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Forensic Anthropology in Conflict-Scenarios of the 21th Century: A case study on Mexico in international context

Nov 16, 2016 — Nov 15, 2018

The shock of „Ayotzinapa“, when protesting students in the Southern state of Guerrero were attacked and disappeared by local police forces in September of 2014, attracted worldwide public attention to the continuous human rights crisis in Mexico. Three fenomena moved to the center of national as well as international attention: The return of ‚forced disappearance‘ but in the framework of a new kind of violence dynamics, the massive existence of clandestine mass graves in Mexican territory and finally the ‚toolbox‘ of forensic anthropology, dedicated to the exhumation and identificacion of dead bodies. For the first time, and due also to the Mexican mission of the famous Argentine team EAAF that investigated the case of the 43 disappeared students, in tense relation to Mexican authorities, the supposedly ‚neutral‘ forensic technique appeared as a highly political field.


The political as well as the cultural and social incidence and power of forensic anthropology is in the center of the present two-years-research project. In continuation of a pilot study realized in 2015, but focussing now on a in-depth-study of the Mexican case, the projects seeks to elaborate its potential for the processing of violence and social traumata in the conflict-scenarios of the 21th century. For that purpose, forensic anthropology is conceived of as a dispositif of visibilization in a double sense: as social materilization of mostly invisible constellations of violence, and also as a means for visualization, that is the production of images acting upon the social imagination of extreme violence.


A starting point for the study is the newly founded forensic team Equipo Mexicano de Antropología Forense (EMAF), that seeks to institute in Mexico, following the role model of other Latin American teams, a civic and nongovernmental forensic practice. Such a practice was developed first, explicitely under a human rights paradigma, in post-dictatorship Argentine, by the midst of the 1980ties, and from then on practiced by the EAAF in many post-conflict-scenarios in the world. Its fundamental aim is to reconstitute the human being from its remains, to bring the disappeared back to the social world, reconstruct the underlying crime (patterns) and to enforce relatives in the claiming of their rights.


Current Mexico represents a series of challenges for such a forensic practice. In contrast to former dictatorships, civil wars or genocidal violence in Latin America and other regions, it is not the State that holds the central agency of violence. Instead, a diversified regime that articulates a series of competing as well as entangled perpetrators, fractions of the State among them, pursues the systematical deshuminazation of huge numbers of men and women. Furthermore, a widely acknowledged „culture of impunity“ has led to deep erosion of confidence in any official investigation and authorities among the affected families. Finally, in contrast to other scenarios forensic anthropologists in Mexico do not operate not in the aftermath of violence, but are forced to do so simultaneously to perpetrators.


The study is meant to provide insights on how a civic forensics may operate under such conditions. For that purpose it elaborates on three thematic fields:


First, the cuestion of confidence as a crucial ressource of forensic practice, not less important than criminalistic and ‚tecnical‘ knowhow. Recurring on field observation of the EMAF‘s work the study focusses on the interaction between affected families, forensic experts and representatives of public authorities. What are the expectations and social imaginations involved (concerning subjets such as justice or death), how to identify patterns of trust and mistrust? What difficulties and dilemas stand in the way of professionel or ethical standards? How may affected persons be able to particpate in forensic processes?


Second, the incidence of transnational knowledge transfer in this process: As former research suggested the constitution of human rights forensis as a transnational field, now we will have a closer look of the role of international experts in the legitimation toward families, authorities and public opinion (press coverage, expert interviews). Transnational exchange and reflection is to be promoted also in a transregional workshop with EMAF members as well as Argentine experts.


A third axis refers to the power and incidence of forensic visuality: As former research highlighted the importance and ambivalence of circulating images for the social imagination of disappeared, violence and forensis, the project examines the visual dimension of forensic processes: how to understand the role of photography in the context of exhumation, identification and restitution, but also the media or scientific visual discourses? How do ‚images of the dead‘ relate to the visual strategies of relatives and public protests? What might be identified as potential elements for alternative visual narratives and a visual ethics of forensics? These cuestions will be processed by means of analytical readings of visual corpora and also by developing visual strategies (photography, video) in field research as well as in the presentation of findings.


These interrelated thematic fields are worked on by the use of a reliable cultural-science-shaped set of combined qualitative methods: ethnographic field observation, visual field recordings (photographic series, video-recording) as well as analysis of visual and verbal discourse. The outcomes will to presented in the format of a electronic dossier, including a structured visual archive, as well as in printed articles, and also in an international symposium on the subject.


El proyectp esta dirigido de Prof. Dr. Marianne Braig yDr. Anne Huffschmid del Instituto Latinoamericano de la Freie Universität Berlin.La investigación está realizada de Dr. Anne Huffschmid ( CV / Homepage).

(al proyecto)