Sunday, November 22, 2009

The "Backstory" on Argentina's Forensic Anthropology Team

There have been many, many stories told about Argentina’s horrific 1976-1983 “Dirty War,” when the military ruled the country with an iron fist, squashing any dissident voices. At least 10,000, and perhaps as many as 30,000 people, “disappeared” during this dark era. I have done several reports over the years on a variety of topics related to the “Dirty War,” from amnesty laws being overturned in 2003, to the public opening of a former detention center in 2004, to the (still) missing witness from a trial in 2006. As more and more former military leaders appear in court on human rights abuses, and more and more victims are identified, the issue continues to be a very important one for many Argentines. When I learned about the work of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF, in Spanish) and their tremendous success in identifying and reuniting family members with the remains of their loved ones through the use of science, I immediately wanted to do a story about them.

From the initial inquiry I made with the team until I got my profile of them on-air on CNN this week, 11 months passed. I normally don’t have the time (or patience) to wait that long to make a story come together, but something told me that this would be worth waiting for. And it was. The nearly year-long process was a result of several factors, like scheduling conflicts and weather, but chief among them was getting permission to film at an exhumation site. Understandably, some people are hesitant to allow cameras into an area where their loved ones presumably spent their final, violent, moments. After much back-and-forth with the EAAF team, I was invited in October to visit a cemetery with them in La Plata, Argentina. First, though, I would need to send an official written request to a Federal Judge’s office to ask permission. When I was told this, I immediately thought it was a lost cause; the Argentine judicial system works at a snail’s pace (at best) and I figured it would be months, if not years, before I had a ruling. To their credit (and my enormous surprise) they had an answer for me within a week, faxing me an 8-page opinion signed by all seven judges from the La Plata federal jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, the answer was no.
For the aforementioned reasons, they denied my request to enter the cemetery and film. I also learned that French television network, France 2, was seeking access as well; our requests were denied simultaneously. I think the EAAF team could sense my frustration, so they quickly suggested another site in the neighborhood of Merlo where they felt it would be easier for us to enter. And they were right. I didn’t need to file a written request; I was told that the judge would just meet me there. And indeed he did. On the day we went to film, the judge and his two assistants showed up, along with the provincial prosecutor, his handlers, a local TV news crew, police and several others. The EAAF team told me that they were all there looking for a little fame on international TV, because normally they don’t draw such a large crowd. And while I would have liked to have included all of them in the story, the simple fact is that there is not enough time on-air to interview every single person. Moreover, this was a story about the efforts of the EAAF team, not about the specific grave that was being exhumed that day. I politely explained this to them, and they seemed to understand. I did get all their email addresses, and sent the story link to them; the only one who responded so far was a young provincial police officer who was monitoring the exhumation that day.

The Santa Monica cemetery in Merlo is huge. I don’t know how many people are buried there, but just from looking at it, I would say tens, if not, hundreds of thousands. This was definitely a provincial cemetery in a humble part of town; no grand, ornate mausoleums like you see in Recoleta cemetery where Eva Peron and other Argentine dignitaries are buried.

After we arrived to the cemetery, we watched EAAF team members -- Mariana Segura, Analia Simonetto and Alejandra Ibanez (pictured above)-- get their tools arranged and get ready for the dig. Truth be told, most of the grunt work of shoveling the grass and dirt was done by the cemetery workers. But once they had access, the EAAF team got right into the graves and got dirty, meticulously separating dirt from bones. It was fascinating, and a bit disturbing, to watch. The first grave that they exhumed was of a person who had died in 2001, so they had to locate that body, remove it, and then search for the body of the person they suspected was killed by the military in the late 1970s that was buried underneath. That whole idea blew my mind: Someone who died eight years ago was buried on top of another person – a possible victim -- and in order to confirm that, they needed to remove the other body. That, of course, requires permission and notification of next-of-kin, and sure enough, two relatives of the person buried on top were present, monitoring the process. Those bones were removed and will be put in a more communal grave (as opposed to an individual plot). I was told that even if the EAAF team didn’t request the exhumation of that grave, that removing and relocating skeletons after a period of at least five years is a common practice at cemeteries in Argentina, because of limited space. If a family has the money to re-bury the body, they can do so in another private plot, but if not, it goes to a communal spot. All the bones of each individual are still separated and stored apart from the others, but they likely do not have a private plot. This surprised me as well. Is that common in other parts of the world too?

As the exhumations continued under a hot sun, I interviewed Sara Cobacho, (above) the 78-year-old secretary of the Human Rights Office in Buenos Aires province, who is also a member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Sara lost six family members to the dictatorship, including two of her sons, 23-year-old Enrique in 1977, and 28-year Oscar in 1978, and she herself was detained in a illegal detention center for six months in 1976. I could see the years of pain and anguish on her face. I could also sense her strength and determination. She now works closely with the EAAF team during their digs, although the remains of her two missing sons have yet to be recovered. I don’t know if she showed up that day because she wanted to be on CNN, but I didn’t really care. She was an important person to speak with, and had some very intelligent things to say during our interview. I feel privileged when I meet a person like Sara.

Next, I interviewed Mariana and Analia of the EAAF. We did the interviews first in English, then in Spanish. Both women continually apologized for their English skills, but there was no need for them to do so; they both spoke very well. When preparing a report for CNN, I always try to find people who speak English, as I feel it makes the story just a little easier to understand, since you are hearing the words directly from their mouth. Of course, in this part of the world, not everyone speaks English, so I often end up translating and then doing English-language voiceovers. Regardless, even if someone does speak English, I always ask them questions in Spanish too, so that my colleagues at CNN en Espanol can use the material to put together a report in Spanish.

After that, I shot my “stand-up” -- the part of the story where you see the reporter talking to the camera. I wanted to have the movement of the EAAF workers in the background, and show as much of the cemetery as possible. Cameraman Eduardo Aragona and I had to seek out a few locations where it would be possible for me to walk-and-talk (without tripping over a gravestone, which I did, twice) while also having the proper sunlight and background. We did about seven takes, and got two keepers, one of which we used in the final report. Throughout the day, I also shot more informal “stand-ups” for the CNN International show, “Backstory” which takes viewers behind the scenes of a story, and whose format I am attempting to emulate in print here. Here's that report.

After we finished shooting, we started saying goodbye to everyone, which took awhile, because there were about 25 people there at that point. We drove an hour back to Buenos Aires city and headed to the Almagro neighborhood to have a late lunch before our meeting with Ana Feldman later that afternoon. Ana’s 18-year-old sister, Laura, was “disappeared” by the military in 1978. The interview with Ana was equally emotional as the earlier ones, as she told me about her sister and her long efforts to locate and receive her remains. She was able to accomplish that thanks to the work of the EAAF. Ana is the first person we hear from in my report. The photograph I took of her below, holding a photo of her late sister, was displayed prominently last Tuesday on the homepage of, which helped make it one of the site's most popular stories that day.

We then left Ana’s apartment and returned to the bureau. I was tired and sunburned, but satisfied knowing that we had the material to tell an important story, and tell it well.

Photos by Brian Byrnes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Anatomy of an Article: Riding with Pablo Escobar's Son

I was in a car on the Panamericana Highway in Buenos Aires last week with two men I had just met, both of whom I was interviewing for a story I was working on for Newsweek. One of them, Nicolas, asked me where I grew up, and when I told him Baltimore, he veered the conversation (as many often do) to “The Wire.” We both agreed that it was one of the best television series ever made. The other guy, Sebastian, had never seen the show, so I starting breathlessly telling him how the writing, acting and photography were unmatched, and how it portrayed the modern urban American experience so vividly, and how it gave viewers laser-sharp insight into the inner workings of inner-city drug cartels.....

About 45 seconds into my fawning discourse, I recognized the sheer absurdity of the situation: the man I was glorifying the American drug culture to was the son of the world’s most famous drug dealer, Pablo Escobar.

Yes, I was talking drugs with Juan Pablo Escobar, who now goes by the name Sebastian Marroquin. Thankfully, I stopped myself just short of offering to lend him my DVD copies of Season 1-5. Now, that would have been weird. I don’t think Marroquin would find “The Wire” particularly entertaining. At least I hope not, especially since the reason I was in the car with him and director Nicolas Entel was the new documentary film they just released called “Sins of My Father,” essentially a 90-minute apology from Marroquin to the Colombian people for the many gross, violent and bloody acts committed by his father when he was the richest, most powerful and ruthless drug kingpin on the planet.

I was the only journalist in the world invited to watch the film with Marroquin and Entel. It would be the first time either of them had seen the final cut on the big screen. There were literally only seven of us in the theater, all of whom were associated with the production, except for me. Sitting next to Marroquin and stealing glances of him as he watched his life story play out onscreen was emotional, indeed.

At first, I wasn’t anxious to write this story. Several other international media outlets had already interviewed Marroquin by telephone and published stories. But through some hustle and some luck, I managed to get something no one else did: I had met Marroquin personally, shook his hand, watched him as he watched himself. That was my story, and what would set my article apart from the others. When I told my editor in New York this, she was excited, and we agreed that I would take the somewhat unusual (although increasingly common) step of writing myself into the story, using a few, sparing first-person accounts. She also decided to turn this from a one-page article to a two-page spread in the magazine, using several photographs, and including a sidebar Q+A.

I can state unequivocally that Escobar’s offspring is a nice guy. Quiet. Shy. A hulking presence, similar to his father’s, I assume. He also looks just like him. All he is missing is a moustache, as I noted in my Newsweek article here.

Admittedly, describing how ice-cool Avon Barksdale is to Pablo Escobar’s son is sort of stupid. Or surreal. Either way, it reminded me why I do what I do, and why I love it so much.
You can read excerpts from my conversation with Marroquin in Newsweek here. Not all the questions made it into the magazine, so I offer more from our conversation below:

Brian Byrnes: Do you still speak with your relatives in Colombia?

Sebastian Marroquin: Yes, I still keep in touch with my aunts and uncles in Colombia from my mother’s side. Not on my father’s side. They are very happy that we could demonstrate a face of the family that was always hidden. They said to me ‘Nephew, after so many years of a bad image, it is great that you can show our good side now.’ They understand that the message that we are trying to send to the world now is a positive one. They have a lot of hope, and so do I.

You now make a living as an architect in Argentina, correct?

I make money as an architect and I have money that family members left me.

Your father’s money?

No, this comes from my mother’s side. All my father’s money has been confiscated. I have absolutely zero knowledge or any access to any money, properties or cars that belonged to my father. It’s all in the hands of the government. The only thing that the family of Pablo Escobar still has is his surname.

Your younger sister did not participate in the film. Why not?

She was just a child when all this war was going on with my father. At a very young age, she was a prisoner to the situation. Despite the fact that she couldn’t even speak up to declare her innocence, she was imprisoned. And she really values her privacy now. She supported me all the way during this process of reconciliation. I can’t say that this helps lessen her pain, but she prefers to maintain a low profile and continue with her studies.

In the film, before you enter the room to meet the Galan brothers, you paused in front of the door. What was going through your mind at that moment?

I was remembering what I had written in the letter to them, and what it would be like to speak with someone whose pain was so acute. I was thinking ‘When I open this door, how do I begin the conversation? Would it be good to say “good afternoon”? Or would it be better just to say “hello?” What would be the right way to address people in this situation who were the victims?’ It was very difficult to choose the right words. It was almost impossible. Each one of the sons reacted in their own way. And it was really a noble act on their part to meet with me.

Photo courtesy of Sebastian Marroquin/Red Creek Productions.