BY R. AÍDA HERNÁNDEZ CASTILLO
It is possible that what I share in this essay—a context marked by multiple types of violence and a particularly sinister “pedagogy of terror”—will appear at first to be a reality having nothing to do with that of people living on university campuses in the United States. To prevent this impression from arising, I would just like to point out that the different types of violence that we suffer on both sides of the border have all emerged within a shared context of under-regulated weapons markets and a globalized “culture of violence and militarism.”
Many of the weapons that are used by organized crime and the corrupt security forces that collude with them have reached Mexico from the US. One need only remember one of the most blatant examples of this, the legal operation known as Fast and Furious, in which US authorities arranged the deliberate selling of military equipment to criminal groups in Mexico in order to “track them” through the drug networks, only to see them later “lost” and ultimately used in a series of human rights tragedies.
This globalized culture of death has crossed from the United States to Mexico not only via the sale of military equipment but also in the form of one of the most violent cartels in the country: Los Zetas. This criminal organization is made up of ex-military elite personnel from Central America who were trained for anti-insurgent operations at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA) during the Cold War.
Furthermore, the public policy strategy of the War on Drugs, which has implied the militarization of a wide part of Mexican territory and the criminalization and imprisonment of the most vulnerable sectors of Mexican society, can also be traced back to the US in a number of ways. This is not only because Mexico’s drug policy has long drawn ideological support from the US’s strong prioritization of this type of drug policy since the Richard Nixon presidency in the 1970s, similar to the policies of many other countries in the region. More importantly, it is because the Mexican government has received resources from the US in order to sustain its violent strategy. Dating to the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006–2012), who unleashed the present-day militarized and most violent phase of the War on Drugs, this policy has been carried out through the Merida Initiative: a security cooperation agreement that aligns the budgets of both countries around a shared policy platform against drug markets, and preeminently emphasizes the enforcement of penalties over any other solutions to the issue.
I stress all of these points to remind you, reader, that the forces that affect your lives and those of the young men and women who are being found in clandestine graves in Mexico are more connected than they may appear at first glance.
The Phenomenon of Forced Disappearance in Mexico
The existence of around 40,000 missing persons is part of the “numbers of horror” that characterize current-day Mexican society, where the so-called War on Drugs has left more than one hundred thousand casualties. All of this has turned the country into a gigantic clandestine graveyard. We find ourselves in a state of emergency within the already perpetual states of emergency that characterize contemporary societies according to Walter Benjamin (1999). To put it in the analytical terms of Giorgio Agamben (2004), we find ourselves in an extremely violent manifestation of the states of exception. To the structural and daily violence that characterize late capitalism, an extreme violence has been added, one that utilizes bodies as messages for a systematic and institutionalized “pedagogy of terror.”
The murder of six persons and the forced disappearance of 43 students from the teacher-training school Raúl Isidro Burgos of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, on September 26 and 27, 2014, represented a watershed moment for the country, which shook the consciousness of Mexican society and people around the world. The tragedy exposed the impunity and complicity of the Mexican state with organized crime, which relatives of disappeared persons had been denouncing for years.
The search for the 43 missing students mobilized not only their families and human rights organizations, but the whole country, as thousands of people took to the streets waving the slogan: Fue el Estado (“It was the State”). The quest for human remains began in the face of the hypothesis that the 43 students had been murdered and incinerated in a dumpsite. While this quest did not lead to the students’ bodies, it did lead to the discovery of more than 150 corpses buried in various clandestine graves near the zone where the disappearance is suspected to have taken place.
These discoveries unleashed a national process of unprecedented scope. Across the country, mothers and fathers of the disappeared took up picks and shovels and set out to look for their sons and daughters. Without losing the hope of finding their missing family members alive, but recognizing the very real possibility of their being dead, the relatives of the disappeared took on the searching of wastelands, dumpsites, riversides, and the banks of irrigation canals. They formed search collectives in the states of Guerrero, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Nuevo León, Chihuahua, and Coahuila. The findings of these collectives began to appear in the Mexican press, and according to the National Human Rights Commission, just between 2007 and 2017, 855 clandestine graves were officially located, containing 1,548 bodies. This figure is widely considered an undercount, and numbers have been rising substantially in the last couple of years.
Activist Research in Times of Extreme Violence
The first thing that drew my attention as a feminist anthropologist was the preponderant role of women as leaders in the mobilization of citizen searches for disappeared people. In this social process of unprecedented dimensions, which spans the length and breadth of the country, many women have taken up picks and shovels to personally set out to look for their missing sons and daughters. At an analytical level, the first thing one wonders is: What contributions can be made, from an intersectional feminist perspective, to understanding the context of these phenomena of extreme violence? How can we, from the standpoint of feminist legal anthropology, aid in the construction of knowledge that serves the organizations of relatives in their quest to locate the disappeared? In this article, I share some of the experiences and methodological inquiries that I have been developing through an interdisciplinary dialogue with several groups of legal and forensic anthropologists in Mexico.
These reflections are the product of my work as a member of the Forensic and Social Anthropology Research Group (Grupo de Investigaciones en Antropología Social y Forense, GIASF), which I joined in 2016 and which is constituted by professionals specializing in sociology, legal anthropology, forensic archaeology, forensic anthropology, and law. It is an interdisciplinary team whose objective is to develop socially relevant scientific knowledge about the contexts of forced disappearances. The team aims to achieve this goal by first, and most broadly, recognizing the sociocultural dimension of violence; and then, more specifically, by elaborating independent expert-witness reports and bringing about methodological contributions for the construction of collective memory.
In this space of interdisciplinary dialogue, we have continued a methodological tradition that has been the signature of work of the legal anthropology team at the Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, CIESAS). This tradition is one marked by collaborative and dialogue-based investigation that involves the social agents we are seeking to analyze. In other words, it is a bet on a certain type of methodological and political approach, in which the problems of investigation, as well as the methodological routes and final products, are proposed from a stance of epistemological dialogue with the social agents we are working with.
It is from these perspectives that I have been working over the last two decades in favor of the rights of women and for gender justice in contexts of cultural diversity (Hernández Castillo 2016, 2019). Throughout all these years, I have been confronted with the downgrading of both the positivist academia and the anti-academic activisms. The reflections that I hereby put forward are meant to respond to these two perspectives, and to vindicate the epistemological richness that is derived from investigating in collaboration with social movements, and, in our concrete case, with the relatives of the disappeared.
At the same time, these considerations also seek to vindicate the idea that social investigation can contribute to the development of critical thought and to bring about the de-stabilization of the discourses of power that currently surround forced disappearances, justice, and human rights. Ultimately, with these reflections we seek to add to the efforts of confronting the many challenges faced by Mexican society in these difficult times of impunity and extreme violence.
Old and New Questions for Feminist Legal Anthropology
Throughout the last 25 years, my academic approach had been centered in a feminist legal anthropology whose point of departure consists of collaborative methodologies linked to legal activism. While I maintained a permanent critical reflection around law and rights, I was part of initiatives that supported the struggles for justice of indigenous peoples and organizations, seeking to appropriate and re-signify national and international legislations. From these critical perspectives, I participated in the making of anthropological expert-witness reports, which have contributed to the defense of indigenous women in national and international legal processes.
In Mexico’s political context, I decided to distance myself from a liberal feminism that centered many of its demands on the recognition of women’s individual citizen rights, always ignoring the heterogeneity of experiences that mark the lives of women in Mexico. This a liberal feminism does not acknowledge how ethno-racial and class hierarchies configure experiences of gender exclusion, and the ways in which we organize and imagine justice. For many women in Mexico, the recognition of their collective rights as indigenous peoples is an indispensable requisite for the full exercise of their gender rights; documenting this has implied confronting the anti-autonomist and ethno-centric perspectives that characterize some currents of feminism.
My academic and political career path led me to approach the subject of forced disappearance with an epistemological watchfulness surrounding any generalizing perspectives about justice, grievances, and other conceptual constructions that may be used to victimize or disqualify these social agents. The path I traversed while analyzing legal pluralism taught me to recognize the existence of a diversity of conceptions of the person; which, no doubt, ought to be explored in order to understand the various ways in which offense and justice are lived and understood by different peoples.
These were some of the preoccupations that motivated my research and political struggle when I first decided to join the GIASF and began to accompany the processes of organization of relatives of the disappeared, mainly women. There, I began to confront the limits of legal activism in the face of contexts in which the majority of women no longer believe in the institutions of the state. Nor do they believe in the judiciary as the main means, or even a possible path, to denounce impunity and achieve reparations for the offenses they have suffered.
The GIASF has opened up spaces that facilitate the exchange of knowledge with relatives of the disappeared: through workshops in Veracruz, Sinaloa, Baja California, Chihuahua, Morelos, Michoacán, and Mexico City, and Honduras; through forensic and socio-anthropologic expert-witness reports; and through the creation of other materials that favor the quest for disappeared persons. Nevertheless, my closest work-experience with an organization of relatives of the disappeared has been with Las Buscadoras from El Fuerte and more recently with the families of the Cadereyta Case. This organization, like many others in the country, is made up primarily of the mothers and wives of the disappeared, who, in the face of the incompetence of the Mexican state, have given themselves over to the task of searching in clandestine graves for the remains of their loved ones.
Since 2014, in the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa, this group of women, known as Las Buscadoras (The Searchers) or Las Rastreadoras (The Trackers) of El Fuerte, goes out with picks and shovels to look for their disappeared sons and daughters. By October 2019, they have found 190 bodies and have returned 110 of them to their families. The group has become an ethical referent in the region, documenting more than 400 disappearances between 2010 and 2018 in the northern region of the state alone, in the municipalities of El Fuerte, Choix, Guasave, and Ahome.
Just as with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, or with the Group of Mutual Support in Guatemala, it has been chiefly mothers who have mobilized in the quest for their children, politicizing their maternal identities to turn all of the disappeared into their own sons and daughters. T-shirts women wear in protests or on search days have changed from saying “Te buscaré hasta encontrarte” (I will look for you [singular] until I find you) to “Los buscaremos hasta encontrarlos” (We will look for you all until we find you). Their identity as mothers has been wielded politically to obtain the solidarity of civil society, the logistical support of local institutions, and what they consider “limited protection” in face of organized crime groups that control different areas.
This stance assumes the existence of some sort of ethic-moral reserve of values among the perpetrators of violence, who despite all, would still hold some respect toward the figure of the mother. According to this logic, one of Las Buscadoras from El Fuerte shared a story with me in which a heavily armed man with his face covered impeded her from entering a field where, she assumed, there were clandestine graves. She scolded him, saying, “Boy, move aside and let me pass; one day it will be your mother who is searching, just like I am now, and you will want her to find you.” The young man responded by calling her by her name and telling her, “My respects, ma’am; please pass through to look for him.”
When asked about the little involvement of men in the search organization, women generally explain that this is due to reasons of security, given that it is way less likely that organized crime will attack a mother than a father, and because the working hours of men are usually stricter than those of women, who usually have more flexibility. Nevertheless, when one digs deepper into the context of northern Sinaloa and people’s daily routines, one realizes that women are not in a safer position than men, nor are their working hours always more flexible. This means that their answers respond to social imaginaries around the concepts of feminine and masculine, which are not always rooted in the concrete reality that they actually live.
The “pedagogy of terror” has crossed every ethical and moral boundary; respect for “the Mexican mother” is no longer part of the ethical code of the sicarios (hitmen), nor of the security forces with whom they collude. The mothers of the disappeared are thus placed at the center of violence. The list of mothers who have been targeted is long, and it includes women from across the whole of Mexico, from different professions and social classes.Perhaps the most well-known case is that of Marisela Escobedo, in Chihuahua.
In the case of Las Buscadoras, one of their companions, and a member the organization of relatives of Culiacán, Sandra Luz Hernández, mother of Edgar García, was murdered on May 11, 2014, while searching for her son. Her assassin confessed, and presented the murder weapon along with Hernández’s bloody clothing. A year later, Judge Sergio Valdez Meza freed him due to a supposed lack of evidence.
Utilizing the political identity of “mother” has also been widely questioned by academic feminists, especially those who set out from an analysis of the Mothers of la Plaza de Mayo’s experience. The main argument waged against what has been labeled “maternalism” or “familism,” is that it capitalizes on the more traditional values of society surrounding the heterosexual family. By establishing that women have been socialized with an ethic of care for the “others”—sons, fathers, brothers—and that it is this same ethic which has led mothers to abandon the private sphere and risk their lives in the quest for their sons, one could conclude that these women are merely reproducing the traditional role of “care-givers” that many feminisms have been confronting for decades.
Elizabeth Jelin and Marisa Navarro, two of the most renowned feminists of the Argentinian academia, have questioned the manner in which “maternalism” excludes other political identities that have mobilized for human rights in their country. Not only that, but according to them, maternalism also reifies the patriarchal imaginaries surrounding the role of women in society and particularly their role as mothers. Concerning this matter, Navarro writes: “The unwillingness of the Mothers of la Plaza de Mayo to consent to the loss of their sons is not an emancipatory act, but rather an expression of their socialization, an acceptance of the sexual division of labor and of their subordinated position inside of it” (Navarro 2001).
These criticisms of the strategies that women from popular sectors use to mobilize for justice brings me back to the old debates surrounding the “paradigm of interests,” which have been used by feminisms from the global north to disqualify the emancipatory potential of poor women mobilizing for their material needs.
In our research, we have confronted these perspectives that tend to establish political hierarchies between women’s movements, qualifying those that are closer to the political agendas of the analytical feminists as “more emancipatory” than those whose mobilization is based upon other discourses and practices that do not vindicate feminism. These discourses tend to disqualify the latter as mere reproducers of the patriarchal sexo-generic ideologies. It was Maxine Molyneux who popularized this analytical perspective, by establishing a divide between poor women, who mobilize around practical interests, and feminists, who mobilize around strategic interests. “Practical interests” are defined as those based on the satisfaction of needs that arise from the position of women inside the sexual division of labor. On the other hand, “strategic interests” are defined as those which entail vindications that seek to transform the unequal relationships between genders. The strategic interests are the only ones whose nature is considered intrinsically political, and potentially transformative. In other works I have confronted these dichotomist categorizations (see Hernández Castillo 2016 ; also Kabeer 1992; Wieringa 1994), which underestimate the critical contributions that poor organized women—in our case, the mothers and wives of the disappeared—can make to de-stabilize the social order. Indeed, these perspectives would bypass discussing how these women, in the frame of their quest strategies, have destabilized discourses of power or reconstructed their collective identities.
The so-called criticisms of “familism” also assume that the family bonds vindicated by those who have organized themselves against “forced disappearance” are always blood ties, centered on the traditional nuclear family. However, the families that we have met inside the movement are as diverse as national geography, and incorporate ritual relationships like compadrazgos (a ritual relationship created with godmothers and godfathers)), as well as other kinds of politico-affective relations. We are certain that in those organizations that have been formed in indigenous regions of Mexico, the ties of parentage are not centered around genetics, and in many cases include entire communities.
While it is true that the members of Las Buscadoras do not vindicate any feminist agenda, nor have they set out to confront the patriarchal relations that frame their daily lives, the act of going out to search for their sons and daughters, husbands, brothers and sisters, and godchildren has in fact implied negotiating many things within the domestic sphere, which inevitably end up destabilizing gender roles. At the level of the process of politicization, their involvement in spaces of convergence with other families has led them to locate their searches in the frame of a wider set of demands against violence and impunity. On this matter, Shaylih Muhelman (2017) analyses how women who participated in the Caravan for Peace in 2012 changed their understanding concerning the link between racism, militarization, and drug policies. This change of perspective occurred after having met the mothers of young African Americans who had been the victims of police brutality. Indeed, political dialogues have allowed many to frame the problem of forced disappearance way beyond a merely personal experience. To generalize around the limited and traditional construction of their identities as “mothers” only blurs the complex processes and transformations that are reconfiguring their political identities as they embark on this struggle.
In her call to develop a queer theory of mourning, Argentinian sociologist Cecilia Sosa enters into a dialogue with these criticisms to “familism” and posits “the need to broaden the traditional perspectives of parentage to conceive a politics of mourning, which includes new types of relationships grown in context of violence” (Sosa 2014: 212). While her call to inclusion appears pertinent to me, I wonder if it is absolutely necessary to reach out to the post-structuralist perspective of American feminist Judith Butler in order to deconstruct essentialist conceptions of the family. I wonder if it could not be more convenient to listen and learn from the incarnated theorizations that women searching for the relatives are making, the moment their struggle vindicates the fact that every disappeared is a part of their family.
As I have pointed out, Las Buscadoras do not only look for their own sons and daughters, but for all the disappeared; this is best exemplified by the fact that many mothers who have already found their relatives, among them the very founder of the group, Mirna Medina, continue nevertheless to participate in the searches. The moment in which they consider every corpse they find as one belonging to an actual person, and decide to treat and adopt that corpse as if it were a relative of theirs and not merely some random human remains, is the moment they break with what has been called the “privatization of the dead” and instead reinforce the sense of community.
This politics of caring for the bodies of the disappeared has led the searchers to develop the project El Pueblito, which has been proposed to the local government of Los Mochis in Sinaloa, and for which they have bought a piece of land in the municipal graveyard. There, the corpses found are to be properly buried and DNA tests to be conducted on every unidentified body, so that this information may be later compared with the official database, in order to recognize a corpse’s identity. For those bodies for which this turns out to be impossible, they are adopted as sons of Las Buscadoras and given a proper burial in El Pueblito, until any of their loved ones appears to reclaim the remains.
More than disqualifying the lack of radical feminism of Las Buscadoras, I consider that our main epistemological and political challenge is to understand their daily practices of resistance, to recognize the gray areas in which they reproduce the discourses of power, and to support in systematizing and acknowledging their knowledge and lived experiences.
A Dialogue of Knowledge from the Activist Research Stance
One of the theoretical and political concerns of our research team is the desire not to reproduce the epistemological hierarchies that have been established with the so-called “forensic turn” (see Ferrandiz 2014; Anstett and Dreyfus 2015), with which scientific knowledge of genetics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and, in some cases, social anthropology imposes itself on top of the local knowledge of the family members, which is conceived as mere “testimonies of secondary victims.”
In this sense, the systematizing and recognition of the knowledge of organizations of relatives is fundamental in order to establish political alliances, as well as to find strategies that confront violence and impunity. The basis for our cooperation with Las Buscadoras itself has been established by dialogic strategies, in which we have discussed with them the ways in which our academic knowledge and professional abilities can be useful for the work of their organization. From these dialogues, we have developed different projects. These include the systematizing of information about cases of forced disappearance in Sinaloa, as well as a database of the clandestine graves found by the group. The latter is made up of information recovered in a workshop of Historic Memory and in press material dealing with the subject; it has been coordinated by my colleague Carolina Robledo, with the support of a physical anthropologist intern, María López.
The database is currently being geo-referenced into a map. Simultaneously, and thanks to the collaboration of Dr. Luz María Sánchez from the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México-Lerma (Autonomous University of Mexico City–Lerma Campus) a digital app is being created to document the in situ findings of clandestine graves. This information will ultimately serve as foundation for building a report that displays a contextual analysis of the geography of violence in northern Sinaloa.
We also have a book in press, Nadie Detiene el Amor: Historias de Vida de Familiares de Desaparecidos en el Norte de Sinaloa, that will tell the life stories of Las Buscadoras and their children. It will have the purpose of not only confronting the stigma suffered by the disappeared, when they are tagged as “criminals” or “misguided young people” who sought out their own destiny, but also of unveiling the networks of complicities and impunities that have allowed for disappearances to happen.
Including the stories of the genealogy of violence and exclusion that have marked the lives of the disappeared and their families will also serve to contextualize forced disappearances within the framework of structural and institutional violence. Together with an intersectional perspective that acknowledges the racism and classism that conditioned the lives and deaths of the victims, this will make it possible to understand the factors that made it easier for such a tragedy to occur.
In this sense, the Memory Workshops that we have carried out with Las Buscadoras have been fundamental to documenting their findings and to the later geo-referencing of the found graves. These spaces have allowed us to recognize the profound knowledge possessed by the members of the organizations, not only of the physical geography of northern Sinaloa, but also of the political and social context that facilitates and reproduces violence. Simultaneous to the elaboration of maps, there has been a sharing of knowledge concerning the origins and manifestations of the different types of violence in distinct territories. These dialogues have played the double function of creating a collective memory and strengthening the political and affective links that bring the communities together.
The Memory Workshops and the book of Life Stories are different methods by which families share their testimonies between one another; we hope that in the future they may be shared with Mexican society at large. These testimonies speak of the wrongs that the disappeared and their families have suffered, and continue to suffer, in contexts of extreme violence and impunity. In dialogue with the proposal of the Colombian anthropologist Miriam Jimeno (2010), we could assert that these testimonies, which we have the privilege of systematizing, create emotional links of empathy among Las Buscadoras that later develop into political action. The concept of emotional communities, proposed by Jimeno and taken up by various academic feminists who work in contexts of violence, describes the process through which shared grievances manage to transcend indignation and feed into collective mobilization (see Macleod and DeMarinis 2018).
This mobilization does not always occur in ways that we, as members of GIASF, would prefer, nor does it always come from the same demands of justice that we consider to be most urgent. However, these are ongoing processes in which the political agendas are subject to constant negotiation. The voices of Las Buscadoras are as diverse as their personal stories and the accumulation of violent events that they have suffered. There are some who dare to confront the silencing and signal the state as responsible, not only of impunity, but of direct participation in violent crimes. Indeed, some even denounce this complicity in public forums. This is the case of Felicitas Hernández, mother of Juan Carlos, a young person disappeared by municipal policemen whose case has been analyzed in another article by my colleague Carolina Robledo (2018). The responsibility of Commander Gerardo Amarillas is directly mentioned time and again in her testimonies.
The name Professor Rosa Elia Vázquez also appears recurrently. She is the mother of Román Alberto, a young man disappeared by municipal policemen under the command of Amarillas. His is the only case that affects the commander, who is currently under an investigation that has resulted in the detention of three police personnel who have been convicted to 28 years and nine months in prison.
Others prefer to negotiate with the state without denouncing its responsibility. “In the way you ask lies the way you receive,” repeats Mirna Medina to explain her relationship with local authorities. Las Buscadoras have, in this sense, a “polyphonic” discourse. This is the gray situation that emerges from the hegemony of the state, which is recognized when it proves effective in its role as “benefactor” that supports families in their searches, but which is denounced as a fraud when incapable of meeting its liberal promises of justice, rights, and commitment to citizenship.
Las Buscadoras have destabilized epistemological hierarchies of the forensic sciences by legitimizing the validity of their own types of knowledge. They have done so by appropriating the forensic knowledge they acquire in the multiple spaces of confluence and formation of social movements in which they have been involved, and by waging their own knowledge surrounding the local geography of violence. Their citizen search practices have also confronted what Isaias Pérez-Rojas calls the necro-governability of the state, through the “localization, examination, individualization and eventual return of the bodies to their respective families so that they may receive proper burial.” Only by engaging in a respectful dialogue among distinct types of knowledge—one that recognizes the existence of different ways of being and living in this world, as well as the diverse forms in which justice can be imagined—will we be able to construct the holistic and inclusive agenda for peace that our country desperately needs.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article was published in Spanish in the journal ABYA-YALA: Revista sobre acesso á justiça e direitos nas Américas, ISSN-e 2526-6675, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, 94–119. This version of the article was translated into English by Rodrigo Álvarez.
R. Aída Hernández Castillo is a senior researcher–professor at the Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Over the last three years, I participated in a collaborative research project with Las Rastreadoras de El Fuerte in the north of Sinaloa with my colleague Carolina Robledo. The GIASF research team is composed of May Ek Querales, Albertina Ortega, Liliana López, Alejandro Arteaga, Sandra Odeth Gerardo,and Paola Alejandra Ramírez, under the coordination of Carolina Robledo.
 The Cadereyta massacre occurred on May 12–13, 2012. During this terrible event, 49 people were decapitated and mutilated by members of Los Zetas drug cartel and dumped by a roadside near the city of Monterrey in northern Mexico. Only 16 of the victims have been identified and the families of 12 of them have formed the organization Comité de Familiares de Migrantes Desaparecidos en el Centro de Honduras (COFAMICENH, Committee of Families of Disappeared Migrants in Central Honduras) and I have been part of a team that conducted an expert witness report for this legal case.
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