The Task of Reading Guatemala’s Bones

Fredy Peccerelli, a Guatemalan forensic anthropologist, is standing in front of a table slightly bigger than himself and covered with a blue cloth.

Two of his colleagues (a man and a woman, both – just like Fredy – dressed in white aprons and latex gloves) are holding brown paper bags from which they are taking bones and placing them on the table, forming the outline of a skeleton.

A few minutes later, the table draped in blue bears a human skeleton, which Fredy looks at quietly and calmly.

He walks around the table, studies it, picks up a bone here or there to take a closer look.

“This person suffered a great deal of violence but it was not intended to kill them; these are the signs of torture,” he says.

Freddy is the founder and director of the Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala) and very little seems to scare him.

He is speaking from his laboratory in Guatemala City, one of the few in Latin America that has been accredited to conduct genetic studies aimed at identifying the remains of the victims of the disappearances and massacres that took place during the armed conflict that rocked the Central American country from 1960 to 1996.

The organization, founded in 1997, has now exhumed 1,450 graves, discovered the remains of 6,500 victims and testified in a number of the trials that are being held in Guatemala.

The bones tell a story

The foundation’s experts organize the work into a number of stages.

First, they contact the victims’ families to find out what they know (where the person was last seen, for example) and to obtain a biological profile (sex, age, size and any other special physical characteristics).

This information is then cross-referenced with the findings of the forensic anthropologists – the people who are looking for, exhuming and recovering the human remains.

In some cases, the bodies are found within the communities themselves. In others, they are in cemeteries, buried as “NN” (“no name”), or in mass graves in military camps or elsewhere.

“The forensic archaeologists are experts in finding bodies. My forensic archaeology teacher told me, ‘Fredy, if you want to leave your mark on this world, dig a hole because the soil has taken millions of years to compact to how it is today and when we make a hole there is absolutely no way we can put it back as it was with all the separate strata,” explains Fredy.

Once the remains have been recovered, the work continues in the laboratory, where expert teams analyse each bone, focusing on the trauma it presents, looking for signs of bullets or blows and fractures in order to determine if the person died of natural causes or as a result of violence.

Genetic samples are then taken from the remains and cross-checked with a database of the victim’s relatives.

Success lies in finding a match.

After all this the moment comes to inform the family – telling a father, mother, brother or son that these are his or her relative’s bones and that this is all that remains of their loved one.

“In March this year, I went to see the sister of Hugo Navarro (a social activist who disappeared in 1984) and I told her, ‘We’ve found your brother, we have his body’. I was quite pleased with all the information I was giving her but then she turned to me and said, ‘Thank you, and my son? He disappeared as well, haven’t you found him?’ I fell apart. I thought we’d achieved something great, and perhaps it was, but it wasn’t everything.”

From Brooklyn to the forests of Guatemala

Fredy fell into forensic anthropology almost by chance.

His family moved to Brooklyn, New York, in November 1980 to escape the threats that his father – captain of the weightlifting team that represented Guatemala in the 1980 Moscow Olympics – had been receiving because of his alleged sympathies with communism.

Fredy says that he grew up in a vacuum, with little interest in Guatemala, the country that had forced them to leave. Some years later, he enrolled at City University and met forensic anthropologists Karen Ramey Burns and Clyde Snow. They offered him the opportunity to return to his country and join a new team of forensic anthropologists who were beginning to look for the remains of the victims of massacres and the thousands of people who had disappeared.

Two months later, in 1995, with the Guatemalan conflict still in full swing, Fredy – who was only 24 years old – joined a group of forensic anthropologists who were travelling to the village of Cuarto Pueblo, in Ixcán, on the border with Mexico, where they were tasked with excavating until they found the remains of 424 community members who had been assassinated by the military.

“The guides warned us not to stray from the path as the area was mined. At that point I was wondering what I’d let myself in for. Direct from Brooklyn to the jungle. But it was so moving to interview 50 families and listen to what they had seen and how they had really lived; that was something that destroyed me.”

“See that post there,” they told him. “They grabbed the children by their hands and feet and smashed their heads against the post, that’s where they killed them.” All the while, on the other side of the town, he could hear the sounds of a conflict that would not end for another several months.

6,060 years

Fredy warns against those who refer to the crimes he investigates as “crimes of the past”.

“A person who is the victim of an enforced disappearance remains disappeared until the day they are found,” he says.

Having conducted 400 investigations and found the remains of 3,000 people, the foundation has only seen three cases go to court.

But, as Fredy explains, each has been an historic event in a country where even the current president is being challenged for his role in abuses when he was a member of the Kaibiles, a special unit of the Guatemalan Army.

In August 2011, a team of forensic anthropologists, including Fredy, testified against four soldiers accused of being involved in a massacre of 250 people in the northern town of Dos Erres in 1982. Each of the soldiers was sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison (30 years for each of the 201 murder victims identified in the trial and 30 years more for crimes against humanity).

But Fredy has paid a price for his involvement in that trial.

Four days after the sentencing, on 8 August 2011, he received a note that read: “Son of a bitch. You’re going to pay for each of those 6,050 years that our people are suffering because of you. We’re not going to just watch you anymore, we’re going to do you in, like the rest.”

Since then, Fredy has rarely been seen alone. Four uniformed police officers guard his office and laboratory. Two travel with him in an armoured car and two accompany his wife and two small children constantly.

Numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have contacted the Guatemalan government demanding an investigation into the threats and a guarantee that Fredy and other activists will be protected.

“The way I see it, these threats are a sign of our success because the people who are doing these things feel that justice is reaching them and they want to find a way to stop the process. But the process cannot be stopped by doing anything to me or the institution; this is a process of the families, of Guatemalan justice. It is a process that started 20 years ago. A threat is not going to stop this process now.”

What motivates you to continue?

“I can’t describe how it feels when you sit down with a family to tell them you’ve found their loved one, or what this does. The other day I was talking to the wife of an activist who disappeared and whose remains were found in November. Since then she’s been another person, completely different. She looks younger, the weight has lifted from her eyes; it has changed her life knowing what happened, recovering the body; it has united the family.”

“I’m not trying to save anyone, I’m trying to tell history through science, through remains, through bullets, through evidence; we are trying to interpret the cruelty that was unleashed against these people,” says Fredy from his laboratory, where bones really do talk.