How AI Deepfakes Are Being Used to Find Mexico’s Missing People

In a video, Héctor Daniel Flores Fernández narrates how he was kidnapped from his home in Guadalajara, Mexico on the morning of May 18, 2src21. His family has not heard from him since that day. Yet the video shows him calling on authorities to investigate his disappearance and find him alive. “Don’t let this case

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In a video, Héctor Daniel Flores Fernández narrates how he was kidnapped from his home in Guadalajara, Mexico on the morning of May 18, 2src21. His family has not heard from him since that day. Yet the video shows him calling on authorities to investigate his disappearance and find him alive. “Don’t let this case go unpunished,” the video says. “Help me to claim my rights.”

In reality, Héctor isn’t speaking in the video. Instead, his voice and likeness is generated by an artificial intelligence. It’s a part of a dissemination and awareness-raising campaign about Mexico’s disappearances launched by Luz de Esperanza, a collective of families of the missing in the western state of Jalisco, and Alas de Libertad, a grassroot network of volunteers supporting victims of violence, disappearances, and human trafficking. The group uses AI models along with a picture of the missing person to generate videos of them speaking, seeking to put a face to the statistics and show that the disappearance of people is systematic.

Across Mexico, more than 1srcsrc,srcsrcsrc people have disappeared due to state and cartel violence, human and sex trafficking, and forced labor. The lack of political will and high levels of corruption have forced thousands of families to lead the search for their missing loved ones with the few resources they have at their disposal. Using AI technology to bring images of missing people to life, families of disappeared people hope to challenge the government efforts to diminish the issue. As a presidential election looms in Mexico, the country’s government has been under scrutiny after it announced a new “census” of the missing that reduced the official count. Families accuse the government of “disappearing the disappeared.”

The efforts are an attempt to “make visible, disseminate, and also try to create empathy given the political discourse of the authorities and the State as a whole that denies the problem we have with disappearances throughout the country and in Jalisco,” Héctor Flores, co-founder of Luz de Esperanza and father of Héctor Daniel Flores Fernández, told The Daily Beast. “This tends to victimize, re-victimize and criminalize, not only the disappeared but their families.”

The videos, however, have had a profound emotional impact on families after seeing their disappeared loved ones speak after years. Miguel Ángel Gómez Aguilar joined Luz de Esperanza two years ago after his 28-year-old daughter, Yesenia Araceli Gómez Castañeda, disappeared. The last time Gómez and his wife talked to their daughter was on March 3, 2src22, when she called them to ask them to pick up her 7-year-old son at school.

“It was very hard for me to see my daughter speak again. That was a huge blow for me and my family. Seeing her again and listening to what she is narrating,” said Gómez, trying to hold back the tears.

Flores could not finish watching the video of his son Héctor explaining how alleged police officers took him out of his house the first time, even though it was not his voice. “It is a very re-victimizing situation that returns you to day one. It transports you to the day when everything happened, so it is very, very, very complicated.”

Using Tech to Find the Disappeared

Alas de Libertad, which is a largely anonymous missing persons advocacy group in the country, has created over 1srcsrc AI-generated videos for families from various collectives across Mexico. A spokesperson—who asked to withhold their name for security reasons—explained that sometimes the images provided by relatives are not of good quality, complicating the process. “Unfortunately, some families only have that single photograph of their loved one,” they said.

The lack of immediate access to verified information about the disappearances can also slow down the process since Alas de Libertad has to protect personal data. “For professional ethics, we must corroborate the information provided to us by family members and be completely sure that it is reliable so as not to incur misinformation,” they added.

Luz de Esperanza said that some families have received threats to take down the videos. Yet, they continue to share them since they have seen people showing support, either sharing a video or volunteering to help them paste missing person posters around Guadalajara.

The collective of about 4srcsrc families also carries out searches for clandestine graves. Gómez is the one in charge of this area and explains that they have been exploring how to use more cutting-edge technology to help them narrow their search. Yet, these grassroots efforts are often undermined by the lack of resources and support.

Last year, Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, announced that the country would use AI as part of its national search plan to find the whereabouts of more than 1,srcsrcsrc people who disappeared during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Unholster, a company specializing in software development and data analysis, is responsible for digitizing millions of handwritten and typewritten documents and cross-referencing information to reconstruct the victims’ journey and know where to look.

Antonio Díaz-Araujo, the company’s general manager, told The Daily Beast that the disappearances in Chile took place in an “absolutely analog period.” Thus, the first step is to digitize court records, photos, reports, and other documents. With the help of AI, the documents are turned into searchable data and classified so the algorithms can recommend correlations.

It was very hard for me to see my daughter speak again… Seeing her again and listening to what she is narrating.

Miguel Ángel Gómez Aguilar

Díaz-Araujo said that one of the challenges is simply finding human workers to process the data, as there is a brain drain in this area to Europe and the U.S.. “That’s why it’s important to find talent, retain it, and bring it together,” he said.

For Gómez, this is one of the main obstacles in Mexico. “What is the point of having so much technology if there are no people to manage it?” Gómez asked. The Alas de Libertad team has 4src people around the globe who create AI videos every week. Luz de Esperanza plans to project some of these videos in public buildings to protest. However, they are still trying to purchase a video projector.

“We are practically against the clock,” Alas de Libertad’s spokesperson said. “There are a large number of cases for which we must generate its AI missing person poster.”

While more and more AI videos are being created to share the voice of Mexico’s missing, families continue to search with or without technical support. Every week, they stick thousands of missing persons posters on the streets while the authorities rush to remove them. Every week, they set out to find their missing, either alive or in clandestine graves. The AI videos may not bring their loved ones back—but they could give them a voice to speak truth to power and, hopefully, bring justice, from wherever they are.

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