Digging for truth in Guatemala

02/05/04

AAAS honors forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli

SEATTLE, WA-- Unmarked graves in the Guatemalan highlands offer mute testimony to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people--many of them Mayans--who were killed by military and paramilitary during the country's bloody civil war.

AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, helped train the first forensic anthropology team to exhume and examine thousands of Guatemala's dead, beginning in 1992. Since then, scientists like Fredy Peccerelli have braved death threats and other perils to piece together the stories of victims' lives.

Peccerelli, executive director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, will be among those honored Saturday night at the AAAS Science and Human Rights reception during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle.

Each year, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program honors one or more scientists who, through action and example, have promoted human rights, usually at great personal cost. In 2004, the Program honors the members of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, FAFG).

The FAFG investigates mass human rights abuses, focusing on the recovery and identification of victims killed and buried in clandestine gravesites during Guatemala's 36-year internal armed conflict. The Foundation uses forensic anthropology and archeology to search for the estimated 200,000 lives that were lost.

Since 1992, the group has carried out 191 exhumations of mass grave sites. FAFG is a non-governmental organization that functions in the absence of an official government exhumation program. Exhumations have played a critical role in providing forensic investigation teams with evidence to scientifically document massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan military.

In the past three years, the FAFG has faced increased repression: Members of the Foundation were the subject of numerous attacks and death threats. The individuals behind the threats may have had ties to the military during Guatemala's civil war, according to AAAS staff expert Victoria Baxter. One of the threatening letters sent to the FAFG forensic scientists stated that "in a war, there are no guilty parties, and it is not your place to judge us." Many of those responsible for past human rights abuses still remain in positions in power. According to Amnesty International, the lack of accountability for past abuses has created "a climate of impunity in which those responsible for past atrocities lash out with ever increasing virulence at those who are collecting evidence and mounting bids to bring them to justice."

FAFG Executive Director, Fredy Peccerelli will be present at the reception to accept the recognition on behalf of the Foundation. Peccerelli is a founding member of the FAFG and has been directly involved in the investigation of over 150 mass gravesites.

He also has lead forensic archeological investigations of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

In 1999, he was chosen by Time Magazine and CNN as one of the 50 "Latin American Leaders for the New Millennium." In the same year, the Guatemalan Youth Commission named him an "Icon" for the youth of Guatemala. In 1996, Mr. Peccerelli obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in anthropology from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He is currently on sabbatical and is enrolled in a Masters of Science program in Forensic and Biological Anthropology at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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