Despite threats, Guatemalan scientists dig for the truth

Forensic anthropologists receive armed protection while exhuming bodies killed in country's 36-year civil war.

For the past four years, Raul García has worked exhuming bullet-ridden skeletons from clandestine cemeteries across Guatemala.

Mr. García is part of a team of forensic anthropologists that is unearthing the history of the military's scorched-earth campaign during Guatemala's bloody 36-year civil war.

Since 1992, scientists have exhumed the remains of more than 2,000 victims in roughly 200 secret cemeteries. The scientists say they'd have to work for 10 more years to exhume all the bodies.

During Guatemala's civil war 200,000 people, most of them Maya Indians, were killed or went missing. The Historical Clarification Commission, set up as part of the peace accords to investigate wartime human-rights violations and suggest measures to promote peace, attributed the vast majority of civil-war deaths to the military and the paramilitary groups it employed.

Despite the controversial nature of García's work – some of the people who carried out the campaign still wield enormous power here – he says that until recently he never felt any danger. But that changed late last month after he and 10 of his colleagues received a written death threat demanding that they stop their work.

Observers point to the last line of the letter: "There will be no court cases from any exhumation you did.... [F]irst we will kill you," it says.

"After everything we've seen in these clandestine cemeteries, you know these people are capable of anything," says García.

Intimidation and threats against human- rights workers, justice workers, and the press are still commonplace in this fledgling democracy. Yet these recent threats – coming after a decade of exhumations and five years after the end of the war – have many fearing a reversal in the progress made over the past several years toward creating a culture of respect for human rights and the rule of law.

"These threats have the old style used by death squads," says Guillermo Fernandez-Maldonado, director of the human- rights program at the United Nations Mission in Guatemala. "The letter has a clear political motive."

Nine of the 11 anthropologists named in the letter worked on exhumations of massacre victims that are now part of cases being investigated by a special prosecutor. Among them are two cases against members of the military which ruled the country when many of the Mayan guerillas were killed during one of its bloodiest eras. The current president of Congress is also under investigation.

In Guatemala – historically a country with a powerful military establishment and weak justice system – the military has long acted with impunity. But last year, three high-ranking officers were among those convicted of the 1998 murder of a bishop in what was considered a landmark case for justice in Guatemala.

This has "sent a message that the prosecutors are willing to investigate and judges are willing to convict members of the military," says Susie Kemp, a Scottish lawyer who helped build the two cases. "There are many witnesses, but the physical evidence is what is scaring people the most," she says.

Even US citizens have a stake in the current forensic work. American Jennifer Harbury's husband, a Guatemalan rebel leader, was killed in the early 1990s by the Guatemalan military who was working with the CIA. Last week she petitioned the US Supreme Court for the right to sue US government officials who, she claims, had knowledge of his whereabouts prior to his death.

"Exhuming the clandestine cemeteries was among the recommendations of the Historical Clarification Commission and the government has assumed the responsibility of following those recommendations," says Gabriel Aguilera of the Governmental Secretariat for Peace. "The exhumations will continue," he says, albeit under heightened security.

Fredy Peccerelli, the director of one of Guatemala's forensic anthropology organizations, says the terrifying experience is, in some ways, also satisfying. "What this means is that our work is having positive results," Peccerelli says. "The fact that we have been threatened means that someone is scared of the results of our work."

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