Forensic Science for Human Rights
Science is helping to bring a former Argentine dictator to justice with expertise that will haunt perpetrators of state violence
There's an office in this grandiose and sprawling city of Buenos
Aires that holds a somewhat macabre collection: over 700 human
skeletons. They are presumed to be but a small fraction of the
unidentified remains of the over 30,000 supposed "subversives" who the
rightwing military government of the late 70s and early 80s tried to
make disappear from the face of the earth.
"In our profession, we
always arrive late in a way. We use whatever documentation was left by
the military to find the bodies." Luis Fondebrider tells me, co-founder
of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team
(EAAF). "The most complicated part is getting DNA information from
bones, but the latest advances in genetic testing has helped. Some of
our more recent identifications are of skeletons we've had for 15
For years the nonprofit team of bone hunters and forensic
investigators, with offices in Buenos Aires, the western Argentine city
of Córdoba, and New York, have been working with human rights activists
and judicial authorities in Argentina and around the world on a project
that should give war criminals everywhere pause – they help undisappear
the disappeared. The team has identified victims of state terrorism in
Argentina and elsewhere, providing key evidence that has led to
convictions of a number of assassins who might have gotten away with
it, if not for advances in modern forensic science.
Earlier this week their work was once again vindicated when a very big fish was caught
and charged with almost 50 cases of kidnapping, torture and murder.
Thanks to the tireless work of human rights groups in Argentina over
the years, justice had already caught up with former Argentine dictator
Jorge Rafael Videla, who ruled from 1976 to 1981. He is due to stand
trial in September for his role in a particularly twisted racket during
the dictatorship – the kidnapping of babies of assassinated political
opponents, which were then "gifted" to families sympathetic to the
regime. The new murder charges, filed by federal judge Daniel Rafecas,
are drawn directly from positive identifications that EAAF
investigators made in the last two years, from skeletons exhumed from
unmarked graves in 10 cemeteries in or around Buenos Aires.
us it means – I can't say happiness – but satisfaction," Fondebrider
told me the day after the new charges were announced against Videla.
The ex-dictator will now appear in court at the end of the month, for
the first time in 25 years. (Videla was sentenced to life in prison in
1985, but was pardoned along with other military leaders in 1990). "In
our part of the world perpetrators of state terrorism often aren't
charged, or often there's not enough information to bring them to
justice. So it's one of the few times that our work helps to break
through that impunity."
There's an undeniable poetic justice at
play. For years it was up to family members and human rights groups
such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Grandmothers of the Plaza de
Mayo, and HIJOS
to keep the memories alive of those who disappeared, against an
official culture of impunity that pushed people to "stop dredging up
the past". But the brutal charnel house that was Argentina in the late
70s and early 80s also led to the development of an organisation with a
particularly sophisticated expertise in digging through mass graves –
and using continued advances in forensics to reclaim the identities of
those who were so meticulously extinguished during those years of blood
Some victims will likely never be found – one common
form of disappearing kidnapped victims at the time was by drugging them
and throwing them live in to the ocean. Luckily for forensic
investigators, though, some of the perpetrators in the armed forces
maintained at least some semblance of propriety.
"Many of the
military men were Catholics," Mercedes Doretti tells me, an EAAF
co-founder who works out of the New York office. "They believed that
even subversives should receive a Christian sepulture."
team's expertise is now increasingly in demand around the world as its
members consult with human rights activists, prosecutors, and family
members in countries where human rights crimes, disappearances and
other forms of state terrorism are also finally being investigated
(South Africa, Colombia, El Salvador, East Timor).
working with investigators from the US and Mexico to study the cases of
unidentified murder victims along the vast border. Excavations continue
apace in the Argentine provinces of Córdoba, Tucuman and Mendoza. And
the organisation continues to grow a massive genetic database
containing DNA information of family members of the disappeared to help
identify future remains, or to confirm the identities of kidnapped and
misappropriated children. And at least one dictator will have to stand
trial and account for the lives extinguished under his rule.
violence is nothing new, of course, and sadly we'll still likely be in
need of the EAAF's specialised expertise well in to the future. But
it's heartening to know that at least the science continues to catch up
with the human heart's demands for justice.