Dr. Clyde Snow Helps Victims of Argentina's 'Dirty War' Bear Witness from Beyond the Grave

UPDATED 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

For Dr. Clyde Snow, forensic anthropologist and connoisseur of human drama, a windswept cemetery 50 miles outside Buenos Aires is the repository of some of the most wrenching tales he has ever reconstructed. In 1976, when Argentina's military government was just beginning its reign of terror, the bodies of 30 dissidents massacred by the junta's assassins were buried there and marked only by the initials "NN"—signifying "no name" in Spanish. Shrouded in anonymity, the dead could not indict those who had condemned them. But with the 1983 election of President Raúl Alfonsín, "NN" graves in cemeteries like the one at Derqui finally began yielding their secrets. As the exhumations began, it became apparent that at least 9,000 Argentinians had fallen victim to their government's death squads.

A peripatetic consultant who has lent his expertise to identifying the remains of Josef Mengele, the victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and the soldiers who died with Custer at the Little Big Horn, Snow had seen death in all its guises by the time he came to Argentina in 1984. At the FAA's Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City, where he worked for 17 years, he had pieced together whole planeloads of charred and shattered bodies. At the Cook County Medical Examiner's office in Chicago, where he has been on call since 1979, he had probed the corpses of those who had died by every sort of misdeed imaginable. Using the detritus of death—bone fragments, tufts of hair, bits of skin dried to parchment—he had learned to trace all the paths that lead to the grave; the paths he uncovered in Argentina shocked even him.

"The military government here dreamed up some things the Nazis never got around to," Snow is saying. It is midday in Buenos Aires, and the powerfully built Oklahoman is drinking thick black coffee in a crowded confitería called the Cafe Redon. Around him are bookish men of 40 and well-dressed women with their pretty daughters. In its quotidian comfort the scene belies the nightmares of the past—when kidnappers stormed into such boîtes to bear away suspected subversives.

"The Air Force," says Snow, "was pitching people out of airplanes. Sometimes they were drugged; sometimes they were just tied up and dropped. In detention centers people were chained to the floors with hoods over their heads. Pregnant women were shot after they delivered, and their infants were sold on the black market or given to military families. One of the worst things was when prisoners were told they were going to be released. They'd try to get a bath, fix themselves up, put on a piece of borrowed clothing that looked a little bit better than the rest—and then they'd be taken out and killed.

"Every time I look at one of those skeletons, I wonder what he or she went through," says Snow. "Being dead is not the problem. It's getting there that's tough."

As one of a team of experts assembled at the request of the Alfonsín government by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Snow flew to Buenos Aires two years ago to conduct a brief course in identifying human remains. At the time, desaparecidos were being exhumed by bulldozers and shovel-wielding gravediggers who tore the corpses from the earth, heaping shattered skulls upon broken bones. "They were losing evidence, which is as bad as being an accomplice to the crime," says Snow. "Every bone, every tooth can tell you something. We pointed out that the thing to do was to stop these mass exhumations and use an archaeological approach."

After completing his lectures at the medical school, Snow, galvanized by the grisly challenge, stayed to perform a textbook exhumation. "There was a judge over in San Isidro who wanted to see what we could do," he says. "I told him I needed trained archaeologists, but nobody wanted to have anything to do with it. People were really afraid then that the military government would come back. Finally one of the medical students rounded up some classmates who'd worked with human rights organizations. It was hard for them. They said, 'What if we find somebody we know?' And they knew they'd be sticking their necks out. But they did it."

Under Snow's direction the volunteers opened an "NN" grave at a cemetery in the nearby city of La Plata. Following the techniques used for the recovery of prehistoric remains, they divided the gravesite into grids and sifted through the soil in each sector. The location of bones, bullets and personal belongings was carefully recorded, and each of the artifacts was photographed and numbered. "Policemen were looking over our shoulders the whole time, and the students were scared," Clyde says, "but they did a beautiful job. The body we exhumed turned out not to be the woman the judge thought it was, and he was extremely impressed."

Snow, with three colleagues, returned to Buenos Aires the following March. This time he led students through 10 more exhumations—and became involved in a case that would help incriminate members of the junta when they went on trial that April.

Liliana Carmen Pereyra, a 21-year-old law student, had disappeared on Oct. 5977, when she was abducted with her husband from their Mar del Plata pension. Five months' pregnant with her first child, she was taken to Buenos Aires' Navy Mechanics School, which had been converted into a secret detention center. She sat in a windowless cell from 6 in the morning till 10 at night and was tortured in front of her husband. According to the testimony of fellow prisoners, Pereyra was removed from the Navy School in February—just after giving birth to a boy who was spirited away by her captors.

Like the relatives of many desaparecidos, Coqui Pereyra was told nothing about her daughter's fate. When the authorities contacted her that summer, it was to report that Liliana had died in a shoot-out with police and was buried in a cemetery called El Parque. The true story emerged only after Coqui asked Snow to examine the contents of the "NN" grave presumed to be her daughter's. Working from Li-liana's dental and medical records, he established that the body was indeed hers and that it bore "all the markings of an execution." The skull had been shattered by a close-range blast from an Ithaca shotgun—the standard weapon for the Argentine armed forces. There were no fetal remains inside the corpse, and a distinctive groove in the pelvis indicated that Liliana had given birth to a term or near-term infant. This, then, was the body of a murder victim—one whose child was likely to be alive.

Early in the five-month trial of nine junta members—five of whom were convicted—the prosecution called on Snow to present Liliana's case. His testimony was essential, since the six presiding judges had refused to consider homicide verdicts unless the victims' bodies could be produced and identified. His findings also gave hope to Coqui Pereyra. Knowing now that her grandson is probably alive, she has joined with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo—a fiercely determined group of abuelas, as they are known, who have tracked down and recovered 39 of the estimated 200 children taken from desaparecidos. Liliana's son is still missing. "I live to find him," Coqui has said.

With his thinning silver-brown hair, cowboy boots and tweeds, Snow, 58, looks the part of an amiable country doctor. A man of infinite patience and good humor, he chain-smokes, savors good Argentinian wines and applauds the South American proclivity for beginning the business day at noon. Thoroughly colloquial, he has the knack of making an abstruse medical specialty seem like commonsense detective work. "He's an excellent teacher," says Dr. Eric Stover, an American colleague who has worked with Snow in Argentina. "He doesn't talk down to people."

By his own account, Snow has "never lived a normal life." Wife Jerry, an administrative assistant at the University of Oklahoma, maintains their home in Norman, but it is a refuge that Clyde often visits only on the fly. Between months-long sojourns in Argentina, he has consulted on criminal cases across the U.S. and worked in Brazil on the remains that proved to be Mengele's. Last month he took a team of forensic specialists to the Philippines, where they are helping to identify the bodies of dissidents assassinated during the Marcos regime.

The medical profession has held sway over Clyde from the start. His childhood was spent "bouncing around in the back of a car on the way to little shacks," he remembers. The town of Ralls, Texas—where his father was a physician—had no hospital, and the elder Dr. Snow packed up his wife and son when he went on dead-of-night house calls. "They'd put me in bed with the rest of the kids, deliver the baby, rout me out and head back home, where we'd usually find somebody else calling. Such was the glory of my childhood," he says.

Clyde's first encounter with the wonders of forensic technique came when he was 9. "My dad and I were deer hunting in New Mexico, and a bunch of other hunters came to get us because they'd heard there was a doctor there. They'd run into a skeleton—two skeletons, as it turned out. One was human, one was a mule deer. My father figured it was a guy who'd shot the deer, carried it out and had a coronary. The deputy sheriff came out while we were there, and he remembered a guy from Silver City who'd been missing for about two years. We took the keys on the body, jumped in the sheriff's car and rode over to the guy's house. The keys fit right in the door."

After finishing his master's degree in zoology at Texas Tech, Snow earned a Ph.D. in physical anthropology at the University of Arizona. In 1962 he signed on at the FAA, where he plumbed the mysteries of impact injuries and air crashes. But he consulted on criminal cases as well and was transfixed by the dead-men's tales he encountered.

"Death is the ugliest thing in the world," says Snow, tucking into a platter of broiled entrails in a garish grill in Buenos Aires. "In this job you deal with nasty, decomposing bodies, and you never overcome the squeamishness." He pauses for a bite of blood sausage. "But the reason I like it is that every case turns into a detective story. If you can find out who this person was and how he died, it often leads you right to the murderer."

For all of this professionalism, Snow hardly conforms to the stereotype of scientist-as-automaton. "I have to fight a continual battle to keep from getting more involved than I should," he says. "As forensic scientists, we're the ombudsmen of death. We're experts, but we're not advocates. That's a hard lesson for my students here, because they knew people who disappeared. I always tell them, 'You do the work in the daytime and cry at night.' "

In Argentina, though, there are times, as Snow puts it, when "your hormones outwit your neurons." Says his colleague Stover: "It gets to all of us. There was a moment when Snow and I had to show a woman's remains to her mother and her grandmother, who had been looking for her for years. None of us in that room could hold back our tears."

Last spring Snow was given a yearlong grant from the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation to help the Ministry of Human Rights organize the search for the desaparecidos, an effort detailed earlier this fall in a dramatic episode of the Public Broadcasting System's Nova. While the foundation pays his expenses in Buenos Aires, he accepts no salary. "I keep saying, 'Next year I'll pull out.' But this is 1000 old detective stories on one place. And it's hard to say no to an abuela."

Quartered in a bare-bones office at the ministry, Snow and his colleagues perform much of their work outside the lab. With the help of portable computers that Clyde brought from the U.S., they are cataloging records from cemeteries like the one at Derqui to help locate the junta's victims. The search could take another five years, by Snow's reckoning. Although estimates vary widely, it is believed that the death toll approached 30,000. "Some are in mass graves with as many as 100 bodies," he says, "so it's a slow and difficult process."

Not, however, an impossible one. In the moments when he loses patience—when, for example, the Argentine penchant for bureaucratic machination makes him feel like Sisyphus—he remembers that there is a point to it all. "These people were murdered. Their bones are their only witnesses. And only we," he says, "can help them to be heard."

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