The cold cases of Guatemala’s civil war were impossible to identify—until now

Decades after 45,000 people vanished in Guatemala, an anonymous skeleton finally gets a name.

Nina Strochlic writes in the National Geographic

For 14 years, a human skeleton known as 317-38-10 sat in a cardboard box stored in a metal shipping container on the rooftop of a building in Guatemala’s capital, Guatemala City. The number was a code, representing the place it had been discovered: 317 was the designation for a pine-forested mountaintop pocked with mass graves near a town called San Juan Comalapa. It was the 38th mass grave archaeologists excavated in the country, and the 10th body unearthed in that grave.

Outwardly, there was nothing particularly special about it. Like all skeletons, many of the defining physical features that made its owner unique in life—hair, skin, eyes, and other soft tissue—were all gone, leaving only the bones and the basic information they held about the individual: age, sex, cause of death.

The location where it was found offered few more clues. Site 317 had been a military base during the civil war that ravaged Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. In 2003, when forensic archaeologists dug a few feet into the ground, they found piles of bones. Whose were they? No one seemed to know—or at least no one was saying.

Nowadays, in downtown Guatemala City, the faces of the disappeared peer out from posters emblazoned with the words, “Dónde están?” Where are they?

The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) was officially created one year after the war ended, funded by foreign governments and private foundations. Today, it has 83 staff and describes itself as Latin America’s largest private forensics lab specializing in extracting genetic profiles from skeletal remains. Through exhumations, forensic analysis, and DNA collection campaigns, the lab’s scientists have gradually identified nearly 3,500 of Guatemala’s disappeared. More than 1,500 others have remained in storage in its Guatemala City office for years, the bones missing a family member DNA match or too degraded to analyze.

You can read the full article, including many moving photographs by Natalie Keyssar, here, on the National Geographic website. The piece also includes a fine profile of Fredy Peccerelli, and the genesis, and ongoing, and hugely important work of FAFG.

Categories: Culture, Environment, Gender, Genocide, Guatemala, Human Rights, Indigenous peoples, Justice, Poverty, Violence

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