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Exhuming the Past In a Painful Quest

Finding and identifying the 40,000 who went missing is an even greater challenge. Many were pulled off buses or back roads and taken to military bases far from their home provinces to be tortured by interrogators.

Of the 650 bodies Peccerelli's group has recovered from exhumations at military bases, only 220 have been identified. The rest are being stored in stacks of cardboard boxes at the foundation's headquarters, awaiting a new initiative to collect and compare DNA samples from victims and their relatives that Peccerelli hopes to begin soon.

A Massive Police Archive

Another potential source of leads is the recently discovered secret police archive. Deputies of Guatemala's human rights ombudsman stumbled upon it accidentally in July 2005 when they were investigating complaints that explosives were being unsafely stored in the area.

The documents number more than 80 million pages and date as far back as the 1880s. Stacked from floor to ceiling in room after room, they have been badly damaged by water, rats and insects, and do not include records from precincts in several regions where the worst atrocities occurred. However, buried in the mountains of paper are priceless finds like death certificates for unidentified bodies found by police. By comparing the fingerprints on the certificates with those on the national identity cards of missing victims, said Peccerelli, "you can find if there's a match and then search for the body at a specific cemetery."

Alberto Fuentes, who is overseeing the preservation and analysis of the archives, said investigators have also come across a few arrest warrants for people detained for "political crimes" who later turned up dead -- including grandmothers and babies.

But he cautioned that it would take time to find enough documents in the archives to mount a legal case against their killers. "This is a project of 20 years," he said.

The evidence generated by the recent exhumations has also failed so far to spur a rise in prosecutions.

"We still have a weak state that is scared of the military," said Frank LaRue, one of Guatemala's leading human rights advocates. "Local prosecutors are authorizing the exhumations. But when the results come in, they don't initiate criminal proceedings. So we're having all these exhumations but no trials."

Even if prosecutors were to open cases, convictions could be hard to achieve. While Guatemalan judges have sentenced some members of the civil defense patrols, suits against those who issued their orders have been tied up in legal wrangling or languished in the attorney general's office for years.

Efforts by Guatemalans to obtain justice from foreign courts have also met with obstacles. In July, Judge Santiago Pedraz of the Spanish National Court issued arrest warrants for eight former military officials, including Ríos Montt, on charges of genocide, torture, terrorism and illegal detention. Guatemalan authorities have not acted on the warrants, and Guatemalan courts blocked Pedraz from deposing the accused during a fact-finding trip in June.

Nonetheless, Peccerelli remains hopeful, pointing out that it took years of activism and hundreds of exhumations just to get the government to admit that civilians had been killed. "Now it is accepted that those massacres occurred," he said. "We're just waiting for the next step, and we know that the work we're doing will contribute."


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