DNA tech could ID Argentina’s skeletons
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) ” The 600 skeletons are packed into fruit cartons and stacked on shelves in the walk-in closet of a forensic lab, in the dim glow of a single bare light bulb. They are “Skeleton No. 4” or “Skeleton No. 21,” and nothing more.
But a quarter-century after Argentina’s dictatorship and “dirty war” against its own citizens ended, DNA technology raises the possibility of finally learning the identities of these skeletons in the closet, collected from mostly unmarked graves across Argentina.
Funded by U.S. taxpayers, anthropologists have launched an ambitious campaign, drawing on techniques pioneered in Bosnia and at New York’s World Trade Center after 9/11.
On television and radio, celebrities exhort relatives of “the disappeared” to provide blood samples for a nationwide DNA database. A weekday call center advertises its toll-free number on banners at soccer games.
“If you have a family member who was a victim of a forced disappearance … a simple blood sample can help identify them,” says a popular Argentine soccer sportscaster in a TV ad.
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The campaign began in November and is already paying off.
“We’ve received some 2,000 telephone calls,” said Luis Fondebrider of the independent Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which was founded in 1984 to document the missing and has since applied its know-how in more than 40 countries, from El Salvador to Iraq to East Timor. It also led the identification through dental records of Cuban revolutionary Ernest “Che” Guevara’s remains, exhumed in the 1990s.
The nonprofit group hopes soon to recruit a U.S. lab to cross-match the samples with DNA from all 600 skeletons in the closet, many of which have bullet holes in their skulls or signs of torture.
Large-scale DNA sampling has become quicker and cheaper since it was pioneered in Bosnia, according to Mercedes Doretti, a founder of the group and a recipient of a 2007 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
After Bosnia’s war in the early 1990s, the International Commission for Missing Persons developed a system to conduct sophisticated DNA tests on thousands of exhumed bodies. After 9/11, U.S. experts expanded the technology, building software to compare thousands of DNA samples simultaneously from the fragments from the Twin Towers.
But Doretti’s group didn’t have money to use these new technologies until the U.S. Congress gave it a grant last year of nearly $1.5 million.
The Argentine government provides logistical support, arranges free air time for the advertisements, puts public blood banks at the group’s disposal and speeds the importation of equipment through customs.
Adding to the urgency of identifying the dead, Argentina’s new president, Cristina Fernandez, has pushed to speed up trials in hundreds of human rights cases that were blocked by an amnesty for alleged perpetrators. The amnesty was repealed in 2005.
The campaign could also lead to a more accurate death toll from the “dirty war” against leftist opponents by Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship, and bridge the gap between the more than 12,000 officially listed as dead or missing and the 30,000 estimated by human rights groups.
“We hope there might be more people coming forward, especially in the provinces,” to report missing relatives for the first time, said Luis Alen, a government undersecretary for human rights.
In most cases, victims’ remains have never been found, and of those recovered by Doretti’s group, fewer than 300 have been identified.