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Symes, students seek evidence in human rights case

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Carlson-Greer, Baumgarten & Symes

Less than a year after a Mercyhurst University forensic anthropologist and two of his students were on the front lines of what has been described as “the biggest human rights case in recent history” – the kidnapping and alleged murder and incineration of 43 college students in Mexico – they are back looking for evidence in a related case. 

Dr. Steven Symes and graduate students Sarah Baumgarten and Sean Carlson-Greer are in Mexico with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team to exhume the body of a 22-year-old student found dead the morning after 43 of his colleagues allegedly disappeared at the hands of police and a drug gang. They intend to examine his body for signs of trauma.

According to news reports, Julio Cesar Mondragon was one of six people killed in September 2014 in Iguala, a city in the southern state of Guerrero, when students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa were attacked while commandeering buses for a protest. The cases of the three students and three bystanders slain have been mostly forgotten in the furor over the 43 missing students, whose fate is still unclear more than a year later.

Mondragon’s family demanded his body be exhumed for new tests after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights determined that a first autopsy was marred by inconsistencies. Mondragon’s family has accused local, state and federal authorities of hindering the investigation and asked for experts from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team to be present at the body’s exhumation.

Symes, meanwhile, is a leading expert on trauma to bone and is frequently called upon to assist the Argentine team, as he was in this case. The team also contracted with Baumgarten and Carlson-Greer, having worked with them last January when they helped analyze evidence in the case of the missing 43 students. At that time, the three worked for 10 days under tents in Mexico City, meticulously sifting through charred debris from a dumpsite in search of bone fragments that would help them scientifically discern, as the government has maintained, that this is where the 43 students met their demise.

According to news reports, the Mexican government’s investigation alleges that municipal police arrested 43 students and took them to a dumpsite, where they were turned over to a drug cartel that murdered and incinerated them in a bonfire. When the fire was extinguished, they dumped whatever remains they could recover into a nearby river. To date, only two students have been confirmed dead, news reports state, which has led to continued protest and unrest in the region.