Canadian-Based Forensic Anthropologists are Helping Bring Closure to Guatemalan Genocide Victims

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by Raf Katigbak, VICE

From an outsider’s perspective, the job of a forensic anthropologist can seem almost mundane. There’s the practical side: the digging, the meticulous marking of remains, the swabbing of DNA, and the lab tests to determine the genetic origins of the biological samples dug from the earth. But the overall results add up to far more than what the everyday drudgery may suggest. Using a combination of anthropology and human biology, their job-to determine an individual’s identity, time since death, cause of death, and the manner of death-can bring closure to legal cases that have until then, remained a mystery.

In the case of the forensic anthropologists currently working in Guatemala, it also provides peace. Peace to the friends and family members of the people whose bodies have been exhumed. People who may be wondering what happened to their loved ones and are eager to close a dark and violent chapter of their country’s recent past.

For almost four decades-from 1960 to 1996–Guatemala was torn apart by civil war. An American-back​ed coup in the late 50s had given rise to a conservative military dictatorship whose rule left the country battered, both socially an​d economically, and served to further disenfranchise the country’s rural, poor, and indigenous people. During the ongoing conflict with leftist rebels whose uprising began in the 1960s and the large-scale campaign of violence against the Guatemalan civilian population, over 200,000 were killed and almost 50,000 were victims of state-sponsored abductions known as “forced disappearances.” Chief among those killed and disappeared were the country’s indigenous of the Guatemalan Highlands and the Landino peasant population, who were targeted by the military for their support of the leftist uprising.

It may come as a surprise then that, while the number of casualties may sound staggering, it wasn’t until 1994 that the UN-sponsored Historica​l Clari​fication Commission officially concluded that the violent crimes against the Mayan population were genocide, revealing that over 90 percent of killings were at the hands of the state’s military forces or paramilitary death squads.

Though the peace accord struck between government and rebel forces in 1996 suggested a quelling of political violence, amnesty was granted for perpetrators of even the worst crimes who, unpunished, have since m​orphed into the violent criminal underground. Last year Guatemala reported an average of 101 murders per week, and the death rate is now higher than it was for most of the civil war.

And to this day, for families of those murdered or missing from 1960 on, the idea of closure seems like a pipe dream.

Cristian Silva Zuniga, Director of Operations for International Field Initiatives and Forensic Training (IFIFT), is trying to change that. The IFIFT is a Canadian-based multidisciplinary field school giving forensic anthropology students hands-on experience of what they call ‘real-world’ human rights work in countries like Guatemala. In conjunction with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), the students participate in the exhumation process, forensic analysis, DNA collection, and the collection of testimonies of survivors of the armed conflict. They also work directly with members of the community to help identify the bodies they uncover.

VICE: For those who don’t know, can you explain what a forensic anthropologist does?
Cristian Silva Zuniga: Forensic anthropology first comes from physical and biological anthropologies: the study of anatomy; evolution; primatology; and it has to do with biology and bones. And one of the things [that first led to this] was when they started discovering these mass graves. These kinds of crimes were committed in Argentina and committed in Peru, they were committed in Guatemala, and so in many countries. These kinds of things happening all over the world-Africa, Asia… I mean, you saw what happened in former Yugoslavia.. Physical and biological anthropologies and forensic anthropology has been around for a while, but not in the capacity to focus in these types of crimes. There was a dirty war fought in countries like Colombia, in Peru, Guatemala, so there was a huge need. People were deprived of justice, the truth of what was happening to their loved ones.

How did the IFIFT and FAFG start?
I have to say that this whole thing could not be possible without Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) and their Executive Director, Fredy Peccerelli.​ The Guatemala Forensic Anthropological Foundation was created back in 1997. And the goal was exactly the same: What happened to those people that died during the conflict? The conflict started in 1960 and there was a peace accord in 1996. About 240,000 people died in mass killings. And we know about 45,000 were victims of enforced disappearances-and actually, they were people like you–journalists, students, faculty members, and union leaders. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that started to develop this idea of how to start looking for the victims of massacres. And the first question they asked was: How are we going to do this? Who are we going to push? How are people going to talk? You get every member in the peace accord, the conflict ended and people are still afraid. The mistrust of the government was huge.​

With amnesty being granted for even the worst of crimes, it’s no wonder people still live in fear.
It’s not just the political aspect, but it’s the religious aspect as well, along with economical development. These people are still oppressed and they’re oppressed by the same type of development in the 60s and 70s–a lot of mining, a lot of displacement. And today, the same thing’s happening with different names, but the idea’s still the same: we need to get people moving out of their land, and we’ll use any enforcement.​

The Ixil-based man speaks deep in the highlands of Quiche province, Guatemala.

​​​You’ve been going to Guatemala since 2004. How have things changed since you’ve been there?
My first experience, I had to travel to San Marcos, one of the provinces in Guatemala, and tell them about conflict. Some people didn’t even know there was an armed conflict in the country for six years. At the same time, some people don’t even know the conflict was over and they’re still hiding. Right now, if something happens it’s already in the news, Facebook, Twitter. But back then, it took a little bit longer. I mean getting information out of the country you had to fax it. Plus most of the media was controlled by the [government]…

But they still watch what they say because they’re afraid of what will happen to them. People are still really concerned because the crime is still happening. The murders still happen when we have over 12, maybe 15 people violently dying every day in the country. And these people are suffering the same type of trauma as they did during the conflict and there’s no justice.

I understand a major issue is that the former paramilitary death squads now make up a large part of the criminal underground.
When you see, for example, that between 1996 and 2004, 15,000 soldiers lost their jobs… you start seeing people with the same victims with the same kind of trauma, and you see organized crime growing, you have to think: who better than these people to do these kinds of things? They’ve been trained, they know how to operate.

​Let’s talk about what your organization is doing to help this.
Well, my introduction to Guatemala and human rights, indigenous rights, and the work there was because of the university where I did my undergrad. They were promoting hands-on work, ‘Let’s go overseas and see.’ I mean, you go into a classroom and you get to read about this. You get to see the documentary and you feel bad, of course. This is awful and it’s awful that these kinds of things continue. Just to mention even right now, Ukraine and Central Africa… there’s no end.

So when I was at this hands-on school back in 2004, I got to see this in 3D–all the stuff that you’d read, all the documentaries. Working in the communities, suddenly you have the people right in front of you, approaching you, touching you. It’s like being at the movies and suddenly you’re able to feel it. I got back to Canada, and you know what? I started seeing the same things here–things that I didn’t notice before.

Like what?
Well, you know, for example, I’m from BC–so the Highway o​f Tears. And how we’ve been ignoring these victims because they’re indigenous, because we name them, brand them because of their social status. So that was one of the first things that shocked me; it made me actually remember coming out of Chile. And actually, when I was a kid, I grew up and we never talked about what happened. I had to leave the country to find out what some families went through. And then when I’m in Canada I actually I have to leave the country and then come back to see what was going on here. So I think one of my main reasons to get involved in it is to actually bring people to Guatemala to see these atrocities and to be able to work with people there daily. They’re sacrificing themselves in so many ways with the risk of being a victim themselves.

​Kyle Matthews of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies takes a DNA sample from an Ixil man.

Tell me about this ‘hands on’ approach to fieldwork.
We want to give the field participants a chance to have hands-on experience, to talk to the victims. I guarantee you… everybody in that organization was affected in some way or another–they met families that were displaced, families that disappeared in the 70s and 80s. And their goal is to give peace.

​​Meeting these victims’ families face-to-face seems like it could be very difficult.
You know what is a horrible thing, is when you’re collecting testimonials–they’re telling you what was happening. And suddenly you’re doing their excavation and you’re finding that there are genes they share with a little bag you’re carrying. And you see these artifacts and they’re right beside you…

We bring on a lot of experienced students and professionals, but none of them have worked with survivors. They had dealt with bones, with human remains but talking to survivors, talking to their family members, and having them right beside you, and then when you do analysis, and they have opportunity to see the remains and ask questions? That kills you. Sometimes you don’t speak the same language, but you don’t have to because you look at their faces, you look at these women who are 60, 70 years old and they give you a look and you know what they want. They trust you. They’re putting all their trust in you. I’ve got to tell you, it’s horrible. How do you explain that to people? These people have the right to be there, to have the excavations, they have the right to go to the lab and see their analysis. That’s the stressful part because you’re in the pit with students and suddenly you’re looking at their faces, they’re praying, they’re crying, and that’s awful.

But it’s important.
Let me tell you, they do this job as if it’s a crime scene, they follow everything to the letter of the law and they treat evidence to see that the people who have committed these crimes are prosecuted. But when you deal with a massive number of indigenous, the main goal is humanitarian. Some of these people still blame themselves because their parents, their sisters, or brothers died and they didn’t. They’re attached to the land and they work the land. When crops are not good, they’re blaming themselves because they haven’t been able to give a decent or dignified burial to their families. They’re still hiding somewhere in the mountains. So the foundation and people working there, that’s their goal-trying to return those remains to them, to individuals, to communities, to the families, to the whole nation.

What keeps you going?
The more involved you get, the more you start digging and trying to figure out solutions and how you can fix this, but the more you learn this is like a tree. It keeps going in every direction, it keeps growing and growing, and you don’t know how far you have to go to look for a solution. In Guatemala there’s a deep history of violence, a history of coercion, so it’s like there’s no way to fix this… but you know what? I get to meet fantastic people who still have hope, people who still actually believe. I don’t know what else you can ask for, but there’s still hope. I don’t know what else to tell you, I think we can talk forever.