photo shows a beautiful young Argentine woman in her 20s.
But it was the late 1970s in Argentina, and the military
junta considered her a threat. The next photo shows her
skull recovered from a mass grave.
by one, the slides of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology
Team name "los desaparecidos"-the disappeared.
as soon as the sun touched them, the bones started telling
their stories," said Dr. Clyde Snow, re-known forensic anthropologist
and member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, as he looks
at the slide. "Notice the bullet hole in her head. She tells
us she was shot."
Snow at AAA conference
Bernardi (left) and Mercedes Doretti
Snow and members of his team spoke in San Francisco on Fri.
Nov. 17 at the American Anthropological Association's annual
meeting. Their presentation, "Uncovering the 'Disappeared':
Clyde Snow and Forensic Anthropologists' Work for Justice," was
sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies at UC
work helps in the historic reconstruction that is often hidden
by the authorities and the governments that took part in
them," said Mercedes Doretti, an original member of the Argentine
forensic team. "Even though we talk about bones, they represent
faces and histories."
histories they tell are grim. From 1976 to 1983 Argentina
suffered from the Dirty War. Any opposition or criticism
of the military junta in power was eradicated by paramilitary
death squads, resulting in the disappearance of more than
an estimated 20,000 citizens, most of them young men and
1984, the team started carefully exhuming remains, measuring
bones and reconstructing skeletons despite death threats
and fears of becoming what they were exposing-the disappeared,
Dr. Snow said. In 1985, Dr. Snow presented evidence of homicides
uncovered by the team and testified in court in Argentina
to convict members of the military junta.
anthropologists identify remains in four ways: visual identification,
matching dental and/or medical records, measuring the bones
and skeleton, or matching DNA. The use of DNA is a relatively
new and costly method which started in 1990, Dr. Snow said.
DNA samples from the bones are compared to blood samples
taken from family members.
team also gathers information from relatives and eyewitnesses
about the missing person to help with burial location and
what they learned in Argentina, the team began unearthing
massacre victims in Guatemala in 1996. Guatemala has been
torn apart by 36 years of civil war that killed more than
200,000. Identification is more difficult in Guatemala, because
many of the victims, mostly indigenous Maya, live in remote
mountain regions where there are no birth certificates, medical
or dental records or other identification.
we have to prove that people were alive before we can prove
they are dead," said Fredy Peccerelli, who worked with Dr.
Snow and is president of the Guatemala Forensic Anthropology
has testified in three trials to bring murderers to justice
in Guatemala, where 83 percent of the population is indigenous.
Even though they are the majority, the Maya have not traditionally
been involved in the legal system, he said.
truth commission in Guatemala estimated that the armed forces
participated in 669 scorched-earth massacres.
barely getting started," he said.
team has found victims buried in churches, villages and fields.
He tells the story of the village of San Andrés Sajcabaja
in Quiche. In San Andrés people remember hearing screams
coming from the church where armed men killed villagers.
Survivors recall dogs that would show up with an arm in their
mouths in the plaza, Peccerelli said. The soldiers did not
bury them very well, he explained.
another village in the province of Quiche, Peccerelli recalls
an older Maya man who would come to the burial site day after
day. He kept asking if anyone had found a brass belt buckle.
One morning Peccerelli cleared away the dirt and pulled out
a buckle. He showed it to the old man, who had a matching
one around his waist. The father found what he wanted: his
son. He walked away with the belt buckle and the cardboard
box that contained the bones of his son.
is when you notice how important it is, and how a person's
life can be changed by anthropology," said Peccerelli
who has been doing this for years, said that all families
grieve and have their own religious funeral rites for their
dead. "When we identify them there is a big relief and healing
comes with that," she said. "But it's also the end of the
search and the end of the hope. There is tremendous sorrow."
though their work is far from being finished from murders
committed in Argentina in the 1970s, Snow and the 12-member
team are applying what they have learned in 22 countries
worldwide. More recently, they have uncovered human rights
abuses in Kosovo, Bosnia, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Iraqi
a lot of déjà vu in this business," said Dr. Snow, adjunct
faculty member of the Unversity of Oklahoma. Human rights
abuses are essentially the same across the globe, he said.
never get used to it-never," Peccerilli said of unmasking
the dead. "It's still somebody who died who shouldn't have