May 18 2016

Identifying the Disappeared of Guatemala

Interesting CasesMediaMeetingSpeaker

Fredy Peccerelli of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation shares how he became involved with identifying the Disappeared of Guatemala and the process of using DNA to empower the victims’ families.





My name is Fredy Peccerelli. I’m the Executive Director of the Guatemala Forensic Anthropology Foundation. We’re an organization that focuses on identifying the victims of the conflict in Guatemala. We use a multi-disciplinary approach that goes from a family-orientated approach; archaeology, anthropology, and genetics.

My role is… I mean, I created the organization and I’ve managed to incorporate new sciences. So for example, for many years we’ve worked only with archaeology, and then forensic anthropology. We’ve brought in cultural anthropologists and psychologists to be able to gain the families’ trust, and have more access into their stories and what they were going through. And then later, when we began to look at the possibility of working with the Disappeared (or looking for the Disappeared), we had to incorporate DNA. And my role has been that of a fundraiser, a Technical Leader (sometimes), and, at times, just knowing how to pick the right team and let the experts get to work.

In my case – the organization goes back to when I got involved, and I got involved in 1995. I mean, I grew up in New York, and then I met Dr. Clyde Snow, and Dr. Clyde Snow had started efforts like the one in Guatemala, and Argentina, and in Chile. He came to Guatemala in the December of 1990 to review an autopsy file of the killing, the murder of Mryna Mack, who was a very renowned anthropologist, and had discovered that there was wrong-doing in the killing of the indigenous population, and she was assassinated for it. So, Clyde Snow, with the help of the Physicians for Human Rights, came and he realized really quickly that something else was going on in Guatemala, and there was a need for forensics.


Clyde Snow realized something else was going on in Guatemala, and there was a need for forensics. Click To Tweet


When he started working, I mean, the crime scenes weren’t documented properly – there was very little knowledge of the human skeleton or of what it meant to recover or exhume bodies from the grave, how to document them as a crime scene, and forget about the process of identifying someone. That was just not important. Not only was it not important because people were afraid of the perpetrators, but it was not important because the victims were indigenous. So, racism had a lot to do with the way forensics started in Guatemala.

It wasn’t until Dr. Snow began a process of training, and then eventually replicated what he had done in Argentina; which was, he brought a young group of forensic anthropologists together to form a small organization, at the time it was 1992, and it was called the Forensic Anthropologist Team. I joined in ‘95, and that’s when we realized that we needed to be a little more visionary and understand a little more about what we were doing. At the time we had no idea there were 200,000 victims, so it was one case at a time. And, eventually we decided that we needed a more of a formal organizative structure, and we formed the foundation in ‘97. From then on, we began working with the Truth Commission doing more cases, until eventually we got to a place in time when we decided that we must start looking for the victims of disappearances.


At the time we had no idea there were 200,000 victims, so it was one case at a time. Click To Tweet


The difference is, the victims of the massacres, everyone knew where they were buried. A lot of times, the families buried them themselves, so they knew exactly which grave which family was in. But the Disappeared, these are people that were just abducted, captured, illegally detained from their homes, from their places of work, from the street, and they were never seen again. We didn’t really know where their bodies were. That’s when Dr. Snow asked, maybe they could be in the cemeteries; and that’s when we began to look inside the cemeteries, and at the same time, we started running into petitions from the prosecutor asking us to go into former military bases. When we went into these former military bases, former occurring military bases, then we started finding mass graves inside the military bases. No one knew who was in those mass graves. The majority of the victims were men of fighting age, let’s say, 18 – 35 years old. In that process, we needed new tools. That’s how DNA became so important to us. The work we had done in Bosnia in the late 90’s had also taught us that in large scale human rights abuses, massive disappearances, there was a new tool and that new tool was DNA.

After seeing what happened in New York in the World Trade Center on 9/11, not the event, of course, that effected everyone, especially New Yorkers, but the entire US – but the way people rallied around searching for the bodies, and the way there were so many resources invested in recovering every small part of every body, made me (and being a New Yorker as well) also realize that we should do more in Guatemala. In my own mind, I started thinking, a New Yorker isn’t worth more than a Guatemalan. There’s no reason why we can’t do the same.


Our goal is to search, to give the families hope, to attempt everything we can to do find the truth. Click To Tweet


So the idea was to create a system that would do the most we could to find every last person that went missing. And that’s our goal. Our goal is to search, to give the families hope, to attempt everything we can to do find the bodies, find the truth about what happened, to allow the families to have some dignity. We don’t say closure anymore, we say empowerment, but in that process is to learn of what happened, so then they can make choices with their life afterwards.

So, unfortunately, since we’re an NGO, we rely on donations; and that is a huge challenge, because the resources are simply not there. We get absolutely no contributions from within Guatemala, from the state, for example. This is work that the state should be supporting, and, you know, because there are still people that had participated in a lot of these crimes in positions of power, then what we do is sort of taboo in Guatemala and we’re not supported. We have been supported throughout our history by friendly governments; the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States even.

I guess, for me, the most rewarding is to be able to change Guatemala one family at a time. I do believe that we have empowered many families, and I am very hopeful that someday these families will become replicators of this and will support other families. It’s beginning to happen, but just to be able to see peace in someone’s eyes after decades of not knowing, after decades of searching, it humbles you and makes you realize that you have huge responsibility, and that you are very fortunate. I am very fortunate. I love what I do, and I don’t think that I could do anything else. I chose it as much as it chose me. Clyde Snow is a bit responsible for that, but we’ve come to the conclusion that this is what I should be doing, and I’m very happy with it.

I guess the one thing that’s important to understand is that Guatemala just happens to be one country that’s almost a neighbor of the U.S., right after Mexico, but the things that happened in Guatemala 30 years ago are happening now. They’re happening in Mexico right next door. There’s the migrants that have gone missing. This is an issue that’s not going to disappear, and we should focus on understanding what it creates and the weight it creates on society as a whole, so we shouldn’t turn our head and look the other way just because people are not the same skin color, or speak the same language, and understand that a lot of these crimes are violations against humanity – against humans in general. Providing assistance, providing support, providing donations, whatever you can provide to investigate these crimes or these situations will go a long way with the people that are suffering the most. I think that’s important to remember.


To learn more about and donate to the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, visit this webpage: