Uncovering the Past in Guatemala
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SAUL GONZALEZ: On a forested hillside in the highlands of western Guatemala, the villagers of Chunimachicaj gather to grieve and pray, asking God to bless the work about to begin here. That work is a dig.
Forensic anthropologists, with the help of villagers, are searching for evidence of a massacre, the remains of people killed by government soldiers here over two decades ago when this country was in the grip of a vicious civil war.
FRANCISCO SUKHEN (Translated) On the 5th of May 1982, the soldiers gathered together the poor men buried somewhere here, tortured them, and then brought them here to kill them.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Francisco Sukhen, a lay pastor in the village who survived the massacre, says such incidents were common in those years because of the government’s belief Indian villagers were helping leftist rebels.
FRANCISCO SUKHEN (Translated): It was the same all around this area, the massacres, the violence. Such a complete sadness was to be found here. All of the time you lived with such fear for your family, but where could we go?
SAUL GONZALEZ: About three hours into the work, the forensic experts begin finding human remains– first small fragments of bone, then clothing with skeletal pieces beneath the fabric. As the digging continues, skulls are soon unearthed. These remains represent just some of the 200,000 people who were killed during this country’s 36-year-long civil conflict, a conflict that ended with the signing of peace accords in 1996.
Now that the fighting has stopped, a group called the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which is directing this exhumation, is on a mission to find and identify the war’s innocent victims.
FREDY PECCERELLI: This is the cranium that’s currently being reconstructed.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Forensic anthropologist Freddy Peccerelli is the foundation’s founder and director. He sees Guatemala as one vast human rights crime scene.
FREDY PECCERELLI: Every single time we go into a community and conduct an investigation, we find out every other community that surrounds it also wants an investigation to be carried out because one person was killed, because the entire community was wiped out, because ten people disappeared. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.
SAUL GONZALEZ: After remains are exhumed in the field, the team’s work moves here to its headquarters, a one-time private residence in Guatemala City that’s been turned into a no-frills forensics laboratory. This is where the experts attempt to both ID remains and determine how people were killed.
FREDY PECCERELLI: Each remain has a specific case number. And then those are handed over to each anthropologist, who, begin by laying out the remains on the table and then conducting an analysis that entails the determination of sex, stature, age, eventually getting down to the reconstruction of the remains to try to establish the trauma, the trauma that contributed to the cause of death.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Since Peccerelli founded the Forensic Anthropology Foundation in 1997, he and his small group of colleagues have recovered and examined over 3,000 skeletons.
They say most of the remains they analyze show clear evidence of execution-style killings against civilians.
DANNY GUZMAN (Translated): This is an adolescent, around 15 years of age. He has an entry wound here in the back of the skull. The projectile entered here and came out through the face.
FREDY PECCERELLI: I would say anyone who has the slightest bit of training can see the first day that they step into this office that we are talking here about very violent crimes and very repetitive crimes.
SAUL GONZALEZ: When the war raged, the worst violence occurred in Guatemala’s western highlands, home to the country’s large Mayan Indian population. It was here, Peccerelli says, that the government’s conflict with leftist guerillas turned into a merciless war against the country’s indigenous people, like the villagers of Chunimachicaj.
FREDY PECCERELLI: It falls within a strategy of genocide. The idea wasn’t only to wipe out the possibility of communism. It was also to wipe out a certain group of people. Those groups of people were the indigenous Mayan of Guatemala. Anyone who the army felt was a threat was to be wiped out. That included the children; it included women; it included the elderly. It basically included everyone.
SAUL GONZALEZ: This country is just starting to confront the human costs of its civil war. Many of the conflict’s victims are honored at Guatemala City’s Catholic cathedral. Here the names of thousands of the dead, vanished and tortured are etched in the marble columns.
Around the city, it’s also common to see walls plastered with the photos of those who vanished. They’re people believed to have been abducted and killed by the military during the war.
Forensic anthropologists who investigate war crimes and human rights abuse cases say their work is about far more than identifying remains and determining the causes of death; it’s also about honoring the memory of victims and making sure that their lives, as well as their deaths, are not forgotten.
SHARON SOLIS (Translated): Ultimately all of these victims are really our victims. They are part of our national memory.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Forensic anthropologist Sharon Solis says her greatest responsibility is returning respect to the dead.
SHARON SOLIS (Translated): Of course, that’s probably the most important part of the work. It’s something that we owe to the people who suffered these deaths: To find them and return them to their families so they can be buried with dignity.
SAUL GONZALEZ: However, their work has earned these forensic experts enemies, people who want to keep evidence of past atrocities buried and forgotten.
FREDY PECCERELLI: We receive phone calls, letters. The letters were very clear: “We’ve let you exhume all these bodies in peace, but now your families are going to exhume your bodies and the bodies of your children in tears. None of these cases will ever go to court,” et cetera, et cetera. The words weren’t so polite — very specific: “We know where you move; we know where you live; you are being watched.”
SAUL GONZALEZ: And yet you continue?
FREDY PECCERELLI: The work is too important. If we just stopped the work, whoever is making these threats would win. And this work is a lot bigger than one individual. It has become part of the reconstruction of Guatemala.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Although prosecutions of those responsible for massacres and other war crimes are very rare in Guatemala, Peccerelli and his colleagues hope the evidence they’re gathering will one day be used to bring killers to justice.