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

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.

And what you see there is the state following individuals, people that, like you, wanted to change their country, and they jotted everything down. And one of the things that they wrote down is when they executed them.

Inside that yellow rectangle, you see a code, it’s a secret code: 300. And then you see a date. The 300 means “executed” and the date means when they were executed.

Now that’s going to come into play in a second. What we did is we conducted an exhumation in 2003, where we exhumed 220 bodies from 53 graves in a military base. Grave 9, though, matched the family of Sergio Saul Linares.

Now Sergio was a professor at the university. He graduated from Iowa State University and went back to Guatemala to change his country. And he was captured on February 23, 1984.

And if you can see there, he was executed on March 29, 1984, which was incredible. We had the body, we had the family’s information and their DNA, and now we have documents that told us exactly what happened.

But most important is about two weeks later, we go another hit, another match from the same grave to Amancio Villatoro. The DNA of that body also matched the DNA of that family.

And then we noticed that he was also in the diary. But it was amazing to see that he was also executed on March 29, 1984. So that led us to think, hmm, how many bodies were in the grave? Six. So then we said, how many people were executed on March 29, 1984? That’s right, six as well. So we have Juan de Dios, Hugo, Moises and Zoilo.

All of them executed on the same date, all captured at different locations and at different moments. All put in that grave.

The only thing we needed now was the DNA of those four families. So we went and we looked for them and we found them. And we identified those six bodies and gave them back to the families.

The other case I want to tell you about is that of a military base called CREOMPAZ. It actually means, “to believe in peace,” but the acronym really means Regional Command Center for Peacekeeping Operations. And this is where the Guatemalan military trains peacekeepers from other countries, the ones that serve with the UN and go to countries like Haiti and the Congo.

Well, we have testimony that said that within this military base, there were bodies, there were graves. So we went in there with a search warrant and about two hours after we went in, we found the first of 84 graves, a total of 533 bodies.

Now, if you think about that, peacekeepers being trained on top of bodies. It’s very ironic. But the bodies — face down, most of them, hands tied behind their backs, blindfolded, all types of trauma — these were people who were defenseless who were being executed. People that 533 families are looking for.

So we’re going to focus on Grave 15. Grave 15, what we noticed, was a grave full of women and children, 63 of them. And that immediately made us think, my goodness, where is there a case like this?

When I got to Guatemala in 1995, I heard of a case of a massacre that happened on May 14, 1982, where the army came in, killed the men, and took the women and children in helicopters to an unknown location.

Well, guess what? The clothing from this grave matched the clothing from the region where these people were taken from, where these women and children were taken from. So we conducted some DNA analysis, and guess what? We identified Martina Rojas and Manuel Chen.

Both of them disappeared in that case, and now we could prove it. We have physical evidence that proves that this happened and that those people were taken to this base.

Now, Manuel Chen was three years old. His mother went to the river to wash clothes, and she left him with a neighbor. That’s when the army came and that’s when he was taken away in a helicopter and never seen again until we found him in Grave 15.

So now with science, with archaeology, with anthropology, with genetics, what we’re doing is, we’re giving a voice to the voiceless. But we’re doing more than that. We’re actually providing evidence for trials, like the genocide trial that happened last year in Guatemala where General Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years.

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