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From Guatemalan Soil, Scientists Unearth Signs of Genocide

May 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In Guatemala, investigators using forensic science have compelling evidence that thousands of innocent indigenous Ixil Mayans were the target of extermination in the 1980s. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on how murder, politics and science intersect in the genocide trial of former leader Efrain Rios Montt.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: a story that combines murder, politics and science in the Central American nation of Guatemala.

It centers on the trial of the country’s former leader, Efrain Rios Montt, charged with genocide that occurred during his rule in the 1980s. Rios Montt was a fervent anti-communist who was backed by the Reagan administration. At the time, the U.S. was criticized — criticized for supporting Rios Montt’s forces and claiming violence was decreasing there.

But, in 1999, President Bill Clinton traveled to Guatemala and expressed his regret for the U.S. government’s role and for not doing more to stop the killings.

Now the trial of the former president comes at a pivotal moment for the country.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

MILES O’BRIEN: In the lush volcanic highlands of Guatemala, a hike down a mountain trail often leads to the very heart of darkness.

And that is where Jose Ceto took me on this day near the village of Xexucap. They have exhumed 26 bodies here so far, girls, boys, elderly men and women, he told me. This place is one of at least 2,000 mass graves that dot the rugged landscape like festering wounds, the scars of a civil war that spanned 36 years in which some 200,000 were killed, more than 80 percent of them indigenous Mayans.

“There were total massacres,” he says. “People were tortured, burned, shot, stabbed by soldiers. They were exterminating entire communities. You can’t say that’s not genocide.”

This is at the heart of a turbulent trial in the capital. The man who ruled Guatemala during the bloodiest years of the long war, Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt, now 86, faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges stem from 15 massacres targeting Ixil Mayans that left over 1,700 dead, and displaced 29,000.

Never before in world history has a former head of state faced charges like these in a domestic court in his home country. In 1999, a U.N.-sponsored commission reported that it had found evidence of genocide and acts of brutality committed by the army against Mayans. But unequivocal as the report is, it is not a not a legal verdict.

For years, efforts to bring Rios Montt to trial were thwarted because he held congressional office, giving him immunity. When his term ran out in early 2012, a judge ruled he should stand trial. Rios Montt has remained mostly silent since the trial began. His daughter Zury, a Guatemalan legislator and the wife of former U.S. Congressman Jerry Weller, has been at her father’s side in court and in the court of public opinion.

Was there genocide during your father’s regime as president here in Guatemala?

ZURY RIOS MONTT, Daughter of Efrain Rios Montt: In Guatemala, there was no genocide during any regime.

MILES O’BRIEN: So what happened here?

ZURY RIOS MONTT: In Guatemala, there was confrontation. In Guatemala, there was war.

MILES O’BRIEN: But scientists have built a compelling forensics case that offers layers of evidence of a campaign to wipe out innocent indigenous Guatemalans.

It begins with the exhumations. Over the past 20 years, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation has unearthed 6,500 bodies from clandestine graves. The bones are cleaned, laid out and then carefully analyzed.

This skeleton shows evidence of four close-range gunshot wounds to the head. The man’s hands were tied behind his back, an execution. Forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli, a Guatemalan raised in the Bronx, is executive director here.

Would there be a case, would there be a trial without the evidence that you put together here?

FREDY PECCERELLI, Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation: There could be a trial without this evidence, but these are the bones and skeletons talking from the grave and telling them, telling the judges what happened to them. So if you take the physical evidence that we are presenting and you compile it with and compare it to the testimonial evidence, then you can make your own decisions.

MILES O’BRIEN: In a sophisticated DNA lab, they are grinding up bones or teeth and extracting DNA. Using software developed to identify 9/11 attack victims, they analyze about 300 samples a month, comparing genes found in the remains to relatives who lost their loved ones in the slaughters or who simply went missing.

So far, they have identified less than half of the remains they have exhumed. Their storage rooms overflow with a backlog of cardboard boxes filled with bones. But Rios Montt’s supporters insist scientists are either imprecise or flat wrong, and there is no way to link the deaths to his nearly 17-month reign in 1982 and ’83.

Guatemalan Harris Whitbeck was one of Rios Montt’s top advisers in the Ixil region. He testified for the defense at the trial.

HARRIS WHITBECK, Former Rios Montt Adviser: Do they know who shot the bullet? Do they know exactly on the date these people were killed? I’m not a scientist. I don’t know.

MILES O’BRIEN: In fact, the forensic anthropologists are not that precise. But the bones aren’t all that are doing the talking. Thirty years ago, an eye in the sky was watching, a U.S. science satellite called Landsat passing overhead.

Russ Schimmer is an expert in geomatics, the science of gathering, analyzing and interpreting geographic information. He has pored over Landsat images of the Ixil highlands of Guatemala captured before and after Rios Montt’s rule. He has documented huge swathes of land that were highly vegetated in 1979 and then barren in 1986. Schimmer ruled out natural events, leaving only massive deliberately set fires as the possible cause.

RUSSELL SCHIMMER, Yale University: There’s no way you’re going to go out there and light a match and you’re going to see — I mean, some of the areas that were burnt are five football fields large, and it covers areas which are just huge, hundreds of square kilometers of destroyed vegetation.

MILES O’BRIEN: But could the carnage during Rios Montt’s regime be random casualties of war, not the mass murder of an ethnic group?

Also testifying at the trial, statistician Patrick Ball. He culled and compared homicide rates from four separate sources.

PATRICK BALL, Human Rights Data Analysis Group: We calculate that about 5.5 percent of the indigenous people alive in April of 1982 were killed by July of 1983; 5.5 percent were killed in those 16 months.

At the same time, among their non-indigenous neighbors, about 0.7 percent of the people who were alive in April of 1982 had been killed by July of 1983.

MILES O’BRIEN: There is also a massive incriminating paper trail that the Rios Montt regime left behind.

These are some of the 80 million documents found in a derelict warehouse in the capital in 2005. It was the headquarters of the national police, implicated in the torture, murder, and disappearance of tens of thousands of citizens, some of them children. An independently funded group is using the latest archival science techniques to clean, organize and scan everything into a searchable online database.

Kate Doyle is an adviser to the Guatemalan national police historical archive.

KATE DOYLE, The National Security Archive: The opening of public access to the material has just democratized this information, and it, in some ways, democratized people’s understanding of the conflict itself, of the war itself.

MILES O’BRIEN: Filmmaker Pamela Yates also unwittingly gathered a key piece of evidence against Rios Montt in 1982, as she shot her film “When the Mountains Tremble.”

She captured gut-wrenching proof of the brutality of the Guatemalan government forces. But it was an outtake of her interview with Gen. Rios Montt that proved most damning.

He told Yates: “Our strength is in our capacity to make command decisions. That’s the most important thing. The army is ready and able to act, because, if I can’t control the army, then what am I doing here?”

The clip became the centerpiece of Yates’ 2011 film “Granito.” And prosecutors played the full interview at the trial. Rios Montt could only watch as his own words confirmed he had firm control over the army and its actions during the slaughters.

PAMELA YATES, Co-Founder, Skylight Pictures: On one hand, we’re using great technology, innovative technology to discover things that we didn’t know before.

And on the other hand, we’re using traditional technology, like the documents in the police archive, like the .16-millimeter film from 1982, that come together and form a meeting.

MILES O’BRIEN: But all the forensic science and technology would mean nothing without the courageous testimony of the Ixil, who are in court every day.

More than 30 women have testified. They recounted horrible stories of government soldiers killing their babies, husbands, and relatives, and then raping them repeatedly.

Juana Sanchez Toma was one of them. She told the court she was captured by Guatemalan army soldiers and taken to the main church in Nebaj, where they severely beat her.

“They raped us in groups repeatedly,” she said, “a mountain of women, so many women. They raped us all, but none of the women said anything because we were terrified. But the pain never ended. I began to hemorrhage from all the rapes. They said, ‘Go to your house.’ They threw me out. But I was hemorrhaging.”

The same thing happened to her mother, who died not long after she was released.

It’s gripping testimony. Do you doubt the credibility of those women?

“I doubt the credibility of several witnesses,” Zury Rios Montt told me. “Some of them have invented stories which have been taught to them. Why? Because they were members of the subversive groups. They have been told that, if you say this or that, you are going to receive financial compensation.”

Juana Sanchez Toma is desperately poor, and yet generous. She has taken in this devastated widow and is offended by the accusation she is simply seeking money.

“What I want is justice,” she told me. “They gave the orders that all of the savages be exterminated, that they take out the garbage, because they said we were savages and that we were garbage.”

Nearby, in the town of Nebaj, Ixil Mayans have not forgotten any of this. The rule of law and the rules of forensic science may be changing this country, but the change is slow. And, in the church where the women were raped, there is a shrine to those who died in the massacres, memories that no amount of justice will erase.

RAY SUAREZ: Producer Xeni Jardin is still in Guatemala covering the trial, where closing arguments began this evening. Miles gets more details from her in an online conversation. Plus, you can watch an extended version of the report you just saw.