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Battle against the disappearances

Researchers from several fields of expertise work as a group to identify persons who disappeared during the dictatorship by examining human remains from the clandestine grave in the Perus district

Leo Ramos A skeleton being studied against the background of photos of 42 men and women who are being sought from among the remains exhumed in 1990Leo Ramos

Where are our “disappeared?” Reading this question, affixed to a wall and surrounded by photos of 42 men and women who disappeared during Brazil’s military dictatorship, a team of archeologists, medical examiners, dentists, geneticists, and bio-anthropologists are organizing, analyzing and recording human remains in a process that involves everything from science and technology to consideration of the principles of human rights. “The big difference in the work now is that it is the focus of a multidisciplinary team, declares medical examiner Samuel Ferreira, from the National Department of Public Safety (Senasp) of the Ministry of Justice and Citizenship (MJC), scientific coordinator of the Perus Working Group (GTP). The house in the São Paulo city district of Vila Mariana, maintained by the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), serves as headquarters for the GTP, which hopes to identify people whose faces are seen in that tragic mural from the contents of 1,047 boxes that contain bones removed in 1990 from a clandestine grave in the Dom Bosco cemetery, in Perus, a district in the northern part of the city of São Paulo. It is also hoped that the project will help lay the foundation for forensic anthropology in Brazil.

Founded in 1971, the Dom Bosco cemetery was the site of a series of exhumations in 1975. “Those are usually done when there is a need to create additional space, but at the time a substantial part of the cemetery was still empty,” notes archaeologist Márcia Hattori, coordinator of the ante mortem part of the work, emphasizing the suspicious nature of the exhumations. The clandestine grave created at the time was reopened in 1990, largely because of pressure from the families of the “disappeared,” who knew that people whose identity was unknown had been buried there. The bones were then transferred to the University of Campinas (Unicamp) under the responsibility of coroner Badan Palhares. There, during the early years of the investigation, two bodies were identified by a method that superimposed a photograph on a skull, using some standard measurements. However, disputes about funding resulted in suspension of the work and the abandonment ended up burying any analyses that had already been done.

Léo Ramos Stored in 1,047 boxes in climate-controlled rooms…Léo Ramos

“The approach this time is scientific, different from what came before” emphasizes Carla Borges, coordinator of the Right to Memory and Truth, an office in the Municipal Department of Human Rights and Citizenship (SMDHC). According to Borges, sporadic initiatives were begun under different administrations, the only constant being the insistence by the families of the disappeared that their questions be answered. She stresses that the State (not individual officials, such as whoever is the mayor or president then in office) has a responsibility to locate any person who disappeared during those days. “We have never been so close to turning that page,” says Borges, arguing that the effort must continue.

The universe to be searched is broad, but the results for some of the candidates are more likely to be successful. “We have indications that the bodies of Dimas Antônio Casemiro, Francisco José de Oliveira and Grenaldo Jesus da Silva were taken to Perus,” Hattori says.

But the records don’t help. “The names of the streets in the cemetery were changed in the 1970s, the map of the graves is a hand-drawn checkerboard, and when a record was made of an exhumation, it doesn’t indicate where the remains were taken.” Hattori and her team gathered information from a series of sources in order to prepare the list of the people they are looking for. “We looked systematically at the cases of ‘unknown bodies’ for the entire decade of the 1970s in order to map the route of the deceased in the city of São Paulo during the period and understand the policy behind the disappearances.”

Stored in 1,047 boxes in climate-controlled rooms …the bones are washed under the supervision of Ana TauhylStored in 1,047 boxes in climate-controlled rooms

During its research, the team found photographs that had been supplied by the families when the grave at Perus was opened in an attempt to assist identification: these were precious documents, pictures taken long before the digital photography era. “The evidence gathered during investigation of the crimes of concealment made people feel worse about the disappearances,” says Hattori, sadly. She returned copies of the images to the families. The GTP began an effort that is not only forensic but involves consideration of the pain suffered by those who never learned what happened to their loved ones. Performing the work outside the confines of the Office of the São Paulo Medical Examiner (IML), a location formerly associated with the dictatorship, is part of this. That is also why the project has obtained cooperation from the Argentine and Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Teams (the EAAF and Epaf), formed shortly after the end of the dictatorships in those countries. The data that the ante mortem team gathered constitute a catalog of what to look for in analyzing the skeletons: physical characteristics or events that become engraved on the bones, such as fractures or bullet holes. “We are trying to materialize the deceased who disappeared,” she explains.

The project involves an institutional triumvirate: the Special Human Rights Secretariat (SEDH) of the MJC, part of which is the Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances (CEMDP), the SMDHC, and Unifesp. At present its continuity is uncertain because of changes in both the administration of the city of São Paulo and the federal government. At Unifesp, chancellor Soraya Smaili was reconfirmed in her post in November 2016 and has already made statements in favor of having the activities proceed.

At a public hearing on November 28, 2016, Flávia Piovesan, the federal government’s special secretary for human rights, said that the SEDH is committed to ensuring continuity of the work. “I was very impressed by the dedication to an effort that is so necessary,” she declared, after having learned of the GTP’s operations. Permanent contracts for the professionals on the team remains a problem, since they are being paid with SEDH funds under an international cooperation arrangement. The contracts are for one year and it is uncertain what will happen after most of them expire in January 2017. The secretary said she is looking for alternatives that would guarantee the formation of a permanent team, which is essential in order to maintain the standards adopted for the work, as well as funding the official experts who are likely to continue their service on a rotation basis, and the members of Epaf. Some financing has been guaranteed for 2017, but not enough to cover what needs to be done, according to the Unifesp chancellor.

Since 2014, when boxes containing the remains were transferred to the house that has been designated as the Center for Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology (CAAF), the group has resumed the work done initially and already examined 580 of the boxes. “We need at least another year if we are to analyze all of it,” says archaeologist Ana Tauhyl, responsible for opening the boxes and cleaning the bones.

Recent archaeology
The current work involves a much greater adherence to standards than when the bones were removed from the grave by grave diggers who were not concerned about keeping each skeleton separate. Still damp from the ground where they had lain, the bones were put into plastic bags and immediately began to be degraded by mildew. But that wasn’t the worst of it: the bags, with chairs piled on top of them, went through a flood at Unicamp when someone left a faucet running.

LÉO RAMOS The bones are arranged for drying and then examined by Aline Oliveira and Marina GratãoLÉO RAMOS

The procedure being followed now adheres to a protocol developed by the Epaf and validated by the International Red Cross and the project’s Scientific Committee, according to Brazilian and international parameters. Each box is opened by a team member who arranges the bones so that they can be photographed and described by Tauhyl, using a standard reporting form. In addition to the bones, the boxes also hold traces from earlier phases. Blue plastic bags bearing the name of the São Paulo Municipal Funeral Service sometimes look as though they had been crushed, an indication that they were already in the grave. Other times they are in good shape, because they were of a later date. Other bags, of plastic, cloth, or non-woven fabric – date back to the work done at Unicamp, during which metal disks bearing an engraved identification number had been attached to the skulls whenever possible. Many of the bones are still covered with earth. Despite being factual, the photographic record reflects an almost artistic care taken in arranging the bones and packages. All this is being done in the midst of dust and the smell of fresh paint, since the renovation of the GTP house is still incomplete.

After being washed and dried, the skeletons are arranged on tables in what is known as an anatomic position, the bones being lined up as they would be in the body. Measurements taken this way enable development of an estimated biological profile that includes stature, age bracket, sex, and other characteristics that, when compared with ante mortem data on potential candidates, can help identify the remains.

The ideal situation would be for this process to permit narrowing the scope of the search, but the group of politically “disappeared” persons being sought resembles a good part of those buried in the grave that have been analyzed so far: men between the ages of 20 and 40. That is why about 70% of the bones cannot be discarded. In light of the volume of work ahead, a compromise must be made between strict standards and prompt results. “It’s an effort that in itself was seriously delayed, since people have already been waiting for 40 years,” says archaeologist Patricia Fischer, responsible for the laboratory and coordinator of the post mortem work. She also believes that 25% of the boxes contain the remains of more than one person. When extra bones are found, a decision must be made as to which ones don’t fit with the skeleton being examined—based on color, size, or other morphological characteristics. When it is possible to estimate the biological profile, the data are recorded on a card identified as “individual B” and the bones are kept in separate bags. This means that as many as 701 people may be represented in the 580 boxes already opened.

On one afternoon of work in November 2016, bio-anthropologist Mariana Inglez was documenting a series of fractures made near the time of death on the entire left side of a male body: on the head, in various ribs, and on the arm. The researcher shows us a “butterfly” type fracture on the humerus bone of the upper arm, an indication of impact. “He was struck by something very large,” she says, agreeing with the possibility that he was run over by a vehicle, while she holds a skull and draws the fractures on a diagram in front of her. She points to a small irregularity on the left side of the jaw, where it fits into the skull. “Perhaps he suffered pain in that joint,” she suggests, noting this as a possibility to help in the identification.

On the next table, forensic dentist Marcos Paulo Machado, from the IML in Rio de Janeiro, examines the teeth of another skeleton.” This is an unusual case from the grave,” he says, “because it’s a very young woman, who had access to dental care.” He points out amalgam fillings and also the incomplete root of a wisdom tooth, which indicates that she was under the age of 21. Machado is part of the group of experts from several states in Brazil who take turns working on the project to help move it forward.

At another table, Spanish archaeologist Candela Martínez is consulting with colleagues Marina Gratão and Aline Oliveira about two connected vertebrae that exhibit a fracture that occurred near the time of death. The challenge was to describe, without excessive interpretation, fractures that occurred at various times of the individual’s life on the ribs, the vertebra, and on an arm. This latter one healed without medical attention, leaving an irregularity on the bone. “He experienced a lot of violence in his life, attacks at home wouldn’t be enough to explain them,” Martínez says about the male who apparently died when he was 30 to 47 years old, an estimate made based on indications of maturity and the wear exhibited on various parts of the skeleton. He could have been a street person, or someone who did very heavy labor, they conclude. “He certainly had mobility issues,” Marina Gratão observes—yet another characteristic that could help in identifying the remains.

LÉO RAMOS Bones lined up in an anatomic position enable the recording of specific characteristics and the injuries sustainedLÉO RAMOS

Although the GTP is concentrating on victims of the dictatorship, its work could have much bigger consequences. Gratão says that very early in their work, a skeleton of an elderly man was found. His skull was in pieces. When they put together the pieces, they could see how he died: a bullet to the head. There are no elderly people on the mural, but the finding reinforced the need to study all the skeletons. There are also indications that victims of an outbreak of meningitis that occurred between 1972 and 1974 but was hushed up by the government had been buried there—especially children, in that case. “Regardless of whether or not those people were tortured in a prison, they can be considered as victims of State violence—if for no other reason than the authorities’ failure to provide care,” says Patricia Fischer.

The CAAF hopes to establish itself as a research center that could enter into agreements with government agencies or institutions in civil society to investigate cases of violence. The database resulting from GTP efforts may make it possible to search for anyone who disappeared in the 1970s, even if they had no political connections. Another of the center’s projects, begun in 2016 under the coordination of pathologist Rimarcs Gomes Ferreira, from Unifesp, involves a more recent case: the May 2006 murders in the Santos Metropolitan Region that occurred during conflicts between the police and the gang known as the First Command of the Capital (PCC).

One of the first steps taken by the GTP, essential to identification of the “disappeared,” is to use DNA. Medical examiner Ferreira has personally collected blood samples from relatives for comparison with the genetic material to be extracted from the remains. “We will go wherever the family members prefer,” he explains. He has already taken samples from 31 families living in 16 cities in different states. Once the samples from the families and the remains are gathered, they will be sent to a laboratory in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina that specializes in analysis of samples from degraded remains related to human rights violations. “In technical terms, Brazil would be able to do that work, but it is not equipped to do large-scale analyses at the speed that the project requires,” he explains. Extracting DNA from the bones will not be easy, he points out, because of their poor condition. The work is expected to begin before the end of 2016.

LÉO RAMOS Documentation always accompanies material that has already been studied until it is returned to its respective boxLÉO RAMOS

Unifesp intends to take advantage of the opportunity to invest in training students in forensic anthropology, with a technically specialized course planned to start in 2017. In Brazil, professionals must take their own initiative to obtain training in bioanthropology. The connection between human rights and science is a legacy that the GTP plans to leave to Brazil.

“The scientific procedure being followed gives us assurance and encouragement,” says Amparo Araújo, who lost her husband and brother during the dictatorship. Her husband’s body, missing the skull, was found at the cemetery in Perus. She hopes to identify her brother from among the remains at the grave, and to that end has already given blood samples several times, since the Unicamp phase. Given the lack of continuity, however, the first samples were lost. “They never explained what the samples were to be used for, or what was happening,” she recalls, contrasting it with the transparency that is typical of the current proceedings.

Recently, Araújo saw a man on the street, and for a split second thought it was her brother. “But it couldn’t have been, since 45 years have passed and he would now be 70 years old. He would look different from what I remember.” She defines the disappearance as a death without closure. “We are not going to give up on participation by the university,” she says, speaking on behalf of the Monitoring Committee, composed of relatives.