Mercyhurst University

You are here

Symes, students bring skills to major human rights case

Monday, February 16, 2015

Carlson-Greer, Baumgarten, Symes

A Mercyhurst University forensic anthropology professor and two of his students were on the front lines of what is being described as “the biggest human rights case in recent history” – the kidnapping and alleged murder and incineration of 43 college students in the small city of Iguala in Guerrero, Mexico. 

The Mexican government’s account of the horrific case, which has triggered an international protest movement, has its skeptics, including those on the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, hired by the students’ families as an independent party in the investigation.

Joining the team in January was Mercyhurst forensic anthropologist Steven Symes, Ph.D., known worldwide for his specialty in trauma to bone, particularly burned bone; and second-year forensic anthropology graduate students Sarah Baumgarten of Long Island, N.Y., and Sean Carlson-Greer of Houston, Texas. The three worked for 10 days under tents in Mexico City, meticulously sifting through charred debris from a dumpsite in search of bone fragments that would help them scientifically discern, as the government has maintained, that this is where the 43 students met their gruesome demise.

“This is the biggest human rights case in recent history in my opinion,” said Symes, who has worked with the Argentine team for 15 years, primarily educating others in countries affected by human rights tragedies in how to recognize and interpret bone trauma.

Symes was sought out by the Argentine team to help establish protocols that would make their exhaustive examination of dumpsite debris more efficient. The team also contracted with Baumgarten and Carlson-Greer, having worked previously with students and graduates of the university’s master’s program in forensic anthropology.

“The Argentine team doesn’t often let outsiders in, but they know and trust the caliber of our students,” said Symes, who identified Mercyhurst graduate Ivana Wolff, herself an Argentinian, as a member of the team. Another graduate, Greg Olson, a fire marshal from Ontario, Canada, has also worked with the team on human rights investigations.

“I was honored that they allowed us to come in and help,” said Baumgarten. “Yes,” echoed Carlson-Greer, “it was a privilege.”

According to news reports, the Mexican government’s investigation alleges that municipal police arrested 43 students and took them to a dumpsite, where they were turned over to a drug cartel that murdered and incinerated them in a bonfire. When the fire was extinguished, they dumped whatever remains they could recover into a nearby river. From there, Mexican authorities declared that they had identified one student with DNA from a bone fragment.

The government concluded that since at least one was killed there, they must all be there and hastened to close the investigation and silence the growing protests, news reports stated.

Meanwhile, the Argentine team, which worked alongside the government in the investigation, publicly released a 16-page report recently that cast aspersions on the government’s conclusions and criticized lax security at the site and procedures by which the evidence was collected and interpreted.

In addition, Mercyhurst’s group worked with the team to put together a key piece of evidence - the burned remains of a prosthetic dental bridge that fit a piece of recovered bone. The Argentines said they do not believe the prosthetic belongs to a student, leading one to conclude that the site held human remains other than those of the students.

Symes, Carlson-Green and Baumgarten were in Mexico City from Jan. 23 to Feb. 1 and were not aware of the status of the team’s current investigation. Symes said they could not speak to any of the team’s findings to date.

The opportunity to help, meanwhile, was meaningful to the students, although the circumstances were unfathomable.

“No one in the western world could even imagine what this must have been like,” said Carlson-Greer. 

“To think that this was a group of college-age students, underprivileged, and that the very people who should have been protecting them caused their demise,” said Baumgarten.

Still, as both agreed, emotions can’t come into play no matter how shocking the scenario. “You have to focus on the science,” Carlson-Greer said. “Otherwise, you can become biased.”

Both students said they have worked on 15 to 20 cases in the past two years, an unparalleled opportunity at the master’s degree level.

“The fact that we get to work on cases like this is incredible,” said Baumgarten. “I don’t think any other school can give you this kind of experience.”

Both Carlson-Greer and Baumgarten hope to pursue their doctorates in biological anthropology and each suggested that their profession would likely involve them in the human rights field again.