Two men carry a casket uphill in Santa Cruz, a predominantly Mayan rural town in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, 125 miles north of the capital. They are followed by a group of women wearing long patterned skirts and traditional huipil shirts.
They are on their way to pay their respects to Domingo Mo, a father and husband who died at the age of 32. After more than three decades buried in a mass grave dating back to the country’s civil war, the skeleton inside the casket no longer bears his likeness. Mo would have been 66 today.
Domingo Mo was one of more than 40,000 Guatemalans who disappeared during the country’s brutal civil war that was fought between the government and rebel leftist groups. More than 200,000 people—most of them indigenous Maya—were killed during the conflict, which ended in 1996.
Domingo Mo’s widow, children and grandchildren gather around his casket. Photo: Anna-Cat Brigida
Mo’s body was one of 550 found at a military base called CREOMPAZ, and identified by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation. Thanks in part to their forensic evidence, eight retired military officials are standing trial for crimes related to the disappearances during the 36-year conflict.
At a lab in Guatemala City, Alma Vasquéz, an anthropologist at the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), peers through her purple-rimmed glasses as she scrubs a femur clean with a blue toothbrush. When the bone is clean, she places it to her right where sets of bones from different parts of the body—skull, spine, hands—are organized in groups. Once all the bones are clean, she will reconstruct the skeleton and lay it on a table. Then, she can figure out its age, gender and the cause of death.
Across the room, the skeleton of a young boy lies on a navy blue tablecloth. His body was found buried with three others in a Mayan community in Guatemala’s western highlands. Vasquéz has determined that he was between six and nine years old when he died, more than two decades ago. He had been shot in the head three times.
An anthropologist inspects bones at the FAFG lab in Guatemala City. Photo: Courtesy of FAFG
The bodies were discovered after witnesses told a government agency about a possible mass grave in their neighborhood. Once the report was filed, the Foundation conducted in-depth interviews to gather more information about the potential burial site. After getting a general idea of the location, they used archeological techniques to identify anomalies in the terrain that could indicate where the earth had been overturned.
Next, they excavated the bodies. Sometimes there were just a few, sometimes there were hundreds. The bodies were sent to the lab in the capital, Guatemala City, where a researcher constructed the skeleton and a profile of the person each had once been. Then a bone sample was sent to a nearby DNA lab to find a potential match within the foundation’s database of DNA samples from family members searching for loved ones.
“We do this work uncovering what happened in the past for the people who live today,” said Jose Suasnavar, the assistant director of Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation. “But we also do it because we want to prevent [these atrocities] in the future. If the human brutality of actions like these are not known, we are destined to repeat them.”