Anthropologists hope to shed light on Guatemala's 'disappeared'

The Miami HeraldJune 7, 2010 

Working in a shabby public cemetery, anthropologists are pulling skeletons from an enormous well, hoping the bones will provide clues to what happened to thousands of "disappeared" people during the longest and bloodiest Central American civil war.

In what looks like a giant crime scene, the anthropologists -- from the Foundation of Forensic Anthropology of Guatemala, a private group founded in 1994 -- are sifting skulls, femurs and ribs to find signs of violence. The bones are nearly three decades old, dumped here during the height of the civil war, but they still carry signs of trauma: a gunshot or machete hack to the skull.

An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the 36-year-old civil war, a truth commission later found. Among the dead were 45,000 people said to be "disappeared" -- abducted, then killed, their bodies never again seen. Many were urban residents, including public university students, activists, writers and poets who opposed the military dictatorships.

While anthropologists have dug up hundreds of graves around the country, this is the first exhumation in the city.

"These people would be picked up, questioned and tortured. And their families couldn't go claim the bodies because they feared for their own lives," said Fredy Peccerelli, head of the forensic anthropologists. "It's not just here. There are cemeteries around the country" with the bodies of the disappeared.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, roughly 3,000 unidentified bodies ended up at this site -- Las Verbena -- a dusty cemetery marked by crumbling gravestones that sits next to a slum. They were buried with the name "XX," a version of John or Jane Doe.

Ana Lucrecia Molina Theissen believes her brother's bones are there. Military forces abducted him from their mother's house while Theissen watched on Oct. 6, 1981. His family does not know why he was taken and they never saw him again.

"He was only 14 when they took him. And he's never coming back," she said. "The truth also disappeared in Guatemala together with the disappearance of my brother and the 45,000 other victims."

Eventually, the bodies ended up in deep wells, mixed with bones of people who died of other causes but were interred here because their families could not afford a burial.

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