Semester at Sea: Argentina

Ellen Mitchell/Sun Star Columnist
Nov. 19, 2013

One of the greatest uses of DNA analysis was during Argentina during the dirty war in the 1980s. The dirty war, a dictatorship in Argentina, became a terrifying regime that prosecuted anyone who was involved in politics in any way, good and bad. It targeted younger people such as pregnant women and university students. These people came to be known as “Desaparecidos” or “The Disappeared Ones.” because when the military took them away and tortured them, they made sure that no trace of their whereabouts could be found.

Today, families are still trying to identify unmarked bodies and find the children who were born in captivity and taken to live with military families. When the regime ended, people were desperate to find their missing loved ones. DNA sequencing adapted to this purpose, and science grew in leaps and bounds to identify dead bodies and kidnapped children. One hundred out of the nearly five hundred missing children has been found, to date, and many more bodies have been identified.

On my first day in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was scheduled to go on a field trip with my Forensic Science and Criminal Justice class to see one of the labs that had worked to piece together torn lives after the war. We were walked through a two-story building that housed the toxicology and biological evidence labs.

It was back to back with the college of economics in a few roughed up buildings that was the Buenos Aires University. The lab doesn’t do a lot of work on the Deseparecidos anymore, but just a week before we arrived, another adult was identified as a former child who disappeared.

We poked our heads into the DNA lab and saw three generations of DNA sequencers. The newer they were, the sleeker the design, much like computers that were redesigned every year to look more modern. Each one has done it’s share of work to identify people though. Back then, fifteen bodies went through the autopsy room downstairs every day.  Each was the victim of a crime or suicide, and many cases had DNA involved as evidence. The autopsy room and morgue themselves were cool and had a slight strange odor in the air, something I couldn’t identify.

It looked much like it does in the CSI shows, but the paint on the ceiling was peeling and the place looked like it hadn’t been repaired at all since the eighties.

There was a crumbling skeleton for medical reference in the corner.

The morgue was empty except for one body out on a gurney in the center of the room. It didn’t occur to me for a few seconds that this was a dead body until I saw the bruises on her neck that showed she had hung herself.

It was a girl just barely younger than me. She was short and slight, with thick, wavy, black hair and immaculately painted nails. Her torso was covered with a dirty linen, thrown over her from neck to thigh.

She didn’t look dead, but it wasn’t a beautiful and dignified vision either. Her skin was just dark enough to now show the deathly paleness that usually marks the dead.

She was not a victim of the war, but just like them, she was disappeared. She was just a body now, vanished into this place where her only bed was a rough steel gurney, and her only companions the sober doctors and whirring machines trying to find out who she was.

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