LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Fredy Peccerelli, director of Fundacion de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala, in his office, where he and his team study the remains of victims of violence in Guatemala to identify them and find the ones who killed them. Image: FUNDACION DE ANTROPOLOGIA FORENSE DE GUATEMALA
One day last spring, Fredy Peccerelli found himself conducting an unusual exercise: correlating the dates of major massacres during Guatemala's civil war to the play schedule of the New York Yankees in the 1980s. It was an attempt, the director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation says, to compare what happened in his native country with his own life after he and his family fled in the fall of 1980 when he was nine years old.
The violence in Guatemala's 36-year insurgency peaked between 1980 and 1983, under the military governments of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García and General José Efraín Ríos Montt. Both regimes led scorched-earth campaigns in the Guatemalan countryside and "disappeared" urban intellectuals who opposed the government. By the time peace accords between the government and an armed resistance movement called Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) were signed in 1996, 200,000 people had perished, many in massacres that targeted entire villages, according to the country's Historical Clarification Commission, a United Nations–led investigation into human rights violations there.
As a kid, Peccerelli knew that his family had fled to New York City because his father, then a law student, had received threats from government death squads in the capital, Guatemala City. "At that time, they were killing a lot of people at the law school," says Peccerelli. "[My father] had a lot of people around him disappear." So when the threats came, the family l quickly fled.
Peccerelli didn't ask many questions—and his parents didn't volunteer much information—about his native country as he and his siblings struggled to adapt to their new home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Instead, he focused on learning English, making friends, and on his favorite baseball team—the Yankees.
It wasn't until fall 1994, during his final semester at Brooklyn College, that Peccerelli began to learn the details of Guatemala's violent history. He attended a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Atlanta, where he attended a lecture called "Excavating the Past, from Guatemala to Kurdistan" given by Karen Burns, a forensic anthropologist then at the University of Georgia in Athens and now at the University of Utah. Burns began her talk by describing the then-new Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team, called FAFG (after its name in Spanish, Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala).
FAFG exhumes mass graves found in the Guatemalan countryside in an attempt to identify massacre victims—and how they died. The anthropologists analyze the unearthed bones for fractures, bullet holes, slash marks and other clues to causes of death. They compare the bones and other materials—such as clothing fragments—found in the graves with descriptions of the missing and the dead in the hope of compiling enough scientific evidence to identify and prosecute the victims' killers. When the work is complete, the researchers turn over the remains to victims' survivors so that they can have closure—and arrange proper burials for their loved ones.
After the lecture, Peccerelli spoke with Burns, who told him that she was about to lead a two-week forensic anthropology training course in Guatemala. Peccerelli was an anthropology major, but had not studied forensics; intrigued, he signed up.
When he completed the course, FAFG hired him as a forensic anthropologist, and he moved to Guatemala. It all happened so quickly that he took an incomplete in his final college class. (Two years later, he would complete the requirements through the mail to earn his bachelor of science in anthropology from Brooklyn College.) Over the next few years, his parents and siblings all returned to Guatemala, as well.