When I left Guatemala in 1982 at the age of five, I joined the immigration tide of thousands of people fleeing Guatemala’s civil war, poverty, gangs, and corruption to cross the Mexican desert and enter the United States. For many of my generation, Guatemala was as far as we could imagine from a law-abiding society where justice prevails.
But things are changing. This year has already opened up new chapter in Guatemala's history. Look at what’s happened in just a few short months:
- An ex-president went to jail to face money laundering charges.
- The murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg—the prominent attorney who appeared on YouTube in May 2009 accusing President Colom of killing him—is resolved by a UN entity with 300 investigators who use cellphone calls and private security camera footage to determine that Rosenberg plotted his own murder.
- The director of Guatemala’s national police force, Baltzar Gomez, is arrested on March 10 on charges of colluding with drug traffickers.
And now, Guatemala has begun to both, figuratively and literally, dig deep in the dirt of its past and enter a period of transitional justice. For decades, Guatemalans have been digging up bodies buried in mass graves located in the mountains—where government troops and death squads massacred indigenous Mayan villagers to eliminate guerrilla opposition—but exhumations are now underway in Guatemala City's Verbena Cemetery. In the capital, thousands of students, church leaders, union members, and everyday citizens were abducted and never heard from again—and to this day Guatemala has made no official mention of those crimes or punished those responsible.
But this new effort to identify the remains of those that history left behind may help to bring families and Guatemalan society a sense of peace about the past.
Led by Fredy Peccerelli, director of the Foundation of Forensic Anthropology of Guatemala (FAFG) and head of the “My Name is Not XX” project, the archaeological dig follows a well-studied, logic. Armed with one of the best, U.S.-financed DNA laboratories in Latin America, Peccerelli's team will tear open and rappel down a series of immensely deep wells in Guatemala City's La Verbena Cemetery, where thousands of unidentified bodies were thrown from 1977 to 1986—the peak years of the country's civil war. The goal: to collect the skeletons of hundreds, or perhaps as many as 3,000 bodies, which show evidence of execution, and to connect their DNA with the DNA of family members who, three decades later, are stepping forward to claim the remains of their loved ones.
In a society that until now has been too traumatized—and paralyzed by current fears—to seek justice and the truth about its past, the start of FAFG's exhumation at the 70-year-old Cemetery of the Forgotten caps a remarkable moment of remembrance centered around the anniversary of the UN Truth Commission's report. This cemetery represents the resting place for many of Guatemala’s working class whose lives came to an abrupt end during this period.
Impunity runs deep in Guatemala where some 97 percent of crimes go unpunished. Only a handful of military have faced justice for their crimes during the war. And many still hold high seats of power today, like Efraín Ríos Montt, whose scorched earth policy in 1982 and 1983 saw the highest period of bloodshed. Besides being one of the cruelest generals responsible for countless massacres in El Quiche, Ríos Montt may well become Guatemala’s next president in the 2011 elections.
If you wanted to kill someone, Guatemala was the place to do it. But a new sense of justice may be helping the country to permanently move away from this horrific past.
*Kara Andrade is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a Central American-based freelance journalist who has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune, among other publications.