Latin American Forensic Anthropology Association (ALAF)
Origins of ALAF and Founding Members
In February 2003, EAAF organized a meeting of Latin American anthropologists working in the forensic field, most from NGOs, including EAAF, the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF), the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), the Center of Forensic Analysis and Applied Sciences (CAFCA), and the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office of Guatemala (ODHA). Thanks to the generosity of Cat and Henry Butcher, Austin College, all of Sherman, Texas and the Open Society Institute’s institutional grant to EAAF, the group met for five days, founded ALAF, and developed the objectives and principals of the association. Dr. Clyde Snow, who has assisted in launching and training most of the Latin American teams, chaired the meeting.
A nonprofit association, ALAF’s main objectives are to promote the use of forensic anthropology and archaeology in judicial investigations in Latin America and collaborate with judicial branches on the improvement of criminal procedures and investigations, to establish ethical and professional criteria for the practice of forensic anthropology, to ensure the quality and scientific independence of the practice, to support the application of forensic standards to the Latin American context, to promote further training for forensic anthropologists and archaeologists in Latin America and abroad, to create an independent accreditation board that will certify qualified practitioners, to promote mechanisms to provide families of the deceased access to forensic investigations (in accordance with international conventions protocols and recommendations), and to protect ALAF members and their families, considering the risks that accompany work in forensic anthropology in some Latin American countries.
Forensic Anthropology in Latin America
The type of cases faced by forensic investigators in Latin America - mostly, investigating state crimes - has led to differences in the origin and current development of forensic anthropology in the region. Differences between countries also exist at the level of scientific development in the forensic field, and in the amount of political space for human rights investigations. These factors affect whether governmental entities or non-governmental organizations conduct the work.
In Argentina and Guatemala, for example, forensic anthropology arose as a non-governmental initiative. After an initial intervention, the Medical Legal Institutes left the investigation of past political crimes to non-governmental teams. In addition, in Argentina and Guatemala, increasingly, current cases of common criminality involving human skeletal remains have been left to forensic NGOs (such as EAAF, FAFG and CAFCA). These independent forensic teams were central to the creation of ALAF as a non-profit association.
Members can be from governmental or non-governmental institutions, yet to avoid any conflict of interest, the association does not accept any state institutions as sponsors. Sponsor organizations are not required to contribute financially to ALAF, but must support ALAF’s principles and objectives. Still, ALAF recognizes that dialogue and collaboration between government and NGO experts and entities are essential to accomplishing many of the association’s objectives.
For forensic anthropologists who apply their investigations to human rights cases, an interdisciplinary approach is fundamental. The approach is visible in the everyday work of the Latin American Forensic Anthropology teams and at annual conferences, where presentations discuss geophysics, genetics, entomology, pathology and odontology. Furthermore, preliminary investigations require the involvement of the police, the judiciary, the military, human rights NGOs, and various other institutions.
The importance of the contribution of all these disciplines to the work of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists encouraged ALAF to promote an inter-disciplinary membership comprised of not only active forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, but also members from other forensic disciplines, including genetics, criminalistics, pathology, odontology, and many other related fields.
Standardization and Accreditation
Latin America needs more academic training opportunities in forensic anthropology. Currently, there are university-based masters programs in Peru (Pontificia Universidad Catolica) and Colombia (La Universidad Nacional). The most developed programs for academic study in forensic anthropology are in the US and Europe.
However, despite the lack of academic opportunities, Latin American forensic anthropologists often have much more practical professional experience in the field and the laboratory. Thus there is an imbalance between the academic training available and the professional experience of anthropologists, which needs to be addressed.
Formal training and accreditation for forensic anthropologists in Latin America are a theme of ALAF conferences. ALAF plans to establish standard professional requirements for forensic anthropologists before creating an accreditation board, which will implement these requirements.
In Latin America most practitioners hold a 4 to 6 year degree in Anthropology (licenciatura), a lower degree than the PhD required by the US accreditation board. However, many practitioners in Latin America investigate a large number of cases a year and have many years of experience. Thus, initially the accreditation board may reduce the academic requirement to existing degree opportunities (licenciatura) and require more years of experience than the US model.
ALAF aims to promote exchange among colleagues in order to strengthen their investigations, to offer the opportunity to gain experience writing and presenting investigations, and to promote research. ALAF can improve access to training for Latin American forensic anthropologists in many ways. The annual Congress includes advanced one-day workshops with known experts in forensic anthropology and related disciplines as a way to introduce experts and ideas first-hand to members and participants. ALAF has also worked to forge agreements with centers of academic excellence in forensic anthropology. In the training field, and with the assistance of Dr. Steve Symes and Dr. Denis Dirkmaart, ALAF forged an agreement with the Institute of Applied Forensic Sciences at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania to enable five ALAF members each year to seek advanced non-degree coursework in forensic anthropology without paying tuition. The association is also reaching out to institutions and universities in Europe and the United States, such as FASE and the Tenerife Institute, and other US universities. Additionally, ALAF labors to promote the creation and strengthening of academic programs for forensic anthropology in Latin America.
Since its founding, ALAF has hosted regular congresses for members. These congresses offer a venue where members can present research and discuss their investigations. This exchange encourages collaboration among colleagues and offers members an opportunity to gain experience writing and presenting investigations, as well as to learn about advances in related fields and areas of research.
2004 Congress: Antigua, Guatemala
The Board of ALAF, together with FAFG, CAFCA, and ODHA, organized its second meeting in Antigua, Guatemala in July 2004. More than 110 forensic scientists attended and participants presented 39 papers on various aspects of forensic anthropology and archaeology. There were several special session and presentations, some of which discussed DNA analysis for the identification of victims, bone trauma (led by Dr. Steve Symes), the stress of exhumations on forensic personnel, the ICRC’s “The Missing” project, photo exhibits by the ICRC and the FAFG, as well as the screening of four documentaries on forensic work conducted in Latin America.
ALAF held a Members General Assembly, where the Board provided a narrative and financial report of the activities of 2004.
2005 Congress: Bogotá, Colombia
2005 Congress: Bogotá, Colombia ALAF members gathered for the third annual meeting in Bogotá, Colombia in September 2005. More than 170 forensic scientists, academics, anthropology and archaeology students, psychologists, local human rights activists, prosecutors and lawyers, representatives from the ICRC and from the European Association of Forensic Anthropology (FASE), attended the five-day conference. Participants presented fifty-eight papers and two posters. In these presentations, speakers discussed the role of forensic sciences in the documentation of human rights and humanitarian law violations, both historically and in recent case examples. Many focused on the relationship between governmental and non-governmental forensic teams and experts, access to training, opportunities in higher education, and improved processes of accreditation for Latin American forensic anthropologists and archaeologists. Dr. Douglas Ubelaker from the Smithsonian Institute gave a day-long workshop, “Updating Forensic Anthropology Standards”, and members also proposed the development of an annual journal and other ALAF publications.
2008 Congress: Lima, Peru
Participants assembled for the fourth ALAF Congress on March 31st in Lima, Peru. The discussions of increasingly specialized scientific investigatory tools and methods revealed how the discipline occupies a more and more significant place in the academic world and in Latin American society. The social and political obstacles faced by practitioners in certain countries were addressed, including the need for more community participation in Colombia and Peru to supplement investigations, the threats made toward members of the FAFG in Guatemala, and the Ecuadorian/Colombian conflict. Ute Hofmeister also presented on the ICRC’s efforts to create a database for collecting and comparing information from forensic investigations.
2009 Congress: Buenos Aires, Argentina
ALAF members at the 5th congress exchanged information on their methodologies of investigation, focusing particularly on the relationship between genetics, anthropology and historical research in the search for victims of disappearance. The presentations highlighted the importance of a multidisciplinary approach, even as technology improves and becomes more complex. A tribute was organized for Dr. Clyde Snow, who trained anthropology teams in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala, and Peru, and has been instrumental in the development of forensic anthropology in Latin America. Members also took time to reflect on the development of the field in their own contexts. Special workshops were on “Forensic Genetics, Applied to Anthropology” given by geneticists Dr. Carlos Vullo and Dr. Mishel Stephenson. a discussion of bone trauma in the interest of forensics led by Dr. Jose Pablo Baraybar, and a discussion on minimum requirements for psychosocial accompaniment during investigations and exhumations, led by experts from Guatemala and Peru, The congress concluded with a guided tour of ESMA, the former Naval Mechanic’s School in Buenos Aires, and one of the largest clandestine detention center active during the last military dictatorship in Argentina.
How to become a member:
Visit www.alafforense.org and click “Quiero ser miembro.” Fill out form online and submit by email with curriculum vitae.
Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org (in spanish)
Claudia River, criverafer[at]gmail.com
Raquel Doradea, doradealorenzana[at]yahoo.com
Lourdes Penados, email@example.com
Jose Pablo Baraybar, barayabr[at]epafperu.org
Carmen Rosa Cardoza, cardoza[at]epafperu.org
Juan Carlos Tello, Tello[at]epafperu.org
Luis Fondebrider, fondebrider[at]yahoo.com
Sofia Egaña, sofiaegana[at]yahoo.com
Helka Quevedo, helkaq[at]yahoo.com.ar
Mercedes Doretti, mimidoretti[at]yahoo.com
Aldo Bolaños, aldofernando[at]yahoo.com
Alicia Lusiardo, nibya[at]ufl.edu
ALAF sponsors: Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG); Human Rights Office if the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG); Center of Forensic Analysis and Applied Sciences (CAFCA); Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF); and Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF).