“The Black Boxes of Forced Disappearance” in Colombia –Analysis of DH Tools + Potentials

For this week task I chose to analyze the DH tools used for the investigation: “The Black Boxes of Enforced Disappearance”. This work is not a DH project (apologies). However, it does use many of the tools that DH scholars work and interact with, particularly those involving mapping, 3d modeling, video analysis, archive analysis and data mining. The “Black Boxes” investigation is part of the final report done by Colombia’s Truth Commission. This Commission was established in 2016 as part of the country’s peace agreement process. The purpose of the commission is to “shed light on five decades of atrocities and human rights violations committed during the country’s armed conflict” (United Nations). A Truth Commission is an institution that promotes a transitional justice system and reinforces the importance of truth to resolve conflicts and most importantly as it sees truth as a form of reparation to victims of human rights violations. Truth, however, is not perceived as a matter-of-factness statement but as a complex and heterophonic narrative. The most popular (and perhaps the first?) truth commission in the world was established by Nelson Mandela in South Africa to “help deal what happened under apartheid”. Given the tools used, the complexity of the investigation and the profound impact this work has I think it can constitute a very interesting example of the intersection between digital tools and humanistic inquiry in a broader and real-life scenario.

–The context–

“The Black Boxes of Enforced Disappearance” is an investigation that traces the events that occurred in Bogotá, Colombia between November 6 and 7 of 1985 when the M-19 guerrilla took over the Justice Palace and the operations that the Colombian government launched to “retake” such building. This episode is one of the deadliest and most traumatic events of Colombia’s internal conflict. It was broadcasted by the national TV in real time but left in total impunity. The aftermath of the event left 101 civilians dead and an unknown number of missing persons. The investigation focuses on what happened to those that were murdered and disappeared. One of the most complex results of the investigation is that the Colombian armed forces were the ones that carried out the torture, killing and in some cases, the disappearance of the hostages of the building. As they put it: “Our analysis shows that what was presented as a chaotic hostage release scenario by the armed forces has served for decades to cover up a planned and organized counterinsurgency operation” (Colombian Truth Commission). The complete history of this event is very intricate and difficult, I’ve left some links at the end for those that want to know more about the content of the investigation.

–The Builders–

As we’ve seen with the past readings and discussions pertaining the knowledge production in DH interdisciplinary is also central in this investigation. There were three major builders in this project. The video analysis, mapping, data mining and architecture reconstruction of the places were the killing and people’s disappearance occurred was carried out by the Forensic Architecture agency. This is an agency based in London and mainly composed of architects, filmmakers, software developers and (some) social scientists. The data collection, social work and archival analysis was carried out by a specific appointed truth commissioner and his research team. Interesting fact, the main social researcher in charge, Oscar Pedraza , holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the Graduate Center! And the third set of builders (this is my assumption) are most likely web designers, perhaps UX/UI designers, that render the content available and legible for the digital world and the Colombian population at large.

–The Tools & Outcomes–

Although I’m not actually familiar with how the tools operate or their tech specificities of the programs or platforms employed (this is also very interesting that the digital builders don’t really name their tools, they name their technique, but that’s different), there are many key takeaways from the way they presented the investigation for the public. I’ve separated the ones that I think most important in the following categories:

  • Geographical analysis: 3d modeling and cartographies were used to project the videos recovered from the event but also to trace the routes taken by the hostages and the armed actors.
  • Video analysis: 50 hours of video was synchronized to create a narrative of how the hostages were evacuated from the building and where they were last seen.
  • Audio analysis: 76 testimonies were analyzed and compared with other data
  • Data mining: large volumes of data found in a variety of documents (“sentences, hearings, reports, resolutions, official letters, expert reports, statements, DNA identification, etc) helped place the evidence in space and time and show how many of the evidence throughout the years (videos, photos, reports) has been manipulated or erased. Fascinating conclusion about data (maybe obvios to some of you): data moves in time, is not stable, is very fragile.
  • Documentary, Guides & Exhibition: To help the public walk through all this material the investigation produced a documentary, several special guides (like this one) with visuals that help elucidate and educate how the geographical analysis was done. And last they hosted an exhibition at a museum with a mural title “Negative Evidence

–The Potentials–

After reviewing the project, I think there are many interesting ways of using techniques for humanistic inquiries. I will just focus on one, the video analysis. Given that this events, as I mentioned before, where broadcasted in national television, there was a lot of footage to reconstruct. Nonetheless these sources, this video archive, was manipulated and erased throughout the years, the research point out to the extreme difficulty of organizing and making sense of this data. It seems incredible the work they were able to do with the video available and in a sense, it reminds me of the project of Colored Conventions, of course not for a video archive, but for the visual record that is used to reconstruct a narrative that seems to have been buried in history. This very fragile and manipulated data, that is in both cases very visual is used to narrate a story that must come to light or to public knowledge in a new way and in both cases can have a very reparatory and healing outcome for all the actors involved.

–The shortcomings of my Analysis–

This was a very complex investigation that involves many tools, researchers, infrastructure, resources, etc. With more time it would be nice to explore deeper the tools used. Also, given that this is presented as a finalized investigation; a finalized “product” and not a project in process I don’t have a lot of knowledge about what kind of problems they ran into, besides the difficulty of the task itself! and besides the effects of the pandemic.

Links/Further reading:

About the events & recent | About the Tools | About the Builders & video | Similar Techniques in Journalism (NYT)