DIGGING FOR JUSTICE: Forensic anthropologist Mercedes Doretti led a team of researchers identifying remains of Los Desaparecidos--the disappeared ones--in her native Argentina. Her work there continues today, as evidence she personally collected in the 1980s is still making its way through the country's legal system. Image: Courtesy of Richard Renaldi
"Señora, go and search for yourself." With those words, Mexican authorities sent away the grieving mother seeking clues about her daughter's killer. The year was 2001, after those authorities had discovered the bodies of eight young women in a cotton field near Ciudad Juárez on the Texas-Mexico border, across the Rio Grande from the U.S. city of El Paso. Police were unlikely to solve their cases, just like those of the hundreds of women who had been sexually abused, mutilated and killed in this lawless town, where this year alone another 60 women and girls have been murdered. The government's handling of the "Campo Algodonero" murders stood out as an egregious violation of human rights for the way the authorities botched the case and mishandled the women's remains.
The victims' mothers even came to doubt that the remains authorities had given them were their own children. In December 2003 they began working with Mercedes Doretti, a New York-based forensic anthropologist and co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team to get help in identifying the bodies.
Doretti's work in Ciudad Juárez revealed that law enforcement had misidentified three of the eight remains furnished, and her report to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights led in 2009 to an order for reparations to all the families and a condemnation of the Mexican justice system. That small victory cemented Doretti's resolve to probe deeper. She now knew that dozens of other bodies had no possible matches to local families. Where had these other victims come from?
Doretti, a stylish woman in her 50s, has spent her life supporting human rights. She studied anthropology in Buenos Aires, during the height of Argentina's "Dirty War," when the right-wing regime kidnapped, tortured and murdered some 20,000 students, activists, journalists and guerrillas. Her team's work identifying remains of the Desaparecidos—the disappeared ones—continues today, and evidence she personally collected in the 1980s is still making its way through the country's legal system. In 2007 the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a "genius grant" for her work investigating human rights abuses around the world, and she serves as a Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
Doretti suspected that some of the unidentified bodies in Mexico may have been migrants journeying north from Central America, and in 2009 she established the Missing Migrants project. The full scope of the problem is hard to pin down, but some 200 migrants die of exposure each summer in southern Arizona alone. Mexico's criminal gangs have kidnapped many more for extortion or murdered and buried these victims in mass graves. Doretti has created a network of forensic DNA banks in El Salvador, Honduras and Chiapas, Mexico and recently announced her first positive identifications from remains recovered in Texas and Arizona. "It's amazing what she's doing," says Bruce Anderson, forensic anthropologist with the medical examiner's office in Pima County, Arizona.
Scientific American met Doretti at her organization's spartan one-room office in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood. Edited excerpts follow.
When the Argentinean dictatorship collapsed in 1982, you still thought that you might follow an academic anthropology path. How did you get introduced to forensics?
I was at a demonstration against the International Monetary Fund in January 1984, and one of my friends came and said: "There's a gringo who wants to exhume disappeared people." As it happened, the American Association for the Advancement of Science had sent a scientist named Clyde Snow down to train people in forensics, but the Argentinean Anthropology Association initially did not want to get involved directly. Snow didn't have anybody to work with. Frankly, it sounded very strange to me. But after meeting him the next day, I realized everything he was saying made total sense—to apply the techniques of traditional archaeology and biological anthropology into the forensic field so that we will be able to recover and identify the remains of Los Desaparecidos in the proper way.
Were you afraid of the consequences of working on a politically charged project like this?
I was very scared. If you look at the history of Argentina, there had been a coup of every democratic government since the 1930s. If there was another coup we knew we would probably have to leave the country. Also, none of us knew how we were going to react personally when entering a cemetery. It's very different to dig up remains 10,000 years old than to dig up recent remains. We would also be working surrounded by the police, who brought back terrible memories from the dictatorship.
Was your family affected by the dictatorship?
Yes, though not in the way in which other families were affected. We didn't lose any members of our family, but because my mother worked as a journalist and was talking about these things on her daily radio show, she was constantly receiving death threats. We thought about leaving the country.
Several days after meeting Snow, you began your work at a cemetery as part of a judicial investigation. What was the condition of the first remains you uncovered?
They were fully skeletonized and, to my surprise, I was able to cope. I was very concentrated on the details of digging and cleaning the skull and making sure that the teeth didn't fall out and things like that.
This was before DNA was commonly used in forensics, so how did you make identifications?
The early identifications were done using dental records, X-rays and fingerprints. In Argentina, disappearances were conducted in a clandestine way until the moment of death. The bodies would be disposed of in secret graves inside military or police compounds, by dumping them out of airplanes or in vacant lots. In this last case, often then, someone would place an anonymous call to the police reporting their location, and everything would subsequently be done in a bureaucratic, official way. The police would take fingerprints and photographs. Forensic doctors would do autopsies, issue death certificates. The registration office will issue burial certificates, and then they bury them as John Does or Jane Does in municipal cemeteries.