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April 21, 1993

Mitochondrial DNA Studies Help Identify Lost Victims of Human Rights Abuses

JAMA. 1993;269(15):1911-1913. doi:10.1001/jama.1993.03500150015004

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MITOCHONDRIAL DNA (mtDNA) extracted from the teeth and bones buried in clandestine graves is allowing investigators to identify victims of government-sanctioned murder in several countries.

By comparing mtDNA sequences of possible living relatives with DNA extracted from teeth found in two mass graves in Guatemala, T. Christian Boles, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass, is helping forensic anthropologists confirm the identities of five of the victims.

The skeletons are believed to be the remains of 12 men who were taken from the village of San Jose Pachó Lemoa by a "civilian patrol" the night of February 14, 1982. The next morning, villagers found what appeared to be two freshly dug graves in a nearby ravine.

For more than 10 years after the massacre, the villagers did not disturb the graves, nor did they talk about the disappearance of the men or the gunshots they heard during that