Digging for the Disappeared
Forensic Science after Atrocity
Adam Rosenblatt



Born at the Graves

A Human Rights Movement Takes Shape

From the Grave to the Cradle

The grandmothers needed science.

The early 1970s were a period of explosive instability in Argentina, exacerbated by the return from exile and third presidential term of the charismatic populist Juan Perón. Perón, in ailing health, proved unable to control the increasingly violent opposition between different groups on the right and left, each side claiming to be the ideological heirs of “Peronism.” Perón died in July 1974, and his third wife, Isabel, assumed the presidency, giving right-wing paramilitary organizations even freer reign in her attempt to reassert order. On March 24, 1976, a military coup swept Isabel Perón out of power, with the support of much of the “exhausted” public.1 As in neighboring Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and other countries in the region, the new junta of military leaders cast itself as the defender of national security against armed leftist groups, but also against a much more vaguely defined “subversive” cancer that had supposedly taken root in society. One document from the “constant torrent of speeches, proclamations, and interviews” that the Argentine junta released explains, “The social body of the country is contaminated by an illness that in corroding its entrails produces antibodies. These antibodies must not be considered in the same way as the [original] microbe. As the government controls and destroys the guerilla, the action of the antibody will disappear. . . . This is just the natural reaction of a sick body.”2

As Cold War politics played out in South America, the Argentine junta was able to share intelligence, prisoners, and torture techniques with the neighboring right-wing dictatorships. It received significant moral, tactical, and economic support from the United States and multinational corporations.3

The most infamous innovation of this network of regimes was the programmatic use, against their own citizens, of “disappearance”—a vision of the total erasure of the enemy, inspired by the Nazis’ program of “Night and Fog” (Nacht und Nebel) carried out against political prisoners in Nazi-occupied territories of Europe. In Argentina, leftists and other suspected subversives were often arrested in their homes, driven away in the dreaded favorite car of the security forces—a Ford Falcon with no license plate—and placed in a network of torture camps without any record of their arrest, usually with little chance of ever being seen again.

Some of the most famous and influential organizations in the history of human rights activism—and of social movements led by women—formed in Argentina as a result of the crime of enforced disappearance.4 The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, or Grandmothers of the Disappeared, are among these groups. Like their colleagues, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the group was named after Buenos Aires’ most important public square, where during dictatorship and beyond they conducted weekly marches, with photographs of their disappeared loved ones pinned to their clothing or plastered on signs, and white scarves tied around their heads.

The Abuelas’ activism responded, specifically, to a variation on “disappearance” popular in Argentina. Targeting young activists and idealists, the security forces often kidnapped young parents with their children, as well as pregnant women.5 The children of disappeared couples were often taken from them. Pregnant women, in the meantime, were subjected to special tortures and taken to clandestine facilities where they eventually gave birth (one torture camp even had its own “maternity ward”), sometimes supervised by doctors or nurses who used cesarean section or other artificial methods to speed up the process. Young mothers and fathers in the camps were then almost always killed; it seems that being pregnant was one of the surest indicators that a prisoner would never make it out of alive.6 Under the “germ theory” promoted by the junta,7 the children of these disappeared people could be “purified,” turned away from subversion, if they were brought up by families affiliated with the military or the right-leaning economic elite.8 In some cases, the children were brought to live with the very people who had tortured and murdered their parents.

The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo largely consisted of women whose children were among the “disappeared”—desaparecidos in Spanish—but who suspected they might still have a missing grandchild somewhere who was growing up with no knowledge of his or her real birth family. Added to the anguish of losing their children was the sense that, with every passing day, their grandchildren (and often their only hope for a family) would become more lost to them, both physically and psychologically, as they adapted to their new homes and the identities that were being supplied to them.

In 1977, the Abuelas branched out from the Madres de Plaza de Mayo—whose story, as well as a more detailed account of repression and human rights activism in Argentina, appears here in Chapter 2—and began their own marches around the Plaza de Mayo. Through the work of both groups and their allies, disappearance in Argentina gradually attracted significant international attention. During a trip to the United States in 1982, some of the Abuelas contacted an Argentine exile, the pediatrician and geneticist Victor Penchaszadeh, about the possibility of developing a new genetic test to help them in their search for disappeared grandchildren. Instead of proving paternity, already an established procedure, the test would use genetic markers in the blood, especially human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), to provide highly reliable matches between children and their biological grandparents without requiring any information from the missing generation in between—the parents who had disappeared into torture camps and anonymous graves.9

While these discussions were underway, Argentina’s junta, beset by economic setbacks and an embarrassing military defeat against the British in the Falkland Islands, finally lost its grip on power. In 1983, the country held democratic elections. The newly elected president, Raúl Alfonsín, permitted the exhumation of anonymous graves thought to contain thousands of Argentina’s desaparecidos. These initial exhumations, however, were haphazard efforts, as the forensic authorities and cemetery workers who conducted them had little knowledge of the appropriate archaeological and anthropological techniques of exhumation. For the most part, they destroyed more evidence than they recovered. The Abuelas stepped in and contacted Eric Stover, then the director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s program in Science and Human Rights,10 who had himself briefly been detained by security forces in Argentina. Interested, but feeling out of his depth so far as forensic science was concerned, Stover contacted the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.11 The Academy brought Stover’s request to Clyde Snow, a celebrated forensic anthropologist known for identifying the remains of the fugitive Nazi “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele in Brazil, and for many other high-profile cases both contemporary and historical,12 and to Marie-Claire King, a geneticist interested in developing the grand-paternity tests.

The Abuelas knew that scientifically sound exhumations could provide evidence for eventual trials against the torturers, murderers, rapists, and kidnappers. Even more urgent for them, however, was the possibility that the bodies of the desaparecidos could tell them who had given birth before being executed. At the time, it was widely believed that “pelvic scarring”—markers of motion imprinted on the bones of a woman’s pelvis—was a reliable sign that a woman had given birth.13 Through exhumations, the Abuelas could also find out whether the skeleton of a baby or fetus was buried along with its mother. When a woman known to be pregnant was found without a fetus or child in the grave with her, it was supposed that the missing child had been taken alive as “botín de guerra,” war booty.14 Their search thus reversed the usual timeline of a life: the clues found in cemeteries would take them to the cradles and bedrooms of their stolen grandchildren.

In June 1984, Stover visited Argentina along with a delegation of US experts invited by the Alfonsín government to advise on both exhumations and the identification of missing children—the search for the living and the recovery of the dead.15 Stover’s companions were Snow, King, the Chilean geneticist Cristián Orrego, the forensic pathologist Leslie Lukash, and the forensic odontologist (dentist) Lowell Levine.16 In a story that now has a celebrated place in human rights history, Snow became deeply committed to the cause of exhuming the desaparecidos, spending years shuttling back and forth between his home in Oklahoma and Buenos Aires. He recruited a number of young Argentine students and trained them in his craft: Patricia Bernardi, Mercedes (Mimi) Doretti, Luis Fondebrider, Alejandro Inchaurregui, Dario Olmo, and Morris Tidball (now Tidball-Binz). These students went on to form the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, or Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team: the first human rights organization devoted exclusively to forensic investigation, and (just as accurately, just as importantly) the first group of forensic experts devoted exclusively to human rights work.17

The collaboration between the Abuelas and forensic experts would lead to a small scientific revolution, spurring the development of methods of DNA testing that would later be used to identify missing people in many different settings, from genocides and other conflicts to natural disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It also created a powerful new model for human rights activism. The Argentine team was soon fielding calls from other countries seeking their expertise, and they eventually worked alongside Snow to train and form forensic teams in a number of other countries in Latin America. In the 1990s, horrific genocides unfolded in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; the total numbers of dead civilians and the size of the mass graves where they were buried far exceeded what the Argentine team had encountered in Latin America. Justice Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who played a high-profile role in that country’s transition from Apartheid, served as the chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals set up to investigate human rights violations and try war criminals for both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Familiar with the Argentine story, Goldstone called for forensic investigations in both regions to corroborate the testimonies of witnesses and provide evidence of genocide and other crimes on behalf of the prosecution. Snow, members of the Argentine team, their colleagues from Chile, Guatemala, and Peru, as well as other individuals mentioned later in this book, such as Bill Haglund and Clea Koff, converged at the mass graves that dotted these two troubled lands. The forensic investigation of human rights violations had become a global project.

Digging for the Disappeared is about the politics and ethics of this global project. Its central concern is what international forensic investigations of atrocity are for: what purposes they serve, on whose behalf, what people have come to expect of them, and what they can actually accomplish. It is a set of nested questions that, one might think, could be answered simply by reading the mission statements of the Argentine team and the various other organizations that now do similar work. Doing so, however, would give a very incomplete picture. It would fail to capture how the priorities of forensic teams have changed over time, the complexity of their decisions about where to allocate their resources and efforts in the field, and how much still remains unarticulated in the discourse about forensic work.

Further, the “why” of international forensic investigations is a question that practitioners themselves have frequently revisited. The histories of all forms of humanitarian and human rights activism are complex,18 and they involve distinct phases in which methods and purposes changed due to internal debates, organizational competition, and geopolitical pressures, among other things.19 Forensic teams are no strangers to any of these phenomena, and the mission statements and methods they live by today reflect layers of change made over time.

A few features stand out when analyzing the historical development of forensic science as applied to human rights causes. First is the rapid scaling of forensic human rights work, from Snow’s team of students—who were working with a lot of hope, a fair bit of fear, and a shoestring budget in 1980s Argentina—to the bewildering international array of experts investigating mass graves in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s.

Along with the rapid rise of international forensic investigations comes a sense (often articulated by practitioners themselves) of improvisation. The feeling that facts on the ground perpetually outpace opportunities for reflection—which is endemic to humanitarianism and human rights organizations in general (and really to any institution with a sense of urgent purpose)—has been particularly pronounced in this field. Forensic teams have tried to keep up with new conflicts, new graves, and new kinds of demands without much time to explore what historical, organizational, and even moral leaps were being made as the work pioneered in Latin America and a few other places was reshaped into a global practice.

The Forensic Sciences Foundation defines forensic science as “the study and practice of the application of science to the purposes of the law.”20 Yet a departure from this historical, medico-legal understanding of forensics was underway almost as soon Clyde Snow and his students began exhuming the graves of desaparecidos in Argentina, especially when a series of immunity laws for human rights violators closed off, for decades, most of the legal uses for the forensic evidence the team was collecting. Due to both the limitations of circumstance and their own sense of broader purpose, the team began to talk about grief, history, and ritual beyond the courtroom setting.

From the time of those first human rights exhumations onward, the priorities of forensic investigations have been crafted from a complicated dance between scientific techniques that continue to evolve, a growing international consensus about the moral obligation and legal authority to exhume mass graves after atrocities, and the particular political, legal, and logistical challenges of any given post-conflict context. As individual forensic experts and the organizations they work for travel from region to region and grave to grave, they also acquire new data about what kinds of work international tribunals, families of the missing, and other concerned parties will support, where these stakeholders’ priorities lie, and how they respond to limitations. There may be obstacles in the path to prosecuting human rights violators, as in Argentina, or limits on how many graves can be exhumed and individual bodies identified when resources are scarce, conditions poor, and medical infrastructure very low. There is also real and present danger: death threats, landmines, work that cannot be done because the graves are located in territory controlled by hostile forces, or because they are being watched by those who would rather not see evidence come to light.

Another major factor that shapes the involvement of international teams in mass grave exhumations is a backdrop of massive global inequality: economic, geopolitical, and otherwise. Forensic experts, like their colleagues in many humanitarian and human rights organizations, are generally aware that well-intentioned and even apparently successful assistance projects may have unintended negative consequences; they may also be interpreted in light of a long and painful history in which rich Western nations have interfered in the politics and economies of poorer nations, subsequently offering their own self-serving “cures” for the distortions introduced by imperialist ideology and thievery. As the bodies of historically colonized and subjugated people are lifted out of the earth and placed in the care of international scientific experts, also present in the minds of many is the legacy of colonialism’s particular attentiveness to the bodies of its subjects—their exhibition, categorization, study, and regulation, and in many cases the disturbance of their final rest.21 The mission statements of forensic teams tend to list all of the potential outcomes and priorities of their work without explaining the relationship between them: how one priority can pull against the other, how what forensic science can accomplish may differ from what is expected, or desired, from forensic teams in any given context.

It is also not so easy to answer the “why” question because there remains a great swath of undiscovered territory in forensic ethics. The conversation among forensic experts has already proceeded far beyond an exclusively medico-legal definition of forensic work, into the territories of human rights and humanitarianism, as well as transitional justice, public truth-telling, and collective memory. Yet there is still much to say about what forensic experts do for the dead bodies they exhume and identify, and for the communities of mourners around them: how forensic work responds to the dynamics of grief, the desire to care for bodies and objects, and the violations inflicted on the victims of atrocity even after their deaths.

In this book, I will apply some new tools to the ethics of international forensic investigations. I start by analyzing specific forensic investigations and the substantial ethical dialogue already taking place within the community of practitioners, but also bring in reflections from political and moral theory, anthropology and sociology, and scholarship about the politics and philosophy of human rights. The focus on human rights—looked at through multiple lenses as a legal framework, a set of concepts about the relationship between the individual and society, and especially as a discourse—is particularly important. Much of the existing humanities and social science scholarship about forensic investigation makes only passing reference to human rights. Some scholars have begun connecting issues in the practice of forensic investigation with the ongoing debates that have accompanied the extraordinary rise of the human rights framework, especially the long-standing tension between universal morality and cultural difference.22 But the question of where human rights fit—not only in specific investigations but also in terms of the broader “why” behind a global project of exhuming mass graves—still requires a deeper and more interdisciplinary investigation. A few of the issues I consider in this book, such as how the context of mass grave investigation provokes a unique confrontation between human rights and religious beliefs, or the relationship between human rights and the care of dead bodies, have barely been touched upon in forensic reports or scholarship.

This book combines a grounded sense of the daily life of organizations that conduct forensic human rights investigations with new, theoretically informed perspectives on those lived experiences. It is informed by my experiences as an employee at Physicians for Human Rights, observation of exhumations and visits to forensic projects or facilities in South Africa, Mexico, and Chile, semistructured interviews with forensic experts, human rights activists, lawyers, families, and friends of missing and disappeared persons in various locations, archival research and significant reading of publications from within the field. The wide net I have cast is the product of my conviction that it is time for a historically informed set of reflections on human rights forensic investigation as a distinct, networked field of global activism and scientific practice, rather than a loose collection of cases.

Building a bridge between human rights scholarship and forensic practice has implications for both of the sides that are being connected. While fresh and challenging perspectives on forensic work emerge from an engagement with the many other disciplines and literatures that have begun taking human rights seriously, the realities of mass graves and scientific practice help expose places where theoretical debates have lost touch with the actual circumstances forensic experts and other human rights workers often face. In these cases, human rights scholarship has often erred too far on the side of elegant argumentation oriented toward a world that cannot exist. The people making those arguments have sometimes demanded things that human rights activism can never achieve, while failing to see major successes not easily described in their vocabularies.

This chapter offers a broad overview of forensic work in the human rights context, including major organizations in the field, disciplines and methodologies employed, and some key terms. It also highlights some of the basic ethical assumptions that both define the field and guide the daily practices of forensic teams.


1. Heilman 2001, 74.

2. According to Heilman 2001, the logic of Jewish burial rituals holds that “to look directly at the face and body of the dead . . . is to be struck hard by the undeniability of the corpse’s passivity, which makes it difficult to believe that a passage to another kind of existence has begun. So the Jewish dead are brought for a brief period before the burial, placed in a casket or enshrouded on a catafalque before all those assembled at the funeral—unmistakable dead yet not altogether visible” (76–77).

3. Joyce and Stover 1992, 143–91.

4. University of Tennessee’s Mass Graves Project and Carnegie Mellon’s Post-Conflict and Post-Disaster DNA Identification project (which I took part in) are both examples of multidisciplinary, problem-oriented programs with significant involvement from forensic experts.

5. Kinnell 1971, 52.


1. Feitlowitz 1998, 6–7.

2. Ibid., 20, 33.

3. McSherry 2005; Klein 2007, 87–128.

4. See Kaplan 2004; Bouvard 2002.

5. According to “Nunca Más,” the report of Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, 3 percent of all disappeared women were pregnant at the time of their arrest. Qtd. in King 2011, 542n34.

6. Arditti 1999, 21–26.

7. Feitlowitz 1998, 33.

8. Ibid., 67–68; Klein 2007, 114.

9. Arditti 1999, 69–71; Keck and Sikkink 1998, 94; Lonardo et al. 1984.

10. Stover later served as the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights and is currently the faculty director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

11. Weizman and Keenan 2011.

12. See Joyce and Stover 1992.

13. This particular technique has since been discredited. It turns out that pelvic scarring is related more to a particular individual’s range of motion than to childbirth. While women generally have more flexible pelvises than men, men can also exhibit pelvic scarring (B. Anderson 1986).

14. King 2011, 542.

15. Arditti 1999, 71.

16. Cohen Salama 1992, 120.

17. A popular account of the Argentine team’s formation can be found in Joyce and Stover 1992. For those who read Spanish, Mauricio Cohen Salama’s history, Tumbas Anónimas, features more detail about specific cases and more on the background politics that often shaped and constrained the team’s work.

18. Throughout this book, I often use the terms “human rights” and “humanitarianism” in tandem—though not synonymously—when describing the purposes and ethics that drive international forensic investigations. Human rights and humanitarianism are different traditions, each with their own organizations, bodies of international and national law, and activist “cultures” (see Barnett 2011, 16–17). However, international forensic investigations can fall into both spheres, or into the area where they overlap. As the field has grown more complex, organizations are beginning to align, to different degrees, with one tradition or the other; though just as crucially, there are a number of experts who question the way the distinction is being made. For more on the human rights/humanitarian distinction in the forensic context, see Pearlman 2011; and Rosenblatt 2012.

19. See Barnett 2011; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Hopgood 2006.

20. Qtd. in Lucas 1989, 719. The Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat more narrowly, defines “forensic” as “of, relating to, or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime.” The differences between these two definitions are significant in cases where, for example, the forensic identification of dead bodies after a (legal) violent conflict or natural disaster would satisfy the demands of international humanitarian law, without any “crime” being investigated.

21. See Pierce and Rao 2006.

22. See Wagner 2010; Gupta 2013.