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,
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
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
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