Guatemala disappeared: Reuniting families with the remains of loved ones

·6 min read
Forensic anthropologist Gabriela Meléndez carries out forensic analysis in Chajul, Quiche, Guatemala. February 11, 2021
Gabriela Meléndez is one of the forensic experts working to identify the victims of Guatemala's armed conflict

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.

Human remains are lined up along a blackboard which identifies the site where human remains were found. Xecotz, Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala. February 9, 2021.
Sites where human remains are found are marked with a blackboard

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.

Forensic anthropologist Fernando Granados takes the DNA sample of Juliana Tum Sicá, 78, at her home. Xexuxcap, Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala. February 10, 2021.
Forensic anthropologists take DNA samples of people who are still searching for missing relatives

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.

A local Ixil Mayan woman prepares a flower arrangement outside Chajul's Catholic Church in Chajul, Quiche, Guatemala. February 11, 2021.
The residents of Chajul commemorate the victims of the massacres

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.

An Ixil Mayan woman carries a baby in her back while members of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) arrange the skeletal remains of Baltazar Gomez Toma. Cotzal, Quiche, Guatemala. February 10, 2021.
Some relatives have been waiting to bury their loved ones for decades

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.

Juliana Tum Sicá, 78, watches as a forensic anthropologist takes her DNA sample. Xexuxcap, Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala. February 10, 2021.
Juliana Tum Sicá, 78, is searching for the remains of her daughter

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.

Friends and family members of Baltazar Gomez Toma bury his remains in Cotzal's main cemetery nearly 40 years after his disappearance. Cotzal, Quiche, Guatemala. February 11, 2021.
Baltazar Gómez Toma was executed almost 40 years ago

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.

Family members and neighbours of Baltazar Gomez Toma watch as members of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) arrange his skeletal remains. Cotzal, Quiche, Guatemala. February 10, 2021.
Family members and neighbours of Baltazar Gómez Toma watched as members of the FAFG arranged his remains
Friends and family members of Baltazar Gomez Toma bury his remains in Cotzal's main cemetery nearly 40 years after his disappearance. Cotzal, Quiche, Guatemala. February 11, 2021.
Relatives and friends of Baltazar Gómez Toma were finally able to lay his remains to rest this year

"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.

Ixil Mayan locals women pray as forensic anthropologists carry out on-location forensic analysis of Catholic martyrs Jose Maria Gran Cirera, Domingo del Barrio Batz and Tomas Ramirez Caba in Chajul's Catholic church complex. Chajul, Quiche, Guatemala. February 11, 2021.
Local Mayan women prayed as forensic anthropologists examined the remains of the martyrs

The three men were killed by the Guatemalan Army in 1980 after being accused of aiding guerrilla forces that operated in the region. José María Gran Cirera, who was originally from Spain, was the Catholic priest in the village of Chajul at the time and was killed along with his sacristan, Domingo del Barrio Batz in June 1980.

Tomás Ramírez Caba, who also served as a sacristan in his parish, was killed at the entrance of Chajul's Catholic Church later that same year. All three have been decreed martyrs by Pope Francis.

Late afternoon sun shines on the Catholic Church in Chajul. Chajul, Quiche, Guatemala. February 11, 2021.
Tomás Ramírez Caba was killed at the entrance of the Catholic Church in Chajul

Their bodies were originally laid to rest in a crypt inside Chajul's Catholic Church but have been reburied following a beatification ceremony.

FAFG founder Freddy Peccerelli says that not only are the scars left by the armed conflict in communities like Chajul, Nebej and Cotzal still very deep, they continue to have repercussions today.

Poverty, lack of access to land, corruption and a increasing economic polarisation all play a role in keeping rural communities destitute.

"The conflict widened the gap in access to education and to opportunities for work and employment," he says.

Street scene in Chajul, Quiche, Guatemala. February 11, 2021.
Communities like Chajul continue to struggle years after the conflict officially ended

"The people who benefited and profited from the conflict now occupy political positions," Mr Peccerelli says.

He thinks that until Guatemalans come to terms with their past and there are opportunities for them to build a better future within Guatemala, many will continue to emigrate to the United States.

Meanwhile, FAFG forensic experts continue their work to reunite families like that of Francisco Toma to lay to rest the remains of their loved ones.

Family members of Francisco Toma leave with a coffin holding the skeletal remains Mr Toma 39 years after his disappearance. Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala. February 10, 2021.
Thirty-nine years after Francisco Toma was abducted, his relatives were finally able to take his remains for burial

Soldiers in uniform abducted Francisco Toma from his home in February 1982. His family was never told where he had been taken or what had happened to him.

His remains were among scores of bodies exhumed by the FAFG from a mass grave at the Xolosinay Military Garrison in 2014.

Through DNA testing the FAFG was able to identify the remains and hand them to his family for burial.

All photos by Guatemala-based documentary photographer James Rodríguez.

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