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Forensics involves a multidisciplinary team of scientists, including medical doctors, anthropologists, physicists, and odontologists (scientists specializing in teeth), who carry out precise analysis of an event and evidence related to it. Their work is geared to providing a legal body with elements that serve to support or refute a testimony or document—a letter left behind by a victim, for example. When a scientific discipline is applied to a legal proceeding, it is called a forensic science. A forensic expert is someone who undertakes a scientific investigation that provides information, which is then used in the legal process. When a scientist provides scientific information on a case, the court considers him or her an expert witness. In most cases, this scientific information comes from the analysis of physical evidence, whether biological (a cadaver, skeletal remains, a bloodstain, saliva on an envelope) or nonbiological (projectiles, synthetic fibers, and other objects relevant to an investigation).

Physical evidence can be very important in the legal process. In contrast to witness testimony, it is difficult to manipulate physical evidence to benefit any party to a dispute, since the conclusions must be measurable, and based in a series of demonstrable steps accepted by a scientific community. In other words, scientific methods are important for the resolution of a case because they provide a degree of certainty greater than that of a testimony. A witness can be submitted to pressure, lie, become confused, or forget. Likewise, the certainty provided by physical evidence is greater than that of the content of a document, which can be true or false information. On the other hand, due to the complexity of forensic evidence, the people in the best position to alter evidence are the expert witnesses themselves. For this reason, the integrity of the expert witnesses is very important, as is the independence of the investigation. In an independent investigation, the scientist works free of any pressure to draw a particular conclusion and does not depend on either party to a dispute.

Although many disciplines contribute to legal problems, some are considered "traditional" and constitute the nucleus of what are called the forensic sciences. Historically, medicine was the scientific discipline par excellence in medical-legal investigations. The forensic disciplines used most frequently are forensic pathology, forensic odontology, toxicology, forensic genetics, criminalistics, and forensic psychology. Disciplines relatively new to the legal context include archaeology and anthropology, involved in the recovery and analysis of skeletal remains and associated evidence; forensic taphonomy, or the study of changes in the body following death, and its interactions with the environment, including flora and fauna (entomology), which can indicate how long a person has been buried in a location; and forensic engineering, the analysis of buildings, which can establish the causes of a fire or an explosion.

"Criminalistics," or criminalistic sciences, are dedicated to the analysis of objects, fluids, or documents found in association with a crime scene, such as cadavers, blood, semen, fingerprints, documents, bullets, and firearms. This list can be much longer depending on the circumstances of a case. One could add forensic psychiatry, which plays an important role in determining the mental health of the accused, witnesses, and accusers, or the damage inflicted on the victim of a crime.

Physical evidence is usually studied in order to answer several key questions about a crime. A forensic doctor might study a cadaver to try to establish cause of death of an individual, while a forensic anthropologist would examine the skeletal remains. An odontologist studies dentition, the unique characteristics of an individual's teeth, to identify a body or to gain information from bite marks, for example. A chemist or a biologist might analyze a blood or semen sample to establish a person's genetic profile. This combination of disciplines contributes to a more complete analysis of the available evidence. Together, they can give a prosecutor objective information about identities and about both the cause and manner of a person's death. While the cause of a death might be "gunshot wound to the head," the manner of death, or how the person died, is a separate question. Was it the result of the action of another person (homicide), self-inflicted (suicide), or accidental? Another conclusion regarding manner of death includes "natural causes," for example, an illness. When there is simply not enough information to establish circumstances, the manner of death must be declared "undetermined."

In summary, a forensic investigation is always an interdisciplinary effort, to which specialists from many fields bring methods and techniques approved by their disciplinary communities to solve a legal case.

The Forensic Sciences and Political, Ethnic, or Religious Violence

During the twentieth century legal and political concepts such as genocide, war crimes, human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and violations of international law have become everyday terms for making sense of the use of violence, such as kidnapping, torture, extrajudicial execution, displacement of populations, concentration camps, and famines generated for political reasons.

Frequently, as violent processes come to their conclusions, and sometimes while they are still in progress, victims, affected communities, other parts of society, and/or the international community demand an investigation based on the rights to truth and justice. These investigations usually include a series of objectives:

  1. To know what happened to the victims
  2. To establish responsibilities: Who did what to whom?
  3. To assign responsibilities and to bring those responsible to court
  4. To establish measures, based on knowledge of the truth, to ensure that the events do not recur, and that they are not forgotten, and to make reparations to the people affected, so that society can begin the long process of reconstruction and eventual reconciliation with its recent past

Over the course of the twentieth century the objectives of different movements in search of truth and justice have varied from one country to the next, according to their unique histories, political circumstances, the balance of forces among parties to the conflicts, and the degree of cohesion of each society. Based on the aftermath of World War II, it is possible to elaborate a kind of typology of responses to periods of political violence: special investigative commissions, such as truth commissions, national and international tribunals, and total or partial amnesty laws, among others. In general, these processes have drawn increasingly on the forensic sciences to obtain objective, impartial, and concrete information about events under investigation.


Argentina was governed by a military junta from 1976 until 1983. In 1984 a new, democratically elected president, Raúl Alfonsín, established Argentina's Truth Commission. After nine months of work, the Commission concluded that the country's armed and security forces had "disappeared" approximately nine thousand people—illegally detained them without providing their families with any information regarding their fates.

In 1988, at the request of the families and with the permission of the judge in charge of investigations, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense or EAAF) began work in Sector 134. Sector 134 is a rectangular area 12 by 24 meters situated at the rear of Avellaneda Cemetery, between the main graveyard and a city street. When the military took power in 1976, Sector 134 was placed under police guard. The high walls and a single metal gate concealed it from the eyes of curious passersby.

During the first three years of the military government, when thousands of people disappeared, people living across the back street observed military trucks and police vehicles entering and leaving Sector 134 through the gate, day and night. Isolated and abandoned for several years, it eventually became overgrown with weeds. Although many people suspected it contained the remains of desaparecidos (disappeared persons), Sector 134, like other places across the country, could not be investigated until 1984.

As in most of EAAF's investigations, work on the case followed four basic steps, described in greater detail below. In general, these steps are:

  1. Historical research
  2. Collection of antemortem data
  3. Archaeological recovery of evidence
  4. Laboratory analysis

The exact sequence of these steps can vary depending on each case. The historical research phase in particular tends to be ongoing, as additional sources of information become available. For example, the collection of antemortem data (information about the physical characteristics of individual victims) continues into the present.

Historical Research

The objective of this phase is to collect all information that can shed light on the case. It is compiled from surviving written records and by interviewing witnesses. The answers to an exhaustive set of questions help to develop strategies and hypotheses, which in turn structure the archaeological and analytic approaches to the case.

Despite official secrecy surrounding the repression, routine documents such as cemetery registers and death certificates related to Sector 134 showed that at least 220 people had been buried there during the junta years. Of these, 160 were described as unidentified young people, exhibiting gunshot wounds, whose bodies had been brought to the cemetery by police or military personnel. Most were buried between 1976 and 1978, at the peak of the repression. After 1978 burials continued, though at a slower rate, until 1982.

The repression in Argentina was organized in complex ways. Typically, a disappeared person was kidnapped by the military or security forces and taken to a clandestine detention center. At these centers, or "CDCs," most detainees were severely tortured. After days, weeks, or months, they were released, transferred to a legal prison, or extrajudicially executed. The bodies of persons permanently disappeared were either buried as ningún nombre (NN or anonymous persons) in municipal cemeteries, or were dumped from airplanes into the Argentine Sea. Often, a single prisoner would pass through several of the more than 350 CDCs that existed at the time. This fact makes tracing the painful journey of an individual desaparecido from the place of abduction to his or her grave a formidable problem. Still, through painstaking study of the documentary records and interviews with the few survivors, patterns began to emerge. Each death squad—much like an ordinary criminal organization—develops its own modus operandi. These journeys can be partially reconstructed to help fill in the gaps of information about individuals, and to help EAAF form hypotheses about the connection between particular CDCs and the cemeteries they may have used to dispose of bodies.

EAAF also collects information about members of unions and political, student, and guerrilla organizations, who were the regime's primary targets during those years. When the kidnappers made "sweeps" targeting a particular group, their members were likely to wind up in the same CDCs and, eventually, the same graves. Unfortunately, the same is often true of family members. In 1998 the work of analyzing the historical record was tremendously advanced when EAAF was finally given access to police records that had been previously unavailable to the public.

Collection of Antemortem Data

Historical investigation helps EAAF to decide which families to contact. With the help of presumed victims' relatives, EAAF can collect antemortem data—physical descriptions of the victim while still alive—through interviews with them and with family doctors and dentists. Antemortem data includes variable that can also be observed in the skeletal remains, such as age at death, sex, stature, and laterality (right- or left-handedness), as well as dental information, and any diseases or old injuries, particularly fractures. Today, genealogical information is especially important, since family members may eventually be asked for samples for DNA identification.


EAAF completed excavation of Sector 134 in March 1992, after exploring the entire area (432 square meters). They found a series of nineteen mass graves and eleven single burials. The mass graves were roughly oval-shaped, around 3 meters in diameter, and 2 to 3 meters in depth. The number of skeletons per grave ranged from ten to twenty-eight. Nearly all were buried without clothing. Personal effects were few: EAAF found wedding rings among the hand bones of two individuals and metal crosses associated with two others. EAAF also recovered two coins, one dated 1958 and the other 1976. The ballistic evidence consisted of more than three hundred projectiles, many of which were fragmented or deformed. No cartridge cases were found.

Laboratory Analysis

The exhumation of Sector 134 yielded a total of 324 skeletons—that is, 104 more than were indicated by the cemetery records. Approximately 77.8 percent of the skeletons were males. Most of the females belonged to younger age groups, comprising about one-third of the 21-through 45-year-old group, but only about one-tenth of the individuals over 60. This overall pattern reflects the fact that during the six-year period that Sector 134 was used as a burial ground, "ordinary" unidentified bodies (belonging mainly to elderly male indigents) were buried in the same mass graves as the desaparecidos, who were predominately young and often female.

EAAF found evidence of gunshot wounds to the head and/or chest in 178 (55%) of the skeletons, nearly all of which belonged to individuals who were under 50 years of age at the time of death. In contrast, such wounds were rare in the over-50 age group. Others who showed no signs of gunshot wounds could have also died violently, since it is known that a number of desaparecidos succumbed to the effects of physical torture (usually electrical) to which nearly all were subjected.

The skeletons exhumed from Sector 134 fell into two main groups. The first, smaller contingent consisted of elderly individuals, mostly male, who had died, as far as could be determined, of natural causes. They represented the ordinary NN population. The second, larger, and much younger group, almost one-fourth of whom were female, had died of gunshot wounds.

El Salvador

The El Mozote massacre was the largest killing of civilians reported during El Salvador's twelve-year Civil War (1980–1992). From December 6 to December 16, 1981, the Salvadoran Army conducted what it called Operation Rescue in the northeastern province of Morazán. It had two objectives: first, to force FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) guerrillas from the area and destroy their clandestine radio station, and second, to eliminate FMLN supporters among the civilian population. Spearheading the operation was the elite Atlacatl Battalion, a U.S.–trained and equipped counterinsurgency unit.

Reportedly, after a few encounters with the army, the guerrilla forces left the area. On December 9, as part of a "scorched earth" strategy, the army arrived in the hamlet of El Mozote, killed the villagers, destroyed their houses, burned their fields, and slaughtered their livestock. Over the next few days they repeated the same procedure in five other nearby hamlets. Some of the inhabitants of the outlying villages, alerted by the El Mozote massacre, managed to escape. Each night survivors returned to their villages under the cover of darkness to bury as many victims as possible in common graves where they were found. Of the survivors, most escaped across the Honduran border to United Nations (UN) refugee camps; others joined the FMLN or took refuge in other regions of El Salvador.

The outlying villages remained largely abandoned until 1989, when survivors began to return from Honduras. El Mozote itself remained almost deserted until several years later. The events, known as the Massacre of El Mozote, became the topic of intense debate in both El Salvador and the United States. At the time little information was available to the Salvadoran public regarding the nature of military operations in the countryside. There was no opposition press in the early 1980s, and such information as did exist was controlled by the armed forces. Only one local newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica, reported on Operation Rescue. In a story published on December 9, 1981, shortly after the operation began, the paper noted that, according to military sources, the area was ". . . under strict control of the army to avoid any regrettable or unpleasant act" and that access was denied to journalists and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The FMLN's Radio Venceremos reported the massacre toward the end of December 1981.

The massacre became known to the international community on January 27, 1982, when three journalists from the Washington Post and the New York Times and a photojournalist walked into the area from Honduras. They interviewed survivors and took photographs, all of which were printed in their newspapers.

Reports of the El Mozote incident sparked conflict in the U.S. Congress, where the renewal of military aid to El Salvador was already the subject of controversy. Both the Salvadoran government and the U.S. State Department acknowledged that a military operation had occurred in the area, but insisted that what transpired in El Mozote had been a battle between the Salvadoran Army and the FMLN and no evidence of a "massacre" existed. Reports to the contrary were discounted as FMLN propaganda, and military aid was renewed.

Investigation of the Massacre

The refusal of both governments to support further investigations removed it from public attention in El Salvador and the United States for several years. Human rights groups, however, continued to press for investigation. In 1989, at the request of organizations from Morazán, the Human Rights Legal Office of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Tutela Legal, launched an investigation of the massacre. It found that about eight hundred villagers had been killed and over 40 percent of the victims were children under ten years of age. In October 1990 Tutela Legal helped several survivors of the massacre initiate a lawsuit against the army. To help build their case, Tutela Legal planned to conduct exhumations in El Mozote and requested forensic assistance from EAAF. In 1991 EAAF members made a preliminary trip to El Salvador, but the investigation was blocked by judicial officials who refused to grant permission for exhumations.

In early 1992, shortly after the Salvadoran government and the guerrilla army signed a peace agreement, Tutela Legal again invited EAAF to assist with its investigation. An EAAF member spent three months preparing and conducting a preliminary historical investigation. With the help of survivors, EAAF was able to locate some of the graves, gain an idea of the number of bodies in each, and compile lists of possible victims. EAAF members were named as expert witnesses in the El Mozote case. However, the Supreme Court and the local judge overseeing the case again denied permission for exhumations. Finally, in the fall of 1992, the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador paved the way for exhumations and appointed EAAF as technical consultants.

The forensic team was directed to conduct the excavation of Site 1 in the hamlet of El Mozote. The site consisted of the ruins of a small, one-room adobe building (4.3 x 6.4 meters) called el convento, which had stood next to the village church. Its walls had collapsed inward, leaving a meter-high mound of debris that included its charred roof beams. Removal of this debris revealed, lying on the floor, the commingled skeletons of 141 individuals, 134 of whom were under the age of 12. The adults consisted of six women and one elderly man. Fetal bones were found within the pelvic basin of one of the women. Along with remnants of clothing were dolls, marbles, toy cars, religious medals, crosses, and a few coins.

A total of 245 spent cartridge cases were recovered. Most were found in the southwest corner of the room, indicating that the shooters were most likely standing close to this area. They were submitted to a U.S.–based archaeologist and ballistics expert. All the cartridges, with exception of one, were from 5.56-caliber bullets issued years before by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The ballistics expert determined that they had been fired from U.S.–manufactured M-16 automatic rifles. All of the cartridge cases bore the head stamps of the Lake City Arms Plant, located near Independence, Missouri, a U.S. Army provider. The firing pin impressions and ejection marks also indicated that at least twenty-four individual firearms were represented among the recovered cartridge cases. Various sources claimed that the Atlacatl Batallion was the only Salvadoran Army unit that possessed this type of rifle at the time of the massacre.

From within the building 263 bullet fragments were recovered. Most were concentrated in the northeast side of the room, opposite the corner where the cartridges were found. Most were embedded in the bones of the victims or in close relationship to them. In nine cases, bullets had penetrated the floor directly under gunshot wounds of the skull or thorax, showing that these victims were lying on the floor and the shooter was standing more or less directly over them. Although some of the children may have been shot outside and their bodies later dumped in the building, the recovered ballistic evidence demonstrated that the number of rounds fired was sufficient to account for all deaths.

After exhumation the skeletons were removed to a morgue in San Salvador for more detailed examination. At this stage additional forensic anthropologists, one forensic pathologist, and one forensic radiologist from the United States led the laboratory analysis of the remains. Osteological and dental age determination showed that the children ranged in age from birth to about 12 years, with a mean of 6.8 years. All the victims, including the seven adults, exhibited perimortem trauma typical of high-velocity gunshot wounds, postmortem crushing injuries, and exposure to fire.

The findings from Site 1 were among the principal bases for the UN Truth Commission's conclusion that the Salvadoran Army had committed a massacre in El Mozote and five nearby villages, which resulted in the deaths of at least five hundred persons and probably many more. The report also included the names of high-ranking officers in the armed forces of El Salvador who were responsible for the operation. The Commission's findings prompted the U.S. administration of president Bill Clinton to publicly rectify the U.S. State Department's previous position that the massacre had never occurred. In El Salvador the Atlacatl Battalion was officially disbanded, although many of its members were simply transferred to other army units.

During the 1992 mission the EAAF exhumed only one site in El Mozote, yet many other clandestine graves remained there and in the other five villages. Upon concluding its work in March 1993, the UN Truth Commission strongly urged that investigations be continued into wartime human rights violations, including the El Mozote massacre. However, a few days after the UN report was released, the Salvadoran legislature passed an amnesty law that not only barred prosecution of persons who committed human rights violations during the war, but which was interpreted at the time as preempting any further investigations (including exhumation) at El Mozote or of other similar cases.

Despite the amnesty, relatives of the victims of the El Mozote massacre and other incidents of human rights violations across El Salvador continued to demand further exhumations. Finally, in 2000, in a changed political climate, the judiciary approved the petition to resume exhumations on humanitarian grounds, though it ruled out any prosecution. EAAF committed itself to continuing to exhumations through 2004, in El Mozote and surrounding villages. The renewed project included training for local doctors and dentists from the Medical Legal Institute, so that they might eventually carry out similar work in other civil war cases. As in all of EAAF's investigations, the most immediate priority is to assist families in their long search for the truth about the fates of their loved ones. But in a broader context, the investigation's findings help clarify the historical record of one of the most contested events in Salvadoran history. Moreover, by gaining acceptance in the Salvadoran courts, forensic anthropological evidence may also contribute to strengthening democratic and judicial institutions by providing new tools to uphold the rule of law.

SEE ALSO Archaelogy; Evidence; Investigation; Mass Graves


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Luis Fondebrider
Mercedes Doretti