Representatives of dozens of U.S. and Latin American advocacy groups pressed their case Friday for access to an FBI-run DNA database to help them locate and identify the remains of thousands of migrants thought to have disappeared over the last several decades while crossing the Mexican border into the United States.
U.S. officials pledged to continue talks on sharing forensic information and efforts to identify the missing — but said they are prevented from making the information public by a federal law that strictly restricts access to and sharing of information from the database.
The comments came during a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The commission, part of the Organization of American States, conducted a weeklong series of hearings on various hemispheric issues at the university.
Advocacy groups say they have compiled more than 4,000 DNA profiles of people reported missing and presumed dead along the border with samples from relatives. The groups want to compare those samples with the FBI-run U.S. national database.
As some in the audience held enlarged photos of the missing, rights commissioner Margarette May Macaulay offered to facilitate talks to find a solution the groups say they've been seeking for years.
"I have great faith that you do intend and have the will to work toward solving this egregious situation and give peace to these people," Macaulay told U.S. officials attending the hearing.
Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. permanent representative to the OAS, and Paula Wolff, an attorney representing the FBI, pledged cooperation on an issue that predates the Donald Trump administration but cited restrictions on what the FBI can do under the 1994 DNA Act, which governs use of the national database.
Wolf cited legal and logistical technicalities preventing sharing of the FBA database with the advocates, academics and investigators collectively organized as the Forensic Border Coalition. Among them:
- The law authorized the database for use by law enforcement, not private actors such as the coalition.
- It requires that DNA samples be taken in the presence of and documented by police officials — a deterrent to relatives of the missing distrustful of Mexican police or who, because of their immigration status, fear coming forward to U.S. authorities.
- DNA matches or other results can only be released to criminal justice organizations and not, for example, to Argentine investigators who have worked in Mexico and along the U.S. border for years. That group has more than 4,000 DNA samples it's eager to cross-reference with the U.S. data.
Distrust of Mexican authorities runs deep, and many Mexicans have turned to the experts, known as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, to help alleviate their suffering in Mexico's bloody drug war and in locating and identifying those who disappeared migrating north.
All three U.S. officials declined to immediately answer questions by the rights panel but promised to submit written responses. Those queries included how to prevent destruction of remains by local U.S. authorities.
Two mothers of missing children testified during the brief hearing. One of them, Irma Carrillo, is a native of the Mexican state of Sinaloa and mother of two children, ages 25 and 27, reported missing nearly 20 years ago as they were crossing the border into Arizona. She wept after speaking privately with OAS Ambassador Trujillo.
"A solution can change the direction of my life," Carrillo said. "We only want to know what happened to them."