Founded by Peruvian anthropologists working in the multinational forensic team at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) applies international standards of forensic investigation developed at the tribunal to lead the search for the 15,000 victims of forced disappearance from Peru’s internal armed conflict (1980-2000). Its fieldwork, along with its advocacy on behalf of the victims’ families, has exposed abuses committed during the conflict and helped to pierce the culture of silence that once guaranteed impunity for the perpetrators of those atrocities.

Under the direction of internationally renowned forensics expert José Pablo Baraybar, EPAF has made significant contributions to transitional justice initiatives within Peru that redress past crimes and provide an honest accounting of political violence in all its forms. Its 2001 publication Forensic Science and Human Rights: A Proposal for Effective Forensic Investigations of Human Rights Violations laid out a methodological approach for the use of forensics in the investigation and documentation of human rights violations in Peru and was adopted as a reference document for the creation of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR). After the CVR’s creation, EPAF organized workshops to support the Commission’s efforts to collect ante-mortem data on the thousands of disappeared from the conflict. With the expiration of the CVR’s mandate in 2004, EPAF has continued to collect information on the disappeared through its Memory Project, which preserves the biological and social memory of the disappeared through the testimony of their surviving relatives.

EPAF has also conducted forensic interventions in some of the most emblematic cases of political violence in Peru. In February of 2008, EPAF completed the exhumation and analysis of 94 human remains from the country’s largest mass grave in Putis. The discovery attracted international attention to the systematic massacre of civilian populations during the armed conflict and has raised pressure on the government authorities to open up a full investigation into the crime and others like it. In September of 2008, EPAF presented its analysis of the remains from the La Cantuta Massacre to the tribunal adjudicating the human rights trial of ex-Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori. EPAF’s conclusions substantiated the prosecutions claims that the victims had been executed prior to the incineration of their remains and that state agents most likely carried out the executions. In an historic verdict, the tribunal found Fujimori guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

As recognition of its achievements has spread, EPAF has garnered a reputation as a repository of technical expertise for human rights organizations and legal professionals both in Peru and throughout the world. At the behest of Peru’s National Coordinator of Human Rights and the Office of the Ombudsman, EPAF has organized multiple trainings and workshops to educate human rights activists, attorneys, judges, and government officials on the effective application of forensics in the investigation of human rights crimes. Internationally, EPAF has also responded to appeals by the International Committee for the Red Cross, Freedom House, the American Bar Association, and the Asia Foundation to provide courses on best practices for legal professionals and civil society actors confronting human rights violations in countries as far afield as Venezuela, Chile, the Philippines, Nepal, Thailand and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Photo: Alain Whittman