Nolan Reviews Books on Forensic Anthropology in Latin America

Rachel Nolan left) and Elseke Membreno-Zenteno right) share a laugh before the premier 2023 MAS Álvarez Seminar at Trinity University. (Photo by: Alyssa White/Trinitonian)

Rachel Nolan, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, recently wrote a book review for two books on forensic anthropology in Latin America that was published in the London Review of Books. The article reviewed Still Life with Bones: Genocide, Forensics and What Remains, by Alexa Hagerty, and Textures of Terror: The Murder of Claudina Isabel Velasquez and Her Father’s Quest for Justice, by Victoria Sanford.

Professor Nolan begins her reviews by addressing both pieces of literature. People often say that bones don’t lie, but they can’t speak for themselves. Skeletons can provide eloquent testimony at trials for crimes against humanity, but they must be exhumed, brushed, washed, cataloged and articulated.

She then focuses on the work of Hagerty where she points out that in Guatemala, forensic anthropologists dig up mass graves to disprove the army’s denials that it committed atrocities during the 36 years of armed conflict. The tone of the book is unsparing and poetic about a practice that is viewed by many with horror. The book follows Clyde Snow, who died nine years ago and founded the discipline of forensic human rights work, which has since become common practice. He was famous for analyzing the remains of Josef Mengele and giving congressional testimony about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 1984, Snow was invited to Argentina by the truth commission to help preserve evidence at a cemetery where some of the Desaparecidos were believed to be buried. He was appalled by the condition of the evidence and said that officials were losing evidence. Hagerty avoided the term ‘dirty war’, used by the junta to legitimize its violence, and found that many Argentinian scientists and archaeologists refused to help him dig. Some had collaborated in state crimes, such as falsifying death certificates. A medical student translating for Snow recruited anthropology and archaeology students to search for the disappeared, who had been about their age when they went missing. The police protested, but Snow flashed his coroners’ association badge and secured the backing of a sympathetic judge. The team was searching for the remains of a young woman called Rosa Rufina Betti de Casagrande when the family arrived. Snow let them stay and used a mesh window screen to sift the dirt for bits of bones or teeth or bullets. The students learned about DNA testing and how to dig up bodies while keeping meticulous records of their position. They also learned to let the families of the disappeared into the lab to spend time with the remains. Hagerty notes that not all families of the missing want exhumations, and that religious taboos are an obvious factor. The family of Federico Garcia Lorca vociferously opposed a dig to search for his body in a suspected mass grave and were overruled. Snow presented forensic evidence at the 1985 trial of General Jorge Rafael Videla and eight other military officials. The skull of a young woman called Liliana Carmen Pereyra showed a three-inch hole, a tell-tale sign of a close-range execution. Snow’s outsize personality brought attention to the disappearances of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the EAAF has been investigating the disappearances continuously since 1984. The workers maintain a bit of emotional distance, but not too much. The Argentinian team of forensic anthropologists have worked on massacre sites in El Mozote, El Salvador, and Dos Erres in Guatemala, mass graves in East Timor, Kosovo, Iraq, Ukraine, Kurdistan, and South Africa, and are now trying to recover the remains of migrants from the shores of the Mediterranean and the desert dividing Mexico from the US. Snow’s leading disciple in Guatemala is Fredy Peccerelli, who heard Snow speak and went on to co-found the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation. The foundation meets with families of the disappeared and takes DNA samples to match with exhumed remains.

Far-right elements of the military are still in control behind the scenes in Guatemala, and the attorney general has jailed members of her own justice department for pursuing anti-corruption cases. The center-left candidate Bernardo Arévalo went through to a run-off against Sandra Torres, a widely disliked three-time candidate who has been accused of corruption. The army saved the country from becoming ‘another Cuba’, but the oligarchy remains in denial. Human rights workers in Guatemala routinely receive death threats, and in 2000 a woman’s sister was raped and chopped into pieces by state agents. This is supposed to be peacetime, but it doesn’t feel like it to Guatemalan women. Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, and Sanford’s central subject is the case of a law school student murdered in Guatemala City in 2005. The police made a mess of the investigation, removing her sweater to wipe the blood off her face. Sanford talked to Snow about the case before he died, and listed the failings of the police forensic investigators. The Guatemalans clearly weren’t serious about the investigation, and two years after Velásquez’s death, her mobile phone was still in use, but investigators made no effort to determine its whereabouts.

Forensic anthropologists who exhume mass graves tend to pick up skin diseases and dream of sleeping in pools of blood. Hagerty saw an apparition of the exhumed dead in her apartment. Families of the disappeared in Guatemala also dream. One woman told Hagerty that her father was buried under a pine tree, and another said that she had dreamed that her husband was murdered by the Guatemalan army. Hagerty writes that Snow got weepy at dinner with friends and colleagues from the Argentine and Guatemalan teams, and apologized for getting Fredy started in forensics. Mimi Doretti, one of his first students, would be Argentina’s most prominent writer.

Read the full review here.

Rachel Nolan is a historian of modern Latin America. Her research focuses on political violence, Central American civil wars, childhood and the family, historical memory, and U.S.-Latin American relations. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the history of international adoption from Guatemala. Read more about Professor Nolan on her faculty profile.