The Argentine Experience
At the start of the 1980s, these countries began to move towards reinstating democracy. With the establishment of democracy came the immediate need to investigate human rights violations of the recent past. In these cases, the role of the judiciary, which was extremely limited or complicit with previous regimes, was questioned and in some cases redefined. It became very clear that improvements to the administration of justice were crucial to reinforce new democracies. However, while these investigations led to the conviction of guilty parties in some countries, in others, various amnesty proclamations allowed those responsible to avoid conviction, even when investigations were and are still are being carried out.
Argentina returned to democracy in December 1983.The newly elected President Dr. Raúl Alfonsín, created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP). The Commission documented around 10,000 people who had been "disappeared" under the previous military regime (1976-1983), though human rights groups put the number higher. The vast majority was abducted, taken to illegal detentions centers, tortured and subsequently killed by security forces during the period between 1976 and 1978.
In Argentina, an abductee was typically taken to a clandestine detention center (CDC) where he or she was subject to interrogation under torture for several weeks or months before being released, held as a legal prisoner, or executed extra-judicially. Some CDCs dumped their victims, bound and sedated, from military aircraft while flying over the Argentine Sea; others buried them as John/Jane Does in municipal cemeteries. In the latter case, shortly after the killings, the bodies were typically deposited in public places, and an "anonymous" call would be made to the local precinct. The police, sometimes accompanied by local judges, would go to the site and recover the bodies. Prior to anonymous burial in local cemeteries, the bodies were often photographed, fingerprinted, and given a perfunctory examination by a police or judiciary forensic doctor, who issued a death certificate, and the registry office would provide a burial certificate. It is unusual to have such thorough official documentation of bodies that were later buried in anonymous graves. These records, currently used in EAAF investigations, have been vital to identifying victims. (For further information, please see Argentina section.) In 1984, before the CONADEP inquiry issued its' report, judges began to order that exhumations be conducted in cemeteries known to contain the remains of disappeared persons. The exhumations were attended by relatives of the disappeared desperate to find out what had happened to their loved ones and hoping to recover their remains. These exhumations were problematic in several ways.
First, official medical doctors in charge of the work had little experience in the exhumation and analysis of skeletal remains; in their daily professional experience they generally worked only with cadavers. Thus, exhumations were carried out by cemetery workers in a completely unscientific manner. In particular, when bulldozers were used, the bones were broken, lost, mixed up, or left inside the graves. As a result, the evidence necessary not only to identify the remains themselves, but also to support legal cases against those responsible for these crimes was destroyed. In addition, some forensic doctors had themselves been complicit, either by omission or commission, with the crimes of the previous regime. In Argentina, as in most Latin American countries, the forensic experts are part of the police and/or the judicial systems. Therefore, during non-democratic periods their independence is severely limited. For all these reasons, it was necessary to find a scientific alternative to these procedures.