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  • Q&A: Finding the ‘disappeared’ in Argentina and Mexico


Speed read

  • Mexico is a recent addition to countries with many ‘disappeared’ people

  • Forensic genetics, pioneered in Argentina, is vital to finding missing and dead people

  • That expertise, for setting up databases and testing labs, is at work in several countries

The story of 43 students that were kidnapped in Iguala, Mexico — all of whom are now presumed dead — has gripped the country for weeks. But it is just one of many stories of grieving families, outrage and mass graves filled with dozens of bodies, many badly burned. Mexico’s wave of violence continues, making headlines worldwide.

Identifying the victims — to help the police and bring closure to the parents — would be a near-impossible task were it not for forensic scientists. One group that is providing invaluable help is based some 7,000 kilometres away: the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF).

Set up to investigate the crimes of Argentina’s military dictatorship of the 1970s, the team has been identifying skeletal remains of “disappeared people”, often found in unmarked graves. Since then the group has travelled to many of the world’s conflict zones, helping to identify victims of massacres in more than 50 countries, from El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia to former Yugoslavia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

In Argentina, EAAF has found the remains of 1,300 people and identified 650 of them. Many of those killed were the parents of children who were snatched by the military from regime critics during the Dirty War of 1976-1983. These so-called ‘stolen babies’ are now actively being tracked down by human rights organisation Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, with the support of genetic scientists such as Victor Penchaszadeh, a former professor of genetics and public health at Columbia University and a member of the Panel of Experts in Human Genetics of the World Health Organization.
Forensic geneticist.jpg
Victor Penchaszadeh, Columbia University. Image credit: Ministerio de Ciencia
Penchaszadeh was one of the creators of the so-called “grandparenthood index,” which for the first time made it possible to identify ‘stolen babies’ through genetic techniques even when their parents could not be traced. Currently, he is the adviser on human genetic identification to the Ministry of Science and Technology of Argentina. 

Penchaszadeh spoke to SciDev.Net about forensic genetics and how it has been helping developing countries to find the missing and identify the dead.

In Argentina, your work is very famous for the efforts to find so-called missing children. When did these efforts start?

This initiative started when democracy returned to Argentina, in December 1983. What preceded that were nine years of one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has known, with about 30,000 disappeared people, and some 500 babies born in captivity from women who were pregnant at a time of abductions and disappearances, and who were killed after giving birth.

A campaign to find them by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo started in 1977 in the middle of the dictatorship. Every grandmother in the campaign is also a mother who had her children disappear.
How do geneticists identify the missing children if the parents are dead?

Between 1982 and 1983 we developed a way to identify children without having their parents to test, called the “grandparenthood index”. Back then, most genetic identifications were done for paternity tests — you would test a child, his or her mother and putative father. But here in Argentina we had hundreds of people who had been killed, and hundreds of children who had been abducted, with the parents presumed dead. This required a different approach.

This was an era pre-DNA. The first thing that was needed were proper statistics of the probability of grand-paternity. This was achieved by a group of American geneticists. I was in the United States at that time, and I received a request from the grandmothers to look into this — so we set up a task force led by Mary-Claire King, a well-known geneticist there. In 1984 we tested the approach and identified for the first time an abducted child, Paula Logares.

But technology developed fast, and soon we were able to analyse DNA. There was a lot of research, but essentially it was mostly detective work. The main problem has always been to locate the children. And here the grandmothers helped a lot by looking at suspicious birth certificates. The names of the doctors linked to the dictatorship were known, so once you looked at birth certificates and found those signed by them, you immediately put those individuals on the spot, because most of those certificates were forged.

In Argentina, home births are very rare, especially in cities. But most babies born in captivity were registered as having been born at home, so that was a red flag.

With democracy, this research expanded exponentially because we had a government that supported the research, and it eventually led to the creation of a national genetic database in 1987.

What’s different about forensic genetics in Argentina?

The difference is the size of the task; we were faced with a systematic plan by a dictatorship to not only kill the dissidents, but also rob them and their families of their children — supposedly to have those children educated by ‘good’ families, meaning military families. That is the same thing that Franco in Spain did after his victory against the republicans.

Where does the identification of the remains come into play?

Some disappeared parents of stolen babies were identified by the EAAF by comparing the DNA profiles obtained from remains with the DNA profiles listed in a database of relatives of the disappeared. It was the case of the latest stolen child who was found last August, raised with the name of Ignacio Hurban. The remains of his disappeared father were identified last summer. Ignacio, now in his 30s, is the grandson of Estela de Carlotto, the leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

It was rumoured that the father and the mother of Ignacio were companions. The Argentine forensic team was looking at a number of unmarked graves in a cemetery and one of them turned out to be Ignacio’s father.

What is new in the science of genetic testing?

Forensic genetics every now and then comes up with new types of genetic markers useful for human identification. Today we primarily use microsatellites, also called single sequence repeats (SSRs) or short tandem repeats (STRs). These are repeating sequences of two to five DNA base pairs. But new to the field are single nucleotide polymorphisms – SNPs, pronounced ‘snips’. They are variations in the sequence of base pairs that make up a strand of human DNA, and sequences where there are insertions and deletions, so-called ‘indels’.

The use of ‘snips’ and ‘indels’ for forensic genetic identification is currently being tested to  determine whether they help to better distinguish one person from another.

How have Argentinian geneticists been helping other countries?

The Argentine forensic anthropology team is famous for having been everywhere you have heard or read about massacres — from former Yugoslavia to the Philippines to Congo to El Salvador, they uncovered massacres. The expertise of the team is unparalleled in the world.

Look at El Salvador — it lost more than 100,000 people, and many children were caught in the middle. Some were appropriated by the military, some were in orphanages, and many were adopted legally at the time by foreigners. They are dispersed in Europe and the United States.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo provided their experience to a non-governmental organisation called Pro-Búsqueda, which looks for disappeared people in El Salvador, and helped it set up a forensics genetics lab. We’re talking about a country with one of the lowest incomes in the world. They have surreal problems in providing a budget for such a lab, and a network of American geneticists is helping them.

Even though they don’t count with a forensic genetics lab of their own, they do manage their database. They managed to identify many people, primarily young people, who know that their origins are in El Salvador and have been raised by adoptive families in Italy, Spain and the United States and now search for their origins. It’s mostly a question of family reunions and learning about their roots. So far there have been at least 150 reunions.

In Guatemala, there was a genocidal dictatorship. The dictator has just been convicted for genocide, primarily of indigenous people, with around 100,000 killed. There were children who were abducted, and entire villages were destroyed, burnt to ashes. There’s a forensic team there and the Argentine forensic team is helping them.

In Colombia, the civil war lasted 60 years. There are tens of thousands of disappeared people. We are collaborating with the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, training their scientists. There are thousands of remains that could be victims of the paramilitaries, of the army and of FARC or other guerrilla groups. It’s a very difficult task, because you know nothing except the location of a mass grave. Argentina set up its forensic anthropology team back in 1984, and the Colombians started only a few years ago, and there is an on-going collaboration between the two countries.

And Mexico?

And then there is Mexico. It is terrible. There’s this stigma of drug-related crimes and having a border with the United States. There used to be just a few coyotes [human traffickers] helping someone to cross the border, but now it’s in the hands of narco-traffickers. They kill innocents and bury them anywhere. The Argentine forensic team is working in the border region, which is where most massacres of the innocent happen – and where 43 students have recently disappeared, now presumed to have been murdered by a drug gang.

It’s a different game as so many of these crimes are drug-related. And of course, just finding a mass grave does not get you anywhere. You need at least some idea of where the victims came from and who are their relatives — so expanding Mexico’s databases is key. 

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