Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Forced Disappearances and the Application of Forensic Anthropology

The phrase Damnatio Memoriae is a Latin term describing the Roman practice of erasing an individual from history. Normally this treatment was reserved for Emperors or society elites that brought disdain upon the Roman community. Their names were erased from public records, statues and physical representations were deformed, and their personal property was redistributed to local polities. Even coins were re-minted to remove the name and images of these despised people.  Often it was forbidden to speak of those individuals, ensuring all traces of them where forgotten.

Image of the desaparecidos from the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo
This ancient capability to erase an individual’s existence occurs today with an act known as forced disappearances. These disappearances, which happen during times of civil conflict,  result in an individual being secretly abducted by a government regime, which then denies the existence of the individual. More often than not, the individual is killed and the body is disposed of, as if the individual had vanished. Since the offending party asserts no knowledge of the person in question, the inquiring family is stifled into silence, threatened from making any further claims

Map of South America
 Operation Condor was a movement of political repression that stretched across a majority of South America during the mid-seventies.  The goal, set in place by the right-wing dictatorships, was to eradicate individuals who held communist and socialist ideals, and to control counter-government movements. Under this plan, administrations could persecute individuals who had fled from their homes into neighboring countries. The countries which participated in this movement are shown on the left in dark green, while the light green countries were only sporadic participants. All together, over 60,000 disappearances can be attributed to this operation.

Although many individuals disappeared without a trace, some were buried in mass graves located all over South America. The application of forensic techniques in identifying bodies interred in mass graves can be used for judicial purposes, to document human rights abuses and provide evidence for tribunals, as well as for humanitarian purposes, in assisting families with recovering their loved ones. The excavation of these mass graves can also contribute to the historical reconstruction of the past, as it is not uncommon for a national amnesia to be imposed, hiding unwarranted civilian deaths. It creates a voice for individuals who had been silenced, allowing them to share their stories and move past their fears. 

Further Reading:
Amnesty International Enforced Disappearances 
Operation Condor
EAAF Mission Statement


  1. It would be very interesting to incorporate the practice of erasing a name (literally or metaphorically--your brief historical description made me think of the case of Hatshepsut) in relation the practice of forced disappearances. Derrida's Grammatology offers some wonderful insights into the power of a name.
    I guess what I am really trying to say is that corporeality, representation, and name are all interesting concepts that could potentially be connected to your exploration of forced disappearances.

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  3. Also the interplay of the above mentioned concepts with photographs of the disappeared could be one fruitful way of looking at this incident in relation to forensics (i.e. photographs of people from the family, photographs used in art for purposes of memory work, history, and political messages, and photographs of the remains). For example, the relation between family photographs and forensic photographs could be a tool used to examine the concept of erasure.

  4. I also think that looking at photographs for memory work would be interesting when looking into these disappearances. I would also like to see some examples of victim's personal accounts such as interviews with families etc.

    Do you have any particular case studies you are working with?

  5. I have to say your last paragraph is loaded with interesting comments that I would like to see unpacked. Just some questions that might be worth thinking about...Are there any issues with faming this research within such a large geographic region, most of South America? How did this movement affect regions, populations, and nations differently? Who were these individuals or counter-culture groups?

    I would also problematize the archaeology a little more than what is presented here, it is not all about fighting a fight for the greater good. The politics around this type of archaeology are messy, which is interesting and worth bringing up. Does everyone (even those you call victims) want forensic archaeologists there?

    I love where this is going, and again, think that unpacking and problematizing those statements in the last two paragraphs will lead into an awesome paper and discussion! Thanks!

  6. Courtney raises a good point about movement and location in regards to the mass graves resulting from Operation Condor. I wonder what the cooperation between polities is like. Not only do victims' loved ones want forensic archaeologists involved but do the political parties originally involved with Operation Condor want the forensic archaeologists involved? I would guess that there is mixed bag of cooperation from the current political parties in power that is deeply involved with the fallout and this would be another interesting aspect to research further. Very good topic!

  7. This seems like a very interesting topic that I would love to hear more about. I do have a few questions, though. What are the consequences of unsilencing the voices of the missing? Why were their voices silenced in the first place?