The “disappeared“, those kidnapped and presumingly murdered by the Latin American dictatorships that were known as the Desaparecidos, are no longer an issue of the past.
The current explosion of violence in Mexico provoked not only tens of thousands of murdered people but also a huge number – official estimations indicate more than 22 thousand – of newly disappeared. Identifying nameless human remains is the competence of forensic anthropology. This discipline was reinvented in Argentina three decades ago, at the end of the last military dictatorship, by a group of students under the guidance of a famous US-American anthropologist: They widened the notion of criminalistic work on existing osteological material and included the active search for remains of the victims, the excavation of mass graves as well as the reconstruction of life and death circumstances of the kidnapped. Today, the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF) has worked in nearly 50 countries all over the world, Mexico being one of them.
There, they face a new typology of terror, more based on criminal than on political reasons. The challenge, however, remains the same: Bringing back nameless bodies into the social space and visibilizing the crimes behind.
Reports on Transitional Justice processes usually mention exhumation and identification efforts. Though, their specific contribution to the processing of violence has not yet been examined systematically. This is the purpose of the present pilot study. By studying the EAAF experience and two of the national fields (Mexico, Spain) where the Argentine team had a notable incidence, the project seeks to explore the potential contribution of such an integral forensic science to the social processing of violence and memory cultures.
In the global context, Latin America is considered an advanced laboratory of memory politics. Here, it becomes evident that the experience of extreme violence is not ended by peace agreements and democratic transitions, but must be processed by what the Argentine sociologist Elizabeth Jelín calls “memory work”. The forced disappearance (desaparición forzada) represents a specific challenge to this work. So it is by no means a coincidence that it was in Latin America where a human rights-based and independent forensic anthropology was developed first. Nevertheless, answering the following questions might provide useful insights beyond the Latin American horizon.
• Was does the identification of dead bodies and the clarification of their death circumstances mean to family members as well as for the memory capacities of a society?
• What does it mean when forensic Anthropologists become memory actors and ‘science’ is actively intervening in social or legal memory processes?
• What kind of knowledge, what images and narratives, are generated in the forensic practice?
• How to evaluate forensic work as an intervention in culturally different scenarios of violence? How to conceive the transfer of expert knowledge developed in a specific context to another? What complications might come up in this transfer that implies dealing with different temporal and cultural horizons as well as typologies of violence?
At first, the pilot study seeks to elaborate the core elements as well as the cultural implications of interdisciplinary forensic anthropology, as conceptualized and practiced by the EAAF. We consider forensic anthropology as “cultural practice” (Francisco Ferrándiz) that depends on socio-cultural dynamics but also has implications for cultural and symbolic processing of violence. In a second step the study explores two contrasting scenarios where the EAAF had some type of intervention or incidence. Whereas the Mexican case (concretely, Ciudad Juárez and Guerrero) is about the present of extreme violence in the context of organized crime and corrupted state, in the Spanish case we deal with the past of a terror regime that was repressed from social memory for a long time. In Spain, it was not until the year 2000 that mass exhumations of Franco victims were undertaken on family initiative and mostly against social mainstream.