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Digital Forensics Helps Solve a Mexican Mass Murder

As reported on the Wired website, digital forensics can be about much more than preventing and resolving corporate crime. It can also help solve murder.

Back in late September 2014, in southern Mexico, forty three students were murdered by local police. It became known as the Iguala massacre, and the police were soon found to have colluded with various criminal organisations to carry it out. Sadly the legal case fast fell apart thanks to contradictory testimonies, and while several plastic bags containing human remains were found a couple of months later, what actually happened to the missing students remained a mystery.

The official story is that the students were taken into custody by the police then handed over to a local organised crime organisation to be killed. The Mexican police have so far arrested more than eighty suspects, including more than forty actual police officers, but so far just two of the missing youngsters have been identified and confirmed dead.

Forensic Architecture creates a digital tool to help resolve the crime

2017 saw the British investigators Forensic Architecture launch a remarkable online tool called the Ayotzinapa Platform, designed to visualise the massacre and solve the puzzle. Forensic Architecture is based at Goldsmiths University in London. It’s their job to undertake advanced architectural and media research on behalf of international prosecutors, human rights organisations, political and environmental justice groups. They’re working closely with Mexico’s human rights organisation Centro Prodh and the Argentinian Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, blending cartography and 3D modelling to visually represent the events that led up to the murders and what happened immediately afterwards.

The software has been tasked with examining all the conflicting reports received by the Mexican authorities. It lets users follow individual people and vehicles through the attack and examine events. The crime scene can be rotated and examined from a host of different perspectives. Users can zoom in to see the fine detail and experience the events from an eye-level perspective, thanks to innovative 3D crime scenes created from photographic data fed into a computer and transformed into a ‘point cloud’.

Blending six months’ worth of data into a manipulable format

While the tool doesn’t necessarily find new information, it took six months’ worth of dense, extensive data that would otherwise be almost impossible for an individual to digest, and presented it in such a way that it was easier to break down and understand. One of the first things that became apparent was the way the attacks happened in different parts of town at the same time, within half an hour of each other, revealing each event as a data point on a map. The 3D models also reveal fatal flaws in the testimonies of the police who were interviewed. The complex relationships that unfolded during the attacks means users can search for significant words like ‘contradictions’ and ‘torture’.

Holding states and governments to account

The digital forensics software is part of Forensic Architecture’s wider aim of ‘turning the forensic gaze back on the state and hold governments to account.’ The materials fed into the tool be made available to the public at an exhibition in Mexico’s Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo. They also plan to make the tool available as an open source resource. In the meantime it, “allows a wider section of Mexican society to have access to the reports and hopefully start discussion about the full extent of collusion between state agencies.”

The tool is also set to prove useful in troubled regions like Gaza to Guatemala, where video and photography is already being used to visualise and record events.

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