Members of the National Lawyers Guild joined the contingent from the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) delegation in a site visit to the FAFG, Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala) facilities on the afternoon of April 16. Nine of the 35 member staff had testified as expert witnesses at the Genocide trial.
Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) delegation
The project is divided between two sites in a quiet residential neighborhood in Zone 2 of Guatemala City with tight security.
Sadly it is a very busy operation, as there are numerous major sites still being excavated throughout the country corroborating the declarations given as part of the Esclaración Histórico (the Guatemalan truth commission coordinated by the UN Mission). Material uncovered during the exhumation processes is received in large crates labeled with the site from which the material was recovered. It first passes through a receiving area to be categorized and then to a digital photography area and adjacent X-ray lab.
We visited a large open lab room where most of the work of sorting and classifying recovered items takes place. Forensic anthropologists (trained both at universities and at the facility) worked in different areas of the room on different aspects of the job. Tables of bones and fragments were being assembled into skeletal forms, some complete or almost complete and others in which only a few bones had been recovered and others still in buckets or boxes. One archeologist was dating remains, determining how soil conditions and other factors influenced the condition of the remains. One man was assembling a skull from smaller pieces in what appeared to be a three-dimensional jigsaw challenge. We observed another working with recovered pieces of textiles. As Director Freddy Peccereli led us through the labs, he describer anecdote after anecdote regarding many of the mass graves revealed within the military bases and how they work with the family members, survivors and human rights activists to identify victims and reconstruct what happened.
Information received from families, friends, or neighbors of suspected victims, including physical and clothing descriptions, circumstances of known deaths or disappearances, and other information greatly contribute to the identification of victims.
FAFG is the only ISO 17025 accredited laboratory in Latin America operated by a private non-profit foundation, Brazil has an accredited lab operated by the government.
A short ride away, we entered into a house where a small museum exhibited some of the cases the FAFG is working on. An impressive mural display reveals case records that had been leaked to Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive of what had happened to hundreds of “disappeared” individuals buried at the Comalapa Military detachment. Another was the skeleton of one of the first victims of the conflict to have been identified by FAFG’s DNA testing. His remains on display, representative of many others, were donated to create a memorial exhibit as the family’s wish is for his remains to contribute to the FAFG’s work and to never be reburied. We learned that this is the only DNA lab in Latin America accredited to do DNA testing on human remains that had been excavated.
At the end of the tour, Freddy showed shared with us an excellent presentation, overviewing the impressive work since the initiation the facility. During the years of Civil War, according to the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) there were at least 160,000 deaths and 40,000 disappearances. Of the known victims 83% were indigenous Maya and 17% Ladino or Mestizo. Of these deaths, 93% are attributed to security forces. The lab has examined more than 6000 sets of remains from more than 1000 burial places, and anthropologists, archaeologists and technicians have given expert witness testimony in cases of extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, massacres and, currently, the genocide case.