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Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team


More people have been forcibly disappeared in Guatemala during the past four decades than in any other Latin American country. Since 1960, when Guatemala's internal conflict began, approximately 45,000 disappearances have been reported in a country with a current population of ten million. The majority of these persons "disappeared" from peasant villages between 1978 and 1986, during counterinsurgency campaigns against guerrillas groups conducted by the military governments of Gen. Lucas Garcia (1978-1982), Gen. Rios Montt (1982-1983) and Gen. Mejia Vitores (1983-1986).

These disappearances were intended to eliminate any support the guerrillas might have found among the indigenous and ladino peasants, and to suppress all dissent, organized or otherwise. For example: "in the so-called Victory 82 campaign, thousands of Guatemalans in the countryside were murdered, hundred of villages destroyed, and as many as one million internal refugees created." Thousands of Guatemalan emigrated to Mexico or were forcibly relocated by the army to other parts of the country. (Amnesty International, 1981).

The organizations which are allegedly primarily responsible for the killings and disappearances include the Guatemalan Army, para-military groups, and the "civil self-defense patrols" known as PACs (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil). The PACs were initiated in 1982 by Gen. Rios Montt's government, which intended to use them to maintain control over the countryside. PACs are organized at the village level throughout Guatemala's rural areas: they consist of villagers obliged to serve, without pay or remuneration, under the command of a local military officer. PAC members are required to patrol their own neighbors, and at times to participate in kidnappings and/or murders. They are typically armed with machetes, sticks, and old rifles provided by the Army. The PACs are an important part of the military's counterinsurgency and intelligence strategy. Men who refused to join them put their lives at risk; they are identified as "subversives," and are sometimes disappeared or murdered. According to the Guatemalan Minister of Defense, in 1993 537,000 villagers served in PACs.

Guatemala has had elected democratic governments since 1986. While the human rights situation has improved during this period, it is still critical. In her 1993 report, U.N. Independent Expert Monica Pinto stated that the government "must require the army to disarm the PAC in zones where the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Judiciary have proved the commission of abuses." In its latest report on Guatemala, Human Rights Watch/America states: "The Human Rights Ombudsman repeatedly has called on the army to disarm the abusive civil patrollers. Alarmingly, for example, General Miranda Trejo, (Commander of Military Zone 22 at Playa Grande, in the Department of El Chique), did not consider death threats, illegal detentions, and other violations of law as serious abuses meriting disarming the PACs dismissed the matter by saying that the civil patrols would be dealt in the context of the peace accords..."(Still in 1996), "the patrollers responsible for a growing list of human rights violations remained at large and maintained their status as armed agents of authority accountable only to the army." (Americas Watch, 1996).

In 1990, the Guatemalan government began United Nations-mediated peace negotiations with the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca), a coalition of guerrilla groups. On June 23, 1994, in Oslo, these parties agreed that a special commission of inquiry would be formed to investigate the human rights violations which had occured during the 30-year civil war. Since 1994, a United Nations human rights observer mission (MINUGUA) was established in the country, distributing human rights monitors all over Guatemala. [MINUGUA is formed by approximately 400 people coming from 37 countries, from which 220 are civilian human rights workers, 47 are policemen, and 17 are military personnel. There are 120 Guatemalans working for MINUGUA in administrative and logistical support areas.

On May 6, the government of the current Persidente Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen and the URNG signed an accord on socioeconomic and agrarian issues, clearing away a topic that had been under discussion for over a year.

Peace was finally signed on December 30, 1996, ending 36 years of civil war. On December 16, with the approval of both sides, the Guatemalan National Assembly approved an amnesty law that, according to many human rights groups, would exempt both soldiers and guerillas from prosecution for killings, kidnappings and acts of torture committed during the civil war.


Forensic work in Guatemala

Many of the people who have been kidnapped or disappeared in Guatemala were killed and buried in clandestine mass graves in the countryside. On many occasions, local and international human rights organizations have denounced the existence of these clandestine graves, and requested full investigations through a Special Commission of Inquiry for the investigation of disappeared people.

In 1991, EAAF began working in Guatemala. At the request of local human rights organizations GAM and CONAVIGUA, EAAF participated on forensic missions in 1991, 1992 and 1993. On our own and as part of larger forensic delegations, EAAF exhumed remains of disappeared people in Chontala, Quiche (1991) and San Jose Pachoa Lemoa, Quiche (1992). Some of these missions were partially sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Washington D.C.) and Physicians for Human Rights (Boston, USA). In each mission, the forensic professionals worked as expert witnesses for local judges investigating the incidents.

Due to the large number of cases which require investigation, Guatemalan human rights organizations have repeatedly demanded that a local forensic team be formed and trained to carry out exhumations and analysis of human remains. As these organizations stated in a joint declaration in 1992: "Peace will not come to Guatemala as long as the remains of our massacred relatives continue to be buried in clandestine cemeteries, and we are unable to give them Christian burials. We do not want our dead to be abandoned in the ravines...For this reason we continue to demand the formation of forensic teams in order to continue the exhumations." (Conclusion at the Second Conference for Peace and Human Rights, 1992).

In 1992, the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights (IIDH) and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) sponsored a six-week training seminar in Guatemala for local anthropologists who wished to form a non-governmental forensic anthropology team. A shorter seminar was also given to judges, lawyers, governmental and non-governmental organizations on the ways forensic anthropology can be applied to the investigation of human rights violations. EAAF members were invited among the foreign experts who conducted these seminars. One EAAF member, sponsored by the AAAS, returned in 1993 to exchange experiences with the recently formed local team, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team (EGAF). EGAF is a non governmental organization, currently composed of 9 members, that conducts forensic anthropological work in the human rights field throughout Guatemala and in other countries.

Posted on 1999-01-01


Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
Asian Human Rights Commission

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