Issue 11.3 | Summer 2013 / Guest edited by Rachel C. Lee

“Genetics is a Study in Faith”: Forensic DNA, Kinship Analysis, and the Ethics of Care in Post-conflict Latin America

Mi nombre no es XX.” Throughout Guatemala, on postcards, calendars, bookmarks, and posters, the dead are speaking. Fifteen years after the signing of the peace accords, and thirty years after the burned earth campaign, where the military slaughtered 200,000 people to stamp out the manufactured threat of a Marxist takeover of the Guatemalan highlands, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) launched a public awareness campaign about the violence of the past. Rendered liminal, between voice and void, Los Desaparecidos make claims on the present: “My name is not XX. Your DNA can identify me.” Linking an ethical claim about personhood—I have a right to a name, even in death—and a practical intervention based in cutting-edge methods in forensic genetics, the FAFG exhorted the public to participate in their growing DNA databank.

In this paper, I trace the development and use of forensic genetics in post-conflict Guatemala and Argentina to elucidate contemporary formations of life and death that fuse scientific legibility with political transition and memorialization. Through a close attention to the material practice of DNA identification in post-conflict settings, I complicate the understanding of these technologies as primarily concerned with knowledge production, truth, and surveillance. Instead, I highlight the affective and sacred dimensions of genetic practice. Although racialization and genetic essentialism remain important features, forensic practices have, at the same time, been imbued with an ethic of care through social movements, solidarity practices, and family-based organizing. I argue that through laboratory practices of purification and a scientific methodology of kinship as praxis, forensic science can be understood to occupy an important ritual role in post-conflict Latin America: the social and political care of the disappeared.

Los Desparecidos and the Birth of Forensic Genetics

In the last half of the twentieth century, Latin America suffered untold levels of violence, as dictatorial leaders and military juntas waged brutal Cold-War counter-insurgency campaigns to eradicate the perceived threat of communism on the continent. Through the years of civil war in Central America and South America and the “dirty wars” of the southern cone, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children went missing; entire families were massacred. Although Cold-War scholarship has predominantly focused on Europe, scholars working in Latin America have brought renewed attention to the intensity of violence, economic dispossession, and destruction of civil society wrought by the counter-insurgency style warfare that engulfed the continent.[1] Cold-War Latin America acted as a global laboratory for military interventions,[2] the cultivation of a culture of terror,[3] and ideological and economic transformation.[4] Widespread use of extra-judicial detention centers, torture, clandestine burial, and clandestine detention marked the violence of this period, inventing an enduring technique of terror and a new category of person: el desaparecido. The disappeared was the collective term mobilized by human rights social movements to characterize those who went missing, but were unacknowledged by local governments as either prisoners or victims of violence. Habeas corpus, the foundation of liberal political formations, became the grounds of human rights resistance to Cold-War ideologies. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo became global symbols for a new human rights resistance based in kinship and maternal love.[5] One of the few avenues available for collective action throughout Latin America during the Cold War and the world, family-based movements have become an iconic feature of post-conflict and post-disaster settings as diverse as New York City after 9/11 and Syria. The image of a desolate mother circling public spaces with images of her missing and dead children remains a powerful fusion of mourning, outrage, and call to action.[6]

Old sciences—forensic anthropology and human genetics—were made new in the crucible of disappearance and state terrorism. Linking objectivity, rigorous methods, and technological determinism with a politics of human dignity and rights, Latin American scientists emerged as world experts in a forensics centered in identifying, burying, and mourning the disappeared.[7] Although analyses of forensic DNA in the scholarly literature have focused on the rise of genetic essentialism in criminal justice,[8] and the dangerous political reductionism of genetics as tool of transitional justice,[9] in what follows I will trace the emergence of genetics in human rights from its emergence in Argentina to its contemporary applications in Guatemala to highlight the particular form this technology took in Latin America. I link together Guatemala and Argentina to highlight the shared history of political violence in Latin America and to emphasize the development of regional networks of scientific and human rights workers that have constructed a particular and unique relationship to forensic sciences. Rather than the usual model of technology transfer, which posits the development of scientific technologies in the Global North and their dissemination through training and capacity building in the Global South, in the case of forensic sciences, Latin America has been, and continues to be, a site of scientific development in its own right.

Forensic genetics occupies a complicated role in relationship to the wider epistemological frame of science as a mode of knowledge production. The power of genetics as a legal (i.e., forensic) tool comes from its association with science and its ideological adherence to Mertonian norms of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism, which form the basis of the field’s claims to objectivity, reliability, and truth.[10] As Jasanoff has shown in the context of forensic DNA in the United States, the production of forensic genetic facts differs in form and content from fact-making in academic science. Forensic genetics acts in the service of the law to establish case-specific truths pertinent to individuals in a contested field, rather than universal truths about biological or physical phenomena. Moreover, legal truths and scientific truths draw on different epistemological frameworks of evaluation.[11] The lack of primary research and the applied focus of forensic science leads to its devaluation in wider scientific circles, causing critics to question the use of the term science in its self-description. At the same time, through popular self-representations by forensic experts and forensic geneticists, this work is glossed as heroic, healing, committed to truth, and epistemologically unassailable.[12]

How did forensic science and forensic DNA in particular come to be understood as an appropriate and just tool, capable of answering to the crime of disappearance in Latin America? Given the internal epistemological debates about forensic DNA’s status as a science, the troubling fusion of race, identity, and surveillance that has emerged from DNA’s widespread use in legal settings,[13] and the genetic essentialism underlying DNA’s narrative of truth, how has a narrative of forensic identification emerged as central to human rights, justice, and healing in Latin America? In this paper, I draw on a moment in the field when a colleague explained that genetics was as much about faith as it was about science. I explore the sacred and affective dimensions of contemporary practice in Guatemala and the historical foundations of forensic genetics in the region in post-dictatorship Argentina. In the first section, I closely examine the contemporary laboratory practices of excavation, identification, and genetic analysis of the disappeared in Guatemala, suggesting a rereading of laboratory work as ritual. By offering a reading of the purification of DNA from contaminants, bone, and tissue as a ritual process akin to religious rituals surrounding mortality and death, I highlight the ritual performance of the sacred throughout the transformation of polluted tissue in mass graves to data configured as capable of rendering an identification and the return of the disappeared person to their grieving family. This analysis, however, raises a further question of how and why family members have come to see the work of scientists as a form of physical and political care of the dead. Turning in the second section to the historical development of forensic DNA in Argentina, where mothers and grandmothers searched, advocated for, and created the first viable human rights application of genetics, I argue that historical configurations matter for the final configuration of a technology. I show the ways in which kinship became embedded in forensic praxis through the use of kinship charts, the structure of DNA databanks, the statistical methodology of identification, and the advocacy practices of scientists and families.

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  1. Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, (Chicago: U Of Chicago P, 2011); Marcia Esparza, Henry R. Huttenbach, and Daniel Feierstein, State Violence and Genocide in Latin America: The Cold War Years, (New York: Routledge, 2009); Gilbert M. Joseph, Daniela Spenser, and Emily S. Rosenberg, In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War, (Durham: Duke UP, 2007). [Return to text]
  2. Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, (Durham: Duke UP, 2004); M. Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, (New York: Oxford UP, 1998); Neil Macmaster, “Torture: From Algiers to Abu Ghraib,” Race & Class, 46.2 (2004): 1–21; Katherine E. McCoy, “Trained to Torture? The Human Rights Effects of Military Training at the School of the Americas,” Latin American Perspectives 32.6 (2005): 47–64. [Return to text]
  3. Juan E. Corradi, Patricia Weiss Fagen, and Manuel Antonio Garretón Merino, Fear at the Edge: State Terror and Resistance in Latin America, (Berkeley: U of California P, 1992); Cecilia Menjívar and Néstor Rodríguez, When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror, (Austin: U of Texas P, 2005); Kees Koonings, Societies of Fear: the Legacy of Civil War, Violence and Terror in Latin America (London, New York: Zed Books, 1999). [Return to text]
  4. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (New York: Picador, 2008). [Return to text]
  5. M.G. Bouvard, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, (Wilmington: SR Books, 1994); M. Mellibovsky, Circle of Love over Death: Testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, (Willimantic: Curbstone, 1997); Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Ni Un Paso Atrás: Madres de Plaza de Mayo, (Txalaparta, 1997). [Return to text]
  6. Cf. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (New York: Verso, 2006); Bonnie Honig, “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception,” Political Theory 37.1 (2009): 5–43. [Return to text]
  7. EAAF, EAAF Annual Report, 2003, available at (EAAF 2003). In Latin America, forensic analysis of the victims of political repression has been generally organized into national teams of forensic anthropologists constituted as NGOs. These professional anthropologists, geneticists, and human rights workers often organized as students during the conflict, seeking tools and methods that would allow them to bring their technical skills to address the immediacy of the ongoing violence. Although both Guatemala and Argentina have state criminological services within the police forces, these groups organized outside of the purview of the state to do the work of investigation, excavation, and identification that the state has not done. Moreover, their work during ongoing genocide and in the intervening years has focused on the importance of scientific documentation as an explicit tool to counteract state discourses of denial of the violence and a cultural politics of oblivion. The science-based human rights groups focused on in this paper are: the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (equipo argentine de anthropologia forense); the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Gautemala (fundacion de antropologia forense de Guatemala); and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo However, this phenomenon is not limited to Argentina and Guatemala, as national scientific NGOs dedicated to this same kind of work exist in Chile, Peru, Columbia, El Salvador, and Mexico. [Return to text]
  8. Jay D. Aronson, Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling, (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2007); Troy Duster, “Explaining Differential Trust of DNA Forensic Technology: Grounded Assessment or Inexplicable Paranoia?” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 34.2 (2006): 293–300; S. Jasanoff, “Just Evidence: The Limits of Science in the Legal Process,” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 34.2 (2006): 328–341. [Return to text]
  9. Sarah E. Wagner, To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing, (Berkeley: U of California P, 2008). [Return to text]
  10. R. Merton, “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science, ed. R. Merton, (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1941): 267–278. [Return to text]
  11. Jasanoff 2006. [Return to text]
  12. Ludmila Da Silva Catela, No Habrá Flores En La Tumba Del Pasado: La Experiencia de Reconstrucción Del Mundo de Los Familiares de Desaparecidos, (Al Margen: Ediciones, 2001); Clea Koff, The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, (New York: Random House, 2005); William Bass and Jon Jefferson, Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales, (New York: Berkley, 2004); William R., Maples, and Michael Browning, Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist, (New York: Broadway, 1995). [Return to text]
  13. M. Lynch and R. McNally, “Forensic DNA Databases: The Co-production of Law and Surveillance Technology,” Handbook of Genetics and Society: Mapping the New Genomics Era, (London: Routledge, 2009). [Return to text]