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Guatemala – Days of the Dead

Forensic anthropologist Lourdes Penados has spent the past 15 years exhuming mass graves in her homeland of Guatemala. Her work is part of a social initiative supported by NGOs, lawyers, academics and victims’ communities to collect evidence of government violations of human rights and return remains to families for dignified burial.

At an Edinburgh event organised by Scottish voluntary network Recovery Action recently, Lourdes spoke about the historical and current efforts of Guatemalans to hold their government accountable for decades of unimaginable cruelty.  Over the course of a 36-year civil war, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and 45,000 more “disappeared.” Most of the victims were indigenous Mayans.

With her team of anthropologists and archaeologists, Lourdes carefully lifts out the fragile bones and tries to identify the bodies based on records and descriptions given by families during interviews. Although many bodies go unidentified, she says the communities are glad that family members, friends, and fellow Guatemalans can be buried in a cemetery with the proper rites and mention of what happened.

Justice is slow in Guatemala, where elite impunity has long held sway, but, in a historical victory on May 10, Guatemala’s former military leader Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. It was the first time that a former head of state had been convicted of genocide by his own people rather than an international court.

But that victory wasn’t to last.

In a hugely disappointing reversal, the Constitutional Court overturned the ruling and ordered the trial resume in a move that Amnesty International's researcher on Guatemala, Sebastian Elgueta, called “a devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict.”

Devastating, but hardly surprising. Amnesty submitted a briefing to the UN Committee Against Torture just last month detailing systematic government failure to effectively investigate crimes under international law. In a country where people still live in fear of their government, Lourdes and her colleagues rely on the international community and NGOs like Amnesty, Recovery Action, and the Red Cross to fund their efforts and let the authorities know the world is watching. 

Lourdes is cautiously optimistic. She admitted that the conviction of Rios Montt didn’t exactly make her happy. The feeling is hard to describe, she says, but it seems akin to hope. Clearly, she has reason to doubt other perpetrators will be swiftly brought to justice and victims lain to rest even if Rios Montt is convicted. But it is a beginning.

I was strangely comforted to hear that children watch her as she works. At the unearthing of remains, the victims’ communities are always present and they make sure their young ones get a front row seat. Lourdes asked them why:

“So that they will know what happened to us.” 

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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