The project is led by Dr Arely Cruz Santiago from the University of Exeter, who has more than ten years of experience in citizen forensics in Mexico.

Impact of citizen-led forensic efforts to find the “disappeared” in Latin America analysed as part of major new study

The impact of grassroots forensic practices led by families trying to find the “disappeared” in Latin America will be analysed as part of a major new study.

Governments in the region have historically failed to investigate kidnappings, extra-judicial killings, and human rights abuses, sometimes because of complicity or incompetence, and relatives often take matters into their own hands by collecting and analysing their own evidence.

This is the first study to trace how these grassroots forensic practices have emerged in Argentina and Colombia. These efforts are often erased or unacknowledged, and run parallel and, many times, in opposition to those provided by the state.

The project is led by Dr Arely Cruz Santiago from the University of Exeter, who has more than ten years of experience in citizen forensics in Mexico. It is funded by Leverhulme Fellowship.

Dr Cruz Santiago helped to create a national registry of those who have disappeared, and the first forensic DNA database created and managed by relatives of the disappeared in Mexico. She is member of the Panel of Experts at the International Commission of Missing Persons, with regional expertise on the ‘Americas’.

Dr Cruz Santiago said: “We want to systematise and document the different forensic practices families have developed in Colombia and Argentina in order to identify their loved ones amidst violent conflict since the 1970s. To show how citizen-led forensic practices have challenged, changed, or shaped forensic science in Argentina, Colombia and more widely in the region.

“Forensic science in Latin America has developed as a form of layperson advocacy, mostly led by female relatives of disappeared persons. The work of these women has been described as human rights activism, and their efforts have been erased from the history of science.

“I’m going to shine a light on the continuous and largely invisible work of care that families perform to gather evidence in a violent political system designed to avoid and even repress such activities. Studiously investigating how female relatives of the disappeared go against traditional gender norms by speaking publicly and conducting independent investigations.

“People’s own efforts and knowledge have shaped and even challenged existing forensic science assumptions in the region.”

The study will analyse the archiving of forensic data and biometrics in Latin America. From the development of the ‘Grandpaternity Index’ in Argentina after the military dictatorship - the first genetic technology developed in 1983 to prove relatedness between a grandparent and a grandchild when parents were absent – to the citizen-led forensic strategy known as ‘Operation Cirirí’ in Colombia, showing how relatives have gathered sensitive information in the middle of political conflict and death threats.

Dr Cruz Santiago will visit archives in Colombia and Argentina, and interview relatives of disappeared persons, as well as forensic scientists, civil society organisations and policy makers involved in the identification of disappeared persons. This includes international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross,  the Argentinean Team of Forensic Anthropology (EAAF) and the International Commission on Missing Persons.

Date: 10 August 2021

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