Guatemala engaged in a civil war from 1960 to 1996. The Guatemalan government fought the guerilla force — a group of indigenous people combating the military. The government started targeting armed guerilla groups and guerilla supporters. As time passed, the line between guerilla supporters and civilians disappeared in the eyes of the military leaders, leading to attacks on indigenous Maya families. Approximately 83% of people killed during the civil war were Mayan. According to reports, 200,000 Maya people living in poverty in remote villages were forcibly “disappeared.” Most of them were found years later in mass graves.
Today, the search for those missing continues. The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), has been utilizing recent advancements in science and technology to identify remains and reunite families with their lost loved ones. Established in 1997, the group has been using forensics to fulfill its mission through a five-step methodology:
1. Victim Investigation and Documentation
Initially, FAFG builds a relationship with the family of a victim. During this process, it gathers information to create a profile that includes the victim’s name as well as the inciting incident which led to the disappearance. In many cases, this witness testimony helps with narrowing down which locations to search. Living family members also provide DNA information to help with the identification of victims that are found. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the categorization of saliva as a risky DNA collection method. In its place, geneticists rely on blood samples for comparing DNA.
2. Forensic Archeology
At this stage, criminology comes into play, with every grave marked as a crime scene. Archaeologists carefully excavate victims, documenting every detail possible to piece together what happened. They collect evidence such as rope, gags and ballistics, which are vital in determining the circumstances leading to the cause of death.
3. Forensic Anthropology
Forensic anthropologists piece together the height, age, sex and other physical characteristics of the victims — essentially creating a biological profile. They clean the remains and interpret damage to the bones to help determine the cause of death. They take X-Rays and photographs along with “associated artifacts”, which are any other evidence or items on the victim at the time of their death.
4. Forensic Genetics
Using samples recovered typically from the femur or from the teeth, geneticists examine the DNA. The DNA is uploaded to the “FAFG’s National Genetic Database of Relatives and Victims of Enforced Disappearance”, where profiles are compared against each other. DNA found at crime scenes is also compared to DNA samples provided by potential victims’ family members.
5. Confirmation of Human Identification
FAFG’s team notifies the family of the identification of their loved one through a video call or home visit once they make a match. The Department of Victim Investigation and Documentation supports this process. They show the family the documentation and give them information on the cause of death and how they found the victim’s remains. Finally, FAFG returns the remains through the local prosecutor’s office for a dignified funeral that honors the victim. This is the final step in how FAFG uses forensics to help indigenous Maya families.
Closure for Families
The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala provides families with the closure they need, by uncovering the truth behind the disappearance of their loved ones. With its help, families can finally honor their loved ones and move forward.
– Thom LaPorte