Maria Aguilar has been searching for her son for over a decade. She, like thousands of Mexicans whose loved ones are missing, has spent countless days scanning vast tracts of barren land for clues, in the hope of finding his remains.
Now Aguilar and the “missing persons” collective she founded will be armed in their search with new technology – drones mounted with thermosensitive cameras that can show distortions in the soil which could point to an unmarked grave.
Chemical detectors inserted in the ground can then highlight biological changes in the soil that could also be an indicator of human remains – such as unusually high nitrogen and humidity levels – and help narrow down potential search areas.
Over the years, mothers like Aguilar seeking their missing children have carried out painstaking, methodological, manual searches across vast potential burial areas in Mexico – often to little avail, or at a threat to their own lives.
Over 100,000 people are missing in Mexico, largely a result of drug cartel violence. Many are murdered and buried in clandestine – sometimes mass – graves. However, authorities have little clue as to where those burial sites are and lack the resources to keep searching.
The drones are giving hope to families that they will be able to finally lay their loved ones to rest.
“This (technology) ensures we don’t waste time and energy searching hectares and hectares, but instead go straight to areas where there’s a high possibility of finding remains,” said Victor Hugo Avila Barrientos, the commissioner for missing people in the western Mexican state of Jalisco.
“This will also help minimize the threat to families and authorities,” he added, noting a recent event where a trap was set for those searching for bodies.
Teams from the University of Oxford are supporting authorities and non-governmental organizations in Jalisco with drone training and resources, having already successfully located some clandestine graves in the country.
Tunuari Chavez, who leads analysis for the Jalisco Search Commission, says he is excited about a more science-based approach to finding missing persons.
“This is about using nature to get the clues,” he said.
For Aguilar, whose son has been missing since 2011, she hopes the technology may finally put her long bid to find the truth about what happened to him to rest.
“This definitely gives us more hope,” she said, during a training session on how to use the drones.
“We’re going to keep searching.”