Dec 15, 2022 - World

Mexico developing AI to find its missing

Several protesters with bands covering their eyes hold up pictures of people who have gone missing in Mexico

A protest by relatives and friends of missing people in Guadalajara, Mexico, April 2018. Photo: Ulises Ruiz/AFP via Getty Images

Researchers in Mexico are developing an AI program to identify patterns and clues that humans cannot in the search for forcibly disappeared people.

Why it matters: Over 108,000 people have been reported missing or disappeared in Mexico since 1964, according to official counts. A third of the cases have been reported in the last four years.

How it works: The Angelus program is being developed by the National Search Commission (CNB), a decentralized government institute formed by the Mexican Congress in 2018.

  • Angelus can digest thousands of case files, testimonies and press clippings.
  • To help solve cold cases, it uses diagrams drawing links between missing people, perpetrators and the various locations where missing people may have been before and after their disappearance.

The program's first use will be to try to find the hundreds of people who were forcibly disappeared during Mexico's "dirty war" (roughly 1964-1990).

  • At the time, the government was under the control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Since then, the government has apologized for officials and agencies having during that period kidnapped, tortured and sometimes killed college students and teachers it considered to be “disruptors.”
  • Authorities kept massive dossiers detailing who they followed, when they arrested them or at which clandestine sites they tortured them.

The intrigue: Although still in its nascent stages, Angelus has already helped researchers find 61 survivors of the largest former torture site. The CNB invited those survivors to do a recon visit there, using their memories to search for better forensic evidence.

What they're saying: "These people were disappeared before I was even born, and while we're not the first to look for them, we are the first to do it by providing these tech tools," said Javier Yankelevich, 34, the leader of the multidisciplinary team behind Angelus.

  • "It's a tactic that we were missing, and with it we could get the results their loved ones and others have been waiting for," he told Axios.

Zoom out: CNB wants to make Angelus accessible to other countries, including seven in Latin American that are continuing their searches for people who were disappeared by government forces and paramilitaries, Yankelevich says.

  • Yankelevich says government agencies and NGOs from Guatemala and Chile have reached out to find out more.

What's to watch: The CNB hopes that future versions of Angelus will be able to analyze more recent missing persons cases with similarly systemic patterns, such as migrants who were targeted by organized crime groups.

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