Profile: Isaias Rojas-Perez

Associate Professor of Anthropology

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Global Urban Studies/Urban Systems Ph.D.


Sociocultural anthropology; anthropological theory and methods; Andean anthropology (with a focus on Peru); anthropology of violence and the state; anthropology of law; human rights and forensic anthropology; transitional justice;  post-conflict cinema; Latin American studies.  

My work focuses on the problem of justice and recovery in the aftermath of devastating political violence.  My research interests draw from my previous long term work as human rights activist during the worst moments of the 1980s and 1990s Peru’s internal war between the Peruvian military and the Maoist Shining Path.  Writing against violence and terror and reporting state crimes to national and international audiences, I gained a profound insight into how state violence and legal practices can mutually inform each other in contexts of counterinsurgency in which law shields the violence of the state that sustains it.  I bring this understanding to my commitments to anthropological research and teaching.  As global discourses of human rights prescribe legal means to deal with state atrocity, I am interested in understanding how law detaches itself from the violence during the war to either obscure or allow for possibilities of justice and recovery during the post-war. More specifically, as the Peruvian post-conflict state attempts to bring closure to the violence of the past through legal means set within a project of transitional justice, I am interested in understanding how families and communities of victims engage the work of the law to attain senses of justice and mourning in the aftermath of atrocity.  This legalization of justice provides grounds for an engaged anthropological research in a comparative perspective on the broader political and ethical question of how contemporary societies recover from massive violence and death. 

  • Associated Programs

    Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights
    International Institute for Peace

  • Courses Taught

    Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
    Anthropology of Power
    Human Rights in a Global World

  • Education

    Ph.D. Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University, 2010
    M.A. Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University, 2006
    Special Diploma in Sociology, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1994
    B.A. Electrical Engineering, Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco, Peru, 1987

  • Publications

    Poole, Deborah and Isaias Rojas-Perez. “Memories of Reconciliation. Photography and Memory in Postwar Peru.” e-misferica 7(2); NYU, February 2011.

    Rojas-Perez, Isaias. “Writing the Aftermath. Anthropology and Post Conflict in Latin America.” In Deborah Poole ed. A Companion to Latin American Anthropology. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008).

    Rojas-Perez, Isaias “’Ahorita lo solucionamos’. Guerra, Intimidad y Corrupción en Peru.” In Oscar Ugarteche ed. Vicios Publicos, Poder y Corrupción  (Fondo de Cultura Economica and SUR: Lima, 2005).

    Rojas-Perez, Isaias “La Crisis Colombiana y Perú.” In Colombia Internacional (1) 60 (Centro de Estudios Internacionales. Universidad de los Andes: Bogotá, 2005).

    Rojas-Perez, Isaias. “Peru: Drug Control Policy, Human Rights, and Democracy” in Youngers, Coletta and Eileen Rosin eds. Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004).

    Rojas-Perez, Isaías. “The Push for Zero Coca: Democratic Transition and Counternarcotics Policy in Peru”. The Drug War Monitor, February 2003. (Washington Office for Latin America, Washington DC, 2003).

    Under Review and Works in Progress

    Rojas-Perez, Isaias. Fragments of Soul: Law, Transitional Justice and Mourning in Postwar Peru (Book manuscript in preparation).

    Rojas-Perez, Isaias. “Inhabiting Unfinished Pasts: Law, Transitional Justice, and National Reconciliation in Post war Peru.” Humanity, Spring 2012 [in revision].

    Rojas-Perez, Isaias. “Domesticating Terror. Ritualization, Recovery and Political Mourning in Post-War Peru.” In School of Advanced Research seminar “Disturbing Bodies: A Relational Exploration of Forensic Archaeological Practice.” Santa Barbara, California: SAR, Spring 2012. [In preparation].

  • Research Initiatives

    I am working on my book manuscript, Fragments of Soul: Law, Transitional Justice and Mourning in Postwar Peru, in which I examine the problem of justice and mourning without the body in the aftermath of devastating violence.  I focus specifically on the intervention of criminal law in cases of desaparecidos [forced disappearances] during the 1980s and 1990s counterinsurgency campaign in the Peruvian south central Andes.  Through an ethnographic approach to forensic procedures of exhumation of clandestine mass graves located within Los Cabitos, the military headquarters of the counterinsurgency campaign, my book considers the limits and possibilities of the law as a means for restoring victims’ missing bodies to their relatives. I argue that these legal and forensic efforts often fail because individualization and identification of the victims become impossible tasks, given the technologies of killing and disposal of bodies employed by the Peruvian military in their war against the Maoist Shining Path. I also explore how, in face of this failure of the law to restore the individual missing body, the relatives of desaparecidos engage in forms of mourning without the body that recreate culturally established forms of mourning in the aftermath of state terror. Through the sacralization and memorialization of the site of exhumation, as well as the ritual appropriation of the unidentified human remains uncovered by the forensic excavations, the relatives of desaparecidos constitute a symbolic body that is collectively mourned as “our” rather than “my” disappeared.  I focus in particular on the culturally informed notion of soul that emerges in these legal and forensic rituals and how it enables survivors and relatives to affirm through ordinary languages the officially denied existence of the desaparecidos. Thus, while the state’s promise to bring closure to the violence and suffering of the past through legal means remains unfulfilled, it nonetheless allows for complex interactions of the law with other social and cultural norms through which the missing body is imagined and reclaimed. Brought back to a ritual and symbolical existence in the present, the missing body both challenges official narratives of the war and expresses the impossibility of reconciliation with state terror.

    I have also started a research project in the field of anthropology of law that seeks to expand my inquiry into the work of international human rights case law on cases of desaparecidos in Latin America.  By looking at the rulings of the Inter American Court of Human Rights, I am interested in understanding how practices of state terror and notions of national sovereignty have been reconciled in international human rights jurisprudence. Similarly, I seek to understand the legal languages through which the missing body is spoken of as well as how culturally situated categories such as “proper burial” are legalized through languages of international human rights law.

    Finally, I have started new projects in two areas of anthropological research I have been interested in for a long-time. The first is in the field of visual anthropology, through which I seek to understand how Latin American cinema has dealt with the problem of representation of violence, terror and suffering. I am interested in exploring the ethnographic possibilities of feature films in terms of their potentiality for connecting everyday life, fiction and major historical events through the circulation of ordinary languages and epochal conversations through which people tell their experience in their world. In theoretical terms, I am interested in the problem of the intersections between image and perception, particularly in relation to the question of trauma and mechanical repetition of violence.

    The second deals with the impact of the “war on drugs” on Latin American democracy and human rights. I have written extensively on this topic in the past and have conducted preliminary fieldwork among the Apurimac River Valley coca growers in the Amazonian region of Ayacucho, Peru. I am interested in studying the intersections between the regimes of law, violence, and human rights in the production and circulation of suspicion as the defining form of presence of, and relation with, the state in its margins.