Why an Argentine team plays key role in Mexico's 43 students case

The involvement of an elite Argentine forensics team in the search for the remains of Mexico's missing teacher's college students is representative of a country that has taken dictatorship-era human rights experience and exported it around the globe.

AP/Eduardo Verdugo
A woman walks in front of images of the 43 rural college students that are believed massacred, strung on the front gate of the Mexican attorney general's office in Mexico City

The disappearance – and likely massacre – of 43 students has sparked social unrest across Mexico. But as protesters take to the streets, federal forces and investigators have scoured sites along a river in Guerrero state, where the students’ bodies are said to have been burned and dumped less than two months ago.

Among those investigators are 12 forensic experts from Argentina. Their presence in Mexico throughout the case – digging up human remains at several clandestine graves and checking them against students’ DNA ­– is representative of the South American nation’s support for human rights issues far beyond its borders.

Argentina suffered a seven-year military dictatorship that ended in 1983. The country was plagued by profound rights violations, including torture, disappearances, and kidnappings. But in the decades that have followed, Argentina has moved to the forefront of advocating for international human rights – ranging from supporting new legal cases that hold dictatorship-era abusers from other countries accountable to identifying bodies in mass graves.

“Argentina has always placed its own fight in an international context,” says Valeria Barbuto, the director of Memoria Abierta, an umbrella group for organizations born out of the repression of the Argentine dictatorship. She notes Argentina's lobbying efforts at international forums, like the United Nations, to establish clearer guidelines on how to confront human rights abuses of the past, and points out that the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague was an Argentine. “They’ve understood that it’s a global effort,” Ms. Barbuto says.

Searching at home and abroad

While five countries in the southern cone of Latin America suffered under military dictatorships over the past 40 years, Argentina has moved more aggressively to deal with human rights abuses. This resulted in the creation of organizations like the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, currently at work in Mexico.

Trained in the 1980s by Clyde Snow, a top US forensic anthropologist, it has been instrumental in identifying the remains in mass graves of about 600 of Argentina's thousands of disappeared.

But the team has taken its expertise across the world. It recently was in El Salvador to investigate a 1932 peasant massacre. It also worked in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to identify the bodies of women who were murdered at the height of violence there in a wave of female-targeted murders.

In Guerrero state now, the Argentines are working as independent experts on behalf of the 43 students’ families.

“They are not only technically capable, but they have a commitment to justice,” says Barbuto. So far they have exhumed some human remains, but none have yet been identified as the missing students.

“It’s going to take a long time,” Luis Fondebrider, the team’s president, told Página|12, a newspaper here. “We don’t know when we’re going to finish.” 

Not just Latin America

Argentina's willingness to confront its recent past has inspired others. The country prosecuted the military leaders responsible for “disappearing” an estimated 30,000 people in the 1970s and '80s, and has searched relentlessly for hundreds of children who were stolen from political prisoners and raised by military families. Since Argentina overturned amnesty laws a decade ago that protected military officials who oversaw its “dirty war” against guerrillas and people associated with leftist ideology, there have been more than 400 convictions. 

“Argentina has had the courage to face its own ghosts,” says Ángela Fernández, part of a large group of Spaniards that is seeking justice in Argentina for crimes allegedly committed by the 1939-75 dictatorship of Francisco Franco against Spanish dissidents, like her father and uncle. “It’s an example for all of the countries that have suffered crimes against humanity,” Ms. Fernández says.

Blocked by a 1977 amnesty law at home, the Spaniards filed suit here in 2010. Last month, María Servini de Cubría, the Argentine judge who has gathered evidence on the cases, issued international arrest warrants for 20 people who were officials under Mr. Franco, accusing them of human rights abuses, including ordering executions, torture, and, in the case of one medic, stealing a baby. Ms. Servini de Cubría invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction, which permits courts to investigate alleged human rights abuses abroad.

When amnesty laws were in place in Argentina, it was a judge in Spain who investigated Argentina’s human rights crimes.

“Like Spain helped Argentina, we propose that the Argentine legal system helps Spain deal with its past,” says Gastón Chillier, a director at the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a prominent human rights organization here. “We have had progress and setbacks, but there is now a social consensus from which we will not recede. The world is conscious of that.”

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