Unearthing Guatemala’s Macabre Past

On March 13, 1982, members of the Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) led by the Guatemalan Army entered the town of Rio Negro, Rabinal, in the Departamento of Baja Verapaz. Encircling the village women and children, the PAC, under the orders of the army, began raping and torturing the women, and beating the children to death. After the massacre, 70 women and 107 children lay dead. The town was left in ruin, the attackers having destroyed homes and burnt the harvests.

Eleven years later, forensic anthropologists unearthed the abandoned corpses, and the victims’ relatives buried their loved ones according to Mayan and Christian tradition. The exhumation at Rabinal was one of the first carried out by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team (EAFG), which had only begun to uncover the country’s estimated 500 clandestine cemeteries. Trained by international forensic anthropologists and financed by the international community, the EAFG based their work on that of Argentine anthropologists who had recently begun exhuming corpses of the disappeared in their country’s “dirty war.”

The EAFG–now the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology (FAFG)–has since completed 330 exhumations and discovered some 2,500 corpses. Since 1997, other forensic teams have emerged to participate in the massive task of unearthing the victims of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and returning the remains to hopeful relatives.

The Exhumation Process

The exhumation process begins with the presentation of an official denouncement of a massacre or forced disappearance to the Attorney General, who then solicits an exhumation from one of the country’s independent forensic teams. Almost all denouncements have been issued by family members, often with the assistance of a popular organization or the Catholic Church.

The forensic team conducts interviews with the petitioners in order to determine the site of the clandestine grave, usually at a military base or village where a massacre occurred. Based on survivors’ testimony, the team gathers information about the height, age, and sex of the victims. They also ask whether or not a victim underwent any dental work or had suffered any injuries. The information provided in these interviews allows the team to identify the bodies.

Once the general grave site has been delineated, anthropologists search for rectangular indentations in the ground and other evidence of burial, then begin digging. The number of bodies recovered can vary from three or four to several hundred, many bearing signs of torture. Bodies are often found face down with hands tied behind their backs. The ropes are still visible, bound around their heads and necks, and their clothing is torn with bullet holes.

After days, weeks, or months of digging, the remains are taken to a laboratory for further analysis. Forensic anthropologists examine a victim’s bones, searching for injuries and the possible cause of death. They also try to determine the individual’s identity, corroborating their findings with the information obtained from interviews. Based on their findings, the team writes a report and presents it to the Attorney General.

The Attorney General, the state’s judicial representative, is ultimately responsible for investigating the victims’ identities and exercising legal action. Many investigations, however, have encountered resistance at this stage of the process. Judicial institutions must often be pressured to comply with their obligations, and have reportedly obstructed justice in some cases. Victor Lopez of the Diocese of San Marcos, who works with communities undergoing exhumations, has encountered difficulties initiating the legal process: “The idea behind exhumations is that they serve to probe further, to search for those responsible for the acts, but the majority of the exhumations remain filed away. Sometimes we have had to go three, four or five times in one week to the authorities to advance the process. It is very tiring.”

As a result, many investigations do not go beyond the point of exhuming the graves and returning the corpses to family members. Once the authorities have received the forensic report, the victim’s family may claim the remains and bury their relative according to their religious traditions. Popular organizations often assist in the burial as well as providing mental health support for communities coping with the loss of family, friends and loved ones.

Why Unearth the Past?

The main motivation for requesting an exhumation is to recover the victims’ remains and provide them with a decent burial. During the war, relatives of those massacred or disappeared in Guatemala could not mourn their loved ones or visit their graves. Condemned to live with their family members buried unceremoniously in their own backyards, survivors could not even speak of the existence of clandestine graves for fear of losing their lives to the army. Raul Najera, a member of HIJOS, an organization for children and friends of the massacred and disappeared, explains that “Most of the people that still haven’t found their family members think that they are still alive, or that the memory of the victim was lost or ‘washed away’ by the army’s torture practices. Once you find your family member, you have a place where you can go whenever yo! u want to cry. Before you didn’t. The entire country had converted into a tomb.”

In many indigenous communities, the memory of decades of violence and repression still prevents people from openly manifesting their suffering. Najera, whose organization provides mental health support for relatives of massacre victims, says that survivors “still feel like victims. They feel persecuted, humiliated and guilty for not having had the strength to do anything.” Upon recovering the remains, survivors find a certain spiritual peace. Exhumations have a cathartic effect, allowing survivors to break the silence surrounding the violent past and conclude their suffering.

Exhumations also help preserve the historical memory of communities. When the army destroyed meaningful material goods along with many of a community’s members, the village’s collective memory was effectively destroyed as well. Returning the remains to survivors and inquiring about their past in a sense restores this collective identity. In a society where a great portion of the population is illiterate testimonies constitute something of an oral history.

Mental Health for Affected Communities

Mental health services have become an integral part of the exhumation process. Human rights workers visit communities, explaining the process as well as the purpose of the exhumations. They speak with families to recollect and dignify the history of the victims, so that the memory of their personality before death overcomes the specter of the remains. The exhumation process can be very painful as survivors witness the corpses of loved ones bearing the markings of torture. Many survivors suffered the same physical or psychological torture, and they often relive the experience upon seeing the open graves.

Essential to the healing process, mental health workers educate survivors about the national and international context of the conflict. Many survivors believe that the massacre in their village was an isolated act of violence caused by local problems and disputes. Most massacres occurred in impoverished rural areas where inhabitants lacked a broader understanding of events. Consequently, many victims believe their communities suffered rapes and murder because of local problems, leaving them with a terrible sense of guilt. Mental health support involves helping the community understand what was occurring in the country as a whole as well as their own experience. “What we want,” insists Victor Lopez of the Diocese of San Marcos, “is for people to understand that in the conflict the army tried to victimize the entire community, and that th! ere was not repression because Don Pablo or Don Juan was with the guerillas. We try to teach people the real causes of the armed conflict, and that it was not one community or one Departamento but was on a national level.”

Supporting Guatemala’s Justice System

In addition to returning victims’ remains to their relatives, exhumations are intended to provide legal evidence for investigations of crimes. However, communities are often reluctant to persecute those responsible. Many lack faith in their country’s justice system or are afraid of encountering further violence. “Many family members,” notes Najera, “don’t want to initiate a legal process. They don’t want to have problems or to lose any more family.” In many cases the perpetrators of violence are still living among the victim’s family, in their very own communities, and survivors do not want to instigate a confrontation.

The conflict between victims and victimizers has become more volatile in recent years, since the outgoing right-wing government has begun revitalizing the ex-PACs and offering to pay them for their ‘services’ to the state. “Now there is a greater danger of confrontation within communities,” asserts Najera. “Those PAC that felt judged, persecuted, now don’t. They think what they did was just, respectable, has the right to payment. These guilty people now don’t have fear of being judged.”

Communities that have attempted to convict criminals based on exhumation findings have been confronted with the greatest obstacle to a functioning justice system in Guatemala–impunity. The state has made almost no attempt to investigate or prosecute those responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of war victims, most likely because a large percentage of the criminals still hold high government positions. In the few cases that have ended in conviction, only the material authors–those at the lowest level of the military–have been punished, while the intellectual authors are entirely immune to prosecution.

Despite the lack of justice thus far, exhumed evidence provides the possibility that one day, immunity will break down and the rule of law will prevail in Guatemala. The numerous death threats against forensic anthropologists and human rights organizations working on exhumations are an indication that the guilty feel they have something to fear. This intimidation, however, has not deterred Guatemalans from continuing to perform exhumations. Forensic anthropologist Marco Tulio Perez of the FAFG testifies that “There is always the fear that something will happen to us, but those who are not afraid have overcome the threats. We continue because we know that before us many people seeking justice were killed, and they continued on.”

LISA VISCIDI is editor-in-cheif of EntreMundos newspaper in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. She can be reached at lviscidi@yahoo.com.