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The Violent Truth
Anthropologist pioneers new ways to investigate violence
UMass Amherst professor Ventura Pérez examines skeletal remains.

Ventura Pérez puts his forensic expertise to work in Juarez, Mexico, where he investigates the mechanisms that enable systematic violence to take place.

With a ground-breaking open-access journal and a one-of-a-kind archaeological field school to his credit, Dr. Ventura Pérez of the Anthropology Department is pioneering new ways to investigate violence. While his forensic skills are important to his work, Pérez has made an anthropologic name for himself in his insistent pursuit to see the person behind a crime and the greater societal messages that go along with it.

“The body is parchment where violence is written,” explains Pérez.

Son of a Mexican immigrant, Pérez is now putting his award-winning techniques to use in Juarez, Mexico as he investigates the mechanisms that enable systematic violence to take place. Mexican border-cities like Juarez are at the center of an international immigration debate fueled by politics and media. Pérez was inspired to get involved in 2010 after reading an article that connected modern-day beheadings in Mexico to those of the ancient Mayan civilization. Pérez says that he was bothered by how the article spoke about beheadings as if they are commonplace.

“It essentialized the violence; it made it sound like this is something that Mexicans do,” says Pérez.

Pérez also found an article that detailed the rape and beheading of a young Mexican girl in a human trafficking ring. The story was used repeatedly by politicians to justify more stringent immigration legislation. After a closer look, Pérez found that the brutal story was entirely fabricated by a reporter. Soon after, he debunked statements made by politicians regarding human skulls found in the Arizona desert. Pérez says that he began to notice a pattern—that politicians repeatedly use such unfounded rumors about “spill-over violence” from cartels to falsely fortify their political motives.

“It’s a way in which we build on the fear of ‘the other’–you create this kind of mythical monster,” says Pérez.

After receiving two grants from the university to continue investigating violence in Juarez, Pérez is researching the kinds of messages drug cartels are sending through their victims, how those messages are utilized and disseminated by the U.S. and Mexico, and ultimately the cultural and institutional impacts of those messages. The base of his work comes from examining the dead, and his analysis is demonstrating how cartels use violence very purposefully—their victims are used to communicate the cartels’ demands to others.

Pérez cautions that the notion of spill-over violence is a myth, that cartel members are not crossing the border to commit violence because they inherently want to maintain uninhibited control of their established drug ports.  He explains that cartel crime has become a catch-all and that such “performative” violence serves to systematize the more “quiet” forms of violence, such as domestic and child abuse.

“Everybody’s focusing on the grotesque and it’s coming at a high cost,” says Pérez.

Pérez’s work also has him delving in to the past. He recently completed a project in which he and his colleagues were able to repatriate skeletal remains and artifacts from a massacre that occurred in Mexico over a hundred years ago. The items were held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, yet the group ensured the remnants were returned to the indigenous Yaqui descendants in an emotional ceremony that made international news.

Pérez’s broad outlook distinguishes him in his field—a perspective which he is passing on to his students and to the community. Pérez recently began a summer archaeological field school. In the program, students gain hands-on experience with excavation and analysis of human skeletal remains. Because the Anthropology Department is a four-field department, meaning it offers training in the areas of archaeology and biological, linguistic, and cultural anthropology, Pérez and his colleagues are uniquely equipped to provide students with a multi-faceted education. The excavation portion is conducted with plastic skeletons, so students can learn freely without the fear of making costly mistakes. The lab work, however, is performed using actual remains.

After organizing a two-day interdisciplinary conference entitled “Landscapes of Violence,” Pérez was inspired to make his work accessible to the community on a continual basis. Keeping the conference title, Pérez and his colleagues have launched an open-access online journal to ensure that no one is excluded from the conversation simply because they are not involved in an academic circle. The journal pushed the boundaries of scholarly publication, but Pérez finds it critical to his mission. His resourcefulness landed him the SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) award of 2011.

“I saw this as integral to my research. My research is about activism; the journal is a way to actively engage the community,” says Pérez.

Pérez’s grandmother moved to the U.S. with her two sons after his grandfather was the victim of an “honor killing,” so violence has long been a subject he wanted to understand more deeply. His history with violence keeps him grounded in his mission—to analyze violence, and in doing so minimize it.