Program Particulars: Laying the Dead

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

(1:40) Argentina's Dirty War

After the death of President Juan Perón in 1974, his wife Isabel assumed the presidency, but failed to quell political instability in the country. This paved the way for a military coup d'état in 1976, when a group of generals seized power. The right-wing government, referring to their rule as the National Reorganization Process, initiated a "dirty war," using force to clamp down on left-wing terrorist groups and other opposition to their rule. Their crackdown on suspected opposition developed into a widespread campaign of persecution, illegal arrests, forced disappearances, torture, and executions, which lasted until the end of the junta's rule in 1983. Although 9,000-12,000 people were documented as having disappeared during the Dirty War, estimates by human-rights groups put the number of total victims, including the many whose bodies were never recovered, close to 30,000.

Facing a mounting economic collapse and a population outraged at the human-rights violations, the government invaded the nearby Falkland Islands in 1982 in an effort to reassert its power and legitimacy. The islands, however, remained territories of the United Kingdom; the UK responded to the invasion with overwhelming military force, forcing Argentina to surrender after two months of fighting. Although the invasion generated popular support at the outset, the defeat by the UK cost the junta its short-lived legitimacy. The junta called popular elections in 1983, during which a new democratic government was elected.

Subsequently, investigations into the actions of the junta, including the Falklands War and the disappearances, were called. In 1985, trials with the aim of prosecuting junta members began. Senior junta members were convicted, but as the trials continued and the wider scale of the military's involvement was revealed, President Raul Alfonsín passed a series of impunity laws to prevent new charges from being laid, in hopes of averting a military coup. The Supreme Court upheld the laws, though the laws were eventually completely overturned in 2005, allowing the prosecutions to resume.

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(02:41–04:58) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale


» Enlarge the image Clyde Snow presents forensic evidence, a slide of the skull of Liliana Pereyra, in the 1985 trial of members of the Argentine junta. Snow's testimony and presentation of physical evidence helped secure the convictions of five of the generals for crimes committed in the 'dirty war' (1976-1983) — the abduction, torture and murder of thousands of Argentine citizens.

Clyde Snow presents forensic evidence, a slide of the skull of Liliana Pereyra, in the 1985 trial of members of the Argentine junta. Snow's testimony and presentation of physical evidence helped secure the convictions of five of the generals for crimes committed in the 'dirty war' (1976-1983) — the abduction, torture and murder of thousands of Argentine citizens.

(04:10) Clyde Snow in Argentina

Born in 1928 in Texas, Clyde Snow is considered one of the most important figures in modern-day forensic anthropology. He has, over the course of his career, been involved in a number of high-profile gravesite discoveries including the identification of the remains of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who performed experiments on concentration-camp inmates.

At the beginning of democratic rule in Argentina in 1984, investigations were being conducted into the disappearances under the junta. During this time, the protest group Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, along with CONADEP, the national committee investigating the disappearances, invited a delegation of American scientists to Argentina to assist in recovering and identifying the bodies of the dead. Among this delegation was Clyde Snow. He worked in Argentina over the course of the following five years, training the founding members of Mercedes Doretti's Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, or EAAF. He also served as a chief witness for the prosecution in the trials of the junta generals that began in 1985 in Argentina.

(4:38) Mother Helped Expose Government's Actions

Mercedes Doretti's mother, journalist Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú, was a member of Argentina's National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), which investigated the fate of disappeared people during the years of the junta's rule. Recording testimonies from survivors and investigating the events of the previous seven years, they issued a detailed report on the junta's repression of the Argentinean people, documented nearly 10,000 known disappearances during the junta's rule, with thousands more still undocumented. The 1984 report ended with a number of recommendations, including requests for judicial review of the report and prosecution of junta officials, which proceeded the following year.

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(09:52–10:22) Music Element

"Sombras" from Ecos De Amor, performed by Hector Ivan Garcia


(10:58) New York Times Article from 1987

Several times during her interview with Mercedes Doretti, Krista cites a 1987 article in The New York Times titled Identifying Argentina's Disappeared. The article reports on the efforts of Clyde Snow in the prosecution of the junta members in the years after their rule, but also includes a brief look at the formation of the EAAF under Snow's supervision:

"At first we were very scared, and this has been a very emotional experience for us all," Patricia Bernardi says. "We knew as soon as we started, we would be marked. The police are always there, and I remember a day when one of them turned to a police doctor at one grave site and said, 'If we had done it right 10 years ago, these people wouldn't be here now.'" "They asked us all the time, 'Why are you doing this? What kind of ideology do you have?'" adds Luis Fondebrider. The four are unlikely forensic sleuths, specializing in scientific evidence that will be admissible in courts of law. In 1983, they were college students in a nation newly released from seven years of military rule — seven long years during which at least 9,000 desaparecidos, or "disappeared ones," were eliminated by Government death squads. Last year, these young men and women — together with two others — established themselves as Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team). Now court-certified experts, they lead the wrenching effort to recover and identify the victims of state-sanctioned terror. Next month, the team — whose work is financed by the Ford Foundation — will enter a walled cemetery in Buenos Aires and begin excavating an area where their research shows they will find the remains of about 200 desaparecidos. On a 1986 test excavation there, and under the watchful eyes of policemen, judges, lawyers and assorted court personnel, the team uncovered 11 skeletons. As their exhumations elsewhere in Argentina have revealed, the anonymous dead were mostly young people slain by a single gunshot wound to the head. Clyde C. Snow, the American forensic anthropologist who trained the six members of this group, calls them "the most experienced team of forensic archeologists in the world."

The article ends with Mercedes Doretti thinking about her work then and her hopes for the future of her career, which Krista asks her about later in the program:

Having done nearly 100 exhumations, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, according to Snow, is a formidable group. "I don't think of them as my assistants anymore," he says. "They're colleagues." He expects the joint project in the old walled cemetery next month to be his final expedition to Argentina, where he has spent half of the last 40 months. His next major undertaking, he hopes, will be a full forensic investigation of an old prison farm in Arkansas, where, he thinks, authorities prior to the 1950's may have done their own "disappearing" of dozens of inmates. His erstwhile assistants, most of them in their mid-20's, likewise plan to move on. "We all have other ambitions," says Mercedes Doretti, "ideas more connected to life." But for now, she and her colleagues recognize a responsibility as scientists to give their country's desaparecidos their names and to tell their stories. "It's too easy to let them become paper people," she says. "We can't let that happen."

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(17:13–19:46) Music Element

"Desaparecidos" from Cantos de Bandoneon, performed by Denis Plante


(17:36) Alicia Partnoy's Reading of Her Poem "Testimonio" ("Testimony")

You can listen to Alicia Partnoy read this poem in Spanish and English, and read along in both languages here.

This microphone with its cable coiling around it, bows to me. I walk up to it, open my eyes open my book open my mouth. That's right, I open my mouth wide and begin my story. They say I speak too softly, that I am practically mumbling, that they can't hear the screams piercing. I open my memory like a rotten cantaloupe. They say I have not managed to forcefully convey the pitiless rage of the cattle prod. They say that in matters such as this nothing must be left open to the imagination or to doubt. I take out the Amnesty report and begin speaking through that ink. I urge: "Read." I, in my turn, coil around my bowing accomplice, this microphone. I urge action as a prescription, information as an infallible antidote and, once every knot is untied, I recite my verses. I resist. I am whole.

(Copyright 1992 by Alicia Partnoy. Reprinted from "Revenge of the Apple - Venganza de la manzana," published by Cleis Press, with permission from Alicia Partnoy. Translated by Richard Schaaf, Regina Kreger and Alicia Partnoy.)

(19:22) Massacre in El Salvador

In 1981, during the Salvadoran Civil War, government soldiers killed hundreds of non-combatant civilians in the village of El Mozote while attempting to combat guerilla forces. The Salvador forces arrived in El Mozote on December 10, 1981, separated the men, women and children, and proceeded to torture and execute the entire village population over the next two days. An initial death toll compiled by peasants from the area put the number of victims at 733. In 1992, EAAF's forensic work uncovered 143 bodies, of which 131 were identified as children.

(19:54) Documentary Mercedes Doretti Co-produced

Following Antigone is a 40-minute documentary that gives an overview of the entire process of Doretti's work, from the preliminary survey of a burial site to the restoration of the remains to the families of the victims.

(21:47) Truth and Reconciliation

In our program Truth and Reconciliation, Krista spoke to two members of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked with confronting and healing the ethnic and racial rifts that existed under apartheid. White theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio reflected in that program on the difficulty of achieving reconciliation:

Some people, especially in the early days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, somehow thought that what was being suggested is that if we all told the truth, we will all be reconciled. You know, simple as that. You do A, you'll have B, which is absolute nonsense. Let me put it to you this way, if I may, that if we want to talk about justice or we want to talk about truth outside of the desire to be reconciled, outside of the desire to build a relationship, outside of the desire to move on, if it's outside of that, then truth and justice can be a very destructive and a very vindictive thing. I think one of the fundamental philosophical roots of the Truth and Reconciliation is an African notion of ubuntu. Ubuntu loosely translated means "humanity." It means to live together. It is a concept that says, "I am through you and you are through me." It's only as we engage in truthful dialogue and in a quest for building a relationship that we can grow as individual people. So to the extent of I am estranged from you, I am less than human. It's a relationship that is required.

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(27:40–28:27) Music Element

"Tacuba: 12/12" from Nuevo, performed by Kronos Quartet


(27:47) Alicia Partnoy's Reading of Her Poem "Sobreviviente" ("Survivor")

You can listen to Alicia Partnoy read this poem in Spanish and English, and read along in both languages here.

I carry my rage like a dead fish, limp and stinking in my arms. I press it against my breast, whisper to it, people on the streets flee from me ... I don't know: is it the smell of death that makes them flee or is it the fear that my body's warmth might bring rage back to life?

(Copyright 1992 by Alicia Partnoy. Reprinted from "Revenge of the Apple - Venganza de la manzana," published by Cleis Press, with permission from Alicia Partnoy. Translated by Richard Schaaf, Regina Kreger and Alicia Partnoy.)

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(28:36–29:44) Music Element

"Mothers of the Disappeared" from The String Quartet Tribute to U2: The Joshua Tree, performed by The Vitamin String Quartet


(31:06) Antigone

Written by the Greek playwright Sophocles in 442 BCE, Antigone tells the story of a young woman whose dead brother, an enemy of the new ruler of the city of Thebes, has been denied a proper burial and left to rot on the battlefield. Antigone defies the king's order and secretly buries her brother herself. She is ultimately captured and buried alive in a cave for her defiance. Yet when the king finds out that the gods have sided with Antigone, he goes to release her, only to find that she has committed suicide.

(34:46) Ciudad Juarez

The Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez has been the site, for over 15 years, of a wave of disappearances and murders of hundreds of people, often young women. No official cause has been determined. As a result, police corruption, drug-related warfare, or possible serial killers or gangs coming from across the border in El Paso, Texas, have all been cited as possible theories explaining the murders.

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(37:31–40:24) Music Element

"Tacuba: 12/12" from Nuevo, performed by Kronos Quartet


(38:11) Reading of Marjorie Agosín's Untitled Poem

You can listen to Alicia Partnoy read this poem in Spanish and English, and read along in both languages here.

How many times do I talk with my dead? And their hands are rough and wrinkled, and I ask them things and their faces are a memory of sorrows, and the night threatens us in its tempestuous fall, but I talk with my dead which perhaps are yours, and I cover them, saturate them with my silent sorrow and with my tear-drenched eyes. I always bid farewell to that body, to those eyes that seem like a river of silence. And this is how I learn to tell them things, to promise them a blossoming, flowery garden, a history, a beginning, a promise, and it is so incredible how I love this dead one, who is not mine, who is not a cadaver either, but a waterfall, a dialogue, a shore to be crossed.

(Copyright 1998 by Marjorie Agosín. Reprinted from "An Absence of Shadows," published by White Pine Press, with permission from Marjorie Agosín. Translated by Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman.)

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(37:31–40:24) Music Element

"Pequeña" from Sera Posible El Sur, performed by Mercedes Sosa


(41:28) Revenge, Forgiveness, and the Rule of Law

In our program Getting Revenge and Forgiveness, Krista spoke to psychologist Michael McCullough about the evolutionary origins of revenge and forgiveness in human behavior. He spoke, as well, on how these instincts manifest themselves in current conflicts. Mercedes Doretti observed that atrocities in places like former Yugoslavia occur when political conditions allow them to. This is echoed by Michael McCullough's thoughts on Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003:

Mr. McCullough: We replaced one of the truly awful dictators… Ms. Tippett: Right. Mr. McCullough: …of the late 20th century when we removed Saddam Hussein. You know the story there. And yet it is also true that when we did that, and particularly when we disbanded the army, we did away with the only structure that was capable of holding a lot of very old tribal and ethnic and sectarian grudges in check. Ms. Tippett: Right. This is a really interesting point you make, that strong governments — and it cuts both directions. Even repressive governments squelch or kind of take on all that revenge function. Right? Mr. McCullough: That's right. Yep. Ms. Tippett: And so that helps me understand why sometimes when you have terrible regimes fall apart, Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein's regime and even in South Africa, some of these rivalries, these kind of primitive rivalries, if you want to call it that, come to the surface. Mr. McCullough: That's right. I like to ask people to look out their windows in their office or their homes and imagine what your life would look like if the police and the National Guard and the fire department and the paramedics stopped working tomorrow, because of a natural disaster. People are hungry. People have needs. And how would you put security into place yourself? What you would do is you would probably find your friends and find your family and you'd circle the wagons.

(47:02) New Genetic Project

EAAF is now participating in the Latin American Initiative for the Identification of the Disappeared (LIID), a research project that collects and catalogues genetic material, including blood and bone samples of disappeared people and surviving family members. The project began in 2007, in partnership between EAAF and similar forensic anthropology organizations in Guatemala and Peru. Television commercials, such as this one featuring Mercedes Doretti's mother, journalist Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú, publicized the LIID project.

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(47:56–49:25) Music Element

"Valseana" from Latin Music for Two Guitars, performed by Sergio Assad


(47:58) Alicia Partnoy'a Reading of Her Poem "Amor de Entrecasa" ("A Homespun Love")

You can listen to Alicia Partnoy read this poem in Spanish and English, and read along in both languages here.

Because this humble and homespun love — just as you see it, simple, unadorned — is what keeps our feet on the ground, is what engenders the fruit of our nonconformity, and throws us a lifeboard amidst the shipwreck. Every so often our love blazes like thousands of stars, gets dressed up to go out and uncorks bottles of effervescence, cases of laughter. You see, every so often, when the moment is right, our love recalls that is it, like we are, a survivor.

(Copyright 1992 by Alicia Partnoy. Reprinted from "Revenge of the Apple - Venganza de la manzana," published by Cleis Press, with permission from Alicia Partnoy. Translated by Richard Schaaf, Regina Kreger and Alicia Partnoy.)

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(48:58–50:30) Music Element

"Mothers of the Disappeared" from The Joshua Tree, performed by U2


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(50:55–52:15) Music Element

"Sombras" from Ecos De Amor, performed by Hector Ivan Garcia


Voices on the Radio

is co-founder and senior researcher of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). She received a MacArthur "genius" grant for her work in 2007.

is an associate professor of Spanish at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a poet, memoirist, and human rights activist.