9,000 Missing From 'Dirty War' : Americans Help Identify Nameless Argentine Dead

Times Staff Writer

Brandishing two X-rays, Lowell J. Levine strode through the mustiness and scholarly hush of a laboratory where 10 freshly exhumed skeletons lay on autopsy tables.

"She had root canal work--an excellent job, too," Levine declared. "And look . . . . "

He picked up a skull and pointed to three capped teeth. "This woman was taken while in the midst of orthodontic work," he said. "But, here, she had a terrible abscess, which can only mean she had no access to treatment. Clearly, she is identifiable. Review the documentation for a woman in her 20s who had an excellent dentist, was jailed for some time and had a terrible toothache when they murdered her."

The woman had been shot in the head at close range. Of the 10 anonymous skeletons recovered from "no name" graves and now undergoing examination at the University of Buenos Aires Medical School under the direction of U.S. experts, seven others also exhibit bullet wounds; one of them was shot nine times. In the remaining two cases, death is thought to have resulted from torture.

All are victims of Argentina's so-called dirty war, the savage, lawless military repression of Marxist guerrillas between 1976 and 1980. About 9,000 people--including, the experts say, the woman with the toothache--are still officially listed as missing from that period.

Now, amid a continuing search for victims--and their murderers--American science is lending its weight to Argentina's uncertain and controversial attempt to come to terms with its grisly past.

"Victims are the best witnesses to homicides," said Clyde C. Snow, a forensic anthropologist from Norman, Okla., who heads a four-man team of Americans here to teach local forensic specialists at the invitation of the Argentine government's human rights secretariat.

With Snow and Levine, a dentist who is a forensic consultant with the Nassau County, N.Y., medical examiner's office, are Robert H. Kirschner, a pathologist who is deputy medical examiner for Cook County, Ill., and John J. Fitzpatrick, a radiologist from Cook County Hospital in Chicago. The team is sponsored by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and funded by the Ford Foundation.

"I am learning so much that I divide my own work into 'before Snow' and 'after Snow,' " said Guillermo Daniel Bernan, a forensic specialist from the city of Moron, west of the capital. Eight of the 10 skeletons being used to teach U.S forensic techniques to about 20 Argentine students in a two-week course came from a cemetery in Moron.

9,000 Cases Documented

During the "dirty war," military and police assassination teams regularly caused cemeteries to bury bodies in single or mass graves marked with the legend "N.N."--for "unidentified." Although there are more than 9,000 documented cases of Argentines who disappeared while in custody, some human rights groups contend that the true number of missing is nearer 30,000.

Human rights investigators seeking to identify the missing, or desaparecidos, as they are known here, relate the grave sites to the location of clandestine detention centers and to the testimony of Argentines who survived them.

Thus, it is possible that somewhere in the massive documentation compiled by a government-sponsored commission of inquiry there is testimony of a former prisoner who reported having been jailed with a woman with a toothache. The reverse is also true: Survivors often knew with whom they were jailed, but no one knows what became of their bodies.

"What we are learning here is a strict scientific methodology that is extremely important," said Augusto de la Fuente, a police scientist from Buenos Aires province.

Clues at Each Step

The Argentines are being taught that painstaking analysis begins with exhumation and extends through the physical and X-ray examination of the remains. There are clues for the patient detective at each step along the way.

"At first, they were doing exhumations with bulldozers, or, ironically, using gravediggers who in some cases were the same ones who buried the victims," said Snow. "Now, we are using archeology students and the same careful recovery techniques as with an ancient artifact. All the soft tissue is gone, but sometimes there are telltale bits of hair or clothing."

Found with one skeleton was the copper-jacketed .45-caliber slug that dealt the fatal wound.

"Technically, there is nothing new here, although in the U.S., where we have many more homicides, we don't see this much skeletal work," Kirschner said. "When we get that rare case where someone dies in custody, we take special care with the examination. All of this is chilling--and perverse."

Tortured, Autopsied

Kirschner gestured toward the skeleton of a woman about 40 whose death certificate stated that she had died of pulmonary edema and acute cardiac arrest.

"We think she died under torture. And yet she was autopsied," Kirschner said. "What were they trying to do, find out what went wrong so they could torture better?"

Snow says the goal of the American team is "to aid justice through science." Although the mission is government-sponsored and supported by some human rights groups here, it has drawn fire from the leader of one group of victims' relatives which opposes exhumations and scientific analysis.

"We don't want some American experts to come and identify the dead. What we need is to identify the murderers," said Hebe Bonafini, the leader of a group called Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.

The aftermath of the dirty war is an explosive political issue here. President Raul Alfonsin, widely hailed for his commitment to democracy and human rights during a state visit to the United States this week, brought a civilian government to office in December, 1983, and promised justice.

Military Resists Trials

Since then, the Argentine armed forces have refused to punish their own human rights violators. Three former military presidents and six members of the juntas they headed between 1976 and 1982 go on trial next month for human rights violations. The politically powerful armed forces insist that the trials go no further, while human rights groups demand that punishment be extended to subordinate officers who did the actual killing. A number of them have been accused, but thus far there have been no convictions.

American-aided identification of the most pathetic of the 10 skeletons now under study here is already almost certain. It is that of a woman in her 20s who was kidnaped by state assassins when she was six months pregnant.

"All these years, her parents have wondered about that baby," Snow said. "There were no fetal bones with her skeleton, and her pelvis shows signs that she made a full-term delivery. Somewhere, there is a child . . . . In death, there is a search for life."

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