January 17, 2018
Monday, May 26, 2014

Farewell to the Sherlock Holmes of bones

Dr. Clyde Snow is seen in a 1986 file photo.
Dr. Clyde Snow is seen in a 1986 file photo.
Dr. Clyde Snow is seen in a 1986 file photo.
By Santiago Del Carril
Herald Staff

Dr. Snow founded Argentine EAFF forensic team, whose methods then spread globally

Over the past week, Argentina’s human rights community has been mourning one of the world’s foremost forensic scientists, Dr. Clyde Snow, who was responsible for uncovering some of the darkest secrets of Argentina’s last military dictatorship even though he barely spoke any Spanish.

The Texan native began his career carrying out forensic investigations in criminal cases and plane crashes but it was only after he retired that his focus shifted to investigating mass grave sites to help solve investigations into human rights crimes. Chicha Mariani, founder of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, told the Herald last week how grateful she was to him for his work: “He was such a good man, he dedicated so much of his time to us.”

His interest in Argentina was about justice, and he never sought economic gain from his work in the country.

“He was so generous in taking the time to teach us such a complicated subject,” recalled Luis Fondebrider, one of his students from the EAAF Argentine Forensic team he founded. “He didn’t charge us anything when he came to Argentina and left with nothing. He taught us that scientists have a social responsibility.”

Snow’s successes in human rights went far beyond Argentina. He discovered the remains of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele in Brazil, faced Saddam’s Hussein’s wrath after he testified over Iraqi grave site inspections, searched for Butch Cassidy’s corpse in Bolivia and even testified before congress on John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to name a few of the more high-profile cases.


The story of how Snow became involved in human rights began in Argentina with a phone call in 1984 from a human rights activist named Eric Stover, who then led the Science and Human Rights Programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

At the time, the country was experiencing a delicate situation. President Raul Alfonsín had just come to power to lead a shaky democracy that was still recovering from the military junta that had ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. So when Alfonsín ordered an investigation into the whereabouts of those who had disappeared, activists knew they needed help from abroad. Mariani and Estella Barnes de Carlotto, who now leads the organization, travelled to Washington, DC to ask for help.

Armed with news clippings about paternity test technology in the US, the grandmothers asked Stover if the same thing “could be done for the grandparents of the disappeared,” recalled Mariani. Stover answered: “I have no idea, but I will try to find out.”

Back in Buenos Aires, Mariani convinced Ernesto Sabato, the head of the CONADEP, which was charged with investigating the crimes of the dictatorship, to request that Stover form a forensic team.

“I called Dr. Snow, and I told him the requests I had received and told him I needed his help,” Stover told the Herald. Snow put together a team of eight volunteers that included a paleontologist, an anthropologist, a radiologist and a geneticist.

The team began touring the country and saw that judges who thought they were advancing the cause were destroying evidence through improper exhumations. “You would see bones on plastic sheets and unmarked graves,” said Stover. That’s when the team halted excavations until a proper team could be put together.

They faced numerous challenges. Even though Argentina had a well-developed forensics field, it was difficult to find trained individuals willing to take on the mammoth task.

“Some were too frightened to get involved, while others preferred to turn a blind eye,” Stover said.

So, with the help of funding from the Ford Foundation, Snow and a group of forensic scientists trained a group of medical and archaeology students from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) that would eventually become the world-renowned Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). For five years, Snow would go back and forth between Argentina and the US, spending months in the country teaching the group how to properly exhume bodies.

“The ground is like a beautiful woman,” Snow once famously said, “if you treat her gently she will teach you all her secrets.” In Argentina these secrets involved the thousands of people that were kidnapped, tortured and executed by the military.

Snow long emphasized that the importance of his work involved justice. And it’s clear his experiences in Argentina stuck with him, telling a documentary filmmaker in 2004 that those “I fear most are the people in the three-piece suits who give the orders to make people disappear.”

Despite his emotional attachment to the cause, he also emphasized to his students that no matter how horrific a situation, they always had to remain calm and objective. “If you have to cry, cry at night after working so you can remain objective,” Snow once said, according to Stover.

The EEAF has now worked in more than 50 countries.

“For the first time in the history of human rights investigations we began to use a scientific method to investigate violations,” Snow said at the EEAF’s 20th anniversary celebrations. “Although we started out small, it led to a genuine revolution in how human rights violations are investigated. The idea of using science in the human rights area began here, in Argentina, and it is now used throughout the world.”

Snow had made plans to return to Buenos Aires for the group’s 30th anniversary in July.


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