Day 6

Investigators work to identify victims of Guatemala's civil war, 21 years after it ended

Two hundred thousand people were killed in the fighting. Fredy Peccerelli is devoting his life to identifying the 40,000 who have yet to be named so that they can be returned to their families.
Families in Santa Avelina, Guatemala carry the remains of their loved ones who were victims of the country's civil war. The remains were located, identified and returned by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. (FAFG)

by Brent Bambury

The bodies Fredy Peccerelli uncovers in mass graves in Guatemala have been missing for a long time.

Guatemala's civil war ended in 1996, but it raged for 27 years.

In that time, 200,000 civilians were killed by their own government, police or military. The vast majority of those victims were Indigenous.

All that's left of them now are bones.

Definitely the families obviously want justice. But they also need to find [the missing] first. So that's why the search is so important.- Fredy Peccerelli, forensic anthropologist

"We literally bring the skeleton out of the ground," Peccerelli explains.

Peccerelli is a forensic anthropologist. He's exhumed mass grave sites in other conflict zones like Bosnia, but he's spent 23 years in Guatemala searching for the 40,000 missing victims of one of Latin America's bloodiest civil conflicts.

He and the organization he co-founded, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, have uncovered the remains of 10,000 people.

Using DNA technology and records kept by the regime, Peccerelli and his team identify the remains, and when possible, return them to the families that have been searching for their loved ones since the day they disappeared.

On Day 6, he tells us what that entails.

"We actually sit down with each family face-to-face, and we tell them that we have found their loved one, what we've found, where we found them, how the body was, what the cause of death was, if there was any blindfold or if their hands were tied, which grave they were found in, the location."

A public ritual follows, one that proclaims the innocence of the victim.

"Obviously when the reburying happens, the emotions literally explode," Peccerelli says. "And they're public. They carry the bodies usually through the streets and town centres, sort of in a dignifying march, saying: 'We're here. We didn't do anything wrong. And now we're back with the families'."

"Definitely the families obviously want justice. But they also need to find [the missing] first. So that's why the search is so important."

Fredy Peccerelli, director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. (Skylight Pictures)


Forensic evidence and death threats

"Finding, searching and identifying someone is only part of the work," Peccerelli says. "The other part is to present the evidence in court."

But justice moves slowly in Guatemala.

José Efraín Ríos Montt, a military officer and president during the height of the conflict, was tried for genocide in 2013, the first time a former head of state faced such charges in his own country.

Peccerelli presented evidence at the trial. Rios Montt was convicted, but the verdict was overturned.

Most of them are Indigenous. It has to do with racism.- Fredy Peccerelli, forensic anthropologist

"There are other cases for other types of atrocities, like forced disappearances or sexual enslavement, and those cases are beginning to happen," Peccerelli says.

"Obviously the reason why there is such a lack of support in Guatemala is because a lot of the people that participated in these crimes and gave the orders are still in positions of power or included in government."

That's what makes Peccerelli's work dangerous.

In the documentary film Granito: How to Nail a DictatorPeccerelli reads aloud a threat addressed to him and other forensic anthropologists in Guatemala.

"Fredy, we got what we wanted: all your information in our hands. Today you'll all pay, sons of bitches. We have photos and details on your family. We're watching your kids' schools and where you work. Your days are numbered. We'll dump your bodies in graves."

I asked him who he thought was threatening his life and his family.

"Well, lately the death threats have turned into defamation campaigns, into criminalization efforts in the courts, and we don't have to guess who it is anymore. It's organizations that represent the people being accused of these crimes," he says.

"For example, there is a case where we recovered 565 human skeletal remains from a former military installation and there was an arrest of 14 former military officers. Their defence and the organization that supports them is the one making these false accusations about us and also intimidating [us]."

Peccerelli says those making threats against him have enough power to follow through.

"It makes us think of how vulnerable we are in a place where the people that are conducting these threats have operational power — and if they wanted to do something, they could."           

Relatives prepare the remains of a recently identified loved one — a victim of Guatemala's Civil War — for reburial. (Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala)

'The families have nothing'

When the victims of Guatemala's civil war were taken from their homes, slaughtered and dumped in graves, their survivors had no political power, and no recourse.

There hasn't been a simple or easy day doing this work. But no matter how difficult it has been for us, it's nothing in comparison to what the families go through.- Fredy Peccerelli, forensic anthropologist

"All of these civilians — children and women — that were executed or disappeared are considered to be non-important or second-class citizens", Peccerelli says. "Most of them are Indigenous. It has to do with racism."

Peccerelli believes if his organization capitulated to threats, it would prolong the suffering of those he's fighting for.

"I do always think that no matter how much these threats or intimidation affect us, the families have nothing. We have the support of the international community. We have the support of the prosecutor's office, but the families that have to live through this every day, they don't have any of that," he explains.

"There hasn't been a simple or easy day doing this work. But no matter how difficult it has been for us, it's nothing in comparison to what the families go through. So we represent hope to them."



Return from exile

Peccerelli's own family barely escaped the junta. In 1980, his father, a lawyer, was targeted and the family fled to New York. Fredy was nine.

As a youth in the Bronx, he wasn't preoccupied with Guatemala. But then he found inspiration.

"It was a combination of, you know, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford with Indiana Jones, and [Nobel Peace Prize winner] Rigoberta Menchú in her book, and me wanting to reconnect to Guatemala," he says.

I've seen efforts of this when the World Trade Center terrorism attacks happened ... I want to do the same for Guatemala. I think we deserve the same effort.- Fredy Peccerelli, forensic anthropologist

"And then when I got here, I realized what had happened. I did know the extent and when I met the people in the communities, I fell in love with them and with Guatemala, and I realized that I had a responsibility. We all have a responsibility."

Peccerelli likens his search for victims of the genocide to the care taken to find the remains of those killed in the attacks on 9/11.

"You know, having grown up in New York, I don't think Guatemalans are any less important than New Yorkers," he points out. "I've seen efforts of this when the World Trade Center terrorism attacks happened. I have never seen such an effort to search for every single person that was there. I want to do the same for Guatemala. I think we deserve the same effort.

"I think it's our duty as citizens of the world to look for the Guatemalans, but also disappeared people in Mexico and Sri Lanka and Colombia. This is much bigger than just Guatemala."

The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation is now fundraising to help further its work, with a goal of $10,500 raised by December 31. For more information, go here.

To hear the full conversation with Fredy Peccerelli about his work in Guatemala, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.