Forensic Research

Forensic Lab

The tiny, mud-flecked shoes sat next to a few bones and pieces of cloth in the forensic laboratory in Guatemala City, waiting for someone to identify the little girl who caught the fatal bullet so many years ago. In 2006, her remains and those of her family and neighbors were dug from one of the hundreds of mass graves in rural Guatemala for a proper reburial.

In the ‘50s, after centuries of violence and exploitation, Juan Jose Aravalo became president of Guatemala, followed by Jacobo Arbenz. Their liberal reform favored the peasants, mostly Mayans. When Arbenz passed laws to redistribute unused government and private land to the peasants, he raised the ire of United Fruit Company that owned much of the private land. The corporation pressured the US government to intervene. Then Arbenz legalized the Communist Party and a handful of Communists were elected to the Guatemalan legislature. At the time, our government was focused on the global Communist threat so when the CIA presented President Eisenhower with a plan to overthrow the Arbenz government, he agreed.  Fifty years of harsh military rule followed.

Genocide, corruption and exploitation became the norm. The people resisted the US-supported military the best they could but thousands were killed, wounded and displaced. The armed conflict lasted until a peace agreement was signed in 1996. The violence decreased but the government lacked the will to make the changes necessary for peace. When President Berger took office in 2004, the government finally began to seriously address the human rights violations suffered by their citizens.

Fredy Peccerelli

Fredy Peccerelli, director the Forensic Anthropological Foundation of Guatemala, fled as a child with his family during the violent years. He only recently returned to begin the task of exhuming the mass graves of genocide victims, preserving the evidence for legal cases and preparing the remains for reburial by the survivors. He and his staff still receive threats for the work they patiently pursue to bring the killers to justice.

When we visited the laboratory of the foundation, Peccerelli showed us their video of the actual field work. He wanted us to see an anthropologist using a tiny pick and dry brush, squatting next to the dirt-fused hill of bones, skulls and shreds of cloth. She carefully placed each collection into its own labeled 2’x2’x2’ box.  A cluster of vigilant survivors dressed in their colorful Mayan huipils and wraps patiently sat to the side of the pit. They held each other and wept as they recognized a shoe or piece of clothing.

As I watched the video, I knew it was the best way for me to understand the significance of the work. It would have been inconsiderate and very difficult for me to witness in person the pain I saw in the faces of the survivors.

When the video finished, we were all silent. I inhaled deeply to release the anger I felt at the injustices.

Oscar, one of the staff of the forensic laboratory, took us to the work area. We passed many of the labeled boxes stacked in every spare inch of space in the old house used by the lab. In the rear, we followed Oscar down a few steps to a covered patio that opened to a swimming pool. It seemed strange to find a swimming pool next to the twenty or more tables covered with sets of remains. I was hesitant at first, not wanting to intrude or to seem too curious, yet, we were invited guests, invited to see everything. We were expected to let others know what transpired years ago and how it was being resolved.

On some tables, bones were arranged to approximate how they had supported a living, breathing person. Some had shreds of clothing nearby that helped identify who wore them last. Sheets covered the bones and clothes that were not currently being examined.

When we approached the table where the tiny shoes sat side by side, a few of my companions turned away. Others paused in silence. I stared, unable to free myself of the significance of those little mud-caked shoes. They were not even sturdy enough for the child to be walking. I could only just tolerate the image of her violent death by believing she was embraced by loving arms in her last moments.

Oscar answered our questions as several young Guatemalans hovered over the jumble of bone fragments and teeth on the tables. They carefully cleaned each fragment and then reconstructed jaws, sticking the teeth to a frame to approximate a grin someone might recognize. They pieced together thin concave bits like a jig saw puzzle to make a skull, noting fractures and holes. They looked especially for green rims around bullet holes. Only copper-cased shells leave that tell-tale mark and only the military used that kind of shell. It is important evidence for the legal cases.

Forensic Lab

When the forensic investigators in the lab finished their work, the remains were packed in small, wooden coffins and returned to the villages for burial in the indigenous tradition. More boxes arrive every day to crowd the halls and storage areas, and every day the small coffins leave for their final resting place among the ancestors.

There are more than 600 sites containing an estimated 200,000 victims of the massacres. The remaining exhumations will take 35 years to complete, Oscar tells us. Some bodies will never be recovered. After 25 years in moist or acidic soil, there is nothing left. The victims will have to be remembered with the memorials found in cemeteries we visited later, and in the villages where the massacres took place. Each memorial has been built as a large, solid white block, often with a cross on top. On the sides are the names of the victims and scenes of the atrocities painted by witnesses.