People often say at a human rights trial, or in a police procedural or murder mystery, that ‘bones don’t lie.’ But bones can’t speak for themselves and tell us who has done them violence. And those who know may have reason to lie. At trials for crimes against humanity, some of the most eloquent testimony comes not from survivors but from skeletons: a bullet hole, or the marks left by a sharp weapon, may be all it takes for defendants’ claims to unravel. But before they can be presented as evidence, the bones must be exhumed, brushed, washed, catalogued and articulated – assembled into a skeleton. Only then can they provide their testimony.
This is the work of forensic anthropologists. I first heard of them when I was living in Guatemala, where they are well known for digging up mass graves to disprove the army’s denials that it committed atrocities during the 36 years of armed conflict. They work despite repeated death threats. As Alexa Hagerty notes in Still Life with Bones, Guatemala is a popular place to study the techniques of forensic anthropology because of the brutality of the war there, especially in the 1980s, when genocidal violence was carried out against Maya groups. ‘In Guatemala,’ Hagerty says, ‘forensic students from Europe and North America can see more bodies in a few weeks than in a year back home. Guatemala has so many dead.’ The tone of the book is by turns unsparing – Guatemala is a useful place to learn forensic techniques; Hagerty has to teach herself not to retch on seeing and smelling the dead – and poetic about a practice that is viewed by many with horror.
Hagerty was working on a doctorate when, in 2014, she joined the foreigners who fill out the ranks of more experienced locals on exhumations in Guatemala and Argentina. She describes the scene at a lab in Buenos Aires, where two workers are
scrubbing skulls with pink and yellow toothbrushes. In the hall, a commercial baker’s cart is stacked with bones drying on cookie sheets, like pastries in a witch’s bakery. Baby I love your way sings the radio as Emilia slides her finger into the eye socket of a skull. I wonder what someone would think if they wandered in off the street.
Hagerty gets to work: ‘I wash an enormous femur, a skull splitting at the jagged sagittal suture, square facet of hamate, capitate, trapezium and trapezoid. I wash fragments.’
Digging up mass graves and attempting to identify bodies in order to expose large-scale violence is now such a common practice – as Hagerty writes, it’s ‘ethical common sense’ – that it’s surprising to remember how recently it was introduced. Forensic human rights work didn’t exist before 1984. Founding a discipline is always more complex than just the story of a single charismatic man, but the big man story here is too good not to tell, and Hagerty tells it well. Clyde Snow was born in Texas in 1928, trained in zoology and anthropology, and became famous for analysing the remains of Josef Mengele and giving congressional testimony about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, among other high-profile cases. He died nine years ago, but the colourful interviews and writings he left behind enable Hagerty to provide a substantial account.
In 1984, Snow, a chain-smoker in cowboy boots, was invited to Argentina by the truth commission set up by the newly elected president, Raúl Alfonsin, who had come to power after the fall of the dictatorship, and groups of human rights activists, including the Abuelas and Madres (grandmothers and mothers) of the Plaza de Mayo. These women led marches during the dictatorship wearing white headscarves – meant to evoke nappies – to demand the return of their disappeared children and grandchildren. The previous year, after the fall of the junta, judges had ordered the excavation of a municipal cemetery in Buenos Aires where some of the desaparecidos were believed to be buried. Officials made a mess of the site, crushing bones with heavy machinery and mixing human remains together into an unidentifiable mass. Local news organisations called it a ‘horror show’. The Abuelas and others appealed for scientists to help to preserve the site and others like it, and to use new genetic research and forensic science techniques in the hope of finding the remains of the dead. They invited foreign experts, including Snow. He was appalled by the condition of the evidence at the cemetery: plastic bags with bones jumbled together; hundreds of exhumed bodies with no identification. ‘They were losing evidence,’ he said, ‘which is as bad as being an accomplice to the crime.’
Many Argentinian scientists and archaeologists refused to help him dig. The state of forensics in the country was woeful and politicised. The junta had gone, but no one knew if the fragile democracy would last. Hagerty avoids the term ‘dirty war’, which was the phrase used by the junta in Argentina to legitimise its violence. It has been slow to fall out of use in English, though those who suffered prefer the more accurate term ‘state terrorism’, or simply ‘dictatorship’. In 1984 there was no acknowledgment of, let alone agreement about, what had happened. Even being rumoured to be vaguely sympathetic to those who had fought against the dictatorship, never mind looking for their bodies, was considered highly dangerous. As in many Latin American countries, forensic experts in Argentina are not independent, but employed by the police and judicial system. Some had collaborated in state crimes, for example by falsifying death certificates. In one autopsy report from the time of the dictatorship, Hagerty says, the cause of death of a person whose body was ‘riddled with bullets’ was recorded by the coroner as ‘acute anaemia’.
A medical student who was translating for Snow knew that local officials would never help him, and so recruited anthropology and archaeology students. They had no experience, and their only qualification was that they were unafraid to search for the disappeared, who had been about their age when they went missing. These students were the first members of what became the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF), the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. When they arrived at the municipal cemetery, dozens of police turned up too. Snow instructed his interpreter to set up a perimeter around the grave and said that only his team would be allowed to dig. The police protested, but Snow flashed his coroners’ association badge and secured the backing of a sympathetic judge. ‘I always carry it around,’ he later told a journalist, ‘because whenever you get into a confrontation with the police, the guy with the biggest badge wins.’
The team were there to search for the remains of a young woman called Rosa Rufina Betti de Casagrande. Snow was showing the students how to dig a test probe to determine the depth of the grave when Rufina’s mother and father arrived at the cemetery. He was shocked. Families weren’t allowed at crime scenes in the US. But the students weren’t surprised: of course the parents wanted accountability and answers – no official had even acknowledged their daughter’s disappearance. Snow let the family stay. A mesh window screen that one of the students had ‘borrowed’ from his mother’s house was used to sift the dirt for bits of bones or teeth or bullets; a teaspoon served as a makeshift trowel. Snow was already proud of what he called his ‘very gallant little group’, but he knew that the crucial moment would come when they found a body. How would they react?
Scraping, they hit bone. One of the students used the teaspoon to expose a skull.
An earthworm was stuck to the bone. Pato, one of the anthropology students, turned white, scrambled out of the grave, and ran away. Snow found her kneeling behind a parked car, crying. His motto was ‘work in the day and cry at night,’ but he knew not everyone was cut out for the forensic trade. He worried Pato’s reaction was a bad sign. He thought, ‘Once this kind of thing gets started, it’ll spread, and they’ll decide this is not the kind of thing they want to do.’ Fifteen minutes later, Pato came back to the excavation. Standing at the edge of the grave, she said, ‘Morris, give me the spoon.’
‘What do you want the spoon for?’ he asked.
‘I’m going to make coffee.’
Relating this story to a journalist, Snow said, ‘That’s when I figured, well, maybe we’ve got a team.’
The students learned about the new science of DNA testing, first used in 1985, and that you got the best samples by sawing chunks off big bones like the pelvis. They learned to dig up bodies while keeping meticulous records of their position, and of any objects or other bodies found above or below them that could have damaged the skeleton after the person’s death. Snow said he was in Argentina, and later in Guatemala, to learn as well as teach. What he learned from his team was to let the families of the disappeared into the lab, to let them spend time with the remains. One of the Abuelas, Berta Schubaroff, described receiving the bones of her disappeared son, Marcelo Gelman: ‘I began to kiss him, kiss all of his bones, touch him, and caress him.’
Hagerty notes that ‘not all families of the missing want exhumations, a truth which isn’t always widely acknowledged in forensic circles.’ Religious taboos are an obvious factor. Polish Jews organised resistance to the excavation of Holocaust mass graves in line with religious laws against disturbing the dead. The family of Federico García Lorca, who was disappeared during the Spanish Civil War, vociferously opposed a dig to search for his body in a suspected mass grave – and were overruled. At one exhumation site in 1985, the EAAF were met by fifteen women from the Abuelas yelling and throwing stones. The team were shaken by the opposition of women they saw as heroes. The Madres split a year later, a consequence in part of disagreements about exhumations. Hebe de Bonafini, one of those opposed, thought of them, in Hagerty’s apt summary, as ‘a surreptitious attempt to convert mass atrocity into private grief’. ‘Many want the wound to dry so that we will forget,’ de Bonafini said. ‘We want it to continue bleeding.’
After hundreds of exhumations, Snow presented his forensic evidence at the 1985 trial of General Jorge Rafael Videla – commander in chief of the Argentinian army and dictator between 1976 and 1981 – and eight other military officials. On a screen in the courtroom Snow projected an image of the skull of a young woman called Liliana Carmen Pereyra, who the military claimed was a guerrilla fighter killed in a confrontation. Her cranium had been shattered into twenty pieces. After being painstakingly retrieved and glued back together, it revealed a three-inch hole, tell-tale sign of a close-range execution. ‘That’s tough to do in an armed encounter unless only one side is armed,’ Snow told the court in his Texan drawl.
Even in death, Snow is a show-stealer. He couldn’t help mugging for the camera: in 1991, he led an (unsuccessful) expedition to search for the remains of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. His outsize personality brought attention and – more important – funding. But the work continues: the EAAF has been investigating the disappearances continuously since 1984. That shows both how many disappeared there are – in Argentina, an estimated 30,000 – and how slow the work is. Hagerty writes about digging alongside people Snow trained in Argentina and Guatemala. They teach her to maintain a bit of emotional distance, but not too much. ‘If a forensic anthropologist cries and runs away while exhuming a skull, she will do her job poorly. But if she cares so little that she shovels the bones like sticks, she will also do her job poorly.’ Hagerty noticed the forensics workers’ casual gestures of affection. ‘Once I watched Cati measure a cranial fracture. When she finished, she ran her hand along the frontal bone, touching the skull just like you’d stroke a sick kid’s forehead. It was an action with no scientific purpose, an unmistakable gesture of comfort. She did it without thinking.’
In the headquarters of the EAAF in Buenos Aires there are binders labelled with the places the team has worked: the sites of massacres in El Mozote, El Salvador and Dos Erres in Guatemala; mass graves in East Timor, Kosovo, Iraq, Ukraine, Kurdistan and South Africa. Now, forensic anthropologists are being confronted with new types of mass grave, as they try to recover the remains of migrants from the shores of the Mediterranean and the desert dividing Mexico from the US. The Argentinian team has testified before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court, the International Committee of the Red Cross and so on and on. There are always more graves. Disappeared people are difficult to find, by design, but you learn some tricks. Always look in the well. Dig where the soil appears to be two different colours, on the line between the two. The EAAF has trained groups around the world and a new generation back home, including some of the children of the disappeared. But relatively few of the missing have been found. In Argentina, it has taken forty years to recover around 1400 sets of remains. In Guatemala – where 200,000 people died during the armed conflict, 93 per cent of them victims of state violence, and 45,000 were forcibly disappeared – 3781 bodies have been identified.
Snow’s leading disciple in Guatemala is Fredy Peccerelli, a Bronx-raised Guatemalan who heard Snow speak and was keen to gather evidence in a country where, as in Argentina, the government had not just committed mass violence but lied repeatedly about it. Peccerelli went on to co-found the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG). The forenses, as everyone calls them, meet the families of the disappeared, record their stories and take DNA samples to match with exhumed remains. Many of the disappeared were women and children, and forenses have found their skeletons in large numbers at the bottom of wells. In Guatemala too, families of the disappeared, many of them Maya Indigenous, gather to watch the exhumations.
Not everyone supports the forenses. To a much larger degree than in Argentina, far-right elements of the military are still in control behind the scenes. The country is in bad shape: Guatemala’s most prominent journalist, José Rubén Zamora, has just been sent to prison for six years. The attorney general, María Consuelo Porras, has jailed members of her own justice department for pursuing anti-corruption cases, and more than two dozen public prosecutors have fled to seek asylum in the US. But cracks are showing. The first round of the presidential election in June was a major upset, with the centre-left candidate Bernardo Arévalo going through to a run-off against Sandra Torres, a widely disliked three-time candidate who has been accused of corruption. Arévalo is the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, Juan José Arévalo, who governed from 1945 until 1951. A CIA-backed coup against his successor led to the civil war that caused such destruction. When forensic anthropologists started digging up the skeletons of babies and infants in mass graves after that conflict ended in 1996, those who supported the army remained in denial. In the early 2000s, members of the oligarchy told Roman Krznaric, as he recounted in the recently reprinted What the Rich don’t Tell the Poor: Conversations with Guatemalan Oligarchs, that the skeletons must have belonged to adults who suffered from ‘malnutrition’, a mind-boggling level of self-deception. (Krznaric is better known as a pop philosopher, but his doctoral dissertation was based on a revealing set of interviews with Guatemala’s power-brokers, people who generally never speak.) Many in Guatemala would still like to believe that human rights trials are a charade, and that the army saved the country from becoming ‘another Cuba’.
Human rights workers, including the forenses, routinely receive death threats. In Textures of Terror Victoria Sanford quotes a message Peccerelli received not long ago: ‘I have been watching you like eagles, you will die in a short period of time we have an order to make that damn director of FAFG suffer.’ Then: ‘For a long time we forgot about the shit of your sister. We saw her in the IGSS [a medical centre in Guatemala City]. Damn her. She will suffer because of her brother. We will rape her and chop her into pieces.’ Sanford worked with Peccerelli on exhumations of Maya victims of the violence in the 1990s, and in 2000 published Buried Secrets, a major influence on Hagerty’s work. I, too, absorbed it like a body blow when I read it a decade ago. Sanford’s new book concerns a continuing epidemic in Guatemala: the murders of women. This is supposed to be peacetime, but it doesn’t feel like it to Guatemalan women. It wasn’t an accident, Sanford writes, that the threat to Peccerelli was ‘directed through his sister’s body’: women are targets not only in their own right ‘but also by virtue of their relationship to male relatives’. Not enough has changed since the 1980s, when the adolescent niece of a human rights activist was gang-raped by state agents who went out of their way to tell her why she was being raped: her uncle was a ‘subversive’.
Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Sanford’s central subject is the case of a law school student, Claudina Isabel Velásquez, who was murdered in Guatemala City in 2005 – one of 518 women and girls murdered in the country that year. When her family first reported her disappearance, the police said dismissively that she had probably run away with a boyfriend. When her body was found, they made a mess of the investigation, removing her sweater to wipe the blood off her face, before wiping their own bloody hands with it, then returning the stained garment to Velásquez’s family. Later, as one official acknowledged, ‘the crime scene was not developed as it should have been because of prejudices about the social origin and status of the victim. She was classified as a person whose death did not merit investigation.’ Sanford later learned that police assumed she was a gang member or sex worker because she was wearing sandals and a belly-button ring on the night she was murdered.
Sanford has been following the case for a decade and talked to Snow about it before he died. He listed the failings of the police forensic investigators. They should have used pinking shears to remove the clothes from the body, to avoid confusion over whether damage to the clothing was caused during the assault. Her clothes should have been retained to be sampled for hair and other fibres, and tested for fluids. (Snow said victims’ clothing should never be returned to the next of kin. Jewellery or other valuables, yes, but only if they don’t have ‘evidentiary value’.) The Guatemalans clearly weren’t serious about the investigation. The autopsy was riddled with obvious errors. Two years after Velásquez’s death, her mobile phone was still in use, but investigators made no effort to determine its whereabouts. In Guatemala, 98 per cent of feminicide cases are never solved.
During the war, those who were forcibly disappeared were always said to be ‘involved in something’ – maybe they were subversives, in which case they had it coming. Guatemalan police employ a similar logic in relation to feminicides: the women have it coming. There is always a reason not to investigate. A belly-button ring. The late hour at which the murder took place. Although the police knew Claudina Isabel Velásquez’s name, her case was filed under ‘XX’ – the equivalent of ‘NN’, ningún nombre (‘no name’), which is the way complicit forensic specialists used to file the cases of the disappeared in Argentina.
Feminist activists, and women who just want to go about unmolested, are up against it. The forenses are an underfunded private foundation, and still work mostly on the disappearances during the war rather than the newer wave of murders of women. The official ‘forensics experts’ – often experts in name only – are part of the police force. If women want a rape kit, they must literally go to the morgue to get it. Sanford tells us what sort of person they might encounter there:
While working on a feminicide case, one investigator told me that he had commented to a director at the Guatemala City morgue: ‘Isn’t it terrible, all these young women being killed?’ The director, responsible for overseeing all autopsies of feminicide victims, snorted back: ‘What do they expect? Taking on the roles of men, they have it coming.’
Forensic anthropologists who exhume mass graves tend to pick up skin diseases as a result of the lengthy periods they spend digging for the dead. They rarely have adequate safety protocols, although they work in dangerous places, such as wells at risk of collapse. They dream that they are sleeping in pools of blood. Hagerty is honest enough, and detached enough from scientific conventions, to write that she saw an apparition of the exhumed dead, a group of Guatemalans in work boots and traje, leaving muddy footprints on the white tiled floors of her rental apartment. She dreamed of ‘looking down at my body and seeing that I am a skeleton and feeling surprised. It happened so fast.’
The families of the disappeared also dream. Rosalina Tuyuc, a Kaqchikel activist and politician whose father and husband were both murdered by the Guatemalan army, told Hagerty that the dead appear at night to speak to living family members. ‘Well, I won’t be in such a place, they won’t find me,’ they say, or ‘I will be in such a tree. I am waiting for you.’ Hagerty talked to one team member in Guatemala who said that only that week a woman had told him she had dreamed that her father was buried ‘under a big pine tree’. ‘We have to respect the way they see the world,’ her colleague said. ‘But there are a lot of pine trees!’
‘Once,’ Hagerty writes, ‘at dinner with friends and colleagues from the Argentine and Guatemalan teams, Snow had too much to drink and “got a little weepy”.’ The others were surprised. He turned to Peccerelli, started crying, and apologised for getting him started in forensics. If it hadn’t been for him, he said, Fredy would be mayor of New York by now. Mercedes ‘Mimi’ Doretti, one of his first students, would be Argentina’s most prominent writer. When Mimi was in her mid-twenties, and the EAAF had only been digging for a couple of years, she told the New York Times that the exhumations were important, but ‘we all have other ambitions, ideas more connected to life.’ Thirty-five years later, Hagerty writes, Mimi is investigating forced disappearances and mass graves in Mexico.
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