Exhumation may be defined as the legally sanctioned excavation and recovery of the remains of lawfully buried or – occasionally – cremated individuals, as distinct from forensic excavations of clandestinely buried remains conducted as part of a criminal investigation and from unlawful disinterment of human remains, commonly referred to as bodysnatching. The aim of this article is to review the role of exhumation – so defined – in the activities of CEMEL, the Medico-Legal Centre of the Ribeirão Preto Medical School-University of São Paulo, in international, regional and local collaborations. Exhumations form part of routine forensic anthropology casework; scientific research in physical and forensic anthropology; and forensic casework conducted in collaboration with the Brazilian Federal Police; and are carried out as part of humanitarian investigations into deaths associated with the civil–military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985. This article aims to offer a non-technical summary – with reference to international comparative information – of the role of exhumation in investigative and scientific work and to discuss developments in their historical and political context.
The subject of forensic specialist‘s work with human remains in the aftermath of conflict has remained largely unexplored within the existing literature. Drawing upon anthropological fieldwork conducted from 2009–10 in three mortuary facilities overseen by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), this article analyses observations of and interviews with ICMP forensic specialists as a means of gaining insight into their experiences with the remains of people who went missing during the 1992–95 war in BiH. The article specifically focuses on how forensic specialists construct and maintain their professional identities within an emotionally charged situation. Through analysing forensic specialists encounters with human remains, it is argued that maintaining a professional identity requires ICMP forensic specialists to navigate between emotional attachment and engagement according to each situation.
In this article we explore the relational materiality of fragments of human cadavers used to produce DNA profiles of the unidentified dead at a forensic genetics police laboratory in Rio de Janeiro. Our point of departure is an apparently simple problem: how to discard already tested materials in order to open up physical space for incoming tissue samples. However, during our study we found that transforming human tissues and bone fragments into disposable trash requires a tremendous institutional investment of energy, involving negotiations with public health authorities, criminal courts and public burial grounds. The dilemma confronted by the forensic genetic lab suggests not only how some fragments are endowed with more personhood than others, but also how the very distinction between human remains and trash depends on a patchwork of multiple logics that does not necessarily perform according to well-established or predictable scripts.
As a result of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic, in 2020 forensic institutions in Mexico began using extreme measures in the treatment of bodies of confirmed or suspected cases, due to possible infection. A series of national protocols on how to deal with the virus were announced, yet forensic personnel have struggled to apply these, demonstrating the country’s forensics crisis. This article aims to reflect on two points: (1) the impact that COVID-19 protocols have had on how bodies confirmed as or suspected of being infected with the virus are handled in the forensic medical system; and (2) the particular treatment in cases where the body of the victim is unidentified, and the different effects the pandemic has had in terms of the relationship between the institutional environment and the family members of those who have died as a result of infection, or suspected infection, from COVID-19.
This article presents an account of the involvement of forensic anthropology in the investigation of human rights abuses in the modern era, and the difficulties it faces with respect to lack of adequate funding, volatile settings, the presence of unexploded ordnance, corruption in governmental agencies and a lack of good will, absence of support for NGOs and the curtailment of formal judicial proceedings to effect transitional justice. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Spain, Mexico and the Northern Triangle are provided as regional examples of the problems encountered when attempting to conduct forensic anthropological investigations to locate mass graves, retrieve victims and obtain proper identifications. Interventions by various organisations are highlighted to illustrate their assistance to forensic and non-forensic individuals through technical support, training and mentoring in the areas of crime-scene management and identification techniques. Interventions in mass-grave processing when state agencies have failed, the importance of DNA banks and information from family members and witnesses are also presented.
In the mid-1990s, the crime scene toolkit was revolutionised by the introduction of DNA-based analyses such as the polymerase chain reaction, low copy number DNA analysis, short-tandem repeat typing, pulse-field gel electrophoresis and variable number tandem repeat. Since then, methodological advances in other disciplines, especially molecular microbial ecology, can now be adapted for cutting-edge applications in forensic contexts. Despite several studies and discussions, there is, however, currently very little evidence of these techniques adoption at the contemporary crime scene. Consequently, this article discusses some of the popular omics and their current and potential exploitations in the forensic ecogenomics of body decomposition in a crime scene. Thus, together with published supportive findings and discourse, knowledge gaps are identified. These then justify the need for more comprehensive, directed, concerted and global research towards state-of-the-art microecophysiology method application and/or adaptation for subsequent successful exploitations in this additional context of microbial forensics.
Truth commissions are widely recognised tools used in negotiation following political repression. Their work may be underpinned by formal scientific investigation of human remains. This paper presents an analysis of the role of forensic investigations in the transition to democracy following the Brazilian military governments of 1964–85. It considers practices during the dictatorship and in the period following, making reference to analyses of truth commission work in jurisdictions other than Brazil, including those in which the investigation of clandestine burials has taken place. Attempts to conceal the fate of victims during the dictatorship, and the attempts of democratic governments to investigate them are described. Despite various initiatives since the end of the military government, many victims remain unidentified. In Brazil, as elsewhere, forensic investigations are susceptible to political and social influences, leading to a situation in which relatives struggle to obtain meaningful restitution and have little trust in the transitional justice process.
This article will describe the contemporary scientific techniques used to excavate and identify the dead bodies of disappeared detainees from the Uruguayan dictatorship. It will highlight the developments that have led to increased success by forensic anthropologists and archaeologists in uncovering human remains, as well as their effects, both social and political, on promoting the right to the truth and mechanisms of transitional justice.
International interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that ultimately brought the war to a standstill, emphasised recovering and identifying the missing as chief among the goals of post-war repair and reconstruction, aiming to unite a heavily divided country. Still, local actors keep,showing that unity is far from achieved and it is not a goal for all those involved. This paper examines the various actors that have taken up the task of locating and identifying the missing in order to examine their incentives as well as any competing agendas for participating in the process. These efforts cannot be understood without examining their impact both at the time and now, and we look at the biopolitics of the process and utilisation of the dead within. Due to the vastness and complexity of this process, instead of a conclusion, additional questions will be opened required for the process to keep moving forward.
The article will present the findings of ethnographic research into the Colombian and Mexican forensic systems, introducing the first citizen-led exhumation project made possible through the cooperation of scholars, forensic specialists and interested citizens in Mexico. The coupling evolution and mutual re-constitution of forensic science will be explored, including new forms of citizenship and nation building projects – all approached as lived experience – in two of Latin America‘s most complex contexts: organised crime and mass death.