Monday, October 22, 2012

En El País De Nomeacuerdo: Forensic Archaeology and Memory in San Vicente Cemetery, Argentina

La Historia Oficial
The song “El País de Nomeacuerdo,” or, “The Country of I-Don’t-Remember,” by Mary Elena Walsh serves as the theme and a central symbol of La Historia Oficial (The Official History), a fictive historical drama depicting the environment in Argentina immediately after the military dictatorship was overthrown in 1983. This film serves as a representation of the ethnography and experience of the disappeared victims, and the families who mourn them. It also raises essential questions about culpability and evidence, and how citizens can go about gaining closure when the truth was intentionally and systematically buried.

The military coup d’etat on March 24, 1976, and the subsequent eight years of martial rule in Argentina was the culmination of a series of interventions that took place throughout the twentieth century. These previous coups developed and legitimized techniques of social discipline and order through restrictive laws, legal violence towards citizens, and “disappearance.” While the efforts of the subsequent democratic government in 1983 repealed the oppressive laws and halted the violence, making the disappeared visible again was considerably more difficult. Over the past thirty years, forensic archaeology, with the support of a national Truth Commission (CONADEP), has been employed to identify victims of the regime, primarily focusing on the mass graves associated with the Clandestine Detention Centers (CDCs) across the country.

While under military rule, Argentina was divided into five zones, each maintained by a different army corps. Zone III, controlled by the Third Army Corps, established a territory consisting of central, west, and northwest Argentina, with Córdoba as their operations center. One of its main CDCs, La Perla, assisted in the disappearance, imprisonment, and often “transfer” (assassination), of over 2,200 Argentinians between 1976 and 1979. Many of the people detained at La Perla are believed to be interred within San Vicente Cemetery in Córdoba. In 1984, one of the mass graves at this site was excavated under the orders of the Federal Judiciary, but was completed unscientifically, destroying an undetermined number of skeletons, which were then cremated.

Excavation of mass grave at San Vicente Cemetery;
After this disaster, excavation was halted until 2002, when the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) was given control over the investigation. Using the testimony of morgue workers and witnesses in the 1970s, EAAF with the aid of the School of the Humanities of Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, was able to identify and begin excavation of the cemetery. From 2003 to 2005, EAAF exhumed three different mass graves in two locations within the cemetery, yielding the remains of over 200 people. Using morphological analysis, the radiographic, graphic, and photographic records of people reported missing from the area in the ‘70s, and DNA analysis, several individuals have been identified and repatriated to their families, with more hopefully to come in the future.

This brief exploration, while in no means comprehensive, illustrates one example in which ethnography and archaeology can be intertwined to discover the truth and provide closure for victims of systematic state terrorism. While serving to answer questions, these events, in particular the circumstances surrounding San Vicente cemetery, raise further inquiries into the role of forensic archaeology and ethnography in uncovering evidence, both for truth commissions, and for prosecution of the individuals responsible. 

Bisso C, et. al. A mass grave in Argentina: the San Vicente Cemetery in Córdoba.
2005. EAAF Annual Report 2005. Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense.
Soledad Catoggio M. 2010. The last military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983): the mechanism of state terrorism. Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence


  1. I think one nice way to look at San Vincente cemetary would be how the evidence was presented and allowed in court. Maybe a a comparison of the U.S. and Argentinian systems regarding forencis evidence in crimes against humanity cases.

  2. You might find this piece interesting: James, Daniel. "Meatpackers, Peronists, and collective memory: a view from the south." The American Historical Review 102, no. 5 (1997): 1404-1412.

    I have found this piece helpful in past research: Cameron, H. Memento Mori: Mourning, Monuments, and Memory.

  3. like I said in class, I think your opening was very clever (using a piece of popular culture that was tied to your subject matter). I hoe that you use it as a guiding light or at least allow it to have a trace presence throughout the entirety of your final product.