In Guatemala, an American anthropologist digs up bodies and builds a case

An interview with forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow

By Saul Elbein

A Guatemalan judge has ordered the former Guatemalan dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, to appear in court on Thursday. Montt led the country in 1982-83, and during his rule the army conducted huge massacres of highland Indians as part of a scorched-earth campaign to rid the region of leftist guerrillas. Montt says he didn’t order the killings, but  government files show that massacres were reported all the way up the chain of command. Two former Army generals were arrested last year for their role in the killings.

A Guatemalan anthropologist examines a skull from a mass grave in La Verbena cemetary in Guatemala City, July 2011. (Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez)

For decades, it seemed like the perpetrators of the Guatemalan genocide would never stand trial. From 1976 to 1996, the government killed, according to a UN report, almost 200,000 civilians, but the killers covered their tracks by burying the bodies clandestinely in unmarked mass graves. As the evidence slowly decomposed, it looked like the architects of the massacres would escape prosecution. But the work of pioneering forensic anthropologists is now beginning to bring the killers to justice

Anthropologists dig up a mass grave at La Verbana, a cemetary in Guatemala City. (Courtesy of Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala)

At La Verbena, a public cemetery on the rough outskirts of Guatemala City, I visited an exhumation site where forensic anthropologists exhume corpses from a large unmarked grave and identify them. Inside the building a half dozen forensic anthropologists stood over plastic tables, pulling exhumed skeletons out of trash bags, cleaning the bones, and painstakingly putting them back together. Some of these bodies belonged to indigents and drifters; some are the bodies of people murdered by the state. It’s up to the anthropologists to figure out which.

This is one of many mass graves being exhumed across Guatemala. After the remains are identified and the cause of death is determined, the information can be used as evidence to prove a massacre took place and can link the atrocities to particular army units and commanders. With so many graves to dig up, their work will continue for years, or as long as the Guatemalan government allows it to continue.

The team of anthropologists was formed in 1992, and were initially made up entirely of young students. They are led by Dr. Clyde Snow, who is perhaps the most famous forensic anthropologist in the world. He has helped identify Nazi scientist Josef Mengele’s body and testified in the trial of Saddam Hussein. In 1986, Snow went to Argentina to perform exhumations that would lead to the convictions of several members of the military dictatorship there. Now, as he told Latitude News, he’s hoping for the same thing in Guatemala.

You’ve investigated war crimes in places from Kurdistan to Iraq. How was Guatemala different?

Obviously, in Argentina we saw people killed by the state. But in Guatemala things were different—they were massacres. Hundreds of Indian villages were wiped out completely.

It was the first time I’d seen mass graves and there are a lot of technical difficulties exhuming those. The bones can become commingled. You want to keep the bones of one person together as you’re removing them.

Once we get the bodies out, we usually starts with determining a person’s sex. But we can also use bone evidence to determine their age, or their stature. Sometimes we can tell if they’re left- or right-handed. In females who have had children, there are birth scars on the pelvis. We use that data to match the body with a list of names of the disappeared.

[Our team] interviews the families of the missing. They ask, “Did he ever have any fractures? Did he have serious illnesses? Did she have children? What was she wearing the last time you saw her?”

What was she wearing?”

The Indians don’t have much in the way of clothing, so the relatives, even from 20 years before, will have a pretty good memory of what someone was wearing the last time she saw him. Many of the women weave their families’ clothes, and even decades later will recognize their handiwork.

Are people resistant to strangers coming up and asking them those questions?

No. People want their dead back. I have never been in any place in the world where that wasn’t one of the primary concerns and cares of families. Never been anywhere where the people did not want their dead returned.

Why do you initially hire student anthropologists to do the work?

Clyde Snow with Argentinian students in 1985 (Clyde Snow)

[That] came out of the work I did in Argentina. We tried to set up a team of professionals to start doing exhumations. It was impossible. Either people were too scared of the army coming back and killing them . . . or they were already compromised by their association with the army. Either way, we didn’t want them.

After trying to put together a professional exhumation team in Argentina, I had to tell the president that I couldn’t help him. Then a few days before I was supposed to leave, I came home to my hotel and found a group of ragtag anthropology students waiting there. A lot of them had older siblings disappeared by the junta. They’d heard some old gringo needed help digging up bodies, and they wanted to participate.

What did you say?

I was touched. I took them all out for steak and told them that I could use the help, but they needed to understand what they were getting into. That the work was dirty and dangerous, and if they did it long enough they’d probably see someone they knew. They told me they’d think it over, and I figured that was their polite way of saying, “Bye, bye gringo.” But then on Monday they were back.

They’re just kids, doing really emotional work. How do you handle that?

They didn’t know what they were getting into. It was pretty stressful for some of them. We had moments when people would break down in tears during exhumations. Finally, I was pretty brutal with them. I said, when we’re at the grave, or you’re here in the lab, you maintain your professional objective, scientific approach. I said, if you have to cry, cry at night.

That’s brutal.

It was. But it worked. It became one of their mantras: “cry at night.” We had equivalent issues with the Guatemala team. After a while, everybody learns to approach this with professionalism, at least in the daytime. Some people cry, some people have nightmares. I tend to have an extra martini in the evening.

Everyone deals with it differently. But I’ve found that’s a pretty good way.