Virginia lab IDs Argentine 'dirty war' victims by DNA

Sunday, December 27, 2009
Danielle Reed loads a gel to produce a DNA profile July 1 at Bode Techology in Lorton, Va. The lab is using genetic technology to identify the remains of people killed nearly 30 years ago in Argentina, some of whom were found in mass unmarked graves. (Jacquelyn Martin ~ Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Victoria Avila was 1 when her father went missing, snatched up by agents of Argentina's former military dictatorship in 1977.

Now, Victor Hugo Avila is no longer among the ranks of the disappeared. Thanks to DNA tests conducted at a lab in Lorton, Va., scientists are helping families of the long-lost victims of a defunct junta identify the remains of loved ones -- with 42 matches in 2009 alone.

Advances in DNA testing are making it cheaper and faster to identify victims of South American atrocities, raising hopes among their relatives that in the years ahead science will answer painful questions from Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship.

For Victoria Avila, 33, learning of her father's fate has brought "a strange feeling, a weird kind of happiness, because after all, it's not like he was alive, but at least his remains were with us.

"After 32 years my mother can finally call herself a widow," Avila said at her home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital.

Victor Avila's identification began with bone fragments exhumed in Argentina and ended in the lab of the Bode Technology Group Inc., where samples from some 600 skeletons are being compared with thousands of blood samples supplied by victims' relatives.

Some 12,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing from the junta's "Dirty War" on dissent; human rights activists put the figure at nearly 30,000.

An independent group called the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has led efforts to exhume graves and urged relatives to provide blood samples.

Luis Fondebrider, a forensic anthropologist and president of the group, said he's often asked whether the bones showed signs of torture -- something he says is almost impossible to tell. He says loved ones are given the option of viewing the skeleton in the lab.

There's no hair or skin or feature to remind them of the person they knew, but identifications usually unleash difficult emotions, tears and relief.

Fondebrider recalls one man, who upon learning his father had been identified, asked to see the remains. The man took his guitar to play a song in front of the skeleton with his young son present.

"I think the man, with that song, was trying to link those three generations," Fondebrider said.

About two years ago, the anthropology team began a wide campaign to solicit blood samples, posting ads on TV and banners at soccer stadiums.

Bode, a private facility whose experts have helped identify victims from Bosnia, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks, outbid several labs to work for the Argentina team. Congress provided $1.4 million for the first two years of the campaign, while Argentina is helping cover costs in 2010.

Scientists store the bones in a freezer, helping to preserve the remaining DNA that has been exposed to soil for three decades. To extract DNA, lab workers pulverize bone samples, mix the powder with liquids and use chemical reactions to generate many copies of the DNA.

That provides plenty of genetic material to test, said Ed Huffine, vice president for humanitarian missions at Bode.

Seeking to avoid contamination, scientists wear gloves, coats and face masks and insert their arms under a hood when handling the bones, which contain little DNA.

"There's so much more than what 'CSI' shows on TV," Huffine said. "It's not that simple. It's a multiple-day process and it takes years of practice."

Obtaining DNA from blood samples is less complicated.

Lab workers create a DNA profile for each bone and blood sample. Then a computer compares the profiles with others in a database, seeking matches. The more surviving family members whose DNA profiles are in the database the better for scientists to find a possible match.

If a match is found, experts in Argentina check the identity against the personal and medical histories of the individual for final verification. Besides the 42 IDs this year, about 100 additional identifications are awaiting confirmation.

The anthropology team has exhumed remains from across Argentina and worked with families to gather facts about lost relatives.

Some bodies were buried in hard-to-find mass graves, their skeletons reconstructed from scattered skulls, pelvises and ribs. Others were thrown into the ocean from military planes, and scientists recovered some body parts that washed ashore, according to Mercedes Doretti, founder of the anthropology team.

"A number of people are unretrievable," Doretti said.

The group has collected more than 6,000 blood samples from surviving relatives across South America, Europe and the United States. It hopes to process another 500 bone samples in 2010. The group also is aiming to have the DNA work done in Argentina, at a genetic lab in Cordoba.

In some cases, families declined to provide blood samples, citing religious or political reasons. For others, the past is too painful to reconstruct. The identification means "there's no longer a hope of finding that person alive," Doretti said. "It's a confirmation that person is dead, and that's very difficult to handle."

Authorities are careful to temper expectations and note there's no guarantee they can solve all the disappearances. But when science succeeds, new chapters are added to once-vanished lives.

Avila learned that her father, who was a political activist, was killed 10 days after being abducted. She finds comfort in knowing he didn't suffer long.

Science didn't bring him back, but it has made him real again. Blood samples she and her brother provided in 2008 matched bones exhumed from a mass grave only about 20 blocks from her home.

"It's so nice to be able to say that he's here," she said. "I have him here, and I'd never had anything from him save for the few memories."

The identifications also help in building cases in the Argentine courts against those accused of atrocities. Each identification goes through a formal court procedure for official confirmation.

Argentine author Alicia Partnoy, now an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who was jailed in 1977 for her student activism and later exiled, said identifying the victims offers a measure of triumph over a brutal regime.

"The act of disappearing this person, this human will finish the moment I put the body together with the name," she said. "So that is a way of defeating the aim of the military government -- that was to disappear this person forever from the face of the earth."

Vanessa Hand Orellana reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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