Theses Doctoral

Vernacular Forensics: Searching for the Disappeared, Bureaucratic Violence and Communal Exhumations of Clandestine Burials in Contemporary Mexico

Alamo-Bryan, Marina

In September 2014, forty-three students were attacked and forcibly disappeared by police in the town of Iguala, Mexico. The Ayotzinapa Case, as it is known, caused international outcry and a domestic political crisis. In the following weeks, the surrounding countryside was discovered to be saturated with clandestine individual and mass graves, and a crisis emerged around bodily remains and their improper burial. As the willingness of the Mexican State to investigate became less and less credible, families of the disappeared —not just families of the students, but families of hundreds of other disappeared people across the country— took on the role of searching for their loved ones and caring for the name-less and unidentified dead they began to find. No longer waiting for authorities to act, kin of the disappeared began to symbolically and materially enact attributes of the State.

What started as groups of people getting together on Sundays in the town of Iguala, to go to the hills in search of bodies in clandestine burials, grew in the following years into a nation-wide social movement. What does it mean to find a murdered body in Mexico today? What does it mean for it to become evidence? What work is done through the discovery by searching families of such bodies? The result of 32 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico, between 2015 and 2021, this dissertation builds on anthropological scholarship on bureaucracy and forensic evidentiary practices to examine the encounters of relatives of the disappeared and State authorities. It analyses current regimes of justice and forensic expertise, interrogating how bodies in the ground are translated into terms legible to the law.

This project investigates social processes of public truth production, forms of violence exerted by the State —through physical violence, forced disappearance, and bureaucratic violence— by bringing into conversation forensics alongside recent critical perspectives on bureaucracy, bearing in mind longstanding approaches to the anthropology of death and the anthropology of the State, to address how dead bodies become evidence and how truth claims circulate around and through them.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Abu El-Haj, Nadia L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 9, 2022