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Claire Moon joins citizen-led forensics project

Dr Claire Moon has been invited onto the Advisory Board of an ESRC Transformative Research Project entitled Citizen-led forensics: DNA and data-banking in the search for the disappeared in Mexico. The project is being led by anthropologist Dr Ernesto Schwartz-Marin, with co-investigator and geographer Arely Cruz-Santiago, both of whom are based at Durham University.
The project will investigate emerging forms of citizenship around forensic science and DNA in Mexico, where governmental institutions have officially recognised 121,683 violent deaths in the period between 2006- 2013. During the same period around 27,000 disappearances occurred, and approximately 15,000 bodies remain unidentified. There is no national database in the country to facilitate identification of the dead.
In Mexico, the formal practice of forensic science is opaque, and has sometimes been used to cover the tracks of the perpetrators of grave crimes. The inimical response of the government to this humanitarian crisis has repeatedly shown that the problem is not one that can simply be solved by the construction or strengthening of formal forensic technical capacities, since these can be, and have been, subject to corruption.
In response, the research project will facilitate the first ever citizen-led forensic DNA database as a way of positively intervening in the crisis. The database will be designed as a mobile and Participatory Action Research (PAR) device, articulated through civil society organisations of relatives of the disappeared already partnered with the project. The project will make DNA swab kits available for 1,500 people (approx. 500 Mexican families), accompanied by a clear set of instructions on how to collect DNA from cheek swabbing, as well as from the personal belongings of the missing person. The participating families will also be asked to include, along with DNA samples, written accounts of their case, their experiences to date of forensic investigations (if any), and personal narratives about their experiences in the wake of the disappearance of their relative(s).
The project will explore new forms of citizenship related to the use of forensic science in the search for the missing in Mexico by analysing the consequences of placing forensic techniques (including DNA) in the hands of the relatives of the disappeared/non-governmental forensic experts, and/or in other interested citizens in Mexico.
Typically within existing academic debates, forensic databases are seen as tools of state surveillance and are deeply connected to issues of privacy. This project moves the debate beyond these themes to explore how citizen-led forensic databases can be used as a tool for reparation and truth finding. The project breaks with traditional (state-centric) ways of researching violence and disappearance, since it challenges the persistent boundary between victims and experts: between claims for justice by victims, and official practices of constructing 'truth' about the dead and disappeared. It is also fuses biogenetic and social research thus providing a tool to open novel avenues of academic inquiry, as well as grounded insights for humanitarian and political intervention.
The project promises to forge new pathways for forensic research and intervention in the mass atrocities of today and of the future.

(1 July 2014)