Key that links the living and the dead

November 14, 2003

DNA can help identify a murder victim and put a name to their killer but, says José Antonio Lorente, it is no magic wand. Rebecca Warden reports.

Emilio Silva Faba ran a fish shop in the village of Villafranca del Bierzo in Spain's Castilla region in the mid-1930s. In October 1936, the father of six was arrested and imprisoned in the town hall for being a member of the Republican Left party. A few days later, the fascist falangistas came for him and 12 others in the night, drove them to nearby Prianza and shot them by the side of the road.

In October 2000, guided by information from an 85-year-old local man, Francisco Cubero, who had been forced to bury the bodies, the mass grave was located and exhumed. Using DNA analysis, Spanish scientists, led by José Antonio Lorente of the University of Granada, managed to identify Silva's body and to help his family put his memory to rest. "You just cannot leave a person buried for 70 years by the side of the road as if he were a dog," Lorente says. "That is an affront to human dignity and cannot be tolerated."

Silva is now buried alongside his widow, Modesta Santin, in accordance with her last wishes.

His was the first in a series of controversial exhumations to identify victims of the Spanish civil war. The Association for Recovering Historical Memory, set up by Emilio Silva Barrera, Silva's grandson, and other grandchildren of people who disappeared during the war, is digging up mass graves where unidentified victims are believed to be buried. The historical memory movement has raised hackles in Spain, where the civil war is still within living memory of many people, and it has become something of a political football between the rightwing government, some of whose members have links with the Franco past, and the socialists. Lorente, who is still working on the project, is critical of what he sees as attempts by politicians to manipulate the movement for their own ends. He believes this detracts from the real aim of the movement, which is to restore the dignity of the victims and their families.

Respect for basic human dignity is a driving force in Lorente's work with DNA. He points out that the one thing peoples of all cultures have in common is reserving a special place to bury their dead.

He is also working with the Guardia Civil (Spanish police) on a project called Fenix, which aims to identify people who have gone missing in Spain over the past 30 years. His team has been conducting DNA analyses of the remains of unidentified people buried in cemeteries across Spain and comparing the results with the DNA of the relatives of missing people. So far, 400 analyses have been completed and more than 50 dead people identified. One of these was a member of the Oxford University rowing team killed in an accident on the Ebro River three years ago. "We took DNA from the body and, as the mother had left a sample of her saliva with Fenix when she was out here looking for the body, we could identify the body as soon as it turned up," Lorente says.

Relatives may be reluctant to cooperate with Fenix at first, as giving a sample means recognising that the missing relative may be dead. But most find a positive identification brings relief and a measure of comfort. "At least they know they will have the body and they will be able to go to the cemetery to visit," Lorente says. "Otherwise they are in a state of constant tension, waiting for a phone call from someone saying they have seen them."

Lorente's work identifying the missing has also taken him further afield.

He has been working with the Chilean ministry of justice, which has set up a programme to try to identify some 1,200 people who disappeared after being detained during the Pinochet regime.

Lorente's team has been helping to introduce the necessary technology for identification and to train Chilean experts, and it has carried out the DNA analysis of the most difficult cases. The University of Granada is also host to a deposit of more than 3,000 DNA samples from relatives of the missing. The decision to store these in Spain was taken to allay the fears of relatives that they could be destroyed if there were political problems in Chile in the future.

Lorente believes that identifying Pinochet's victims will help not only the surviving relatives but Chilean society as a whole. "The Chilean dictatorship began 30 years ago, so many people still remember it. This project is helping to heal old wounds, because while people's relatives are still unidentified, the wounds cannot be forgotten," he says.

For him, forensic science, which he has studied for the past 15 years, is no ivory-tower interest. "I am fascinated by applied research because there are a lot of problems in this world, and if forensic scientists can help to solve some of them fast, then all the better," he says. Lorente turned to forensic science after completing his doctorate in medicine in 1988.

Medicine is in his blood - his father, brothers, wife and sisters-in-law are all doctors. He says the use of DNA to identify human remains began around the same time he completed his PhD. "I started working in this field because I happened to be in the right place at the right time." After training at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, the Federal Bureau of Investigation academy and the University of California, Berkeley, he returned to Granada to set up what is now the laboratory for genetic identification. His team has specialised in adapting existing techniques for mitrochondrial DNA analysis so that they can be used on bones.

This has been essential in his work to solve a historical conundrum: finding out where Christopher Columbus is buried. Columbus has two official resting places: Seville in Spain and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Historians have argued for years over which is the real burial site.

The mystery should soon be solved. This summer Lorente's team dug up the remains of Columbus' brother Diego and his son Hernando as well as the Seville version of the man himself. Anthropological, mineralogical and mitochondrial DNA analyses are now under way, and Lorente hopes to publish the results by Christmas. "It is important for historians to know as there are hundreds of pages written supporting one theory or the other," Lorente says.

The initiative could also shed light on where Columbus was born. Most historians believe he was born in Genoa, but the Catalans claim that he was the illegitimate son of the Prince of Viana, the half-brother of King Ferdinand, and that he was born in Mallorca. Lorente already has a head start as his laboratory carried out DNA analysis of the prince and his mother, Blanca of Navarre, in 1995.

Intense media interest in the question of Columbus' origins has put Lorente on his guard against accusations of nationalism. "We are not setting out to prove that Christopher Columbus was Spanish, we are merely trying to prove or disprove a theory," he says.

All of the findings will be checked by a second laboratory in Spain and in Italy by the University of Rome's Tor Vergata laboratory. "In the end, there will be a final report signed by all. I am certainly not looking for controversy," Lorente says.

He sometimes worries, though, that such high-profile cases can make people see DNA analysis as a magic wand that can solve any crime.

"DNA is a very powerful tool, but believing that it can provide absolute proof that someone is guilty of a crime would be very wrong," he says. He adds that if DNA analysis of a hair or a drop of blood identifies a suspect, the only thing it proves is that there are cells of that person at the scene of the crime, nothing more. The possibility of DNA results being taken out of context or manipulated, he says, means there is more need than ever for solid detective work when investigating crimes. But, despite his passion for using DNA for solving crimes, Lorente is not a big fan of modern detective novels. He says:"I don't read them because I end up analysing them from a professional standpoint and find them full of mistakes."

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