Catherine Binet

Catherine Binet (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team – EPAF): Before going to university, Catherine interned at EDUCA, a Mexican NGO that promotes community development in the department of Oaxaca. Catherine completed her undergraduate studies in International Development and Hispanic Languages at McGill University, where she graduated with first class honours. At the time of her fellowship, she was studying for a Masters degree in International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. The Human Rights Internet in Ottawa supported Catherine’s fellowship.

El Santa and the Search for Peru’s 15,000 Disappeared

15 Aug

Earlier this month, four clandestine graves were discovered along the Panamerican highway in the Peruvian region of La Libertad. Immediately, the macabre discovery was linked by relatives and community members to the enforced disappearance of nine campesinos from the district of El Santa in 1992; which was later confirmed by the exhumation and forensic investigation realized by the Instituto de Medicina Legal of the Public Ministry.

The nine victims were sequestrated, tortured, executed and disappeared during the government of Alberto Fujimori by the Colina group, a death squad responsible for some of the most emblematic cases of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions in Peru, such as the Cantuta and Barrios Altos cases.

Fujimori’s historic sentence was based on his intellectual authorship of the latter two crimes committed the Colina group, amongst others (but not including the El Santa case). The members of the Colina group were sentenced last year for their participation in this shocking crime. Nevertheless, and despite accurate information provided by certain members of the group during Fujimori’s trial regarding the location and numbers of the victims, their remains had never been uncovered.

To many, and to the members of EPAF, this is a clear demonstration of the lack of priority that has been given to the search and identification of the victims of enforced disappearance in the transitional justice process since the end of the internal armed conflict.

The El Santa case is a good example of the priority that is given to bringing cases to formal courts of justice over the recuperation of remains. While many relatives of the disappeared demand—and most certainly deserve—justice in a judicial sense, many more, I think, are more interested in simply recuperating the remains of their loved ones, and receiving reparation (not only in a monetary sense) for the crimes committed against them, in addition to proper attention from the State.

Learning the truth over what happened can be a form of justice; finally recuperating the remains of a long lost one so a to be able to light a candle by their grave on the day of the anniversary of their death can also be a form of justice.

There is nothing wrong, absolutely nothing wrong, with wanting to ensure that those responsible for the vile crimes that occurred during the internal armed conflict, whoever they were and whatever camp they belonged to, pay for their crimes. The reality, however, is that in many case it is simply impossible to gather sufficient evidence, so long after the events, to prove guilt in a court of law. If permissions to conduct forensic investigations are only granted by the Public Ministry in the context of judicial processes, then, it means that the wide majority of the victims will never be found. It is that simple.

Denying relatives a place to mourn and commemorate their dead, denying them the closure they need after decades of raw suffering by giving them some answers, is as clear a case of injustice as I can think of.


Working with testimonials of relatives over the past few weeks, I feel like I have been absorbing their pain, somehow. I think of how Aniceta, after more than 25 years of having lost her husband, still dreams about him constantly. I think of Juana, who has spent the better part of the last 25 years imagining her husband’s remains being dug up and eaten by dogs, and I can’t help but feel incredibly frustrated. ¿Como habrá sido? (How was it?) and ¿A dónde se lo habrán llevado? (Where could they have taken him?) are interrogations that come up again and again and again. These people need answers, and not 20 years from now. They need them now; they deserved them twenty years ago.

The El Santa case, and the fact that the remains were not found as the result of a state policy for the search and identification of Peru’s more than 15,000 disappeared but rather as the outcome of the personal effort of the victims’ relatives, who never gave up the search, has brought into relief once again the inexistence of a national plan on forensic investigation or of a national office for disappeared, the creation of which was recommended by Truth and Reconciliation Commission nearly ten years ago.

Complicating the issue is a lack of understanding among civil society, victims’ relatives, and the general public about the steps and complexity involved in the search and identification of the disappeared, no doubt stemming from a lack of information, but also probably due at least in part to the glamourized, oversimplified and distorted version of forensic work presented in ever-popular television series like C.S.I.

“We need a National Plan of Exhumation,” stated Rocío Silva Santisteban, the director of the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDDHH) earlier this week, to the consternation of my EPAF co-workers.

As any forensic anthropologist will tell you, here is a huge difference between exhuming and searching for the missing. Exhuming is showing up to any of the more than 4,600 mass graves that were identified during the investigations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and digging up the remains. It is simple.

Searching for the missing is another story entirely. It involves, amongst other things, preliminary investigation to reconstruct each enforced disappearance’s story based on witnesses’ testimonials, the collection of ante-mortem data on each victim to construct the biological profile that would allow their identification, the careful analysis of the remains, etc.

What Peru urgently needs is not a National Plan of Exhumation, but a National Plan for the Search and Identification of the Disappeared. I see it as an important challenge for an organization such as EPAF to general political pressure and awareness among the general public on the urgent need for such a plan, especially given the recent change of government. Many of the relatives have never given up fighting, but they need support. They need the weight of Peruvian society behind them.

Above is a short clip presenting the audio testimonial of Juana Crisante Quispe, a woman from Hualla, Ayacucho. Her husband was disappeared by the military in 1983, and she has never stopped wondering what happened to him. Her testimonial was recorded by EPAF in 2009 along with photography by Jonathan Moller. It is part of a series I have been working on, and which will be posted soon on EPAF’s Desaparecidos, ¿Hasta Cuándo? blog. Comments are welcomed!

Posted By Catherine Binet

Posted Aug 15th, 2011

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