Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HUMAN RIGHTS: Reading the Bones

Marcela Valente*

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 12 2010 (IPS) - Created with the aim of recovering the remains of the victims of forced disappearance from Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has already worked in 40 countries and is expanding the scope of cases that it investigates.

“What we offer is training for forensic experts in recovering and identifying the remains of people who have died in cases of political violence, but also of victims of common crimes or major disasters,” the director of the team, Luis Fondebrider, told IPS.

One case not specifically related to political violence is that of the hundreds of murders of women in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S. border, where the team identified 33 bodies of women and girls.

Although there are no clear numbers on how many teenagers and young women have been murdered and gone missing in the sprawling industrial border city since the early 1990s, the estimates start at 500 and go up into the thousands.

The Argentine forensic crew, known by its Spanish acronym EAAF, was established as a non-governmental, not-for-profit scientific organisation in 1984, the year after the dictatorship came to an end. Between 15,000 (the official figure) and 30,000 (the estimate by human rights groups) people fell victim to forced disappearance during Argentina’s seven-year de facto military regime.

“It is not our job to find the culprits,” the anthropologist pointed out. What the team does is carry out investigations to identify the remains and, to the extent possible, determine the cause of death.


In Argentina, the team has discovered the remains of some 900 people in common graves in seven provinces, 300 of whom were quickly identified.

In the attempt to identify the rest, a campaign was launched in late 2007 with backing from the government. Through radio and TV spots providing a toll-free number, the campaign urges the families of victims of forced disappearance to give blood samples, for the purpose of comparing DNA.

Another 120 bodies have been identified since 2008 thanks to the campaign.

The Argentine forensic crew’s experience has helped in the recovery of the remains of victims of violence in 16 other Latin American countries, nine countries in Africa, seven in Europe, five in Asia and two in Oceania.

In one of the highest profile cases they have taken on, in 1997 the team identified the remains of legendary Cuban-Argentine guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was killed by the military in Bolivia in 1967 and buried in a mass grave near an airstrip.

Although about 90 percent of the cases that the team takes on involve political violence, the experts are increasingly accepting other kinds of cases, when called on to do so in a context of international cooperation.

The team, made up of anthropologists, archaeologists, DNA experts, physicians, dentists, computer specialists and others, has helped recover and identify the bodies of people killed in earthquakes, floods, landslides, accidents and common murders.

“The techniques are the same: what we do is identify bodies in very poor condition, with no soft tissue, which requires interviews with the families, to gather more information about them,” Fondebrider explained.

Argentina’s foreign ministry decided to provide the EAAF with political and financial support for projects of cooperation with other countries of the developing South that request the team’s assistance.

The ministry called together ambassadors from 45 countries to present them with the EAAF’s work, and Fondebrider said requests came from Jamaica, Indonesia and Japan for assistance in training and setting up similar forensic teams in those countries.

The EAAF has most recently provided such assistance in Cyprus, East Timor, Guatemala and Chile, and is preparing to do the same next year in Vietnam.

In some of the cases, the experts have not only provided training and assistance in setting up teams, but have also helped with field work.

In civil war-torn Colombia, the Argentine experts formed part of a commission sent by the Organisation of American States (OAS) to investigate the murky circumstances surrounding the 2007 shooting deaths of 11 of a group of 12 regional lawmakers from Cali who had been kidnapped by the FARC guerrillas in 2002.

In Mexico, they have been working with the authorities for several years in Ciudad Juárez and other cities in the state of Chihuahua, in response to the original request by Justicia para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for Our Daughters), made up of parents and other relatives of victims.

“In Ciudad Juárez, the authorities would bring a bag of bones and tell the families: ‘This is your daughter, do you want her or not?’ Some would accept what they were given, and bury the remains, and others wouldn’t,” Alma Gómez, with the Women’s Human Rights Centre of Mexico, told IPS.

Gómez, who was the liaison between the families of the women killed in Ciudad Juárez and the EAAF, said “the Mexican government had absolutely no interest” in clearing up the murders, so the activists decided to invite the forensic experts from Argentina.

“For us, two things were essential: their technical expertise and their moral fortitude,” she said. The EAAF itself raised a large part of the funds needed to finance the investigation.

Mexico’s public prosecutor’s office had identified some bodies, but the families did not put much stock in their conclusions, Gómez said.

Sofía Egaña, who was the head of the EAAF crew that worked in Ciudad Juárez, told IPS that they had originally designed a plan that would have covered 25 victims, including a review of the case files.

But the exhumations and investigations led to the remains of nearly 100 people, and by means of techniques like comparing the DNA to samples from family members, 33 bodies were identified.

“Three of those cases reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and we served as expert witnesses,” Egaña said.

She was referring to the case in which the Inter-American Court found the Mexican state guilty in November 2009 of denial of justice to three young women between the ages of 15 and 20, whose bodies were found in November 2001 on a piece of waste ground known as Campo Algodonero on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez.

The Court, which forms part of the OAS system, ordered the authorities to conduct a serious investigation into the murders and pay reparations to the young women’s families.

*Additional reporting by Daniela Pastrana in Mexico City.

 
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