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A Guatemalan Returns to Help Find the 'Disappeared'

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A Guatemalan Returns to Help Find the 'Disappeared'


A Guatemalan Returns to Help Find the 'Disappeared'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The U.S. is planning to spend about $3 million to help several countries in Latin America set up DNA testing facilities. Congress approved that money in last year's budget, in part after hearing stories from non-governmental groups such as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation.

NPR's Michele Keleman reports that the head of that group was in Washington recently to talk about his efforts to dig up Guatemala's past.


Freddy Peccerelli(ph) didn't expect to be in this line of work. He and his family fled Guatemala in 1980 after his father was wrongly accused of being a Communist and received death threats. Freddy was only nine years old and quickly put his past behind him, unaware of what was going on back home.

Mr. FREDDY PECCERELLI (Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation): When we moved to New York, I moved to the Bronx and one of the things I did is I emerged myself in the Yankees, the baseball team. We lived four blocks away from the stadium. I was safe thinking about anything but what was happening in Guatemala where people were being tortured, killed.

KELEMEN: It was only years later when he was studying anthropology in college that he learned about efforts to exhume the remains of some of the estimated 160,000 people who were killed and 40,000 disappeared in Guatemala's 36 year long civil war. Peccerelli now finds himself deep in the Guatemalan jungles digging up mass graves and working with scientists and social anthropologists to piece together Guatemala's brutal recent history.

Mr. PECCERELLI: We've exhumed over 3500 human remains. Twenty-five percent of those are children, are under the age of 18. The level of trauma is impressive. I mean in some cases, there's a case we had in the office not too long ago where we found a 16-year-old boy with 88 machete wounds to his body.

KELEMEN: Peccerelli's office is said to be stacked high with documents and boxes of human bones. He's eager to get the U.S. funds to start DNA testing to be able to identify the remains and help families honor their loved ones. And he thinks the U.S. has some responsibility to stay involved given its role in a 1954 coup that toppled Guatemala's elected president and ushered in a long period of military rule.

Mr. PECCERELLI: It's proper for current governments of the United States to try to make amends and to try to repair the damage that the U.S. initially caused to the region. So working with U.S. funds and with U.S. support is something that I think is adequate and necessary.

KELEMEN: Congressional sources say he's also been getting some U.S. support for his personal protection. Like his father, Peccerelli has been the target of death threats.

Mr. PECCERELLI: They started with a letter February 21, 2002. A letter that was very clear in stating that we were the enemy and that we'd had the opportunity to recover all these remains in peace, but now our families and, our families were going to bury our bodies and the bodies of our children in tears.

KELEMEN: The letters and the personal threats have become more explicit and graphic, he says, though Peccerelli seems determined to finish the job he set out to do.

Mr. PECCERELLI: It's important that the new generations of children in schools read about what happened and understand what happened. And also because of justice. I mean if we don't prosecute anyone for these crimes it just shows people in Guatemala you can kill, even at a massive level, even at a genocidal level, and get away with it.

KELEMEN: Murder rates, particularly among women, are skyrocketing now in Guatemala and Peccerelli thinks coming to terms with history and promoting justice is one way to fight crime in today's Guatemala.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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