Bringing up the bodies in Guatemala

by @saul_elbein February 23, 2016 5:00AM ET

For decades, archaeologists have exhumed civil war-era burial pits; now their findings are being treated as evidence

The laboratory of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, where the remains of victims of the civil war are analyzed and identified through DNA testing.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America
Soldiers guard the main entrance to the Regional Command of Training and Peacekeeping Operations military base (CREOMPAZ) in Coban, formerly known as Military Zone 21.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

The Find

In February 2012, Edgar Hernandez walked with a team of archaeologists beneath the lush cypress forests of a military base in Coban, a city of 250,000 that sits in a high misty valley in the mountains of central Guatemala. They cleared grass from areas where the land seemed to dip, as though the soil had been disturbed decades before. Then, surrounded by soldiers, the archaeologists staked out thin exploratory trenches and began to dig.

Today the base, used by Guatemalan soldiers to train for UN peacekeeping missions, is called the Regional Command for Peacekeeper Training — Creompaz, in Spanish. Said aloud the name sounds like “creo en paz” — “I believe in peace.” Soldiers there are trained to deploy with UN missions in places like Haiti or the Congo, sometimes alongside troops from Canada and the United States. Yet Hernandez’s presence at the­­ site pointed to its darker past.

Hernandez is a forensic archeologist at the Forensics Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, an independent organization that runs the largest private forensics lab in Latin America, and which has been a mainstay in the campaign to bring to justice military commanders involved in the atrocities of Guatemala’s 36-year internal war, which ended in 1996. Between 1979 and 1983, the fever years of the war, a thousand people vanished from the area around Coban — a local representation of the estimated 200,000 who died and 45,000 who went missing nationwide. Some were suspected by the government of leftist affiliations; many others were civilians with no apparent ties to the rebels. Fathers went to work and never returned. Sisters left for tortillas and didn't come back. Sometimes families heard rumors from well-meaning friends of a loved one sighted in Guatemala City, Mexico City, or Miami. Other times, stories circulated about relatives being forced into cars and driven to the Military District 21 base, now Creompaz. 

Walking onto the base, Hernandez had not expected much. Witness testimonies were often mistaken. Decades had passed since the war ended, and it was not uncommon for a FAFG team to spend weeks on a site and not unearth anything. That was not the case here. “We were there barely three hours when we started finding bodies.” While digging the first trench, they discovered human bones, evidence that beneath the ground lay a fosa — a pit or grave. They kept digging, and bordering the pits they found other pits, and even more beyond those. In most it was the same pattern: skeletons wrapped in old clothes, piled atop each other, wrists tied, blindfolds over their eyes. Hernandez found 558 bodies in all.

In eight years of fieldwork with the FAFG, Hernandez had been on dozens of digs in lonely cornfields and on military bases looking for missing bodies, but this was the biggest case he had ever seen. Forensic archeology is painstaking, intellectually strenuous work. One of his digs on another military base had revealed a mass grave beside a river. Constant flooding had scrambled the skeletons into a solid mass of bone and clay. Asked how they took them apart, he smiled. “With care.”

Since it was founded in 1993, the FAFG has exhumed thousands of victims of wartime massacres and military kidnappings, and helped establish the hard science to ground stories of violence. The exhumations have brought a measure of peace to families around Guatemala, and in recent years been central to trials of cases ranging from the Dos Erres Massacre, in which 200 villagers were murdered by government forces in northern Guatemala, and in the 2014 trial of former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt. Those trials represented an electrifying new development: after fifteen years of foot dragging, the Ministerio Publico, Guatemala’s independent prosecutor's office, was finally cracking down on the country's former military leaders. The Creompaz case would be the agency’s biggest.

Maria Luisa Col stands with a portrait of her husband Otto.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

The Families

By the time Maria Luisa Col's husband Otto disappeared in 1983, it was an open secret in the villages around Coban that the military was kidnapping people. “There were those who knew and those who hadn't figured it out yet,” she said. “The ones who said, ‘Why would they take him? He wasn't involved in anything.’ They didn't understand that didn’t matter.”

She was 23 then, with four children. Now 58, she sat in a spare room of her house in Coban next to her friend, Marta Macz, 64. Macz’s brother had also disappeared during the war, and when they met years later, the two bonded over the grim rituals of searching and mourning. Both went to District 21 soon after the disappearances to look for their relatives. Both left empty handed; the soldiers on base denied any knowledge of their family members’ whereabouts.

Col spent the rest of the war in fear, certain she would be next. In other houses families refused to speak of their vanished children; others clung to hope. But in the years following the Peace Accords of 1996, which was struck between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), a leftist guerilla movement that became a sanctioned political party under the accords, things began to change. Fear faded and historical clarification commissions backed by the United Nations and Catholic Church began to expose the full scale of the government-sponsored killings. People like Col and Macz began to find each other, and to demand answers. 

“Very quietly, with a great deal of fear, people came forward to tell us there had been clandestine cemeteries,” said Aura Elena Farfan, director of Famdegua, an influential victim's organization based in Guatemala City. Farmers across the country reported wells full of bodies; fields that turned up bones when plowed. “But the government wouldn't give us any resources to exhume them. If the person you were looking for wasn't in the morgue, there was nothing you could do.”

The war hadn’t yet ended, but the FAFG moved in to fill the niche. The organization was the brainchild of Clyde Snow, an Oklahoma scientist generally credited with being the father of forensic anthropology — the discipline of telling people’s lives from their bones. After a long career that included excavations at Little Big Horn and identifying the body of Nazi scientist Josef Mengele, Snow had, in his 60s, adopted the idea that forensics held the key to untangling the brutal legacies of Cold War-era military dictatorships in places like Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala, where US-backed governments and intelligence services embarked on campaigns of so-called “forced disappearances” against their own people. In the late 1990s, after he had spent years in Argentina building a crack forensics team to investigate that country’s politically motivated atrocities, he went to Guatemala to do the same thing.

For the next two decades until his own death in 2014, Snow flew down to Guatemala several times a year, often bringing American forensics experts to give clinics on subjects like ballistics, bone development, or the decay of soft tissues. Still, he emphasized hands-on training over academic degrees: all the anthropologists and archaeologists I met at FAFG had been hired out of school and trained on the job.

Forensic science rests on the idea that nothing that passes through the world without leaving a trace. “[Snow] liked to say, “The bones are talking,” recalled Lionel Paiz, the FAFG's intense, chain-smoking Director of Archeology. “They talk softly sometimes, but they never lie.” Even an anonymous skeleton bears a record of the life and death of the person it belonged to. The size of bones reveal age and sex, while the grooves of a machete wound in a vertebrae, or the entry and exit holes of a bullet, can reflect a cause of death.

In the early years, the FAFG’s work in exhuming bodies was purely investigative; there was no ambition to generate evidence that might later be used in trials. The military was still too powerful, the prosecutor's office too weak, the picture of what had happened during the war too murky. Guatemala's civil institutions were not ready for trials, said Paiz. As he put it, you cannot eat a fruit before it is ripe.

A mural in the village of San Cristobal, where in 1992 armed members of the Guatemalan military kidnapped about 80 men, claiming that they were being forced to serve in the military and would return in two years. The men were never seen or heard from again.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America


For a brief period in the spring of 2012, the army let family members of the disappeared onto Creompaz to view the exhumations. People went hoping to spot a relative's clothing; some did. Marta Macz went and found herself “traumatizada.” In Pit XV she saw skeletons in tattered women's clothes piled in a heap; mixed with them were the unmistakable skeletons of children. It had been a comfort to the families of the disappeared, she said, “that we did not how they died.” Seeing the reality of what had happened in the District stripped that away. “The children,” she said, shaking with silent tears. “What did they do?”

Exhumations are often public affairs: standing above the archeologists down in the pit are crowds of family members — some curious, some suspicious, some possibly culpable. For Hernandez, the presence of an audience could be stressful, but it was also occasionally useful. Family members might notice a distinctive personal effect, like a hand-woven blouse or pair of pants, which could aid in identification.

After exhumation, the reassembled skeletons were loaded into boxes and sent to the Guatemala City office of the Ministerio Publico, the powerful UN-backed state prosecutor's agency, for analysis. Between 2012 and 2014, the archaeologists found so many bodies that the MP ran out of space in its storeroom. (The Creompaz exhumations are ongoing, but so far in the latest round, which began late last year, the FAFG has found only one body.) Today, boxes stacked to the ceiling crowd the entry hall of the FAFG lab, full of materials waiting to be identified so that victims can be buried.

In FAFG's brightly lit forensics lab, located on a shady avenue in a residential neighborhood in Guatemala City, an etched glass portrait of the late Snow is flanked by charts laying out different stages of cranial development. Desks sport morbid paraphernalia — a skull paperweight atop a stack of files, a skeletal arm poking from a pen organizer.

“You learn to look at a body not as a person but as a material,” said Daniel Jimenez, a bespectacled anthropologist in a FAFG lab coat. On long plastic picnic tables in the middle of the room he and another anthropologist were assembling two skeletons from a site just west of Guatemala City in the manner of children working on a difficult jigsaw puzzle. Jimenez examined one of the skulls, which had holes in both temples. “It becomes a material. You know bone responds in predictable ways to bullets, to other trauma.” He held up a rib cracked down the middle.

The profile that Jimenez creates of the skeleton will eventually be compared against profiles of missing individuals. Investigators will also use the FAFG DNA lab to compare the genetic records of the dead against lists of the missing. Since 2009, FAFG has held two nationwide drives to provide free DNA testing to family members of the disappeared, hoping that the possibility of identifying their loved ones will bring people forward. For years, ads promoting DNA testing have overlooked the highways and bus stations in the capital city and on the road to Coban. “Where are the disappeared?” ask a row of faceless cartoon figures, next to a number to call.

The FAFG laboratory.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America
An anthropologist with a skull at the laboratory.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

Putting the Pieces Together

The goal of this detective work is to stitch evidence gathered from places like Creompaz back together with the memories of the living. Since 1993 the FAFG has exhumed about 8,000 victims, and identified about 3,000. The identifications have been so popular that 12,000 families have come forward to give DNA. Photos on the wall of the organization’s lab show family members kissing the bones of recovered relatives.

But for the last four years, the evidence that the FAFG has exhumed in towns and military bases across Guatemala has been used to help prosecute military perpetrators. Since 2006, the UN-funded Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has helped build the MP into a force powerful enough to go after mafias and war criminals alike. In 2011, the current wave of prosecutions began under Claudia Paz y Paz, a crusading attorney general at the MP who won convictions against five soldiers for their role in the killings at Dos Erres — a case that relied on FAFG forensic evidence. Since then, the MP has worked in tandem with FAFG in a number of cases. FAFG evidence has been used by the Ministerio Public to convict low level-officers and policemen for massacres and so-called forced disappearances across Guatemala. It also served a vital role in the 2013 genocide conviction (overturned the following year) of former dictator Rios Montt.

The MP and FAFG detective work at Creompaz has yielded answers to some of the most pervasive mysteries of the war. In May 1982, a military detachment attacked towns along the Rio Negro, in the mountains between Coban and Guatemala City, killing 80 men and taking women and children away in helicopters. A month later, another detachment marched into the Poqomchi Maya farming village of Pombach, about 30 miles from Coban, and took away nearly 100 men, supposedly for military service. No trace of either group was ever found. Then, April 2012, the FAFG opened Creompaz Pit XV, where Macz had seen 63 women and children dressed in Rio Negro clothing. Through DNA testing, the FAFG lab discovered that two of the bodies in the pit were Manuel Chen and Martina Rojas, residents of Rio Negro. A couple of pits over, in Pit XVII, archaeologists found the bodies of 64 men, blindfolded and bound; the FAFG matched them to relatives in Pombach.

Images of victims of the civil war hang on a wall in a church in Coban. Many of the bodies of those pictured were found in Creompaz.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America
Crosses bearing names of victims hang in a church in Coban.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

The Trials

There is no statute of limitations under Guatemalan law for prosecuting “forced disappearance,” and the amnesty signed in 1996 does not extend to crimes against humanity or other so-called “grave violations of human rights.” That meant that Creompaz could be treated as an active crime scene, and that base commanders could be held culpable, along with, through the chain of command, the high commanders who had run the army from Guatemala City.

“Let's just say,” said Orlando Lopez, Lopez, head of the Human Rights Prosecutor's office at the Ministerio Publico, “that if I'm a civilian and you're with the military, and my body turns up in your garden, you better have a good explanation.” Just before Christmas last year, MP units fanned out across Guatemala, capturing 11 former military commanders who had served during the civil war. The number of former officials arrested was unprecedented, as was the operation’s ambition: The group included a number of retired high-ranking military officials, including Lucas Garcia, who was Chief of the Army in 1981, and five former commanders of Creompaz. These were old men who had previously been untouchable, settled into comfortable second acts at the top of Guatemalan society.

The arrests made in connection to Creompaz contributed to one of three ongoing high-profile cases in which the MP has moved against accused war criminals. In the Sepur Zarco case, a former army lieutenant is standing trial for murder and sexual slavery connected to an alleged “recreational base.” The same day as the Creompaz arrests, the MP also captured four former military officers and charged them with the disappearance of a 14-year old boy. One of the officers was Manuel Callejas y Callejas, former director of military intelligence during the war and a suspected organized crime boss. On January 22, after three weeks of pre-trial hearings, a judge in Guatemala City ruled that the Creompaz soldiers would have to stand trial, and gave the MP 60 days to prepare their case. 

A wall of posters of the disappeared line a wall in Guatemala City.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

The arrests provoked a backlash from family members and supporters of the military, which remains popular in Guatemala — a 2013 survey by the daily Prensa Libre found that 81 percent of Guatemalans believed the army was doing a good job. The Guatemalan right has long denied that there was a “genocide” and contested the claim that 200,000 people died in the war. On January 8, as the Creompaz pre-trial hearings opened, family members of the military protested with placards bearing slogans like “My grandfather is a hero, not a criminal” and “If not for them, Guatemala would be communist.” 

In the Creompaz case and others, military apologists either disputed the forensic evidence — sometimes claiming that the dead were excavated from a community churchyard or were victims of a 1976 earthquake — or denounced the FAFG and MP as activists with an agenda. This tension came to a head in 2014, when Fredy Peccerelli, the Foundation's Bronx-raised Guatemalan director, spoke about the Creompaz findings at a TED Conference, claiming that “the very people who are supposed to defend us, the police, the military, are the ones that committed most of the crimes.”

After this, the defense in the Creompaz pre-trial hearings moved to have the FAFG removed from the case and to discredit Peccerelli as an impartial expert. On social media, one group tarred Peccerelli, whose father fled Guatemala in the 1980s, as the son of a leftist “terrorist.” That group’s leader, Richardo Mendez Ruiz, is the son of the late Colonel Mendez Ruiz, a former commander at Creompaz who died four days before the MP arrests. The younger Mendez Ruiz has dismissed the MP's investigation of the military as baseless and politically motivated — his organization filed a criminal complaint against the MP's Lopez for “abuse of authority” and bribery. “Send the FAFG to find Jimmy Hoffa,” Mendez Ruiz said, with a slight smile, “and there he'll be.”

Since all the MP trials rely on the positive identification of victims and proof that they were murdered, FAFG evidence is vital. Despite a FAFG media blackout in the wake of Peccerelli’s comments, Paiz, the director of FAFG’s archeology department, still was willing to comment on the role he thinks the exhumations play in Guatemalan society. “The wounds still haven’t healed here,” he said. “They closed on the surface, but they're full of pus because they were never cleaned, never disinfected. And cleaning it is going to be hard, it's going to hurt like a son of a bitch. But if you can't push through, it will hurt more.”

A painting of Matilde Choc, a young woman who disappeared at the age of 30, hangs in her mother's house in Coban. Her body was one of the first to be found at Creompaz and identified.
Saul Martinez for Al Jazeera America

For the families of the disappeared, many of whom clung for decades to the hope that their loved ones would eventually return, the effect of the exhumations has been bittersweet. “I felt a hate in my heart, but also a great happiness,” Macz said of the 2014 discovery of her brother. After FAFG found him beneath Creompaz, she was able bury him in the tomb that her mother had bought for him before her own death. “All my mother wanted was to see her son again,” Macz said.

If this is good fortune, then her friend Maria Luisa Col has had even less of it. Though she gave DNA to help find her husband, Alberto, his body was never recovered. Perhaps he was buried beneath another site; perhaps his remains are among the many packed in boxes in the FAFG or Ministerio Publico, waiting to be identified. Perhaps something else entirely had happened to him.

Sitting next to Macz in a spare room at her house in Coban, beneath a collage of pictures of Alberto, Col idly picked a stray piece of thread from the older woman's huipil, winding it around her fingers as she recounted her husband’s last words to her. “I'll never forget,” she said. “He said, ‘I'm going. Take care of my kids.’” She steadied herself. Did they have any last thoughts on the trials in the capitol? “May justice arrive in Guatemala,” Macz said. Col leaned forward. “We just want to know what you’ve done with our families.”