Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Sherlock Holmes Canino Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Brenda Smiley

Students, dissidents and patriots, farmers, priests and nuns resisted the military dictators who ruled Panama for nearly three decades. Some paid with their lives. Only now is a government Truth Commission trying to find the graves of nearly 200 Desaparecidos--the Disappeared. Created last January and headed by respected lawyer Alberto Almanza, the group faced a daunting task with limited funds and only a nine-month mandate. Then a member happened to buy a copy of ARCHAEOLOGY while passing through Chicago's O'Hare airport and read about Eagle, a "death investigation dog" with an uncanny gift for detecting buried human remains, no matter how old ("Hounding the Dead," September/October 2000). Last July, with President Mireya Moscoso's personal approval, Eagle, trainer-handler Sandra Anderson, and a team of U.S. forensic experts arrived in the Republic of Panama.

For one week the black Doberman-pointer mix worked over seven potential mass grave sites from Panama City to the Costa Rica border and sniffed out at least ten sets of human remains. At an old military barracks near Tocumen airport, Eagle probed a bulldozed pit for the remains of Hector Gallego, a martyred priest and champion of campesinos (peasant farmers), who vanished in 1968. He marked locations that yielded what were identified as human tarsal bone fragments and a tibia, which will be sent to the U.S. for DNA testing.

By day two, Eagle himself had been discovered--by the Panamanian media. Stories and pictures of the "Sherlock Holmes canino" filled the front pages of newspapers, and TV crews dogged the dog under the watchful eye of a 24-hour presidential armed guard. Soon Eagle flew to the Coiba Island penal colony off Panama's Pacific coast, seeking clues to the location of another noted dissident, Floyd Britton, who died after being imprisoned in 1968 by General Omar Torrijos. He found many unmarked burials, four of which were immediately exhumed.

Anderson said the job had been "vastly more difficult" than at home in Michigan, where she doesn't worry about Eagle encountering deadly snakes and toxic plants. At a ceremony the night before his departure, Eagle, decked out in a starry Panamanian-flag neckerchief, received plaques of appreciation from relatives of the Disappeared, as well as the local humane society. "In seven days," said anthropologist Bruce Broce, "Eagle accomplished what would have taken months, years." Almanza's spirits were raised by watching Eagle uncover sins of the past. "It gives us hope that we will eventually learn the truth," he said. Our country has suffered for many decades, and by learning about what happened, we can do everything possible to ensure that history will not repeat itself."

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Eagle was on the job again, called by government investigators to seek remains at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. Anderson and Eagle plan to return to Panama this winter.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America