The Miami Herald
Fri, Oct. 31, 2008

Guatemala hopes DNA lab can unravel mystery of the 'disappeared'


Twelve years after Central America's longest civil war ended, Guatemalan anthropologists will soon open a DNA laboratory to identify tens of thousands of bodies of people who were killed.

The lab, eight years and $1.85 million in the making, is dedicated to the search for an estimated 45,000 Guatemalans who disappeared during the 36-year war. Drawing on technology used to identify victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, the lab will match DNA from bones of unidentified corpses with DNA of blood relatives of victims.

''The country and the family members deserve to know what happened to these people. Their stories deserve to be told,'' said Fredy Peccerelli, executive director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, the private, nonprofit organization that is opening the lab.

Guatemala's will be the second private lab in Latin America devoted to the search for the disappeared. An Argentine group earlier this year opened a lab to search for victims of that country's ''Dirty War.'' The disappeared, or desaparecidos in Spanish, is shorthand for the thousands of victims in Central and South American wars who were abducted by state forces, sometimes tortured, and later killed.

In Guatemala, many of the disappeared were activists, union organizers, students and intellectuals who were labeled political subversives and communists by the military and national police. Taken from their homes or snatched off the street and killed, their bodies were thrown into mass graves or buried in the city cemetery, marked as ```XX.''

Without a lab to extract DNA from those bones, researchers have had no way to identify the bodies. The new facility, equipped with the latest technology and able to take 80 samples at a time, is seen as a major step in providing closure for victims' families and illuminating a chapter of Guatemala's tumultuous history that has baffled human rights workers.

''We did not know and we could not clarify what happened to the disappeared, particularly in Guatemala City,'' said Christian Tomuschat, a lawyer and judge who oversaw the United Nations' truth commission that investigated the war.

The commission's 1999 report found 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared, largely at the hands of the military, police and civil patrols. While rich with detail about the rural massacres of indigenous Mayans, the report was far less definitive about the plight of the disappeared.

''We were not able to protrude into the heart of the evil,'' Tomuschat said in a telephone interview from his home in Germany. ``The disappeared is a big part of the question we could not answer.''

René Antonio Hernández became one of the disappeared on a Tuesday morning in 1982. He left for work in his beer delivery truck and was abducted. Presumed killed for trying to organize a union at the brewery where he worked, Hernández's body was never found.

Just 3-years-old at the time, Sergio Hernández Rivera remembers little about the day his father disappeared. But, like many family members of victims, he has spent years searching for his father's remains.

Now 29, Rivera hopes the DNA lab will help him learn about a father he only knows through fading black-and-white photos and sketchy childhood memories.

''My mother put up a barrier after my father was taken. She didn't want to talk about him. I never got to know him,'' Rivera said. ``It's important for me, and for the country, that we learn the story of what happened to the people of Guatemala. People like my father.''

Not everyone is interested in rehashing the past.

Peccerelli, and other members of the forensic anthropologist group, regularly receive death threats for exhuming mass graves and processing the bodies. Amnesty International registered 195 attacks against human rights workers in 2007, nearly all of which went unsolved. Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the region, with a homicide rate of 45 deaths per 100,000 people (roughly 7.5 times the U.S. rate).

''People are still afraid to talk about the war and what happened,'' said Estuardo Galeano, legal coordinator for Grupo Apoyo Mutuo, an organization founded in the 1980s by women whose husbands disappeared. ``These are people whose family members were killed. They are afraid and I understand why.''

Galeano said some families could be apprehensive about giving a DNA sample. They would rather not know what happened, he said. Peccerelli said he expects an uneasy public will grow more comfortable with the lab's work after its initial years.

Sara Poroj, a Grupo Apoyo Mutuo founder who has received numerous death threats, said it is imperative for people to overcome their fears and help the country learn about its past so it can begin to heal.

''There is a mountain of work left to be done, so we need as many people as we can in this struggle to find the truth,'' she said. Poroj, whose husband disappeared May 9, 1984, said she will take their three children to the DNA lab to give a sample. ``I've spent the past 24 years looking for him. I don't know what I'd do if I found him.''

Peccerelli said that after a victim's body is identified, the information can be cross referenced with police records that are currently being collected from a downtown archive, allowing researchers to draw a complete profile of a disappeared person. The information could provide closure for a victim's family and change perceptions about the war, he said.

Because most of the war's known victims were indigenous Mayans, Peccerelli said the international community, and Guatemalans, have been less supportive than they should have.

''But the disappeared, they look like me. They were a different social strata,'' said Peccerelli, a tall, light-skinned Latino who speaks with the New York accent he picked up after he fled Guatemala as a boy when his father's life was threatened.

The story of the disappeared can demonstrate that the war affected all levels of society -- from rich city dwellers to poor indigenous farmers, he said.

''I think the work we're doing here will have a lot of impact in creating a better understanding of the conflict for people who really don't know anything about it,'' he said. ``It's happened in other places. . . . I don't think we deserve less just because we're Guatemalans.''