective intensity fields (Reguillo 2017) from which political action is exerted and the possibilities of constructing justice and ways of compensating damage branch out.

The ‘corpse’, as noted by Francisco Ferrándiz (2014: 35), has a legal, media and scientific life, but also an emotional, narrative, ritual and cultural life. Thus, the dead body is not seen solely from its condition of evidence or material proof, but also from its condition of being a member of one or multiple communities and families, a mobilising symbol, a ritual centre, the node of an affection network and even an agency subject in alliance with other dead and alive bodies. Although our work takes place in the field of exhumations and we team up with professionals in forensic sciences, we encourage opening the language, concepts and methods to understand how other spaces for truth and justice can be created outside the field of Law and State. This position makes us see the search for missing people not only as a scientific/legal process, but mainly as a political and symbolic process driven by affections. Here, ‘affection’, from the Latin affectus, refers to the inclination towards something or someone, especially of loving or caring nature, and implies a sign of fondness; in other words, it is a condition of bonding with others. From this perspective, materiality of violence, a critical factor for the forensic turn and vital to create counter-memories and possibilities to access the legal truth, deals with other dimensions and relations among the dead and the living.

Without abandoning the path opened by the law and forensic science to unsettle the power relationships supporting violence, the epistemic stake that connects the forensic and the emotional turn seeks to position a critical point of view on science in general by pinpointing its limits and scopes from specific contexts. We propose here to look critically at science as a whole and forensic science in particular, which is nourished by a western/modern/colonial epistemological system based on the disqualification of other knowledges and the standardisation of the way of accessing knowledge. It is not just a cult of forensic science but a cult of science in general, seen as the only way to obtain truth and legitimacy in itself. Our position in this sense is decolonial, it identifies in ‘scientificity’ a modern colonising project imposed through modern European science, a system that originated in a particular historical moment. It is a patriarchal system, arising from colonialism, which has played a fundamental role in its development. It constitutes a series of assumptions, behaviours, norms and institutions; in other words, it is a subculture of Western culture. Its ideological axes are, on the one hand, the anthropocentric point of view (with a clear distinction between ‘nature’ and human beings) – the principle of quantification and demystification of the world, the positivist faith in progress and the unstoppable advance of knowledge – and, on the other, the analytical ideal that the whole can be understood by studying the parts. These elements contain an implicit value system for their practitioners, which is key in creating the myth of science and the scientist in our society.

In the case of northern Sinaloa, forensic science appears over these further lands mainly through the acquisition of its contents by Las Buscadoras. It also shows up in the fragile scientific scope of the State's institutions, which are not able to connect science with criminal and searching investigation because their police background is more focused on arbitrary detention practices, torture and bureaucratic diligence than on the scientific-legal developments of the legal investigation.

Along with these legal and scientific manifestations, other popular skills stand out (like those of the lumberjacks), occupations (like that of the gravediggers), capital stock (which forges solidarity relationships) and spiritual resources (to process the disgraceful passing away and keep living together, like dreams, premonitions and conversations with human remains).

The relationships forged within this particular universe make us face the need to question assumptions taken for granted in the field of science. Regarding the legitimacy of the expertise, vanishing points are opened to consider that legitimacy does not arise naturally from subjects or institutions, but rather it is built through strong relationships impacted by the emotional experience.

The dominant scientific model originated in fifteenth-century Western Europe, which defines scientific thinking (modern-patriarchal-colonial) as that obtained through observation and reasoning, leaves out a huge universe of knowledge and ways of being, which also covers the body and its affections.

The ‘Emotional Turn’ in the Face of Mass Grave Exhumation

As we will see below, Las Buscadoras establish a particular relationship with dead bodies. The bond between the living and the dead acquires meanings from their experience of violent death in a context traversed by criminality. However, it should be mentioned that this relationship is framed in broader socio-historical and cultural processes. In Mexico, death is a national symbol: the living and the dead establish a relationship of familiarity and closeness that is manifested in various sociocultural expressions, one of these being the festivity and ritual commemoration on 2 November, ‘Day of the Dead’. This commemoration acquires particularities in each region and specific local culture: ‘Historically, one of the important dimensions of the ‘days of the dead’ in rural areas of Mexico is that the dead unite the members of the community’ (Lomnitz 2006: 447–448; our translation).

In this sense, one of the contributions of the ethnographic method in collaborative and committed research is that it allows to build affective relationships between the social agents and the researcher. This has not only enabled us to witness but also to take part in the construction of relationships that facilitate the exchange of affections, knowledge, practices and dialogues, and furthermore to share experiences that put the subjectivity, corporeality and emotionality of both parts at stake.

By ‘being there’, accompanying the search for missing relatives and its parallel processes, Las Buscadoras have made us part of their journey. This group experiences unleashing, triggering and circulating forms of affection that constitute a source of support onto which they hold to face adverse events, like the searches and exhumations, as well as the challenges they experience in their daily lives. Some examples of the latter occur during searches, even in small acts such as taking another's hand to help cross channels, or moving branches full of thorns to help get through the undergrowth or, in situations of risk in the presence of criminals, staying together and not getting dispersed, withdrawing into a single body as a strategy for collective survival. The signs of affection and care among them and those of us who join them are expressed through words, hugs and several forms of solidarity that arise from the daily struggles and the certainty that they can only win this battle if they stay together.

Affective relationality is not only deployed in the world of the living; it extends to that of the dead. Las Buscadoras see the dead bodies beyond their physical dimension or their crime evidence status, for each body, bone or human remain has a symbolic and emotional load that is collectively constituted. It is not surprising that in the middle of a search, Las Buscadoras talk to the young missing people, asking them to ‘pull their feet and push them down so they can find them’, or that, during an excavation, they direct words of affection to the body that is being exhumed such as ‘you are not going to be alone’, ‘you are returning with your family’ and give them flowers as a symbol of offering. These expressions constitute human dignity from other languages and practices to take care of the dead bodies, which arise from experience and affection (Rojas-Pérez 2017). These other languages used in the exhumation realm are rarely listened to or recognised. If anything, they are disqualified and considered superstitious, even though they are immensely resourceful for the construction of symbolic frameworks that increase our understanding of violence and, thus, the ways to address it.

The task of Las Buscadoras in the forensic field is not limited to dealing with what is happening inside the mass grave. Regarding the burials, women constitute a significant affective and political field. For example, they serve as companions for other women who are finding their loved ones and starting to ‘grieve’.12 They give words of support in those moments of emotional collapse, they weave a network of accompaniment and care around the dead person and his family. Sometimes Las Buscadoras return to the places where bodies were exhumed to recover human remains that the official experts leave in the graves when carrying out the exhumations. These findings are valuable for the women and allow them to account for the bad procedures of the experts. They find these ‘treasures’ and offer them care and prayers, pointing out the heartless negligence of the State in the handling of these bodies.

Accompanying these groups in the development of our research implies building a close relationship and an active response, being there, placing the body to build the affections that surround the mass grave and facing the atrocity that affects all those who take a look inside it.

These acts that are mainly undertaken by women are loaded with symbolism and local codes coated with affections like love. But its affective condition has been interpreted and remarked on as a characteristic belonging to non-political acts, related to private lives, minimising its ability to transform. When disputing the sovereignty of the dead bodies, these acts lead to different meanings from what is understood as politics, giving new meaning to its experience in daily life. New subjectivities are constructed against the commands circulating in the exhumations field: science legitimacy, the pedagogy of cruelty and the role assigned to gender (Segato 2013).

This reminds us that justice is not something that occurs in the courts and through evidence, but is a relational act of recognition that is established between very diverse actors. From this experience we cannot think of justice in complete terms without a practice of epistemological justice. That is, without the actors present in the field of exhumations recognising that very diverse subjectivities and knowledges circulate around the body care, and all are legitimate.

These subjectivities create tension among the classifications between body and mind, reason and emotion (Holland 2007), which are the foundations of the dominant science that has set forth what is impulsive and what is irrational, with a condition opposed to the production of knowledge. In the biological perspective of the western epistemic framework, emotions exist before human beings, assuming we are born with certain basic emotions regardless of our context. This perspective customises, essentialises and globalises emotions (Lupton 1998), and tends to divide the public sector from the private sector. This last sector would later be challenged by the feminist movement claiming that ‘the personal is also political’.

Such feminist political view and claim represents a step forward in the study of emotions, which, in the 1980s, from the conceptual frame of the theory of care (Gilligan 1993), sets forth that women show their emotions more openly than men and create moral bonds based on the logic of taking care of others. This perspective shifted in the 1990s with the introduction of the emotions immersed in power relationships, since they flow in the interaction among agents, institutions and social systems. Years later, some authors brought back this perspective to conceive the subject within collective action. Thus, the importance of emotions in the study of social movements is recognised (Hercus 1999; Goodwin and Jasper 2001), leading to the construction of conceptual models that enable the introduction of a more complex mindset that is closer to human diversity.

Otherwise, the feminist approach places the situated nature of knowledge (Harding 1996; Haraway 1995) against modern western objectivity, resulting in the subjectivity of the investigator as a gendered, racialised, privileged and socially constituted concrete body. The stake of feminist studies is to acknowledge the production of knowledge from experiences and situated contexts, considering historic, cultural and social changes embodied in solid relationships in which the researcher takes part.

Therefore, it is key to introduce the bodily dimension13 in our research process. This is also an epistemic position that opens up frameworks of analysis and understanding of the senses and meanings of caring for corpses under a scheme where rationality, emotionality and corporeality are conceived as overlapping.

Accompanying While Conducting Research

By interrupting the public space, Las Buscadoras found each other and organised strategies to locate missing people's bodies, while constructing their life sphere around acts of community search. In this way, searching for the disappeared acquired a collective nature that, as of today, mobilises a multiplicity of family members and groups around a common interest: to find them all.

This experience gives rise to a political analysis within the emotional communities (Jimeno 2007) that target the pluralism of the possible pathways to construct truth and access justice, and to bring politics into action. Emotions and affects constitute moral communities from an emotional experience shared through language, narratives, practices, but, above all, through the alliances of the bodies (Butler 2015). Acting jointly, these communities tie the subjective, collective and social dimensions together, and give rise to emotions like pain and fear to live in a shared horizon.

By recognising that we, as researchers, play a role in this tie, the affective-feminist position suggests that ‘the collection of data loses significance against dialogue and collective reflection’ (Querales 2018: 47), because what is important is no longer the consolidation of scientific thought, but the configuration of spaces for building knowledge that opens the possibility of imagining different horizons in which epistemic violence is far from being practised, and knowledge-sharing and the transformation of violence contexts is favoured.

Even in contexts of violence where the life and physical integrity of those who participate in exhumations are at risk, the links enable forms of community security that activate mutual care where the State does not provide protection.

In that sense, it is a huge challenge to build dialogue bridges between scientific knowledge and knowledge generated ‘from the bottom’, where the ethical responsibility for the care given to the dead bodies is shared. We know that the mass graves have never been ‘inert objects scattered over the landscape’, but rather complex processes that have been progressively ‘permeated’ with subsequent ones (Ferrándiz 2014: 26).

Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which universal premises are released within specific contexts, shaping a unique and heavy experience: a forensic turn the Mexican way, with its own challenges and opportunities. This implies recognising that science is a cultural system that, when encountering other systems of meaning located in specific contexts, acquires its own forms.

That is, it renounces its claims of universality in dialogue with the cultural conditions of space and time in which it is invoked. Let us think about Sinaloa. What is the meaning of genetics for a heterogeneous community of relatives among whom there are indigenous people, peasants, teachers, merchants, housewives? Science is perceived and appropriate through concrete bodies and lives, so that its legitimacy is not taken for granted, much less when its exercise is represented by the State, as it happens in most of the Mexican territory, where the intervention of independent forensic groups is scarce or non-existent.

Last but not least, one of the main contributions of the emotional turn to the field of the mass exhumation of human remains is the ability it gives us to acknowledge ourselves as emotional individuals standing before violence. At the end of the day, as Amaranta Cornejo points out, a vision free of dichotomies, such as reason–emotion or mind–body, ‘will allow us an analysis and generation of knowledge in a complex way, in which we move from the rational to the emotional in a continuum that does not dissociate them but understands them as part of a whole in constant reconstruction’ (2016: 93). In this regard, Andrea García González points out that ‘the field is in our bodies, it is not a place where you can leave and enter’ (2019: 13). Therefore, rather than ‘accessing’ or ‘leaving’ the field as a closed space, what we do is construct a ‘field’ in a theoretical but also affective way, since the idea of the anthropological field as a concrete physical place has been questioned by anthropology since the seventies and from feminism in particular, with greater emphasis from the critique of the ‘scientific distance’, which was positioned as one of the epistemological principles of modern western science.

This involves understanding that we are not just in front of someone else's pain, but the fact that this pain reaches us, stays in our bodies, touches us and hurts us. Hence, we, as members of an interdisciplinary research group working with committed and collaborative methodologies with the social agents who face experiences of extreme violence, aim to create collective strategies to address the toll that accompanying this processes takes on us, to build an emotional-academic community and to create affective networks between the subjectivities that integrate it.

By giving up the alleged scientific neutrality that protects us from feeling or getting too involved, we are committing ourselves more honestly to our emotional care and that of the people with whom we start this journey through the paths of pain, building other horizons from emotions and bonding affections. To advance towards these purposes, we find great power in positioning ourselves critically and flexibly at the intersection between the forensic turn and the emotional turn.

Acknowledgements

We thank the groups of relatives of disappeared in Northern Sinaloa with whom we shared our investigation between 2019 and 2021. Especially Don Paz and his family who opened the door of their home and heart to us with enormous generosity. We also want to thank Zahira Araguete Toribio for invite us to be part of this collection and her constant support during the process.

Notes

1

The interviews with Don Paz were conducted as part of a collaborative research project with the Las Buscadoras de El Fuerte. The first conversation took place in August 2018, the second interview took place in November 2018. Before these interviews, one of the authors met Don Paz in a town in the area, in March 2016, during a search for mass graves. We have had other conversations with him during the ethnographic work we have carried out in the region over the last three years.

2

This indigenous community is located in northern Sinaloa, with a strong presence in the towns of Ahome, El Fuerte, Choix, Sinaloa de Leyva and Guasave.

3

A few paragraphs later there is a description of the group Las Buscadoras.

4

Dance practice is one of the most important traditions of this indigenous community. Through dance, they express, maintain and transmit their worldview, ethnic and territorial identity.

5

Forced disappearance in Mexico has its origins in the 1970s, in the framework of the Dirty War. In this period, the practice was part of a mechanism of political repression that the State exercised against dissidents – mostly young people – who rebelled against the policies of social inequality and the null spaces for their political participation.

6

The generalised character supposes a large-scale attack, directed against a significant number of people; while the systematic character refers to the organised nature of the acts of violence, the improbability that they have a fortuitous character and the existence of certain patterns in the execution of the acts.

7

Data obtained from the Ministry of the Interior, National Search Commission in the Report: ‘Search and identification of missing persons’, 18 November 2021, corresponds to the period from 2006 to current date. See: https://versionpublicarnpdno.segob.gob.mx/Dashboard/ContextoGeneral (Accessed June 2022).

8

According to the investigative journalism site ‘Where do the missing people go?’ (A dónde van los desaparecidos; www.adondevanlosdesaparecidos.org Accessed 15 June 2020), which collects official information on the discovery of hidden mass graves throughout the state of Sinaloa, the municipality of Ahome is number one, with 65 mass graves, followed by El Fuerte, with 25 mass graves. Regarding the perpetrators of these crimes, we know, through several testimonials, that local police officers have taken part in the enforced disappearance of people.

9

These data were obtained during a personal interview with Mirna Medina.

10

The use of testimonials as the focus of claims for human rights extended strongly to South America. The victims’ statements started circulating, becoming vital for the reconstruction of the human rights’ public sphere (Sarlo 2006).

11

The mastering of genetics has led to an excessive trust in the method and a widespread oversight regarding the discussions around the handling of genetic data. This has resulted in private companies practising in the genetics market without further regulation, and already lawsuits have been filed about the irregular handling of samples of the missing people's relatives. Genetics mastering has also overlapped with a humanitarian interest in searching, which focuses mainly on the missing person's identity, and not on the development of the facts: a question that cannot be answered merely through genetic analysis.

12

We believe it is important to build criticism around the idea that grief begins when the body of the missing person is retrieved. First, because the conditions in which the remains are found limit the possibilities of building meaning over their retrieval. Second, because instead of giving closure to a cycle, restitution triggers multiple questions, emotional states and relations that are not as resolute as intended by the concept of grief.

13

We take the feminist studies perspective of queer theory (Butler 2015; Sedgwick 2003), for which affects are beyond linguistic elements (Lutz 1986) – they have the power to affect and be affected.

References

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Contributor Notes

CAROLINA ROBLEDO SILVESTRE is a Colombian journalist and has PhD in Social Sciences with a specialisation in Sociology from El Colegio de México. She is a Conacyt researcher, a lecturer in the master and doctorate programme in Social Anthropology and the coordinator of the Ethnographic Observatory of Violence at CIESAS Mexico City. Among her research interests are the anthropology of violence and justice; the critical analysis of memory and reparation processes; the sociocultural dimension of emotions; interspecies relations and food ethics. Email: carolina.robledo@ciesas.edu.mx. ORCID: 0000-0002-8686-8323.

PAOLA ALEJANDRA RAMÍREZ GONZÁLEZ has a bachelor's degree in Psychology and a master's degree in Social Sciences with a specialisation in Socio-political Studies from the University of Guadalajara. She is currently a doctoral researcher in Social Anthropology at CIESAS Mexico City. She conducts collaborative research with and provides psychosocial support for victims of serious human rights violations. Her research interests focus, from an interdisciplinary perspective, on the search for, exhumation, identification and restitution of bodies in cases of forced disappearance, the socio-political function of emotions, the subjective and community experience of mourning, and the ritual practices in violent death. Email: psic.alejandraramirez@gmail.com. ORCID: 0000-0002-0566-5402

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  • Adler, E. 1992. ‘The emergence of cooperation: national epistemic communities and the international evolution of the idea of nuclear arms control’, International Organization 46: 101145.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Adler, E. and P. Haas 1992. ‘Conclusion: Epistemic communities, world order, and the creation of a reflective research program’, International Organization 46: 367390.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aranguren, J. P. and G. Fernández 2021. ‘Gestionar la frustración: experiencias relacionales de antropólogas forenses en el contexto del conflicto armado colombiano’, Questions du temps présent DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/nuevomundo.83956

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Butler, J. 2015. Cuerpos aliados y lucha política. Hacia una teoría performativa de la asamblea. Barcelona: Paidós.

  • Cornejo, A. 2016. ‘Una relectura feminista de algunas propuestas teóricas del estudio social de las emociones’, INTERdisciplina 8: 89103. México: UNAM.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davis, C. M. 2012. ‘Rethinking epistemic communities twenty years later’, Review of International Studies 39: 137160.

  • Ferrándiz, F. 2014. El pasado bajo tierra. Exhumaciones contemporáneas de la Guerra Civil. Barcelona: Anthropos Editorial.

  • Foucault, M. 1979. Microfísica del poder. Madrid: Las Ediciones de La Piqueta.

  • García González, A. 2019. ‘Desde el conflicto: epistemología y política en las etnografías feministas’, Revista Antipoda No. 35 Bogotá: 321.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garibian, S., É. Ansett and J. Dreyfus (eds.) 2017. Restos humanos e identificación. Violencia de masa, genocidio y el ‘giro forense’. Buenos Aires: Miño y Dávila.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilligan, C. 1993. In a different voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Goodwin, J. and J. Jasper 2001. Passionate politics: emotions and social movements. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Haraway, D. 1995. Ciencia, cyborgs y mujeres. La invención de la naturaleza. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra.

  • Harding, S. 1996. Ciencia y feminismo. Madrid: Ediciones Morata.

  • Hass, P. M. 1992. ‘Introduction: Epistemic communities and international policy coordination’, International Organization 46: 135.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hercus, C. 1999. ‘Identity, emotion and feminist collective action’, Gender & Society 13: 3455.

  • Holland, J. 2007. ‘Emotions and research’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 10: 195209.

  • Jimeno, M. 2007. ‘Lenguaje, subjetividad y experiencias de violencia’, Antípoda. Revista de antropología y arqueología 5: 169190.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lomnitz, C. 2006. Idea de la muerte en México. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

  • Lupton, D. 1998. The emotional self. A sociocultural exploration. London: Sage.

  • Lutz, C. 1986. ‘Emotion, thought, and estrangement: emotion as a cultural category’, Cultural Anthropology 1: 287309.

  • Querales, M. 2018. ‘Trabajo colaborativo: un resquicio para el diálogo ético con víctimas de la estrategia de seguridad en México’, Acta Sociológica 75: 3759.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reguillo, R. 2017. Paisajes insurrectos: jóvenes, redes y revueltas en el otoño civilizado. Barcelona: Nuevos Emprendimientos Editoriales.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robledo, C. 2019. ‘Descolonizar el encuentro con la muerte desde los afectos: experiencia de trabajo interdisciplinario en torno a la exhumación de fosas comunes en México’, Revista Abya Yala 3: 140170.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rojas-Pérez, I. 2017. Mourning remains. State atrocity, exhumations, and governing the disappeared in Peru's postwar Andes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sarlo, B. 2006. Tiempo pasado. Cultura de la memoria y giro subjetivo, una discusión. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI Editores.

  • Sedgwick, E. K. 2003. Touching feeling. Affect, pedagogy, performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Segato, R. 2013. La escritura en el cuerpo de las mujeres asesinadas en Ciudad Juárez. Territorio, soberanía y crímenes de segundo estado. Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stepputat, F. 2014. Governing the dead: sovereignty and the politics of dead bodies. Human Remains and Violence series. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Weizman, E. 2014. Introduction: Forensis, in Forensis: the architecture of public truth. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

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