Accepted Paper:

The commodification of human remains: the case of forensic investigations in Guatemala and El Salvador  


Julio Ajin Mutz (University of San Carlos of Guatemala)
Ariana Ninel Pleitez Quiñonez (National Museum of Anthropology in El Salvador)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the notion of commodification in the context of forensic anthropological investigations in Guatemala and El Salvador, through the linking of economic incentives and the "appropriation" and "(de)appropriation" of unidentified bodies by local community members.

Paper long abstract:

In 2011 a forensic anthropological investigation was conducted with indigenous families in Guatemala, who declared themselves relatives of unidentified skeletal remains found in mass graves. Further investigations carried out by the Guatemalan Forensic Team demonstrated the contradiction between families' testimonies and the patterns of injuries sustained by these bodies.

The evidence concluded that the unidentified bodies showed signs of been diseased in circumstances outside the framework of the Guatemalan civil war, such as postmortem examinations in the skull or contemporary clothing contradicting families testimonies. The petition for exhumations were initiated by "family members" in relation to compensation policies, arguably that these remains could have been taken from neighboring cemeteries or 'collected' to obtain economic benefits.

In the case of El Salvador, it was the exhumation of the remains of a woman killed during the war, but no skeletal remains were found, which put the family and justices to doubt about the effort of having carried out the exhumation.

Departing from our work experience with the Guatemalan Forensic Team and other regional teams in El Salvador, this paper aims to analyze and reinterpret these cases through the working notion of commodification addressing human remains as "object value". As such, We seek to link the appropriation of unidentified skeletal remains to economical interests awarded by the (failed) compensation program promoted by the Guatemalan State shedding light into the role of unidentified bodies (and bones) into the social and economic context in which they are found.

Panel P045
Missing persons, unidentified bodies: addressing absences and negotiating identifications