Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Identifying the Remains of the “Disappeared”

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 8 2007 (IPS) - With backing from the state, a non-profit scientific organisation in Argentina has launched a mass campaign to collect blood samples from the families of people who fell victims to forced disappearance during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, in order to identify the remains of some 600 people and create a database.

“In 23 years we have recovered the skeletal remains of about 900 people, 300 of whom were identified and turned over to their families,” Luis Fondebrider, director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), told IPS. “We need to carry out further DNA testing in the rest of the cases.”

To complete that task, the EAAF signed an agreement with the Health Ministry and the Secretariat of Human Rights and began this month to publicise the initiative, in order to get family members to visit one of the 45 hospitals taking part in the agreement and have their blood samples taken.

“A simple blood sample can help identify him” says a TV and radio spot that will go on the air nationwide next week. The ads urge family members to call a toll-free number to make an appointment to give a blood sample.

With their low-profile work, which began after the restoration of democracy, the team of forensic anthropologists has become the final crucial link in the long search undertaken by families of victims of forced disappearance and politically motivated killings.

Some 11,000 people were “disappeared” by Argentina’s military dictatorship, although human rights groups put the death toll at 30,000.

The families not only want those responsible to be brought to justice, but are also seeking to find out what happened to their loved ones and to recover their remains, to give them a proper burial and gain a sense of resolution.

So far, remains have been found in clandestine cemeteries in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Entre Ríos and Santa Fe.

The EAAF is currently working in those provinces, as well as three others: Chaco, Jujuy and Tucumán. In some cases, the work is in the preliminary stage of investigation, focusing on written records and witness testimony; in others, exhumations are being carried out; and in the most advanced, remains are being analysed in the team’s laboratory. “It’s an ongoing process,” said Fondebrider.

Because of its prestige, the EAAF has been called upon by international tribunals, United Nations agencies, truth commissions and the governments of 35 countries.

Thanks to the team’s efforts, for example, the remains of legendary Argentine-Cuban guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia 40 years ago, were identified in 1997.

The team uses anthropological, medical and odontological methods to identify human remains. To carry out the last step, which is DNA testing, on the 600 bodies still to be identified, the group has had to resort to international assistance, due to the complexity and huge dimensions of the task.

“We do not have a clearly delimited group of possible families, which is why we are seeking to gather around 3,600 blood samples in order to have more options to try to match with each skeleton,” said the forensic anthropologist.

The samples will be sent to a laboratory in the United States, which has the capacity to process more cases than the group’s laboratory in Argentina.

The results will not be available until mid-2008. But in the meantime, the EAAF will have created a database of blood samples from the relatives of the “disappeared”, to help identify the remains of bodies that are found.

In their search for the stolen children of victims of the dictatorship, many of whom were illegally “adopted” and raised by military families, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have already created a national genetic database, to try to match young people who have doubts about their identity with their biological families.

But the current project would create a distinct state-run database, as part of the Latin American Initiative for the Identification of the “Disappeared”, which includes the EAAF, the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG).

The aim of the three organisations is to give a major boost to the process of identifying the remains of people disappeared for political reasons in Latin America.

Despite the different characteristics and historical contexts of the political violence in Argentina, Guatemala and Peru, the experts will share their experiences in order to optimise their resources and avoid the repetition of mistakes.

“Argentina will thus become the first country to launch a massive campaign to identify the remains of the disappeared, driven by a non-governmental body,” said Fondebrider. “The only two precedents in the world are those of the former Yugoslavia and Chile, both of which were state initiatives.”

In the ex-Yugoslavia, a database of blood samples of relatives was set up to identify the bodies of some 8,000 adults and children who were killed in the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre.

Members of the EAAF were summoned to work there by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

And two months ago in Chile, the centre-left government of President Michelle Bachelet created a similar centre, in the institute of forensic medicine, to gather samples from the relatives of people who fell victim to forced disappearance under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

So far, the remains of around 100 of the 1,200 victims of forced disappearance in Chile have been found and identified.

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