Exhumed bones may offer clues to Guatemala’s `disappeared’
Authorities have begun exhumations in Guatemala, hoping to provide answers to family members of those killed in the nation’s civil war
BY EZRA FIESER
GUATEMALA CITY — Working in a shabby public cemetery, anthropologists are pulling skeletons from an enormous well, hoping the bones will provide clues to what happened to thousands of “disappeared” people during the longest and bloodiest Central American civil war.
In what looks like a giant crime scene, the anthropologists — from the Foundation of Forensic Anthropology of Guatemala, a private group founded in 1994 — are sifting skulls, femurs and ribs to find signs of violence. The bones are nearly three decades old, dumped here during the height of the civil war, but they still carry signs of trauma: a gunshot or machete hack to the skull.
An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the 36-year-old civil war, a truth commission later found. Among the dead were 45,000 people said to be “disappeared” — abducted, then killed, their bodies never again seen. Many were urban residents, including public university students, activists, writers and poets who opposed the military dictatorships.
While anthropologists have dug up hundreds of graves around the country, this is the first exhumation in the city.
“These people would be picked up, questioned and tortured. And their families couldn’t go claim the bodies because they feared for their own lives,” said Fredy Peccerelli, head of the forensic anthropologists. “It’s not just here. There are cemeteries around the country” with the bodies of the disappeared.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, roughly 3,000 unidentified bodies ended up at this site — Las Verbena — a dusty cemetery marked by crumbling gravestones that sits next to a slum. They were buried with the name “XX,” a version of John or Jane Doe.
Ana Lucrecia Molina Theissen believes her brother’s bones are there. Military forces abducted him from their mother’s house while Theissen watched on Oct. 6, 1981. His family does not know why he was taken and they never saw him again.
“He was only 14 when they took him. And he’s never coming back,” she said. “The truth also disappeared in Guatemala together with the disappearance of my brother and the 45,000 other victims.”
Eventually, the bodies ended up in deep wells, mixed with bones of people who died of other causes but were interred here because their families could not afford a burial.
The forensic anthropologists’ job is to identify those who were killed in the years that correspond to the civil war.
Once the bones are analyzed, teeth and femurs will be sent to the lab where DNA will be extracted. Using software that came about to identify remains after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the DNA from those bones will be matched to DNA of family members of the disappeared.
Those family members are currently giving mouth swabs to build a DNA database under the country’s first national campaign to collect information about the disappeared.
Once they have a match, the families can search national police archives for information about who ordered their abductions. With that information, they can potentially bring charges against the perpetrators of the crimes.
The process could bring closure to family members while also helping the country come to terms with its brutal past.
“Only understanding the barbarities committed during those years what could have been done by the representatives of the organizations involved in the conflict, will allow us to avoid it in the future,” said U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland at a February event marking the start of the exhumation.
The United States is one of several governments funding the forensic team and the exhumation of the cemetery. But many point to the role the U.S. government played in Guatemala’s past.
The CIA orchestrated a coup in 1954 that overthrew a democratically elected president and that laid the foundation for the war, which began six years later.
Fighting continued until 1996 peace accords brought it to an end. A United Nations-ordered truth and reconciliation commission found that state and right wing paramilitary forces carried out 93 percent of the killings.
These days, Guatemala is still plagued by violence. With a murder rate eight times higher than that of the United States, it’s one of the most murderous countries in the world.
Many believe a direct link between the war’s brutality and today’s rampant crime exists.
“Today’s injustice and impunity has a direct connection with the injustice and impunity of the past,” McFarland said. “There is a connection, not always a direct one, but there is always a connection.””