In the Search for Latin America’s Disappeared, Memories and Evidence Entwine

In “Still Life With Bones,” the anthropologist Alexa Hagerty describes how she learned to see the dead with a forensic eye — and to listen to the living.

The anthropologist Alexa Hagerty stands against a bridge in Toulouse, France. A river is behind her, and her hair is windswept. She wears a black coat and gazes directly at the camera.
The anthropologist Alexa Hagerty in Toulouse, France. After hearing testimony from women who had lost loved ones during Guatemala’s civil war, “the expectation was that I would go out into the world and amplify it.” She funneled those stories into her new book.Credit...Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Sitting in a small living room in rural Guatemala, recording the testimony of women whose loved ones disappeared into mass graves during the country’s civil war decades earlier, Alexa Hagerty wondered if she were doing more harm than good.

The retelling made the women’s past traumas vivid and immediate again: gunfire; military raids; a pregnant neighbor who ran for her life — and never made it. One speaker had trouble finishing through her tears. Hagerty knew the stories would help her Ph.D. research on forensics and human rights; it was less clear how giving voice to such painful memories would help the storytellers. Hagerty felt she owed these women more than an academic dissection of their circumstance.

“The people who had entrusted these stories to me didn’t want me to just tell them to three other anthropologists in a convention center,” Hagerty said from her home in France where she works as an affiliate of the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. “The expectation was that I would go out into the world and amplify it.”

Part of Hagerty’s effort to share what she’d learned more widely became “Still Life with Bones,” an absorbing account of her work with forensic teams as they excavate and identify human remains in mass graves in Guatemala and Argentina. The book reflects Hagerty’s effort to do justice to the stories that were placed in her charge by urging a wider understanding of the costs of political violence and the conditions that give rise to it.

“I’d been given a glimpse of something that people around me, my family and my friends in the U.S., weren’t seeing, and that felt disturbing,” Hagerty said, noting the echoes she saw between her research and current political circumstances in various countries. “I was thinking about what seemed to me historical research on authoritarian regimes in Latin America, but the deeper I got into it the more I saw that there was continuity.”

Out Tuesday from Crown, “Still Life with Bones” is multifaceted and elegiac: a memoir of a formative period in Hagerty’s life as a social scientist, a tribute to the people she met along the way, and a warning against the belief that the worst crimes of authoritarianism have been relegated to the past.

Hagerty weaves a bottom-up history of state terror, turning a contemplative eye on the communities and the scientists who are left to pick up the pieces, literally, of violent conflict. Her story’s heroes are the women and men who risk their lives in the search for their friends and family, and the pioneering forensic teams from Guatemala and Argentina with whom Hagerty conducted her research.

Members of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala exhume remains. The group is considered a pioneer in the field of forensic anthropology.Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Hagerty’s admiration for the courage of the forensic anthropologists who shared the art and science of their work with her is clear. It was a group of students — not professionals — training under the eminent anthropologist Clyde Snow who founded the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in 1984. The country had only returned to democracy a year earlier, and there still were no guarantees that the military junta that had tortured, killed and disappeared thousands of people was gone for good.

“They literally walked onto a muddy graveyard and they started digging while police were watching,” Hagerty said of the Argentine team’s early work.

Guatemala and Argentina are now widely viewed as global leaders in forensic anthropology. Both the Argentine team and the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, with whom Hagerty also conducted research, regularly consult with and train teams from around the world, in places as diverse as Mozambique, Canada and Spain.

“It’s a little different everywhere, but it’s a nightmare everywhere,” Fredy Peccerelli, who also trained under Snow and is now executive director of the Guatemalan team, said of the violence that forces families to search for their loved ones’ remains. “But I think we can do something. We can accompany that search and provide the latest science and techniques to maybe get some answers.”

The Argentine and Guatemalan teams emphasize building relationships with the families of the disappeared and recognizing their ownership over efforts to find and identify remains. Hagerty describes whole communities turning up at grave sites while forensics teams carefully dig through the dirt, in contrast to more closed, hierarchical approaches to forensics.

“We always say that in our work we are closer to life than to death,” said Luis Fondebrider, a co-founder and longtime president of the Argentine group who now works as a consultant. “The perseverance of the families, that’s what gives us strength and energy.”

The work of the forensics teams also relies on the fact that authoritarian regimes frequently kept detailed records of their crimes. Hagerty describes ongoing work to digitize the Historical Archives of the National Police in Guatemala. Found in 2005, the files contain some 80 million pages of records, many of them kept in folders labeled “assassinations” and “kidnappings.”

“It was stunning,” Hagerty said, to realize how deliberate the systems behind systemic violence can be. “These vast, complicated plans come with funding and decrees and policies.”

Guatemalan forensic anthropologists exhumed the remains of a teenager, who was killed by the Guatemalan Army decades ago near the village of XecotzCredit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

That “thunderbolt moment” of seeing the archive, Hagerty said, has become a central part of her current work, which is focused on the potential human rights implications of biometric and predictive technologies. She recently wrote in Wired about the risks of using facial recognition technology to identify the dead in Ukraine.

“What would have happened if the Argentine military junta had had facial recognition technology, in Guatemala if they had more sophisticated biometric surveillance?” Hagerty said. “I find that a really disturbing and terrifying thought.”

The crimes of those regimes were horrifying enough. An Amnesty International report estimates that up to 45,000 people were disappeared in Guatemala during its 36 years of civil war. More than 80 percent of the victims of human rights abuses in that time came from Indigenous communities; 93 percent of those abuses have been attributed to the government. In Argentina, as many as 30,000 people were disappeared between 1974 and 1983.

Other countries in the region have similar stories. Where the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s demanded “aparición con vida,” or “reappearance alive,” the refrain of the parents of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s school in Mexico who were abducted and presumed killed in 2014 is “vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos,” or “they were taken alive, we want them back alive.”

Throughout “Still Life with Bones,” Hagerty examines the language that surrounds political violence — its distortion by authoritarian regimes, but also its poetic use for mourning and resistance. For her, the apparent inability to face the truth in slogans cast by the families of the disappeared — their missing, most know, are unlikely to reappear alive — is not denial but a choice charged with purpose, a “type of koan that forces us to not accept, to not be numb.”

Attempting to redress or at least identify past wrongs, however, is painstaking and sometimes fruitless work. Hagerty writes that the team in Guatemala identified some 3,781 people in 30 years, while the Argentine group had recovered around 1,500 sets of remains in the country in 40 years. For all the bodies that are found, many more will remain hidden.

“We have to be clear about expectations,” said Fondebrider. “This isn’t magic. Sometimes you can find people and sometimes you can’t.”

The heroes of Hagerty’s new book are the women and men who risk their lives in the search for their friends and family, and the pioneering forensic teams from Guatemala and Argentina with whom Hagerty conducted her research.Credit...Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

More than simply an exploration of the history and significance of forensics in the struggle for human rights, then, “Still Life with Bones” captures the ethos that drives the search — often tireless and against the odds — for truth. Hagerty is concerned with history, but also with the relationships between grief and perseverance, science and spirituality and, ultimately, with the need for all of these to coexist.

“She has a very philosophical way of thinking,” Fondebrider said of Hagerty, setting her alongside anthropologists like Sarah Wagner, Alan Rosenbluth and Francisco Ferrándiz, whose work points toward the essential meaning of the field to which he’s given his life.

“Still Life with Bones” is in the end a call, in Hagerty’s words, to “work like people have worked before us, with a calculation of success that isn’t very encouraging, without guarantees, in profound uncertainty.”

From the depths of an industrial well that was used as a mass grave during the Argentine dictatorship, Hagerty describes brushing and scraping through dirt in a hazmat suit, taking care over even the smallest fragment of bone, advancing inch by inch: an apparently interminable task. But last month, 130 feet below ground and after 20 years of digging, the Archaeology, Memory and Identity Collective of Tucumán, the small forensics team excavating the site, reached the bottom of the well. All told they recovered the remains of 149 people.

As Hagerty writes in the book’s introduction: Every bone tells a life. Every person lost was a world.