One of the unique features of the Argentinian team is that you investigate only if family members of the missing give you permission, and then the families remain involved in the process.
Something we've seen in every country where we've been is that in human rights cases the families had a very tense relationship with official forensic experts. There had been cases in which doctors have actively participated with the police during torture or changing or obscuring death certificates. For example, they would say someone died of cardiac arrest but then when we exhumed the body, it has five bullets in it.
In the U.S., family members can be among the suspects of a crime. That's not the case in most human rights investigations we've participated in, but the families are normally being harassed, misinformed and stigmatized by officials, by society and so on because of what happened to them. They don't need any more of that. We often find ourselves having to review cases not necessarily because the results are wrong, but because the relationship between the officials and the families are so bad.
We realized we have to be extremely transparent with relatives of human rights victims. We have to tell them what we're finding as long as they want to know; it's their right. So little by little, without actually having that as a goal, we started to develop this approach of working in a very close relationship with family.
How have genetic technologies changed the way you work?
Enormously. The people who disappeared in Argentina, they were almost all in their 20s and early 30s and pretty healthy, so it was very hard to find features that distinguished them. We started using mitochondrial DNA in the 1990s but were only doing three or four cases a year with the pro bono work of U.S. and U.K. laboratories. After the Bosnian War and the World Trade Center attacks, forensic DNA technologies became much cheaper, faster and more accessible. We joined with teams in Peru and Guatemala to put together a project called the Latin American Initiative for the Identification of the Disappeared and got funding from [the] U.S. Congress in 2008. This allowed us to start our own DNA laboratory and send other bone samples to the same laboratory that processed the remains from the World Trade Center. We have gotten nearly 518 positive identifications, always through a multidisciplinary approach but where often genetics has been crucial, and we have about 750 still to be identified.
In 1992, you opened the team's New York office and began working on more international projects. What has been the biggest obstacle to expanding these approaches to human rights investigations around the world?
The main problem is always access. If there isn't the political will to investigate a crime, you may have all the evidence in the world, you may have all the experts, all the funding, but you're not going to be able to do it.
That's a good summary of the Campo Algodonero case in Mexico. How did you become involved in that project?
The case involved analysis of seven of eight female remains found in 2011 [in] a cotton field in the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. We worked on this case at the request of families that had doubts about the identification of the remains they had received from the prosecutor's office. In fact some of them had so much doubt that they did not collect the remains from the morgue. Others decided they should just keep the remains and preserve them for a time when it could be investigated better. This case was part of a larger project to examine unidentified remains dating back to 1993.