COLOMBIA: Irish scientist in search for 'disappeared'

A geoscientist from Queen's University Belfast has been advising police and legal professionals in Bogota on techniques to recover the bodies of Colombia's 'disappeared', the victims of violence, many related to illegal trade in drugs, buried in unmarked graves.

Dr Alastair Ruffell from Queen's school of geography, archaeology and palaeoecology joined a team of international experts at the first Ibero-American Conference in Forensic Geology in the Colombian capital - the first of its kind in South America.

Ruffell was involved in the search for one of Ireland's 'disappeared', Belfast woman Jean McConville in 2002, and has been part of searches for missing persons throughout Ireland and Europe. As well, he has reviewed geological evidence in high-profile murder cases and serious crimes.

"Colombia has a long and complex legacy of crime. Many victims of violence have been buried in unmarked graves, and there are suspicions of genocide and the existence of mass graves," Ruffell said. "The Colombian authorities want to locate these burial sites to help bring some closure to the families of the 'disappeared' and bring their murderers to justice. Forensic geology, or geoforensics, can play an important role in this process.

"Geoforensics is a specialist branch of geology that helps the authorities and humanitarian organisations solve crimes and recover buried persons. In the case of Colombia, we can use aerial photography and geophysics to help identify unmarked or mass graves. By analysing rocks and soils, forensic geologists we can uncover physical evidence linking suspects to victims or burial sites.

Ruffell said the Ibero-American conference had provided an opportunity to collaborate with the Colombian authorities regarding the latest techniques to help recover the bodies of murder victims, and prevent further crime by locating buried firearms, explosives or illegal drugs.

"There is a growing network of geo-forensic specialists in academia, law enforcement, the military and industry around the world, and in Europe and North America in particular," he said. "The success of the conference has brought Latin America into the global association of geo-forensics. Colombia must be congratulated on its proactive stance of fighting crime and recognising the potential role of forensic geologists."