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Finding "The Disappeared" in Argentina.

Anthropologist and co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, Mercedes Doretti. The group was founded in 1984 to investigate the fate of persons who had been “disappeared” by the former Argentinean military regime. The team consisting of an anthropologist, pathologist, radiologist, ballistic expert, and an archaeologist exhume grave sites, and the sites of massacres to determine the truth behind what happened, and to identify skeletal remains. Since their initial work in Argentina, the EAAF has worked in many other countries to investigate human rights abuses.


Other segments from the episode on February 8, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 8, 2000: Interview with Mercedes Doretti; Interview with Clyde Snow.


Date: FEBRUARY 08, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020801np.217
Head: Founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team Discusses Her Efforts to Stop Government-Sponsored Murder
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, exhuming graves and identifying the remains of victims of government-sponsored murder. We talk with Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. It uses the techniques of anthropology and the forensic sciences to identify skeletal remains. The group was created in 1984 in an attempt to identify some of the 10,000 people who had disappeared during Argentina's eight-year military dictatorship.

We'll also talk with Dr. Clyde Snow, who pioneered the application of forensic anthropology for human rights abuses.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Dictatorships that kill their opponents do their best to cover up the crimes. Bodies are buried in unmarked graves or dumped in places where they are unlikely to be found.

It's the job of my guest, Mercedes Doretti, to identify these victims, investigate how they died, and, when possible, hand over the remains to their families.

Doretti co-founded the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which uses the techniques of anthropology and the forensic sciences to exhume and identify skeletal remains. The group was founded in 1984 with the goal of finding and identifying the remains of the disappeared in Argentina.

During the country's military dictatorship between 1976 and '83, an estimated 10,000 people who were considered leftists and a threat to the government were kidnapped and never seen again.

The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team also works in a number of other countries where there have been severe human rights violations, including Bolivia, the former Yugoslavia, Congo, Guatemala, and South Africa.

I asked Mercedes Doretti to describe what Argentina was going through in 1984 when she co-founded the team.

MERCEDES DORETTI, ARGENTINE FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGY TEAM: Well, at the time it was the first month of democracy after eight years of military dictatorship, and there was a lot of urgency, of course, to start looking for the bodies of the disappeared people. Unfortunately we knew at the time that many of the people who were disappeared by the state had been killed.

And we knew that many of them had been buried on anonymous graves, on John Doe's graves, in several cemeteries. But at the time, the ones who were in charge of doing this were the forensic doctors that had two problems. On the one hand, they did not have practice on excavating and analyzing skeletal remains. They -- the daily practice, it concerns mostly corpses. And on the other hand, many of them belonged to the police, which is one of the bodies that were -- or agencies from the state that were (inaudible) investigation, because many of the people who disappeared were kidnapped by them and were held in the police stations and so on.

So those two problems were clearly seen in the way the exhumations were being done at the beginning. There were massive exhumations done with bulldozers in which -- or keepers from the cemetery, which -- in which bones were -- from different individuals were mixed up. Many of the bones, teeth, bullets were left inside the graves. In sum, this was basically destroying evidence for the court, and also making almost impossible to make identifications so that we could return the remains to the relatives.

This is why our team was formed in '84 with a different approach based on the experience mostly of an American forensic anthropologist, Dr. Clyde Snow, who came to Argentina at the request of local organizations and immediately asked to put a hold to these massive exhumations and to use anthropologists and archeologists to exhume and analyze the remains.

GROSS: Maybe you can describe for us the techniques that you started using after you were trained by Clyde Snow in exhuming graves and identifying corpses and skeletons.

DORETTI: Yes. Well, basically, we were using similar techniques that are used in traditional archeology, on archeological sites, but in this case on forensic cases, in order to recover all the remains in the proper way. We will just use typical grid system, for example, on the entire surface that needs to be excavated, use small brushes to uncover the remains, document everything in situ without removing it, so that we could reconstruct the context afterwards by photographs and graphics. We'll take measurements of each of the location of the items that were found and their relationship with others.

To give an example, there's the location of bullets, particular in cases of skeletal remains. It could be very important in terms of determining the cause of death. Sometimes a bullet may not damage bones, but that they may be the cause of death, it's very important to mark and put that on a graphic after the exact place in which they were found.

A similar thing happens with the teeth, which are, in many cases, crucial for identification purposes. When dealing with skeletal remains, they tend to fall out of their sockets and they're around the area of the skull. So for that, you need to work very slowly and screen all the soil that is at the same level of the skeleton and underneath and above, so that you could find really everything.

So it's a much more delicate, thorough, and time-consuming, also, effort, but it's worth it in terms of the results.

GROSS: Why did you want to get involved in this forensic anthropology team in Argentina? Did you have friends or relatives who were among the disappeared?

DORETTI: Well, let me tell you honestly that none of us wanted, actually, to get involved into this thing, to tell you the truth. I mean, we all supported human rights. We all were going to demonstrations asking for justice and asking to know what happened with the disappeared. But we were all pretty scared about getting involved in something like this.

GROSS: You were scared because you thought you'd be harassed by the government?

DORETTI: Well, at the time...

GROSS: Or harassed by people who used to be in the government?

DORETTI: (inaudible)...

GROSS: Or used to be in the police?

DORETTI: There were several things. At the time, there were a lot of talks of a new military coup, precisely because trials were going to start. And so there was a lot of -- you know, the newspapers and so on that in fact, there were three military uprisings on those years. And so we thought, Well, if we have escape, we have survive (ph). The other military dictatorship, we -- clearly, by doing this work, we would have to leave the country or something like that.

So we knew that from the moment we were starting to do it, there is the -- was a commitment that will have consequences eventually.

And on the other hand, some of us -- I had friends who disappeared, but that they came back. They were -- you know, they were illegally detained, and spent some times in illegal places. But they were released after a month or so.

Other members of the team at the time did have closer friends that never came back, and some of them did not stay at the team. I mean, the team members change since that moment up until now.

But there was also fear of, like, going to a cemetery and start digging graves. I mean, it was also like kind of a -- if you want, like a philosophical -- scared of, like, you know, what are you doing on a cemetery? It's different when you're dealing with, you know, archeological remains from 10,000 years or more ago.

So there was, like, very different kind of things, and -- but we did not know how we were going to react to all that.

We -- at the same time, we would discuss this several nights, and we finally decided that we had to do it anyway, because, you know, if we want to be consistent with what we think, we should -- you know, they were asking us for the first time something specific that we could bring from our studies, and that we should not -- we could not say no. But it wasn't something that we were looking forward.

GROSS: Now, I believe your mother worked on the report about the disappeared, called "Nunca Mas," which translates to "Never Again."

DORETTI: That's correct.

GROSS: Did that affect your interest in pursuing human rights, and forensic anthropology?

DORETTI: Well, certainly a receive an education base in a lot of, you know, of principles on defending this, and my mother's position in terms of this was very important for me. Though she -- you know, she thought it was great that this work of -- on forensic anthropology was being done, she just didn't think it was particularly good that her daughter was involved in that. (laughs)

GROSS: Right.

DORETTI: So -- but, of course, you know, it was a big influence on me, certainly.

GROSS: My guest is Mercedes Doretti. She's co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. This is a group which applies the forensic scientists (ph) to investigate government-sponsored mass murder, execution, torture, and other human rights violations in Argentina and around the world.

So when your team was created, did you have to actually go in search of graves and mass graves, or did you -- did your team go to work only after the graves were discovered by others?

DORETTI: It was a mixed thing. At the beginning, it was mostly judges or human rights organizations that would call us with the information about the possible location of a grave, where the remains of disappeared people were supposed to be. Then with the years, we started doing our own historical investigation on different archives from police, military records, judiciary records, cemetery records, hospital records, trying to link the different steps, mostly what happened between the legal detention centers and the moment in which people were killed and their bodies were being disposed.

And after all these years, most of the time now we are the ones who found the location, and we called the families.

GROSS: How do you present their remains to the family in a situation like that?

DORETTI: It's very -- what we always try to do -- it's a very difficult moment. So what we always try to do is ask them in what way they would like us to proceed, if they want to see the remains, if they want us to explain them how we did the identification, why we think those remains belong to their loved one, if they want us to -- or they don't want to see them, if they want us to put the remains directly on a coffin, or they want to put them on a coffin, or -- I mean, we go through all these different details, trying really to do whatever they feel it's best for them.

We feel that they have suffered so much, and they have, you know -- they have been denied of any clear knowledge, and everything have been so confused that the least thing we could do is to really make the whole process as transparent as possible.

GROSS: I imagine one of the things you had to do was to prove that the bodies or skeletons that you found had been the victims of execution, and that way you could use the evidence to bring people to justice who were responsible for the executions. What were some of the ways that you had to prove that a person had been executed?

DORETTI: Well, for example, we typically -- and this is not only in Argentina but in most countries, there's always these two versions, one saying there was an execution and then another one saying these people die in combat. The same versions were the case in Argentina.

Typically what we found on those cases, where -- was an entrance wound on the back of the head -- of the skull of most of the skeletons. In principle, particularly when we found, like, in one of the cases there, you know, 30 individuals all with the same kind of pattern of wounds, or with entrances on the back of their skulls, this strongly suggest execution, and not -- there's no evidence that would sustain that these people die in combat.

GROSS: The victims that you found who had been executed with a bullet in the back of the head, how would they bury -- what was the approach that the police or the military took to disposing of the body?

DORETTI: There were several kinds. Well, there's two big divisions. One, the bodies that were thrown -- or people, actually, they were thrown alive from airplanes into the rivers, into the sea and so on. There was very little we could do on those cases, even though we did work in some of them, some bodies that came back to the coast.

And then there's the other part of bodies that were buried on cemeteries. In most of the cases, from the ones that were buried in cemeteries, they did not follow any of the culture type of habits to bury remains. In other words, in the case of mass graves, they were just -- they were all naked, one above the other one, very (inaudible), even the ones who were in individual cemetery -- in individual graves, they normally did not -- the position of the body was not the one that was normally used when buried, you know, people in normal circumstances. They would just -- basically they just thrown the body into the graves, so they would be in very weird positions.

In individual cases, sometimes they will use very cheap coffins that were the ones typically used on John Doe cases.

Also what it was very different, and Dr. Snow did a very interesting study about that, an important study, was the difference between the John Doe usual population and the one of the disappeared people. The John -- the classical John Doe population would be old people who died by natural causes and brought to the cemeteries by hospital people or ambulances from nursery (ph) homes and so on.

These John Does that were the bodies of disappeared people were young people brought by the police or the militaries with violent cause of death, most of the cases, gunshot wounds to the head.

GROSS: Now, I'm sure you also wanted to evaluate whether these victims had been tortured or not, again so that you could present evidence at subsequent trials. How could you tell?

DORETTI: Torture, it's very complicated, almost not possible when you're working with skeletal remains. In most of the cases in Argentina, for example, electrical shocks were the ones who were used, and we so far -- with skeletons, with bodies that have, you know, been on the ground for such a long time, and have completely skeletonized, we don't have ways to establish this.

What sometimes can happen is when you see fractures on the skeletons that have different degrees of healing, you could sometimes say that they have not completely healed, that they're showing that there was a process of healing starting. You could see that this happened when the person was still alive, and that therefore probably this is the result of severe beating on the person while he or she was in detention.

GROSS: My guest is Mercedes Doretti. In 1984 she co-founded the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. Let's take a short break here and then we'll discuss your work in Argentina and around the world.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Mercedes Doretti. In 1984, she co-founded the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. This is a group which applies the forensic sciences to investigate government-sponsored mass murder, execution, torture, and other human rights violations in Argentina and around the world.

Do you have different techniques for identifying a corpse if there's still flesh on the body, or if you've found just a skeleton?

DORETTI: Well, certainly it's different. If you -- if the body -- if the person has died, you know, a few hours from the moment it's going to be analyzed and try to be identified, you still have the possibility of visual recognition. When the body decomposed and, moreover, when it's skeletonized, you can no longer count on that. So what you do is, you apply basically all the methods that you have, mostly coming from physical anthropology, in terms of establishing age at the moment of death, stature, sex, ancestry.

And then from there on, compare the information that -- the more specific information that the families have given you in terms of dental records, X-rays, et cetera, to try to identify them.

If, as it is the case many times of human rights cases, the person doesn't have enough premortem information, physical information when the person was alive, to be compared with the skeletal remains, what we do, since a few years ago, is take bone samples and blood sample from the presumed relative, and try DNA.

GROSS: So you try to match the DNA of the victim with the DNA of the family who believes this victim might be related to them.

DORETTI: That's correct, yes.

GROSS: So I imagine that when you are exhuming a body, you also have, like, a list of the disappeared and a list of the executed, and you can match the characteristics in the body that you're finding with the characteristics of the missing people. Is this all computerized and everything?

DORETTI: Well, it depends on the country where you go. In Argentina, because we have been working there for such a long time, we have been able to have a database of premortem information that we can compare with what we exhume from the graves. And we have another historical database with information, historical information, on each case of people who disappeared. And so by crossing the information on these three areas of -- three databases, we can sometimes produce an identification, or a tentative identification that we later confirm by DNA or other techniques.

But when we're arriving to a country in which these kind of cases have just started to be investigating -- investigated, and there has not been someone before us doing this, this is normally not being -- it's not -- definitely not computerized, and in most of the cases have not even been collected, the premortem information have not been collected yet.

So part of our work most of the time is to collect all the historical information on the case, collect as much as we can antemorten information from the presumed relatives of the victims, and then do the excavation, and then at the laboratory work compared the antemorten information with what we extract from the grave.

GROSS: Now, as forensic anthropologists, it sounds like the work that you do is very similar in technique to the work that an anthropologist would do, say, in Egypt while unearthing old pottery shards. I mean, just in terms of the delicacy of approach, you're treating the bones in the same way that the anthropologist on a dig in Egypt would treat delicate artifacts of civilizations gone by. You use paintbrushes and things to get off the sand, you try not to, I guess, scrape the bones or do anything that would physically change the bones that you're finding.

DORETTI: Correct, yes. The -- one of the differences, though, is that we don't have that much time as some -- you know, one will have on a traditional archeological site, in which, basically, you know, some sites, some archeological sites, have been -- people have been working there for 30, 40 years, even more. We don't have that possibility, so we have to, within doing the work professionally, we also have a time constraint, that it's quite different from traditional archeological investigation -- excavation.

GROSS: And what's behind those time constraints that you have?

DORETTI: Several things. One, there's the relatives, of course, that we, you know, will try to give them an answer if it's possible as soon as we can. In most of these cases, they have been years waiting to know what happened with their relatives, and it's an extremely painful situation that does not end really until they know, you know, and they have their -- what happened, and if possible, if they have the remains.

On the other hand, we normally -- we always work within a judiciary framework that has times and deadlines, and people waiting to be trial. And so the evidence needs to be there in order to be part of those trials. Or special commissions of inquiry, typically called now Truth Commissions, that have a specific mandate that needs to be -- in which they need to produce a report on a specific time. Mostly they're very short, one year, two years at maximum.

GROSS: Mercedes Doretti is the co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. She'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mercedes Doretti. In 1984, she co-founded the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which uses the techniques of physical anthropology and the forensic sciences to exhume the remains of the disappeared in Argentina and investigate how they were murdered.

The team also works in other countries, identifying the remains of government-sponsored murder and massacre.

How did you feel about the presidential pardon of generals who you helped to convict? And on what grounds did they get the pardon?

DORETTI: There was no explanation of the grounds of -- this is a capacity that every president has, and Dr. Menem, at the time the president, decided to do it.

Of course, I feel terrible. I mean, I -- we all thought that it was an amazing improvement in our country that for once militaries that were committing these kind of crimes -- or anybody, by that case, that would commit these kind of crimes -- will be punished.

We had a history of 50 years since 1930 up until '84 of every single democratic government, with one exception, being interrupted by military coups, and therefore we thought it was extremely important that these people remain in jail.

So it was very, very disappointing.

GROSS: When you started this work, founding the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, you and your colleagues were afraid that you would be harassed or worse by police or military, or that there'd be a new military junta and you'd be really in trouble and forced to flee the country if you could.

Were you ever harassed? Were you ever in danger?

DORETTI: Actually, much less than what we thought. I mean, we did receive death threats at the beginning when the trials were going on, and -- but was really not that often, just a few times. And then it would be just things that -- you know, the police who would custody the sites if we were working sometimes was exactly the same policemen that were -- that put the bodies there, because it was the same jurisdiction of that police station.

So they would, you know, often say things to us, like, you know, "You're working for the terrorists," and "Do you realize you're being used by the terrorists?" or, "If we would have done the work, fine, you would not be here digging these graves," and, you know, things of that sort. But it wasn't something -- you know, it was not that terrible, in other words. Wasn't funny, but it wasn't that terrible.

GROSS: Do you have an estimate of how many victims of execution your group has identified?

DORETTI: I don't have a clear number, because it's so -- sometimes a bit complicated, because sometimes we identified someone in terms of knowing where it was buried, but the body is no longer there, so we don't have clear numbers. Do you know what I mean? I mean, the (inaudible)...

GROSS: Yes, I do, yes.

DORETTI: So in Argentina, approximately probably around 200 people, more or less. In other countries, (inaudible) was in Argentina, sometimes we are not able to identified anybody, but we are able to establish what happened, like in the case of El Mozote in Salvador, for example, where there was this -- El Mozote was the largest massacre of the 12-year civil war there, and for years there was this version from the government, and even the United States State Department supported that version, that it was a battle there, or that there was no evidence to support a massacre.

And on the other side, people saying there was a massive -- massacred here where at least 800 people had been killed.

There we were not able to identified anybody, but we have been able to establish that all the evidence strongly indicated that there was a massacred and that there was no evidence of a combat, for example. So that is another thing that sometimes is also important to establish, even though we may not identified anybody.

GROSS: What's some of the evidence that you uncovered in El Mozote that established that it was a massacre?

DORETTI: Basically, what happened in 1981 was allegedly that the sovereign army get into six hamlets and divided women, men, and children in each of them, killed them, and buried them in different places. So what we went to work for the U.N. Truth Commission and for local human right organization called Tuto al Legal (ph), and we happened to work in one site where the children were buried in one of the hamlets in the -- in Mozote hamlet.

So we found on one room approximately 141 individuals from which 135 were children under the age of 10, with an average age of 6, and other -- the rest were adults. One of them was a pregnant woman, and the fetus' bones were still on the pelvic area. And for the rest of -- for all the other children, we found 250 approximately fragments of bullets and a bit more of cartridge cases also in different parts of this room.

What we have able to establish that most of these children were showing gunshot wounds. In some cases it was showing that they were shot while they were laying down on the floor of this room, because we could see the path of the bullet, for example, transpassing (ph) a skull and producing a hole into the floor, and a piece of bullet inside of that hole.

And then the ballistic examination done by Dr. Douglas Scott (ph), that we asked to come from the States to help us in this, determined that all the ammunition, both the case -- the cartridge cases and the bullets were from M-16 rifles, which were a rifle -- was a rifle that was just introduced at that moment of the war to this particular battalion, the Atlacatl Battalion, that had been trained by the U.S. and that had been given these M-16 rifles to be used for the first time.

This was supposed to be an elite counterinsurgency battalion just trained to operate against the guerrillas.

And so later in the war, this rifle was used by both forces, but at that moment it was only used by the Salvadoran army and by that particular battalion. So that was a quite important finding in terms of tracing perpetrators.

Also, the location of the cartridge cases, which was different from the fragments of bullets. The fragments of bullets were mostly located in association directly with the majority of the skeletons, while the cartridge cases, which fall -- when you shoot on these kind of rifles, they fall on the right side immediately close to the position of the shooter. So they were found in clusters in different locations, other than the ones where the majority of the skeletons were found. In other words, establishing possible locations of the shooters that were shooting towards where the children were.

GROSS: How did it feel after, you know, finding all this evidence and establishing that the government lied?

DORETTI: Well, in one hand, it feels -- it definitely feels, you know, very good to find the evidence, to establish this. On the other hand, it's scary, you know, it's scary to feel that, you know, the people that have been able to do this, you're uncovering what they've done, and if they have able to do that, you know, they could do other things as well.

But basically, it is very rewarding. It's why we're doing the work. You know, sometimes you have the impression of something -- the way in which things happen, but you cannot establish that, and that is very frustrating. So when you're able to do it, it's a very rewarding feeling.

GROSS: My guest is Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Mercedes Doretti. She's co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. This is a team which applies the forensic sciences to investigate government-sponsored mass murder, execution, torture, and other human rights violations. They work not only in Argentina but in other countries around the world.

You spent some of this past summer in Bosnia, investigating mass graves there for the War Crimes Tribunal. I know that you're not at liberty to discuss a great deal of the work that you're doing, but maybe you can share some of the work that you're doing, the part that you can make public now.

DORETTI: The way in which the work, it's organization there, it's different than from other countries in the sense that, for example, we don't interview the relatives. We are assigned to work either on the excavation sites or at the morgue site, analyzing the remains. But there are other investigators from the tribunals which are the ones who interview the witnesses and the relatives of the victims.

So in that sense, it's a different environment, it's a different kind of work. It's more -- if you want, more separate from the people from the country in which you're working. We work in international teams, you know, made up of people from many different countries, so it's at the same time very, very interesting, because we share, you know, problems and possible solutions to the cases. We discuss a lot, you know, the work that we do in our own countries.

So it's extremely interesting, but it's different from the work that we do in other countries.

GROSS: You've done this forensic anthropology work in countries around the world where there have been government-sponsored execution and mass murder, and I'm wondering if you're more struck by the similarities or the differences that you find in different countries.

DORETTI: Most by the similarities, actually. One of the similarities is, it's the feeling of the relatives. No matter what religion they are, no matter what culture we're in, the -- it always struck me the enormous need for the relatives to have an answer to what happened with their loved ones.

Of course, all of them know that most likely they have been killed. But the big difficulty with disappearances is not really knowing what happened, not having an end, an answer, a clear, official answer of what happened to them. And by doing our work, we feel that we help on the process of trying to finally put an end to that anguish.

We cannot repair it, obviously, what's been done, but recovering the remains, it's something that I was always struck how important it is in every country where we work.

GROSS: Are there different superstitions or fears in different cultures about digging up the dead so that you can do your work?

DORETTI: You know, it's -- that's another thing that is bizarre, in the sense that a lot of times, when we get into a country, it's -- the people who want the work to be done are able to put aside some of their religious or superstitions or whatever you want to call them, practices, for us to do the investigation. Normally it's the parties that are accused of the crimes who start claiming culture issues, not to allow the investigation.

For example, in the case of Congo, where we tried to work in '97, as part of a United Nations investigative team, part of the excuse that the government, led by President Kabila, was using was that we were, by digging on the places where we were digging, we were actually -- sorry, I can't find the word in the English...

GROSS: Trespassing on the spirits of the dead or something?

DORETTI: Yes, exactly. And, you know, we knew from other sources that we were just digging on the right place, in which, you know -- that -- from the allegations were very strong of -- that a massacre had happened there, and that the government forces at the time, rebel forces, were strongly involved in that massacre. And so, you know, a culture issue was used to avoid this kind of investigation.

While in other countries, you know, Muslim countries, or countries that have other religions in which, for example, women would not get close to the dead, or things of that sort, we asked them, Is it OK if, you know, if we do it this way? and so on. And they were, like, Go ahead, please do it.

So it's really -- you know, we've seen that a lot of things can be very flexible when it's a matter of finding the truth and finding people of their own community.

GROSS: What about you when you're exhuming a grave, do you feel the spirits of the dead? And do you find that upsetting?

DORETTI: Well, what I find myself -- when I first did the work, and it keeps on being the same, it's like when I'm doing the work, I'm really concentrating on doing the best I can, and it's sort of like you put some sort of defense, and you're not that much thinking about all the sorrow and all the pain that it's involved on what you're uncovering.

But, of course, if, you know, you're not a robber (ph) or something like that, so there are moments, even while you're doing the exhumations, that are a lot of times very hard. Like in the case of El Mozote, when we were uncovering the clothing of these kids and all the toys that they were having on their pockets was coming out, that was a moment in which it was really devastating. It was just very, very hard. And, you know, it's very good that we're working among friends within the team. And so we, you know, we help each other when sometimes one of us sort of like, you know, think it's just too much.

Then the other moment that it's very difficult, it's with the relatives. But, of course, that is the moment also that you want to, you know, to reach, the moment at which you can, you know, tell them what you found, and you -- you know, that's what -- both -- mostly what we're doing the work. But it's very hard. And we -- there -- we have the policy of, like, you know, if we feel sad and we sometimes get very emotional, what we do, you know, it's, like, it's -- we're not trying to hide what we feel or, you know, with the relatives, basically. We try to accompany them. And if in the process we -- it gets -- you know, it gets difficult for us to speak with them, well, we just let it go, you know.

GROSS: Since the work of forensic anthropologists like you is becoming more successful and more and more countries are depending on you and your colleagues, are you afraid that military police and despotic governments are going to become wise to the work that you do, and will better cover up their work executing people?

DORETTI: Absolutely. In fact, that's what we've seen in Bosnia and what we've seen in Congo as well, the -- you know, the removal of the bodies from the original grave to secondary graves in order to cover them up, and that's really -- you know, complicates our work much more, and it's clear that they're getting much wiser on how to hide their evidence.

GROSS: So that's bad news for you and for everyone.

DORETTI: I guess so. Well, we still -- you know, they will do their thing, we'll do ours to also improve the way in which we can found the graves and we can find these people. So we'll see.

GROSS: Mercedes Doretti, thank you so much for talking with us.

DORETTI: You're welcome.

GROSS: Mercedes Doretti co-founded the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team.

Coming up, we meet Clyde Snow, who pioneered the use of forensic anthropology for investigating human rights violations.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Mercedes Doretti
High: Mercedes Doretti is an anthropologist and co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. The group was founded in 1984 to investigate the fate of persons who had been "disappeared" by the former Argentinean military regime. The team -- consisting of an anthropologist, pathologist, radiologist, ballistic expert, and an archaeologist -- exhume gravesites and the sites of massacres to determine the truth behind what happened, and to identify skeletal remains. Since their initial work in Argentina, the EAAF has worked in many other countries to investigate human rights abuses.
Spec: Argentina; Death; Murders; Government; Human Rights

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team Discusses Her Efforts to Stop Government-Sponsored Murder

Date: FEBRUARY 08, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020802NP.217
Head: Clyde Snow Discusses His Pioneering Work in Forensic Anthropology
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: My guest, Clyde Snow, pioneered the use of forensic anthropology to identify the victims of massacres and government-sponsored murder. As Snow says, bones are often our last and best witnesses. He trained the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which we just heard about, and he's worked with similar teams around the world, including in Chiapas, Mexico, Ethiopia, and the former Yugoslavia.

He also helped identify the remains of Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele and the remains of the victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacey. Snow spent the 1960s and '70s as a researcher with the Federal Aviation Agency investigating airplane accidents.

Is there one place where you feel like your work had the greatest impact in bringing murderers or death squads to justice?

DR. CLYDE SNOW, FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGY EXPERT: Well, I think the outstanding case was our very first one down in Argentina, and some of the evidence that I and my team had collected was used in testimony before the trial of the military junta that the generals and the admirals that had run Argentina are doing (ph) in a period of repression, and resulting in their convictions.

Of course, you remember -- you have to realize that their convictions didn't last very long. Eventually some of the junta that were given life sentences, they were eventually amnestied (inaudible).

GROSS: How'd you feel about the amnesty?

SNOW: I didn't like it at all. I think if you commit murder, you ought to go to jail.

GROSS: Now, what about the results of your work in the former Yugoslavia, exhuming mass graves there? What was the outcome?

SNOW: Well, my work in the former Yugoslavia was -- goes up to about '96, and at the grave in Vukovar, where we had the hospital patients who were killed, I did go back in -- I guess it was '97, '98, and testified in the trial of one of the people who was indicted for that crime, and I gave testimony in the, you know, at the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal about our findings in Vukovar.

And unfortunately, the accused committed suicide in his cell shortly before the sentence was to be pronounced, and the other three have still not been brought to justice. But they're under indictment.

GROSS: What do you think are some of the greatest lessons that could be learned from your experiences presenting evidence?

SNOW: I think the lesson that has come out of my experience in the (inaudible) the past 15 years or so is that we do need something in terms of some sort of an international entity that can very swiftly, when crimes like we see in Guatemala, Croatia, or wherever, East Timor, are committed, that there will be prompt investigations and prompt proceedings stemming from those investigations, so that people who are accused of these will be brought to justice and given a fair but speedy trial.

And I think when this sort of thing begins to happen that -- and it may be decades before it really comes into being -- but it will have a chilling effect on the commission of these kinds of crimes, in that leaders in these countries can't just go out and murder their own people en masse and figure they're going to get away with it.

GROSS: So have political people in power who are trying to cover up massacres and the murders of political dissidents, have they ever hurt anyone on your team in revenge for your team digging up the mass graves?

SNOW: Fortunately not. They have had some things like death threats, but thank God, none of them have ever materialized.

GROSS: When someone from your team says that they've been threatened, what kind of advice do you give them?

SNOW: The only advice we can, you know, Watch your back, you know.

GROSS: Watch your back, but keep working.

SNOW: Well, yes. They insist on keeping -- you know, they've never backed off from any of these threats. And so, you know, not only do I salute their expertise, but you'd have to salute their courage.

And it's also encouraging to all of us and to all of them that nowadays more and more people have recognized the advantages and the value of forensic evidence. They're being used in these situations all over the world. It's like -- I was talking to somebody on my Argentine team. One of the women had started with us in 1984, and I said, "It's like, you know, we started out this little Mom and Pop operation, and now, you know, Wal-Mart has come to town. And -- but that is good. The more people we have out there doing these kinds of things, the better the world's going to be in a few years.

GROSS: Does it ever get to you, working with the dead?

SNOW: Well, what I always figure that -- is that, you know, being dead is no problem. It's getting there that's tough. And where I'm affected very often, and I think my colleagues are too, is that we have to see what these people went through before they died. And when you start piecing that together, it is -- it can affect you. But again, you have to maintain your professional objectivity while you're investigating, you know.

And I used to tell my team in Argentina, those kids, when they got started back in the old days, in the '80s, I said, "Look, you know," you know, "you can cry, but cry at night. You know, when we're in here working with this, we're scientists, we're professionals, we have to just go with what the evidence tells us. And we're kind of -- we have to look at it pretty coldly. But, you know, we can't afford -- we can't expect anyone, including ourselves, to take this as -- we can't be that cold, but we have to compartmentalize it."

GROSS: Since you have spent so much of your career working with the remains of others, have you thought about what you want done with your body when you pass?

SNOW: Oh, I'm already signed up for organ donation. Although I'm -- at age 72, I'm not sure I've got any organs anybody else would want.

GROSS: (laughs)

SNOW: But if there -- if there's anything usable, go ahead and use it.

GROSS: And then what?

SNOW: Then just bury me, or...

GROSS: Not cremation, but burial?

SNOW: Oh, you know, actually what I'd like to be -- I'd like to be buried unembalmed in a nice wooden coffin somewhere, so I could become a skeleton pretty quick.

GROSS: Seriously?

SNOW: Yes.

GROSS: And why do want to become a skeleton?

SNOW: I don't know. You know, I've been around 'em all my life, I get along with them pretty good.

GROSS: (laughs)

SNOW: So eventually it's going to happen anyway. So it's just a nice way to go back to the, you know, to the earth.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SNOW: You're welcome. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Clyde Snow pioneered the use of forensic anthropology for investigating government-sponsored murder and massacre.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced by Monique Nazareth, Phyllis Myers, Naomi Person, and Amy Salit, with Ann Marie Baldonado and Patty Leswing. Research assistance from Brendan Noonam.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Clyde Snow
High: Dr. Clyde Snow is an expert in forensic anthropology. He first developed the forensic team approach to investigating human rights abuses and acted as trainer and mentor to the EAAF team.
Spec: Death; Murders; Human Rights

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Clyde Snow Discusses His Pioneering Work in Forensic Anthropology
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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