Guatemala disappeared: Reuniting families with the remains of loved ones

By James Rodríguez

Guatemala City

Almost 25 years on from the signing of a peace agreement which put an end to Guatemala's bloody armed conflict, thousands of families have yet to find the remains of their missing relatives.

More than 200,000 people were killed during the 36-year civil war between the military and left-wing rebels which ended in 1996. Of these, an estimated 45,000 people were forcibly disappeared, their bodies buried in unmarked pits or dumped in mass graves.

Over the years, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) has tried to locate and identify the remains of the victims of forced disappearances.

They collect DNA samples from family members, carry out exhumations and return the identified remains of victims to their relatives for a dignified burial.

But as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the FAFG was forced to suspend its field visits for almost a year.

In February, the FAFG resumed its work in the Ixil Mayan communities of Nebaj, Cotzal and Chajul. In 1982, some of the most brutal massacres of the armed conflict were carried out in this area under the orders of then-military ruler General Efrain Rios Montt.

Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013 but his conviction was later overturned. He died in 2018 while a retrial was under way.

Even though Guatemala's Supreme Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that acts of genocide were carried out against the Ixil people, only a small number of low-ranking soldiers have been convicted of war crimes and Rios Montt has not been convicted of genocide posthumously.

Meanwhile, for many in the communities ravaged by the conflict, the search for those forcibly disappeared decades ago continues.

In 1982, Juliana Tum Sicá's family hid in the mountains near Xexuxcap along with several other people in order to safeguard their lives from constant attacks by the Guatemalan army.

While hiding in the mountains, Juliana's daughter, Paula Ajanel Tum, became ill and, without access to food or medicines, died aged seven.

Her body was buried in a shallow clandestine grave. The family hopes to recover the girl's skeletal remains to provide a proper burial.

The executive director and founder of FAFG, Fredy Peccerelli, says that the passage of time and other obstacles, such as the pandemic, will not stop his group: "Families still deserve to have someone accompany their search to try to identify their loved ones."

The FAFG has been working for years to locate, exhume and identify the remains of missing people. In September 2014, members of their team exhumed human remains at a former military garrison in Cotzal.

Through DNA testing they were able to identify them as those of Baltazar Gómez Toma.

Toma and several other Ixil Mayan men had been summoned to the garrison on 3 February 1982. They were accused of being guerrilla sympathisers and executed by firing squad.

After the FAFG identified his remains, they handed them over to his family for a proper burial in February 2021, after they had carried out the necessary Covid-19 safety protocols.

"It is our responsibility to continue to provide the experience and scientific know-how to accompany their brave search. They are not alone," Fredy Peccerelli says of his team's work.

The FAFG also carried out forensic analyses on the remains of José María Gran Cirera, Domingo del Barrio Batz and Tomás Ramírez Caba.