The science behind the search for Latin America's disappeared

No one knows for sure how many people disappeared in Colombia’s decades-long civil war, which now appears to be at an end, but estimates range from 22,000 to 100,000.

Those numbers present a challenge and an opportunity to forensic scientists, whose field has advanced rapidly amid a steady, grim uptick in business that started with the Balkan wars of the 1990s and continues with ongoing spasms of violence in central Africa and Central and South America. 

As they sift through and test human remains from mass graves in an effort at identification, in the balance hangs whatever peace of mind Colombia's bereaved families can get — families who themselves sometimes become expert in forensic techniques as government investigations fall short.

In my project, I aim to explore:

  • advances in the field, especially the geophysical methods used to find graves, that have resulted from and are helping to further these mass-grave investigations

  • the hands-on mastery of forensic techniques in populations that often have not finished high school

  • how the constant fear and suffering generated by mass disappearances — a technique of torture and a tool of repression — help perpetuate a narco society, in which many official institutions are “captured” by the illegal drugs trade

I also hope to compare Colombia's experience with that of Mexico, where disappearances have spiraled over the past decade due to human trafficking and as fallout since security forces started going after drug barons.

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