Disappearance and state responses in Latin America

Professor Cath Collins


Enforced disappearance is a uniquely destructive crime that denies the very essence of personhood, spiriting its direct victims out of the ordinary realms of existence and leaving families and communities of reference in limbo.  A favoured practice of Latin American dictatorial regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, disappearance is unfortunately still widely practised.

Narcostate structures and people traffickers along the Mexican and Central American migrant trail are its newest perpetrators, while the fate of thousands of previous victims, including Argentina’s abducted and missing grandchildren, is still unknown.  Latin America has been a world leader in both disappearance and responses to it: the region gave rise to some of the world’s most renowned forensic human rights practitioners, and to the international Convention against Enforced Disappearance of 2006.

Professor Cath Collins has been working on different aspects of this theme since 2015, drawing on her ongoing engagement in Latin America through the Chile-based Transitional Justice Observatory, which she directs.  The work included participating in drafting the recently adopted UN Guiding Principles for the Search for Disappeared Persons.

The most recent phase of this work, from 2018, is supported by Open Society Foundations.

Current Project

The project ‘Supporting State Responses to Enforced Disappearance in Latin America’ explores how a range of Latin American states have confronted past disappearance with a range of state and nonstate legal, forensic, social, and political responses. Experiences on the ground are examined to assist states in the process of designing national mechanisms to improve the search for, identification of, and restitution of identity to, victims of enforced disappearance.

Past Projects

2017 ‘Enforced Disappearance in Latin America: Search and Identification Challenges’

This scoping study, supported by Ulster University’s Research Challenge Fund, analyzed the mix of informational, technical and credibility challenges in Chile, Paraguay, Peru and other places where enforced disappearance in contexts of political violence has produced forensic work to locate and identify human remains.

2017 ‘Caring for the Missing: Respuestas Humanitarias, Jurídicas y Forenses a la Desaparición de Personas’

This scholar-practitioner collaboration, with Ariel Dulitzky (then a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearance) and the forensic geneticist Dr. Cristian Orrego, held a series of stakeholder and policymaker seminars in Chile and Peru, to stimulate national attention to state’s search obligations and conversation between relatives’ associations and forensic/ legal experts.  Supported by the Latin American Studies Association-Ford Foundation’s Otros Saberes project

2016-17 ‘National Roundtable on Exhumation and Identification of the Disappeared’

This British Council-Newton Picarte Project was jointly organised by TJI at Ulster and the Chilean state forensic service (Servicio Médico Legal).  Bilateral training exchanges around forensic and socio-political aspects of the search for the disappeared in Latin America and in Northern Ireland led to the setting up of an in-service coordination roundtable in Chile, which still meets.

2015 ‘Policing, Forensic and Judicial Aspects of the Search for the Disappeared’

This exploratory exchange project, under the British Academy International Mobility Scheme, studied the role of forensic and police personnel in the identification and restitution of disappeared persons.

Publications

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