The Ghosts of the Guatemala Civil War
The bones of the disappeared — victims of the Guatemalan civil war — beg to tell their stories.
If we stay here long enough and resist the too quick, cheap or artificial resolution, we may see that the place of death is in fact the place of life.
The spirit of the Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. —Ezekiel 37:1-2
It is a March morning in Guatemala City. I walk down a dry, dusty lane, out along a finger of land jutting perilously between ravine and ravine.
Here, on the road through La Verbena cemetery, hospital waste trucks rumble by; when they reach the end they tip their pile down into the valley.
I am early, so I walk slowly, kicking stones through the rows of niche tombs, stacked five high, artificial flowers drooping down. I pass some of the nicer mausoleums, and then I am among the graves in the scrub grass, markers tilted over or gone. Some are simple piles of dirt; others are human-sized hollows, where the bodies have been removed and dumped into the bone pits.
I stand outside a cement block wall, papered with the faces of the “disappeared.” They stare at me from the abyss of silence. Many are women, their hair and clothes out of style now. The men sport moustaches from the 1980s. I imagine each one grabbed by murderers, thrown into a van, driven somewhere dark, filthy, disgusting, sticky with blood, urine, and feces. The women are raped, the men too, and all of them mutilated, burned, or electrocuted, and finally killed. Some are then brought here and buried.
Jorge Mario Barrios shows me around. He’s the forensic anthropologist for the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) in charge of the project. He explains: Many people were dumped here at La Verbena cemetery as unknowns. They are supposed to be buried in the ground for seven years, and then gathered up and thrown into the ossuaries, the bone wells. But between the years 1978 and 1984—the peak years of the Guatemala Civil War—there was a massive upswing in the number of bodies being brought and buried, many without being registered.
Some, it seems, were dropped straight into the well. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that La Verbena was a dumping ground for the murderers.
The FAFG, under its executive director Fredy Peccerelli, was created in the 1990s to investigate these crimes and uncover both bodies and hidden history. It is orchestrating these exhumations at La Verbena. This is one site out of hundreds they’ve investigated.
There’s no building, just gray walls squaring in the huge work site, wooden pillars, and tin roofing, which sometimes keeps off the rain. Then there’s the pit itself. Huge metal crossbeams, dangling with ropes and harnesses, stand over Well No.3. The first well gave up 2,114 bodies. The second, massive well, 25 meters deep, held 12,168 bodies. Well No. 3 is a perfectly round sink hole, eight meters deep. Investigators expect to find about 20,000 bodies total in the three ossuaries. The U.N. commission that investigated the 36-year war and genocide in Guatemala estimates that 200,000 people lost their lives. FAFG figures come to 44,000 people detained and disappeared. Jorge Mario tells me that they hope to identify 100 remains from the pits as disappeared people—a slim percentage.
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