Using forensics to identify victims’ remains and cause of death

The Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, or EAAF) investigates forced disappearances and uses forensic technology to identify the remains of missing victims.

During Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983), between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” by the state. In many cases, the fates and the location of the remains of these victims of state violence remain undiscovered. Over the past two decades, the EAAF has worked to rectify this situation. The organization’s goal is threefold: to return victims’ remains to their families and thus aid in the healing process; to provide evidence for legal cases against the perpetrators of state violence; and to train and support the formation of other forensic teams in coun­tries that have suffered periods of violence and need to investigate the past.

The EAAF has a permanent investigative team that researches information on people who were disappeared. The group usually begins a case with a preliminary investigation to ascertain where the person might be buried, inter­viewing relatives, friends, other former prisoners, cellmates and former political activists about the victim’s physi­cal characteristics and the likely time and place of death. The EAAF also studies police and bureaucratic records, which contain physical descriptions, fingerprints and autopsy records, and must often obtain court orders to gain entrance to police archives. The process moves forward when the group has obtained ten written or oral documentations.

Once the burial’s likely location has been identified, the team approaches the family of the victim; the EAAF will not continue the investigation without the family’s consent. Once the family agrees, and the group has received authorization from the prosecutor or legal authority, the team begins the exhumations. Families are welcome to participate in some of the steps. The group uses standard archaeological techniques to recover the person’s remains, and work then proceeds to the laboratory, where the EAAF scientists attempt to match the remains with the gathered information and establish the cause and manner of death.

Through this process, the EAAF has identified hundreds of victims’ remains, bringing closure to families and con­tributing evidence to national and international tribunals, truth commissions and local courts. The EAAF has also trained many other groups around the world in its techniques. EAAF team members say this has been an impor­tant process for increased cooperation among countries in the global South.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

In cases where paper documents are insufficient or simply do not exist, forensic work can create a record for litigation and give victims’ families the information they need for closure. Forensic work is an objective way to record abuses. Because the evidence is scientific, it can be even more powerful than testimony and written documentation in proving human rights violations. The exhumation of bodies can also allow families to perform traditional rituals, mourn and, though still hurting, move on with their lives.

When the EAAF investigates deaths, it gives control of the process to the family and community. This is es­sential in communities that have not only been marginalized under abusive governments but have been excluded from the reconciliation process. The EAAF’s approach requires a certain level of openness and politi­cal freedom, but the group’s experience transferring the tactic to over 30 other countries demonstrates that total government support is not necessary.

Another group, in Guatemala, also works with the community during exhumations, but focuses on psychosocial services. The Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psycosocial (Community Research and Psychosocial Action Team, or ECAP) works with the the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala to provide support to families and communities before, during and after an exhumation.

ECAP organizes support groups in which families can safely share emotions related to their loss, where they can reflect, fearlessly tell their stories, learn to face the consequences of violence and understand the current situation so that they can plan for the future. Families also receive assistance in burying their relatives legally and according to their own traditions, helping to preserve the bond between the living and the deceased.

After providing counseling prior to an exhumation, counselors accompany families to the exhumation site to provide support as members confront the reality of their relative’s death, and continue to work with families to help them accept this reality. In communities affected by widespread political violence, common in many rural areas of Guatemala, counselors identify the impact of the violence and create groups to foster discussions of how the community as a whole can heal. To contribute to the healing, ECAP also supports communities in the creation of memorials and other ways of recognizing the traumas of the past. These programs all promote a critical awareness of the community’s shared his­tory, present and future, along with the emotions and challenges involved in reclaiming their rights.