Humanitarian & Human Rights Resource Center Highlights of Funded Projects

The following are highlights from the AAFS HHRRC-funded projects for 2016 through 2018:


2016 Projects


Building Forensic Capacity in Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology to Help in the Identification of Human Remains With the Participation of the Families of the Disappeared Persons at Coahuila, Mexico

Principal Investigator: Michael Chamberlin

The goal of this project is the identification of 530 unknown bodies and an undetermined number of bone fragments (55,000 at this point) in mass and clandestine graves in the state of Coahuila. In collaboration with the state government of Coahuila, local groups of relatives of disappeared persons, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), such as Fray Juan de Larios Human Rights Center, and the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), we have built a public program for exhumation while building forensic capacities at the state level.



Preserving Evidence of the Khmer Rouge Genocide: Analysis and Conservation of the Human Skeletal Remains in Cambodia and the Training of Staff

Principal Investigator: Julie Fleischman, PhD

Krang Ta Chan is one of nearly 20,000 mass grave sites throughout Cambodia resulting from the violence committed during the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979). Krang Ta Chan was the site of a former Khmer Rouge detention and execution center. According to a witness, eight graves were exhumed at the site in 1979, revealing the remains of approximately 10,000 victims. This presentation discussed the research conducted on the human skeletal remains in Cambodia resulting from this violence and the implications of this work.

After a civil war in the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime came to power in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in April 1975 and established the government of Democratic Kampuchea (DK). The DK leadership, led by the infamous Pol Pot, abolished money, education, religion, and private property and nearly all Cambodians were forcibly relocated from cities to collective farms in the countryside. The conditions were severe, and historical estimates state that approximately one-quarter of the Cambodian population of nearly eight million died from mistreatment, overwork, malnutrition, and violence. After the Khmer Rouge regime were overthrown in 1979, thousands of mass graves across the country were discovered and the bodies exhumed.

The application of proper scientific analytical techniques can produce the following important information for each victim: age at death, sex, health conditions affecting the skeleton, and evidence of traumatic injuries before death, around the time of death, and after death. Analyzing and preserving the remains at Krang Ta Chan, although emotionally challenging, helped to determine some of this information, which contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Ms. Fleischman wrote the AAFS HHRRC grant that funded this project and was fortunate to be able to work with the Cambodian team while they conducted their analyses, then preserved the remains from Krang Ta Chan. While much has been written about the history of Khmer Rouge violence, the work undertaken by this research team at Krang Ta Chan is one of the first large-scale efforts to analyze and preserve the millions of human remains that serve as a visceral reminder of this human rights tragedy. However, this work is not without its challenges and controversies, as is common when working with human remains from post-conflict sites around the globe.



Technical Assistance in Establishing a Forensic Laboratory Within the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines Dedicated to the Investigation of Human Rights Violations

Principal Investigator: Joseph Andrew D. Jimenez



Detection of Nerve Agent Exposure in Human Bone Tissue

Principal Investigator: Katie M. Rubin, MS

The ability to reliably and meaningfully conduct toxicological tests on skeletonized human remains would expand the ability of skeletal remains to inform cause of death from primarily physical traumatic causes to chemical causes as well. In humanitarian contexts, and particularly in excavations of mass graves, this may help confirm exposure to chemical weapons. However, at present, toxicological testing is not typically conducted on skeletonized human remains in forensic contexts. This is largely due to an inability to reliably interpret skeletal toxicological results, despite a recent rise in experimentation in this field. In turn, low interpretability of results is related to the current lack of an established model for the uptake of xenobiotics by the human skeleton. This project discussed a hypothetical model of uptake and the research currently being conducted to test the model. It also detailed experimental attempts to optimize the extraction and detection of xenobiotics from fresh human bone. The research centered on organophosphate nerve agents, due both to the chemical properties of the agents, which may make them more likely to incorporate into human bone tissue than other toxins, and to their salience in human rights investigations. The current state of forensic toxicology, bone biology and bone chemistry, nerve agent pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics, methods for isolating nerve agents from biological matrices, and methods for using bone as a toxicological matrix was also discussed.



A Fully Computerized Method of Osteometric Sorting for Pairwise Comparisons in Large Assemblages (Human Remains)

Principal Investigators: Carl N. Stephan, PhD, and John E. Byrd, PhD



Application of Stable Isotope Forensics to the Identification of Unidentified Border Crossers From the Texas-Mexico Border

Principal Investigator: Eric J. Bartelink, PhD

Funding from HHRRC supported stable isotope analyses of unidentified Undocumented Border Crossers (UBCs) from the United States-Mexico border. The project goals were to use geospatial “isoscape” modeling to predict region-of-origin for UBCs who died in Brooks County, TX. These data provide potential information regarding region or country of origin, which can aid with identification and repatriation efforts. Bone-tooth pairs from 30 individuals from south Texas (curated at Texas State University, San Marcos) were sampled for isotope analysis of bone collagen (carbon and nitrogen isotopes), bone bioapatite (carbon and oxygen isotopes), and tooth enamel bioapatite (oxygen and strontium isotopes). The data provided useful information to narrow the region-of-origin for many of these individuals, and isoscape prediction maps were consistent with known region-of-origin for those individuals who have since been positively identified. This project further led to the development of additional baseline data from which to make predictions for future UBC cases.





Strengthening (Training) in the Human Identification Department of the Procuraduria General de Justicia del Estado (PGJE) in Tlaxcala, Mexico

Principal Investigator: Roxana Enriquez Farias, MA

In recent years, the development of forensic anthropology has taken an important turn in its scope. Initially, the main objective was based on the identification of human remains (sexing, estimated age, recognizing skeletal trauma, and, possibly, knowing the biological ancestry). However, in the last two decades, forensic anthropologists around the world have been heavily involved in trials of serious human rights violations in Europe, Africa, South America, and, recently, in Mexico.

Circumstances and contexts of violence in each region are different. In some cases, such as Europe or South America, dictatorial processes have practically “concluded” and have achieved a transitional phase of justice, which has many critical edges regarding what comprises the transition of justice in a country. In contrast, African countries and Mexico are surrounded by waves of multi-causal violence. On the one hand, there is “dictatorial” democracy and low-intensity terrorism, and on the other hand, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, femicide, migration, and enforced disappearance.



This allows us to debate the role of the forensic anthropologist in current contexts of violence, where the process of identification is complicated. Since the manners in which the body is treated or disappeared have also evolved, it is no longer only a decaying body, but bodies that are cremated, dismembered, pulverized, and even submerged in acid—all in the same country.

The Mexican Forensic Anthropology Team is a non-profit civil association that began its work in 2013 in support of the families of persons who have been forcibly or involuntarily disappeared. Initially, the objective of our team was the identification of human remains; however, the Mexican context is extremely complex. Our perspective of work goes beyond forensic medical services and involves directly with families and government institutions to both strengthen the knowledge of cases of disappearance and to promote the strengthening of areas of identification to assist in the search and identification of missing persons, and to make certain the government meets basic scientific requirements to identify human remains.


2017 Projects


Detecting Mass Graves: Broadening the Knowledge Base

Principal Investigator: Jon Sterenberg

The goal of this research is to explore the potential of an unmanned aerial platform to augment the detection of clandestine graves. The research is being undertaken at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) in western Sydney and involves six experimental graves of varying sizes. Two graves were excavated by hand and four were excavated by machine. Three graves were left empty and acted as controls. Three graves (a single shallow burial, a small multiple burial containing three individuals, and a larger mass burial containing six human cadavers) were constructed. Temperature and moisture loggers were placed at strategic locations within the graves prior to them being backfilled. The temperature and moisture data within the graves themselves, together with information from a ground-based weather station, are collected at fortnightly intervals.

Aerial surveys using an unmanned aerial vehicle are being undertaken over the area of the graves. An external expert in spectral analysis continues to undertake Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and spectral surveys analysis data at six monthly intervals. The resulting analysis of this phase of the research will seek to provide data of ground and spectral changes over time.

At the completion of the research period, the three graves containing human cadavers will be fully excavated by students and practitioners in forensic science and police crime scene work. This phase of the research will allow valuable information to be gained on decompositional changes over time, forensic anthropology, and forensic archaeological excavation techniques and recording. In addition, valuable information will be provided concerning the preservation in burial contexts of evidence such as gunshot residues, DNA, clothing, and mobile phone data.

This research is the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere. It is anticipated that the results generated from this research will augment the results from similar work being undertaken in the northern hemisphere and will thus contribute to the development of more efficient and timely methods to detect single, multiple, or mass graves around the globe.




Forensic Investigations in the Northern Region of Guatemala

Principal Investigators: Mario Vasquez and Equipo Forense




Scene Documentation for Human Rights Investigators

Principal Investigators: Tal Simmons and Christoph Koett

A grant to Amnesty International funded two training workshops on scene documentation for human rights investigators, as well as the purchase of basic kits for crime scene documentation. The need for the workshops derived from Amnesty International’s desire to improve the documentation their field investigators and researchers were capable of providing to forensic experts for evaluation, as well as for their own use.


Two-day workshops with training in crime scene note-taking, mapping, and photography were provided to participating human rights researchers and investigators; workshops were facilitated by members of Amnesty International’s Crisis Team. Previous documentation provided by Amnesty investigators to various experts was used as an example and possible improvements were discussed. The first workshop, for the Americas, took place in Mexico City in late August 2017 and was delivered by Dr. Tal Simmons (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Mr. Robert Zinn (Manager, Forensic Services at Oak Ridge Associated Universities). The second workshop, for investigators and researchers in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, took place in London in late October 2017 and was delivered by Dr. Tal Simmons and Ms. Isobel Colclough (University of Central Lancashire).



Strategies for the Identification of the 800 Victims of the Migrant Shipwreck of April 18, 2015

Principal Investigator: Professor Cristina Cattaneo




Operation Identification: Exhuming the Unidentified (Unidentified Migrants Along the United States-Mexico Border)

Principal Investigator: Kate Spradley, PhD

Beginning in 2013, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) began a service-learning project—Operation Identification (OpID)—led and directed by Dr. Kate Spradley. OpID was founded to facilitate the identification and repatriation of unidentified human remains found along or in close proximity to the South Texas border through community outreach, scientific analysis, and collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In Texas, not all migrant deaths are sent to a medical examiner’s office. The Rio Grande Valley of South Texas receives the highest reported number of undocumented migrant deaths in the state each year, and these deaths fall under the jurisdiction of a Justice of the Peace (JP). When any individual dies and the circumstances surrounding the death are unknown, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedures requires a forensic examination, collection of DNA samples, and submission of paperwork to an unidentified and missing persons database. However, due to the high volume of deaths and lack of county resources, most counties were overwhelmed and began to bury the undocumented migrants, most without proper analyses or collection of DNA samples, without documenting the location of the burial, leaving little chance that these individuals will ever be returned to their families. In turn, families are left without knowing what happened to their son, daughter, mother, father, brother, or sister.

The process of identification of migrant remains in Texas, as in every other border state, requires collaboration. FACTS faculty and staff work closely with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, South Texas Center for Human Rights, and Colibrí Center for Human Rights, in addition to foreign consulates, the United States Custom and Border Protection (USCBP) Missing Migrant Project, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS), and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as some of the cases represent individuals under the age of 18 years. Working together with our undergraduate and graduate students, we serve the families of the missing and of law enforcement agencies within Texas that have limited resources to pursue identification efforts. OpID facilitates exhumation, processing, analysis, storage, and identification efforts of migrant deaths from South Texas. Without our efforts, many families would never know the ultimate fate of their loved one.

2018 Projects


Reuniting the Remains of Undocumented Border Crossers With Their Families Through Isotope Analysis (United States-Mexico Border)

Principal Investigator: Saskia Ammer, MSc



Human Identification, Forensic Anthropology, and Archeology Training Workshop in Kampala, Uganda

Principal Investigator: Hugh Tuller, MA

During the past 30 years, Uganda has experienced significant turmoil, loss of life, and instability due to ethnic conflict and civil wars. While the Government of Uganda (GoU) is progressive in its attempt to implement reconciliation and conflict stabilization programs, it lacks the breadth and experience to conduct forensic investigations of the scale and scope necessary to deal with the magnitude of its past conflicts. We propose conducting a forensic science workshop aimed at current Ugandan forensic practitioners (forensic pathologists, mortuary technicians, and police investigator) and government officials and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) engaged in the formation of the nation’s transitional justice process. The focus of the workshop will be to educate participants on best practices of large-scale forensic investigations used in post-conflict contexts with the intent of opening further dialogue for future communication, training, and assistance. This proposal aligns the GoU designs for justice and reconciliation with AAFS HHRRC goals to promote forensic science in humanitarian and human rights contexts.



Toward Establishing the First-Ever Stable Isotope Ratio Baseline in Crete (Greece) for Forensic Identification

Principal Investigator: Elena Kranioti, MD, and colleagues, Universities of Edinburgh and Crete





Aging Unaccompanied Minors: Teeth Estimation Through the “Cut-Off” Approach in Four Samples of Populations From Romania and The Republic Of Moldova

Principal Investigator: Ileana Buzic, Pisa University, Italy



Decomposition and Taphonomy in the Interior of South Africa

Principal Investigator: Desiré Brits, PhD, and colleagues, University of Witwatersrand/Pretoria South Africa

A number of studies of decomposition have been conducted in the interior of southern Africa (Van der Linde and Leipoldt, 1999; Kelly, 2006; Myburgh et al., 2013; Sutherland et al., 2013; Keough et al., 2015; Marais-Werner et al., 2017), although many questions remain. Very little has been done in other regions of Africa, and Postmortem Interval (PMI) estimates and taphonomic changes to the skeleton are hardly considered in criminal investigations in sub-Saharan Africa. With the existence of many large open fields, in which either a criminal chooses to deposit a body or a destitute person seeks refuge, human remains are frequently being discovered in an advanced stage of decomposition. Unfortunately, limited information is available regarding the context in which the remains are discovered, and police reports often only include the date of discovery, the location of the body, and the visual appearance of decomposition upon arrival. The goal of this project is to expand our knowledge on decompositional processes and the manner in which they influence the remains in various environmental settings specific to South Africa. Of particular interest to this study will be effects of burning and hydration on decomposition rates and patterns as well as postmortem scavenging.



Humanitarian Identification of the Victims of the Lurigancho Prison Massacre

Principal Investigator: Franco Mora, BA, Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team