Unearthing the past

The most recent wave of death threats came via email, after the publications of an article about a S

For the staff of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), death threats are a regular part of the job. Tasked with exhuming sites of massacres perpetrated by the military during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, the anthropologists play an indispensable role in their country's precarious transition towards democracy. In their fortified compound in Guatemala City, FAFG staff assemble and identify the bones of massacre victims before returning them to communities for reburial and, hopefully, closure. It is not at all rare to see the small, fragmented skeletons of children resting on the laboratory tables.

"The threats are very tiring," says Omar Bertoni Girón de León, director of the FAFG's laboratory of forensic anthropology. "But in the end, we take them as an incentive. It means we're doing our work well."

The most recent wave of death threats came via email, following the publication of an article in the Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, about a Spanish judge hearing testimonies in a genocide case against eight people, including former members of the military. Alongside the article was a photo of one of the FAFG's exhumations. As usual, the targets of the threats were Girón de León and Fredy Peccerelli, the FAFG's executive director, as well as their families.

"The day has arrived," reads the first email. "Fredy we're going to break your ass, Omar we're watching you . . . your happiness as a father isn't going to last. We're going to rape your wife and send her back in pieces to the FAFG. Goddamn revolutionaries."

Girón de León and his wife, Bianca (who is Peccerelli's sister), recently had their first child. The poderes ocultos - "hidden powers" - behind these threats are fond of including personal information. "Bianca looked good wearing pink driving a jeep on Petapa Avenue," the second email reads. "We're going to finish off all of you."

This climate of fear, of which the threats against the FAFG constitute only a very small part, is pervasive in Guatemala, a country where attacks against human rights defenders have increased more than 370 per cent since January 2000, and where prosecutions of the perpetrators of such attacks have occurred in fewer than 2 per cent of cases. The Public Prosecutor's Office has been almost farcically ineffectual at addressing threats against the FAFG. Prosecutions made possible by the FAFG's exhumations are rarely, if ever, pursued.

"There is no country in the world which can construct a future or a present if they don't face the past," says Claudia Samayoa, co-ordinator of the Human Rights Defenders' Protection Unit, herself the victim of three attempts on her life. "The Public Prosecutor's Office continues not to respond judicially to the hundreds of exhumations which implicate thousands of bodies."

Guatemalan citizens are veterans of disappointment, and the presidency of Álvaro Colom, elected in 2007, has given them little to celebrate. "He is very weak," says Marty Jordan, former director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "If these problems aren't addressed, then we're looking at a very dark situation in Guatemala."

In the meantime, the FAFG soldiers on, striving to secure funding from international donors, while preparing for the opening of its new, landmark DNA laboratory.

"The greatest success of the FAFG is the confidence that communities have in us," says Peccerelli. "As more time passes, people are demanding not only identification, but also justice."

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop