Using Forensics to Investigate Human Rights Violations

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Doretti in the Scheuer Room on Wednesday. Photo by Dougal Sutherland

Mercedes Doretti, a member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), spoke Wednesday about her work in forensic exhumation to a group of students and staff. The lecture, which took place in Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room, focused on Doretti’s efforts to identify the bodies of Argentina’s “disappeared” people.

CSI With a Broader Purpose: Using Forensics to Investigate Human Rights Violations,” sponsored by the Latin American Studies Program and the Eugene M. Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, began with Doretti explaining the possible human rights violations that occurred under Argentina’s military government from about 1976 to 1983. “Over 10,000 people disappeared,” Doretti said. These people, later known as the “disappeared,” were held by the government and forced to endure both unsanitary living conditions and torture.

They were “swept from the streets or houses,” Doretti said, “and executed.”

Doretti’s team investigating in Argentina. Photo by the EAAF, by way of Professor Diego Armus.

Doretti then described her own research, saying that when she began work for EAAF, her main goal was to “investigate human rights violations,” such as the “disappeared.”

EAAF was started in Argentina as a group of forensic anthropologists who wanted to use their knowledge to help the people of Argentina research their past. “Exhumations were wrongly done,” Doretti said, adding that there was also “no appropriate laboratory analysis.”

EAAF worked to change this, emphasizing the “need for a multidisciplinary approach.” According to Doretti, EAAF hired physical and biological anthropologists along with archeologists to “properly recover the remains.”

As Doretti worked, however, she realized that more than just identifying victims, the process was about trust. “Always consider the families of victims,” Doretti said, describing the “feelings of guilt” the families experience if they want to stop searching.

She continued, saying that EAAF’s main advantage in the field of forensics had been in their humane treatment of victim’s families. “Local NGOs have the survivors,” Doretti said, adding that people who experienced the “disappearance” have offered countless testimonies that have helped EAAF to find new exhumation sites. “[You] cannot always get data from police.”

Near the end of the lecture, Doretti began to comment on the emotional aspect of her work. When a person is identified, it has “nothing to do with triumph,” Doretti said. It is the “end if the hope of finding that person alive.”

Doretti in El Salvador.

After the lecture, Jacqueline Small ’13 commented, “The talk really gave me insight into forensic anthropology. I would be interested in studying it.”

“Though a lot of what Dr. Doretti told us about human rights violations and mass murders was disturbing,” Small said, “I got the impression she found her job very rewarding – she got to give closure to the families of the victims.”

In response to a question from the audience asking how one could become involved in forensics, Doretti said, “We always have interns. You [get to] do something very concrete.”

Doretti ended by referring to a 1987 law that “ended most prosecutions” regarding the “disappeared.” Noting that one of the main goals of the EAAF had been to prosecute those involved, Doretti asked, “Why continue?”

As the audience listened, Doretti responded with, “[For] the balance between satisfaction and what is sometimes overwhelming.” For “families of victims,” “truth,” and “justice.”

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