Recover the loved ones, one by one
En Guatemala, mientras la sociedad civil se organiza para acabar con el círculo de impunidad que ha rodeado los crímenes de la guerra, el sistema de justicia apuesta por el olvido. El caso Creompaz, uno de los pocos en llegar a las cortes, se alarga indefinidamente. Así, la batalla es también contra el tiempo: los testigos y los sobrevivientes de las atrocidades envejecen rápidamente y una nueva generación, marcada por las heridas de sus padres, se prepara para asumir el relevo.
[Institutional voice]: On January 16th, 1992, El Salvador signed a Peace Accord that ended 12 years of war.
(ALFREDO CRISTIANI’S DISCOURSE AUDIO ARCHIVE, FORMER SALVADORAN PRESIDENT ABOUT THE PEACE ACCORD)
[Institutional voice]: And on December 29th, 1996, it was Guatemala’s turn.
(ÁLVARO ARZÚ’S DISCOURSE AUDIO ARCHIVE, FORMER PRESIDENT OF GUATEMALA)
[Institutional voice]: After two decades, the war wounds are still open. Pie de página Ximena Natera and Radio Nacional de Colombia’s Lorena Vega present War witnesses: voices against impunity, stories of the battles for memory and justice in El Salvador and Guatemala.
[Humberto Morán]: It exists (the graveyard) since 1905, one of the first buried here was my great grandfather.
[Ximena]: We walk through the cemetery of San Cristóbal Verapaz, a small village in Alta Verapaz, northern Guatemala, with Humberto Morán and Lurdes Cal.
It is late in the afternoon, there are some people, cleaning tombstones, decorating them with flowers and lighting candles for the night. Lourdes stops in front of one: the name, carved on stone, is Policarpo Chen.
[Lourdes Cal]: He was my uncle… he’s my uncle. He freed many plantations, it was part of the social work he did his whole life. On September 12, 1984, he was kidnapped. We found him dead on Progreso highway on the 13th.
[Lorena]: We walk uphill to the end of the cemetery. A wall of trees borders with the forest. Here are the bones recovered from clandestine graves inside the military base in Coban.
[Humberto]: Here is another one. This is the area that was destined for those found in Creompaz.
[Ximena]: Why this area?
[Humberto]: There is no more space, everything is occupied. We believe that some of them won’t fit in here.
[Lorena]: How many of creompaz lay here?
[Humberto]: Hmm… we should count them, it starts from there.
[Ximena]: The bodies began to arrive in 2012 and 2013.
[Humberto]: Like 15 were delivered in San Lucas.
[Ximena]: It is not difficult to distinguish creompaz victims graves from the rest. Almost all of them have inscriptions: SEPAZ, an acronym for the Peace Ministry and PNR (*NRP in english).
[Humberto]: It means National Restitution Program, it supported the families of victims founded at Creompaz. It helped with the coffin and other expenses.
[Lorena]: 565 bodies were recovered, not all of them are here. Many were taken to local cemeteries near the communities they belonged to, closer to their relatives.
[Ximena]: Humberto’s older brother remains are also at the graveyard, he was kidnapped by soldiers on December 23, 1981, and found in Creompaz.
At that time, Lazaro, his brother, was part of youth group engaged in social work.
[Humberto]: The army said that they were not helping poor children, but the guerrillas.
[Lorena]: Humberto and his family witnessed the kidnapping:
[Humberto]: He had just returned from Guatemala, they (the army) arrived to detain him, they arrived in a white pick-up … they were dressed in military uniform.
[Lorena]: Humberto’s father presented himself to the base several times, asking about his son but they denied him information and threatened him.
[Ximena]: Lázaro was found in Creompaz, his remains returned home 32 years later.
[Humberto]: Finding him wasfor the better so the family won’t keep imagining him lying somewhere out there. All this is true, but on the other hand we lost any hope of finding him alive.
[Lorena]: At the capital we visit the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation headquarters, the FAFG, a non-governmental scientific organization dedicated to the search and identification of the people disappeared during the conflict.
Since 1992 the FAFG has recovered around 8 thousand remains and identified more than 3 thousand people.
[Ximena]: Their work has been fundamental in building the cases against war criminals.
[Omar Bertoni Girón]: The foundation’s work provides technical and scientific tools to the justice system and collaborate with victim’s families in the search for their loved ones. We act as scientific experts in this process.
[Lorena]: Omar Bertoni Girón is Human Identification Advisor and one of FAFG’s 60 members. The FAFG was in charge of recovering the remains from Creompaz base, a request made by Famdegua the Detained and Disappeared Family Association of Guatemala.
[Omar]: We recovered 565 bodies, all of them were analyzed, now we are working on the genetic analysis, there have been some identifications thus far. How many? 98 If I remember correctly.
For us, we got to know that there where people from different areas, always from the northern region. It is a place (Creompaz) help us understand the scope from the capture and detention of these people.
[Ximena]: There is so much that can be deduced of a person just with the information in their bones: age, sex, height, their type of diet, even severe illnesses.
But in the case of a violent death, the bones become witnesses and the signals become evidence.
[Lorena]: The foundation’s work has been crucial in the judicial case in Creompaz. It allowed to overthrow the army defense team narrative that the bodies found in the base belong to victims of 1976 massive earthquake.
[Lorena]: Under what conditions the remains were discovered?
[Omar]: I would say that the remains there were not placed within a norm of respect for the human live, even more so considering the cultural context in the region. There were people with hands and feet tied, blindfolded, varying age ranges: children, adults, elderly people, women, men.
From a forensic point of view, this case is very interesting because it helps you to understand different patterns within the graves inside the base.
[Ximena]: The FAFG was created in 1992 by Clyde Snow, an American forensic anthropologist who, at the request of victims relatives, had arrived to assist in the search and identification of remains. A thing Guatemala’s government wasn’t prepared to do.
[Lorena]: In half a century of work, Snow had become some sort of rockstar of the profession. They would call him the bone detective and had been responsible for the identification of historical figures such as Nazi criminal Josef Mengele and Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
(ARCHIVE: CLYDE SNOW INTERVIEW)
[Ximena]: Nevertheless, his most valuable legacy could be the training of a new generation of forensic anthropologists in the continent and the organizations that emerged from them.
[Lorena]: First in Argentina, where Snow’s disciples created the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team that has worked for years in the search for Argentinian dictatorship victims and armed conflicts in 30 other countries.
And then here in Guatemala, where the FAFG investigations have contributed to a dozen of war crimes trials.
(SHIRLEY CAROLA IN FAFG LABORATORY)
[Ximena]: Shirley Carola Chacón, head of forensic lab, guides us through a large study where a dozen anthropologists work with skeletons. They move efficiently, carefull. At a table, a couple of scientists make an inventory of the bones, re-assemble a skeleton, check the pieces and look for signs of trauma.
[Lorena]: On one, Daniel Guzmán works on a skeleton, he tells us that it is mostly complete, that they were able to determine that it is a woman; they can tell she was young because of the jaw and pelvis, but most importantly: there are traces of three big wounds in her bones.
[Daniel Guzmán]: You see here, there are fractures caused by a projectile impact of a firearm, this is not erosion caused by soil, but the behavior of bone facing a fracture.
[Lorena]: Daniel points to the torso, first up to the ribs on the left, then lower, near the spine.
[Daniel]: There is too much of bone loss, we can not establish where the projectile came from exactly or where it hit on the way out.
[Lorena]: He points to the skull, near the forehead.
[Daniel]: This is a very different kind of fracture, this type comes from a blunt force, it could have been caused by an object, maybe by the same weapon like the rifle butt or a club.
[Ximena]: The woman was found in El Quiché region, Daniel says. To her side the remains of two children with similar injuries were found. The geneticists verified they were her children through DNA testing.
He also explains that archaeologists determined the woman was buried in 1982 and, through interviews with her family, they dated the crime somewhere between October and November.
[Shirley]: There were three people in this pit , the adult, a female, and two children. The two children are hers children and both suffered the same traumas as the mother. This is the last skeleton from that grave and now it is going to be archived because the process is finished.
[Lorena]: It is a long process, Shirley explains that the full identification of a body occurs only when members of four areas: Archeology, forensic anthropology, social anthropology and the genetics department reach a consensus of 99.99%.
[Ximena]: It is a monumental job. The FAFG works with 60 scientists and faces the task of locating, documenting and identifying more than 40 thousand disappeared people from the Guatemalan conflict that raged from 1960 to 1996 .
The FAFG is not alone, the work of civil society and victims relatives has been fundamental in the process of justice and memory of the post-conflict.
[Alberto Fuentes]: What happened in here has no parison with any other country in Latin America. 93% of the acts of political violence come from the State.
[Lorena]: We go through the Police Historical Archive. To understand the importance of this place we must know that a year after the signing of the peace, in 1997, the Truth Commission, inquired the government for access to the police archive to assess the responsability degree of the institution during the war.
[Ximena]: Then President Álvaro Arzú said such file did not exist.
The lie collapsed on July 5, 2005. Ombudsman officials discovered a building buried in mountains of scrap metal during a raid. Inside, a treasure.
[Alberto]: The file we found is gigantic, there is nothing similar. It has around 80 million folios.
[Lorena]: Alberto Fuentes is a member of the Historical Archive Coordination. He was one of the first to arrive after the discovery.
For months, he and a dozen volunteers, held a vigil to protect the archive.
[Alberto]: It’s was our story treated like trash.
[Ximena]: The building was half built, it was supposed to become a hospital in the 80s. When they arrived, the place was flooded and infested with rats, bats and insects.
The documents, recovered through rigorous archival methods, revealed that the State used intelligence systems to control its citizens.
[Alberto]: This shows that the police had some sort of records, some control, over more than 30% of the adults in the country. We were 8 million inhabitants and there are one million 270 thousand so far.
[Lorena]: The documents prove that between 1975 and 1985, the war’s most violent years, the police illegally detained any citizen considered subversive and turned them over to the Army.
That would explain why there have been found remains the capital’s inhabitants in rural military bases like Creompaz in Cobán.
[Alberto]: There is a name: Roldán Morales Carlos; there is a date: October 9, 1983. It says he was turned over in Tasisco, Santa Rosa, for looking suspicious and undocumented.
[Ximena]: Files like these are reviewed, cataloged and digitalized by 57 archivists. Today we came to meet one in particular.
[Óscar Ricardo Hernández Lima]: My name is Óscar Ricardo Hernández Lima, I am 35 years old. My occupation within the Historical Archive is file operator, it’ s been my job for 11 years.
[Ximena]: Óscar removes harmful metals from the documents.
He was one of the first workers at the archive and even though many of the employees have left because budget cuts or the heavy work, he remains.
[Óscar]: I am the son of a disappeared person. My dad’s name was Oscar David Hernández Quiroa, he was 22 years old, he was a volunteer firefighter.
[Lorena]: Óscar does not remember much about his father. He managed to get an idea of him through stories told by his grandmother Blanca Rosa Quiroa, who became one of the most visible personalities in the search for the missing.
[Óscar]: I was 1 and a half years old when he was kidnapped. What I know about my father is that he was a collaborative, humanitarian person, he liked to help people: neighbors and friends. He would help classmates and even people he did not know… he helped.
[Lorena]: Before learning how to walk, Oscar would join his grandmother to protests. As a child, It caused an impression.
[Óscar] It was not the childhood that my co-workers had. At the age of five, when I was in protests with my grandma, most of my coworkers were playing at home.
[Ximena]: At 16, Óscar understood that he was the son of a victim.
[Óscar]: They told me more about what happened to him. How it happened, where… that’s when I understood and I started questioning why it happened to me, why did they took him. Why me and not somebody else.
[Ximena]: Through his teenage years he joined HIJOS, a collective, formed by children of the disappeared. For years, the group has dedicated to covered the capital streets with portraits of those missing at home. Through protest they fight for memory and against silence.
[Óscar]: We protested so they would know that they hadn’t killed all the people, that there were seeds, that we were the seeds and will not stop looking for them.
[Lorena]: But in 2006, when the police archive was discovered, Óscar changed the protest for an opportunity to find information about his father.
[Óscar]: That was what motivated me, it continues to motivate me and it will continue to do so.
[Ximena]: While her grandmother travels the country organizing victims collectives, and searching for Oscar, her grandson also called Oscar, looks for clues among 80 million documents. There has been a few in 12 years. The most revealing was a report filed by the firefighters commander-in-chief.
[Óscar]: In some reports, I have seen he directs them to the National Police, he follows a certain procedure. This report was not sent to the police but to chief staff at the presidential house, it was kind of sent to the army. I do not understand it.
[Lorena]: Óscar believes the firefighters commander could have been implicated in the disappearance of his father. He does not know it for sure but that’s why he keeps trying at the archive: to obtain more information, to allow his family to close a cycle of pain.
[Óscar]: I want to know what they did to my dad’s remains. If he is dead, tell me where they left him, I want to bury him, to have somewhere to leave flowers for my dad… It is a very strong feeling. I am a father now, I understand more. I want them to tell me where my father is, where they left their remains and I want for the responsibles to be incarcerated, that is what motivates me.
[Ximena]: There is no suspect in the disappearance of Oscar’s father, no one has been arrested.
In the future, police archive documents could transform into evidence against Guatemalan security forces, just as the work done by organizations like Famdegua and FAFG. For now, though, the country faces a cycle of impunity.
[Lorena]: Most of the atrocities were forgotten after the war. Less than 10 cases have reached trial. A low number considering more than 600 massacres were perpetrated and 45 thousand people disappeared. Almost every one of the cases in court were pushed by victims.
One of the most anticipated trials was Creompaz case, the biggest crime of forced disappearance registered in the continent.
[Ximena]: In 2016, after months of investigations by the Prosecutor’s office, and based upon the work of the Forensic Anthropology team and Famdegua, the ministry issued 14 arrest warrants against army officers and soldier related to the disappearances, almost all of them were high-ranking officials and intelligence in Creompaz.
Among the group was General Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, former Army Chief Staff and brother of Romero Lucas García, president of Guatemala between 1978 and 1982.
(BENEDICT LUCAS, INTERVIEW WITH PUBLIC PLAZA] Wars are disastrous but God created them to lower the population in the world, without them there would be overpopulation.
[Lorena]: Months before being arrested, in an interview with Plaza Pública, Benedicto Lucas García denied the accusations brought against him. He said the bodies found inside the military base were 1976 earthquake victims.
[Benedict]: That is an earthquake cemetery and logically there are people who want to take advantage of the opportunity, they took the DNA test, what are they after? Compensation?
[Lorena]: Out of 14 soldiers initially detained, only 8 were officially linked to the process.
At the end of 2017 the case stalled due to appeals filed by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the case set to prove as example has been losing momentum.
Out of 565 victims, the case holds 152 and the Judge accepted only 29. The trial has yet to begin.
[Ximena]: Meanwhile, the real battle is against time.
This generation could be the last one to provide evidence to shed light on the years of horror. Organizations like the FAFG works fast to collect as many DNA samples from victims relatives and the need to collect testimonies from those who survived is urgent.
(LOURDES CAL SPEAKS IN QUICHÉ)
[Lorena]: This is why the work of people like Lourdes Cal is transcendental. She travels through the indigenous villages of Alta Verapaz, four hours away from Guatemala City, collecting testimonies from victims ignored by justice.
[Lourdes]: It has been complicated, there is still a lot of repression in the communities. In some ways, the system has not changed much. Some authorities tell them: if you testify we will go back to war and it’s going to be your fault for talking about what happened. They try to keep people from talking about this.
[Ximena]: For Lourdes, the war atrocities are a logical evolution from the historical repression that Mayan communities have endured.
[Lourdes]: And each of these events come to be intertwined now, the invasion, the colony and now the armed conflict. It all is linked to groups of power, owners of the land without a place they belong to.
[Lorena]: Hearing and reliving so much pain takes its toll on the body: the first years, Lulu, as she prefers to be called, kept falling into depression. Women’s stories affect her deeply, she says, but on the other hand it has helped her understand a confusing chapter of her life.
[Lourdes]: It has helped me to clarify what I had been trying to understand since childhood. This is what is was happening when I saw such things and it is very difficult but I feel compelled to do the accompaniment.
[Ximena]: In Lulu’s childhood, during the war, it was common to see dozens of people leaving the mountains, and walking through the streets of San Cristóbal, guarded by soldiers.
[Lourdes]: For me it was evident I did not know them. Those situations… I observed but did not ask.
[Lorena]: Living in municipality protected her family in some extent, during the years of conflict her life was almost normal: she played in the street with her older sisters and attended school. But his uncle, Policarpo Chen’s, murder in 1984, changed the entire family.
[Lourdes]: I did not understand at that time, when my uncle died. I was putting together my own ideas, a puzzle, and well I understood that if my uncle had done those good things for others, I also wanted to do it.
[Lorena]: And when did you start doing something?
[Lourdes]: After the signing of the peace agreements, they opened the possibility of some projects for the communities. I wanted to do something for the rural area that had been most affected.
[Ximena]: The reality is that 36 years later the wounds have not closed, not only the absence of the disappeared. The communities are deeply divided, at the end of the conflict, many soldiers and members of the guerrillas reintegrated into civil life.
Since then victims and perpetrators inhabit the same spaces and sometimes even the same families.
[Lourdes]: In the end those who were behind all this were the powers of the same state. But those who confronted themselves were the same poor people in the community.
[Lorena]: Do the new generations here in the communities know what happened in the war?
[Lourdes]: There have been or have been difficulties in that this story can be transmitted from generation to generation, first because people prefer to forget and start a life from scratch. They do not manage to recover the things that were losses and as part of the pain they have they try not to transmit it to the new generations.
[Lorena]: But Lulu believes that historical memory is indispensable as a guarantee of non-repetition and more so in an unequal society that carries decades of pain on its back.
[Lourdes]: It is very difficult to talk about the issue of reconciliation, as long as this situation of lack of responsibility of the state exists. This will serve so that wounds are not healed and how we could talk about reconciliation if these aspects are not being taken into account.
[Ximena]: In the central square of the capital are the headquarters of the three powers that govern Guatemala, the presidential house, the cathedral and the Army, at the center on an esplanade is the national flag.
It is Sunday and on the square there is a market that at first sight looks like crafts, but here there are no tourists.
[Lorena]: It is a meeting place for many indigenous women of the capital, some of them are domestic workers and this, their day off, takes advantage of it to walk. They tell us that the rest of the week the square remains empty, as it is an area little visited by the mestizo population. Thus, one Sunday morning it becomes a postcard of the racial segregation of a country where 60% of its population is indigenous.
But in recent weeks, the square has been crowded by thousands of people.
(AUDIO MANIFESTANTS IN CENTRO DE GUATEMALA)
[Ximena]: They protest the decision of President Jimmy Morales not to renew the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a UN agency that arrived in the country in 2006 to support state institutions in the investigation of cases of corruption and high profile crimes.
The commission led by the Colombian Iván Velásquez uncovered millionaire frauds that compromised high officials of the state including the current president.
The controversy also highlighted the power that continues to maintain military sectors, on August 31 Jimmy Morales announced the departure of the cicig surrounded by the high command of the armed forces, an image reminiscent of the years of General Rios Mont, during the war.
(PRESS CONFERENCE BY JIMMY MORALES)
[Lorena]: But this is not new, we just have to remember General Otto Pérez Molina, accused of participating in massacres in the Quiché region. Despite the accusations, he was elected president of Guatemala in 2011.
(AUDIO RESIGNATION OF OTTO PÉREZ)
[Lorena]: He left office in 2015 in the midst of citizen protests over the corruption scandal at La Línea, a criminal network that received bribes from importers to evade the payment of customs taxes.
[Ximena]: Another case is that of General Efraín Ríos Montt, dictator between 1982 and 1983, responsible for most of the indigenous massacres.
Until January 2012 he held a prominent position in Congress. In 2013, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison for the genocide of the Ixil indigenous community, months later the sentence was annulled and on April 1 passed away in his house without paying for his crimes.
[Lorena]: The case of Guatemala, shows what can happen when a system is normalized impunity against the atrocities of war: The criminals of yesterday can become the corrupt of the present.
Institutional Voice:”War Witnesses, voices against impunity” is a sound documentary series made by Pie de Página de México and Radio Nacional de Colombia.
This work was done thanks to the Adelante initiative of the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Visit the special at www.radionacional.co/ and www.piedepagina.mx/
Research and script: Lorena Vega and Ximena Natera
Field production in Guatemala: Daniele Volpe (read as is, not Daniel) and Lucha Escobar, Morena Joaquim, Lucía Reynoso, Juan Carlos.
Original music: Santiago Flores
Sound edition: José Luis Mantilla
Web: Cristian Anzola and Fernando Santillán