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Forensic Genetics in Service of Human Rights – PHR and Partners in El Salvador Launch New Course on Kinship and DNA

For Immediate Release

"Forensic Genetics in the Service of Human Rights”

The expert group in forensic science of Physicians for Human Rights (Boston, USA), the Alliance of Forensic Scientists for Human Rights and Humanitarian Investigations (California), and the Association in Search of Disappeared Boys and Girls (Pro Busqueda, El Salvador) inaugurated the International Course "Theoretical and Practical Bases for evaluation of biological kinship in human identification using DNA”. The goal of the course is to strengthen the capacity of organizations of victims, human rights NGOs, and forensic laboratories in Latin America as they learn the scientific truth in uncovering serious cases of human rights violations and demand justice.

The event took place in San Salvador from November 6-8. In addition to the sponsoring organizations, experts in genetics and forensic science attended from organizations in Chile, Colombia, Honduras and El Salvador.

Genetic identification using DNA analysis is the surest method existing today to ascertain a person’s biological kinship. Today, it is possible to extract a DNA sample from blood, hair, bones, saliva, including from samples that are degraded. In many countries, this type of forensic proof has carried significant weight in judicial processes to resolve cases where the only validation of identity is biological. This certainty is possible because the DNA molecule carries all genetic information, transmitted across generations. It is unique for each individual and does not vary, even after death. The combination of molecular markers of an individual conforms to his or her "genetic imprint”.

Pro Busqueda’s Pioneering in Genetics

In 1994, with the discovery of the first missing children in El Salvador, Pro Busqueda faced the need to scientifically validate their kinship. So Father Jon de Cortina, the organization’s founder, sought the support of Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights to conduct the first DNA identification which proved that Juan Carlos Serrano was the biological son of Magdalena Ramos, originally from Chalatenango, but who was raised in the SOS Home of Santa Tecla as an orphan.

Thus, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Jon de Cortina, a long process began, not only in the mobilization of forensic and genetic science, but also in the effort to combat impunity. Initially, the goals seemed utopian, but since July 2006, Pro Busqueda has a database of more than 800 genetic samples of relatives of the missing children which will facilitate the process of investigation, identification, and reunification of the disappeared children during the armed conflict in El Salvador.

The DNA database has become an important tool in the path to reparation for victims of forced disappearance. It also highlights the unfinished obligation of the Salvadoran government in providing reparation for victims, as affirmed in the decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of the Serrano Cruz sisters. In its decision, the Court ordered the Salavadoran government to create a DNA database to aid in the search for children who disappeared during the armed conflict. This has not occurred.

To date, Pro Busqueda has located more than 331 of the 790 children sought by relatives of the missing.

Data on the Missing in Latin America

Between the 1960s and 1990s, numerous Latin American states launched political and ideological battles against local populations, in what later came to be referred to as, "state terrorism”. These campaigns were marked by a "doctrine of national security”, often supported by the United States under authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. These campaigns caused great pain to our people. For example:

ARGENTINA 1976-1983: 30,000 dead and disappeared

GUATEMALA 1961-1996: 200,000 dead and 50,000 disappeared

EL SALVADOR 1975-1991: 75,000 dead, 9,000 disappeared

BRAZIL 1964-1985: 365 disappeared

CHILE 1973-1990: more than 3197 dead and disappeared

PARAGUAY 1959-1989: more than 2,000 disappeared

URUGUAY 1973-1984: more than 200 disappeared

PERU 1980-2000: more than 30,000 victims, including more than 4,000 disappeared

BOLIVIA 1964-1982: 155 disappeared

COLOMBIA 1977-2006: more than 7,000 disappeared

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

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