Fredy Peccerelli: A Forensic Anthropologist Who Brings Closure for the “Disappeared (Transcript)

Fredy Peccerelli

Fredy Peccerelli works with families whose loved ones “disappeared” in the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala. 

Fredy Peccerelli – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

Guatemala is recovering from a 36-year armed conflict. A conflict that was fought during the Cold War.

It was really just a small leftist insurgency and a devastating response by the state. What we have as a result is 200,000 civilian victims, 160,000 of those killed in the communities: small children, men, women, the elderly even.

And then we have about 40,000 others, the missing, the ones we’re still looking for today. We call them the Desaparecidos.

Now, 83% of the victims are Mayan victims, victims that are the descendants of the original inhabitants of Central America. And only about 17% are of European descent.

But the most important thing here is that the very people who are supposed to defend us — the police, the military — are the ones that committed most of the crimes.

Now the families, they want information. They want to know what happened. They want the bodies of their loved ones.

But most of all, what they want is they want you, they want everyone to know that their loved ones did nothing wrong.

Now, my case was that my father received death threats in 1980. And we left. We left Guatemala and we came here.

So I grew up in New York, I grew up in Brooklyn as a matter of fact, and I went to New Utrecht High School and I graduated from Brooklyn College.

The only thing was that I really didn’t know what was happening in Guatemala. I didn’t care for it; it was too painful.

But it wasn’t till 1995 that I decided to do something about it. So I went back. I went back to Guatemala, to look for the bodies, to understand what happened and to look for part of myself as well.

The way we work is that we give people information. We talk to the family members and we let them choose. We let them decide to tell us the stories, to tell us what they saw, to tell us about their loved ones. And even more important, we let them choose to give us a piece of themselves. A piece, an essence, of who they are.

And that DNA is what we’re going to compare to the DNA that comes from the skeletons. While we’re doing that, though, we’re looking for the bodies. And these are skeletons by now, most of these crimes happened 32 years ago.

When we find the grave, we take out the dirt and eventually clean the body, document it, and exhume it. We literally bring the skeleton out of the ground.

Once we have those bodies, though, we take them back to the city, to our lab, and we begin a process of trying to understand mainly two things: One is how people died.

So here you see a gunshot wound to the back of the head or a machete wound, for example. The other thing we want to understand is who they are. Whether it’s a baby, or an adult. Whether it’s a woman or a man.

But when we’re done with that analysis what we’ll do is we’ll take a small fragment of the bone and we’ll extract DNA from it. We’ll take that DNA and then we’ll compare it with the DNA of the families, of course.

The best way to explain this to you is by showing you two cases. The first is the case of the military diary. Now this is a document that was smuggled out of somewhere in 1999.

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