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What the Bones Tell 

A New Orleans-based DNA laboratory is working to piece together Panama's past.

In a place the locals call Purgatory, the bones are found in pieces.

Townspeople point to a small structure at the top of the hill and allege that, for years, it served as a torture house used by officials of the government, one of the many places that may have swallowed Panama's desaparecidos, or dissidents, religious leaders, teachers and citizens who simply vanished one day, never to be heard from again.

Within the last few years, anthropologists and researchers from the United States and Panama have found bones and bone fragments at similar sites scattered across the countryside (and across Central America) and indeed find them in and around this house. On this winter day in 2001, they discover bits of the very same bones at the foot of the hill, down by a small creek. The bones look familiar, one of the anthropologists says; two pieces -- one from high on the hilltop and one from low in the creekbed -- end up fitting together.

The history of modern-day Panama is as fractured as these bones, marked by a whirlwind of cultural upheaval, military coups and dictatorial regimes. Between 1968 and 1989, fear reigned in Panama. But in 2001, with a fledgling democracy taking hold, the government of Panama, led by President Mireya Moscoso, established the Comision de la Verdad de Panama, or truth commission, to investigate the bones and document the stories of the families of the disappeared.

For assistance in making sense of some of these splinters, the truth commission turned to ReliaGene Technologies Inc., a New Orleans-based DNA laboratory.

Dr. Sudhir Sinha, a native of India who moved to the United States in the 1970s, founded ReliaGene Technologies in 1990 with help from the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission. The lab, located in a nondescript office building in Elmwood, focuses on DNA testing in all of its forms: paternity testing for use in civil courts, forensic testing for use in criminal courts, diagnostic testing for use in hospitals and clinics, and research and product development for use in other testing laboratories.

International work is not out of the ordinary for Sinha. ReliaGene has developed a male-specific DNA test called Y-PLEX and sold it to laboratories in 22 different countries. "We have been doing casework for Austria, Japan and Belize for many years," Sinha says. "Mostly what we have done for outside-the-country work is paternity tests.

"Panama is unique in the sense that the samples which we have received, instead of blood samples or fresh samples, are very, very old bones." It is also unique in that it is not a job Sinha necessarily pursued.

"[A church lawyer] approached us," Sinha says. "It was before the truth commission actually. There was one very famous priest, and he had done a lot of work with the poor people. The government took him, and he was missing."

The priest, named Father Hector Gallego, is revered throughout Panama for his work with peasant farmers until his abduction by military police in 1971. The Panamanian church would like to make Gallego a saint, but cannot proceed without possessing identified remains, a requirement to even be considered for canonization.

In late 1999, when remains were found alongside a cross and other religious artifacts, many suspected one of the bodies to be that of Gallego, widely believed to have been thrown from a helicopter at the orders of Gen. Manuel Noriega.

To find out if this was true, the Panamanian government originally contracted with a Virginia-based lab to conduct DNA tests on the remains. A negative result was returned, but the family of the priest did not accept the test and neither did the church. The Archbishop of Panama had one of the church's lawyers start calling American universities to locate other DNA labs and, by word of mouth -- Sinha does not know exactly who made the recommendation -- found out about ReliaGene.

Contacted by email, Sinha pointed out to the church's lawyer that a regular DNA test would not work for two reasons. First, the bones they were testing were approximately 30 years old; second, the samples that analysts were trying to match were not from parents of the disappeared. "If you have a sister of a person, if you don't have a parent, a regular paternity test is not the way to do it," Sinha says. "You have to do a mitochondrial test." According to Sinha, there are only a handful of labs in the country accredited and certified to do these types of tests.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down solely from a mother to her children. "This gives a special advantage in identification of the bodies because it will be the same DNA in the siblings," Sinha explains. "So if we have DNA from a brother or sister or aunt or a nephew or niece related on the mother's side, we can match. That is the excellent power of this technology, that it can identify a family relationship from the maternal side.

"The second very, very important thing about mitochondrial DNA testing is that the nature of the DNA is such that it is more sensitive and there are more number of copies of the DNA, so we can do old bones, degraded bones, like the ones in this case. We are getting results from 30-year-old bones which are left exposed in the rainforest in Panama. A lot of bacterial degradation, a lot of nature degradation. It's not like the bone was just found in Siberia; there's a difference. For a bone found in Siberia, we can do all kinds of tests. One found in Louisiana, in the swamp, in Panama, is a very different situation."

To conduct their tests, ReliaGene researchers shave and drill down into the bone. This eliminates bacteria and other substances that could contaminate the test materials. What they extract from the center of the bone, they then freeze, later pulverizing it into a powder with an average, everyday coffee bean grinder and extracting the DNA from that powder.

At the Panamanian lawyer's request, Sinha traveled to Panama to pick up bone samples and saliva samples. ReliaGene's test found a match -- but not with the Gallego family. "We found a match with one of the persons; he was another revolutionary," Sinha says. "That made big headlines in Panama. But I think that created some problems, also."

The government, Sinha says, has not accepted ReliaGene's findings in that case, even though a third, independent lab has upheld the results. Despite the controversy, the truth commission -- partially funded with government money but largely underwritten by private funds -- continues to send samples to the New Orleans laboratory, which performs DNA testing for a fraction of the usual cost. "We have charged only the basic minimum cost," Sinha says. "If the same case were a forensic case, we would probably have 10 times more charges."

The truth commission of Panama has four executive directors, each focusing on a different aspect of the project. New Yorker Bruce Broce is a Temple University doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology and oversees all the anthropological aspects of the commission. He believes that the work ReliaGene is participating in has great meaning for the Panamanian public.

"I think it's going to do several things," he says, speaking by phone from his office in Panama City. "One of them is to of course clarify the historical inaccuracies that have implicitly or explicitly been allowed to perpetuate. It's going to force many Panamanians to reexamine the past, which, of course, brings into account some of the atrocious acts that were committed by the regime that was in power."

The time period the commission is investigating actually spans two regimes, the first that of Gen. Omar Torrijos, best known for having signed the treaty with President Jimmy Carter that gave the Panama Canal back to Panama. The other regime was that of Torrijos' right-hand man, Gen. Manuel Noriega, best known for the 1989 U.S. invasion that deposed him and ended in his conviction in a Miami court for racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering.

The evidence Broce and his coworkers are gathering points to periods of extreme violence under both of these military leaders, although no one is certain just how many were killed. "Put in your mind a Bell curve that dips," Broce says. "At the two highest points, you have, let's say, 1968 on the left side and 1989 on the right. If that were on the graph, then those two points would be the highest number of deaths. So in 1968, you have the highest number of deaths, and they start dipping down as the dictatorship stabilizes and the Panamanian public starts accepting this as a legitimate form of government, you could say. Then, it starts rising at the end of Noriega's power, when there are more dissidents, jails and abuses and tortures. I think people will start seeing patterns like this that have never been examined."

While there is little doubt that the existence of the truth commission points to a growing democracy in the country, some Latin American scholars question President Moscoso's motivations. "Why would the president in 2002 care about this?" asks Dr. Margaret E. Scranton, a political science professor at University of Arkansas-Little Rock whose expertise is in Central American politics. "Mireya Moscoso has a personal stake in this. It's family business, and it's also party business. Now that her party is in power, they want to stay in power. And if they uncover this old scandal, then they hold something over their rival."

Still, Scranton believes that what the commission brings to light could effect great change. "By Panamanian standards, that type of political violence is incomprehensible," says Scranton. "And it is a long time to keep a secret. It begs many questions. Who knew about this? Who was paid off? It raises our conventional wisdom about political violence in Panama."

Just the act of examination can have positive benefits, Broce says. "One of the other things that's extremely important about what we are doing is that there are families that have been fighting since 1968 just to have the acts acknowledged, that their father was disappeared by individuals of the state," Broce says. "Then, hopefully, ReliaGene comes in, and we're able to identify and give back remains [to families], so that the process of closure can begin."

Sinha has made a handful of trips to Panama to collect samples and bones for testing.

Broce says that most of the commission's information comes from informants or investigations based on tips. "Very rarely do we get information from former guardsmen," he says, "Because they have this code of silence. Mostly, it's individuals in rural communities that say, 'On such and such a date, we saw dirt that was removed, and then the next day it was filled back in, and then you know John was missing these days so we think that might be the remains of John.

"Then the anthropologists will go out and just kind of do a little inspection of the site to see if it's a logical area, if there are any signs of disturbance or anything like that, and then basically we just program it into our schedule."

Once a site is selected for excavation, Sinha works with members of the commission, as well as Toledo-based anthropologists Frank and Julie Saul (who have also spent time working at New York City's Ground Zero), and dog trainer Sandy Anderson and her specially trained, one-of-a-kind canine detective, Eagle.

"This dog can differentiate between human bones and animal bones," Sinha says. "He doesn't dig, he doesn't chew, he just points. He just sits down and points, and you can just draw a line from his nose. You dig, and the bone is there."

At one excavation site, a former army barracks in the shadow of Panama's Mayan ruin complex, the Doberman-pointer mix repeatedly nosed one wall of the barracks. "One person brought a big sledgehammer and hit the plaster on the wall. Inside the cement block, there were a couple of teeth."

Sinha says that in all of the excavations, one thing has never been found: a complete skeleton. "They just didn't kill and bury the people," he says. "They buried it, ran a bulldozer over it, moved it, took it out and reburied somewhere else. There's a lot of mixed bones and to figure that out from there is a very difficult task. It's not like there is one skeleton and there is one sample to try to match. Just small, small pieces of bone."

While the truth commission enjoys the support of the people of Panama and the government's top officials, there are still undercurrents of resentment. Truth commission workers have received death threats and often work under the protection of presidential guards.

"The political system has changed," Sinha says. "The top political system has no problem. There is one case where one relative went and met with the president, and the president instructed that case to be sent to us. So I have the support of the president, but there are middle-level and lower-level people who don't want this to be found out. [Take] the military barracks -- somebody had to be in charge of that barracks. That's really the problem."

On his most recent trip to Panama, Sinha held a town meeting to inform relatives about the DNA testing and to offer them the opportunity to give a saliva sample to try to match with some of the uncovered bones. Of the hundred or so relatives in the audience that night, Sinha says, only nine or 10 came forward. "They all want to do it, but they are really afraid," he says. "Because there were TV cameras, there were video cameras, the news camera was there. They were so afraid to come forward; that is a rebellion act. Some of them came later and gave samples in private."

"There's just an ongoing aura of fear," says ReliaGene forensic DNA analyst Gina Pineda. During a question-and-answer session, she says, locals asked about confidentiality. "The only thing that we wanted to say was that all this is of course confidential; we're not going to use the DNA profiles for anything else. But I think their concern was that they fear for their own safety and they fear for their own well-being."

This week, ReliaGene is set to turn over its findings to the truth commission, which will in turn formulate its final report to the government. Even though there is much work to still be done, the official decree of the commission draws to a close April 18.

The scientists at ReliaGene will turn their attention to a $750,000 National Institutes of Health grant awarded to them in February for research into ways to make the DNA testing process they have used in Panama better, faster and cheaper.

Broce vows to stay on in Panama and work in whatever capacity he can to complete the project, as well as measure the report's effect on the public. He isn't going to forget about the disappeared -- and neither are the New Orleans residents who encountered their families.

At one of the town meetings, Pineda recalls, an elderly woman came forward to submit a sample. "The whole time, she's just talking so passionately to me about why she'll never forgive these people who did this to her daughter. She said that she is ready to not forgive these people, and that if God's punishment for her not forgiving them is to send her to hell, then she's ready to do it. She is ready to go to hell for this because she's not going to forgive." Additional reporting by Frank Etheridge

CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS: In last week's Restaurant Guide, we misspelled the name of Kelsey's Restaurant Executive Chef Robert Bustillo; also, Kelsey's will not offer brunch until later this spring. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.

click to enlarge Anthropologists Julie and Saul Frank categorize bones found in Panama and prepare to send them to New Orleans for DNA testing.
  • Anthropologists Julie and Saul Frank categorize bones found in Panama and prepare to send them to New Orleans for DNA testing.


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