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TEDYouth 2014

Fredy Peccerelli: A forensic anthropologist who brings closure for the "disappeared"

Filmed:

In Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, 200,000 civilians were killed — and more than 40,000 were never identified. At the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, Fredy Peccerelli and his team use DNA, archeology and storytelling to help families find the bodies of their loved ones. It’s a sobering task, but it can bring peace of mind — and sometimes, justice. (Contains medical imagery.)

- Forensic anthropologist
Fredy Peccerelli works with families whose loved ones “disappeared” in the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala. The executive director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, he helps locate bodies and give back identities to those buried in mass graves. Full bio

Guatemala is recovering from
a 36-year armed conflict.
00:12
A conflict that was fought
during the Cold War.
00:16
It was really just
a small leftist insurgency
00:18
and a devastating response by the state.
00:22
What we have as a result
is 200,000 civilian victims,
00:25
160,000 of those
killed in the communities:
00:28
small children, men, women,
the elderly even.
00:32
And then we have
about 40,000 others, the missing,
00:36
the ones we're still looking for today.
00:39
We call them the Desaparecidos.
00:42
Now, 83 percent of the victims
are Mayan victims,
00:44
victims that are the descendants
00:47
of the original inhabitants of
Central America.
00:50
And only about 17 percent are of
European descent.
00:52
But the most important thing here is that
00:56
the very people who are supposed to
defend us, the police, the military,
00:58
are the ones that committed
most of the crimes.
01:04
Now the families,
they want information.
01:08
They want to know what happened.
01:11
They want the bodies of their loved ones.
01:12
But most of all,
what they want is they want you,
01:15
they want everyone to know
that their loved ones did nothing wrong.
01:18
Now, my case was that my father
received death threats in 1980.
01:23
And we left.
01:29
We left Guatemala and we came here.
01:30
So I grew up in New York,
01:32
I grew up in Brooklyn as a matter of fact,
and I went to New Utrecht High School
01:33
and I graduated from Brooklyn College.
01:37
The only thing was that
01:39
I really didn't know what
was happening in Guatemala.
01:40
I didn't care for it; it was too painful.
01:44
But it wasn't till 1995 that I decided
to do something about it.
01:47
So I went back.
01:51
I went back to Guatemala,
to look for the bodies,
01:52
to understand what happened
and to look for part of myself as well.
01:56
The way we work is that
we give people information.
02:02
We talk to the family members
and we let them choose.
02:05
We let them decide to tell
us the stories,
02:08
to tell us what they saw,
02:11
to tell us about their loved ones.
02:13
And even more important,
02:15
we let them choose to
give us a piece of themselves.
02:16
A piece, an essence, of who they are.
02:20
And that DNA is what we're
going to compare
02:23
to the DNA that comes
from the skeletons.
02:25
While we're doing that, though,
we're looking for the bodies.
02:28
And these are skeletons by now,
02:31
most of these crimes
happened 32 years ago.
02:33
When we find the grave,
02:36
we take out the dirt and eventually clean
the body, document it, and exhume it.
02:37
We literally bring the
skeleton out of the ground.
02:41
Once we have those bodies, though,
we take them back to the city, to our lab,
02:45
and we begin a process of trying
to understand mainly two things:
02:49
One is how people died.
02:52
So here you see a gunshot
wound to the back of the head
02:54
or a machete wound, for example.
02:57
The other thing we want to understand
is who they are.
03:00
Whether it's a baby,
03:03
or an adult.
03:07
Whether it's a woman or a man.
03:08
But when we're done
with that analysis
03:10
what we'll do is we'll take a small
fragment of the bone
03:12
and we'll extract DNA from it.
03:15
We'll take that DNA
03:18
and then we'll compare it with the
DNA of the families, of course.
03:19
The best way to explain this to you
is by showing you two cases.
03:24
The first is the case
of the military diary.
03:27
Now this is a document that was smuggled
out of somewhere in 1999.
03:30
And what you see there
is the state following individuals,
03:34
people that, like you,
wanted to change their country,
03:39
and they jotted everything down.
03:43
And one of the things that they wrote
down is when they executed them.
03:46
Inside that yellow rectangle,
you see a code,
03:50
it's a secret code: 300.
03:53
And then you see a date.
03:56
The 300 means "executed" and the date
means when they were executed.
03:57
Now that's going to come
into play in a second.
04:01
What we did is we conducted
an exhumation in 2003,
04:05
where we exhumed 220 bodies
from 53 graves in a military base.
04:08
Grave 9, though, matched the family
of Sergio Saul Linares.
04:14
Now Sergio was a professor
at the university.
04:18
He graduted from Iowa State University
04:21
and went back to Guatemala
to change his country.
04:23
And he was captured on
February 23, 1984.
04:26
And if you can see there, he was
executed on March 29, 1984,
04:30
which was incredible.
04:34
We had the body, we had the family's
information and their DNA,
04:35
and now we have documents
that told us exactly what happened.
04:38
But most important is about
two weeks later,
04:42
we go another hit, another match
04:45
from the same grave to Amancio Villatoro.
04:47
The DNA of that body
also matched the DNA of that family.
04:52
And then we noticed
that he was also in the diary.
04:55
But it was amazing to see that he was
also executed on March 29, 1984.
04:58
So that led us to think, hmm,
how many bodies were in the grave?
05:03
Six.
05:08
So then we said, how many people
were executed on March 29, 1984?
05:09
That's right, six as well.
05:18
So we have Juan de Dios, Hugo,
Moises and Zoilo.
05:21
All of them executed on the same date,
all captured at different locations
05:26
and at different moments.
05:30
All put in that grave.
05:32
The only thing we needed now
was the DNA of those four families
05:33
So we went and we looked for them
and we found them.
05:36
And we identified those six bodies
and gave them back to the families.
05:39
The other case I want to tell you about
05:44
is that of a military base
called CREOMPAZ.
05:46
It actually means, "to believe in peace,"
but the acronym really means
05:50
Regional Command Center
for Peacekeeping Operations.
05:55
And this is where the Guatemalan military
trains peacekeepers from other countries,
05:58
the ones that serve with the U.N.
06:03
and go to countries
like Haiti and the Congo.
06:06
Well, we have testimony that said that
within this military base,
06:09
there were bodies, there were graves.
06:12
So we went in there with a search warrant
and about two hours after we went in,
06:14
we found the first of 84 graves,
a total of 533 bodies.
06:18
Now, if you think about that,
06:24
peacekeepers being trained
on top of bodies.
06:26
It's very ironic.
06:30
But the bodies -- face down, most of them,
hands tied behind their backs,
06:33
blindfolded, all types of trauma --
06:38
these were people who were defenseless
who were being executed.
06:41
People that 533 families are looking for.
06:44
So we're going to focus on Grave 15.
06:48
Grave 15, what we noticed,
was a grave full of women and children,
06:51
63 of them.
06:54
And that immediately made us think,
06:57
my goodness, where is there
a case like this?
07:00
When I got to Guatemala in 1995,
07:02
I heard of a case of a massacre
that happened on May 14, 1982,
07:05
where the army came in, killed the men,
07:09
and took the women and children
in helicopters to an unknown location.
07:13
Well, guess what?
07:18
The clothing from this grave matched the
clothing from the region
07:18
where these people were taken from,
07:23
where these women and children
were taken from.
07:24
So we conducted some DNA analysis,
and guess what?
07:27
We identified Martina Rojas
and Manuel Chen.
07:30
Both of them disappeared in that case,
and now we could prove it.
07:33
We have physical evidence that
proves that this happened
07:36
and that those people
were taken to this base.
07:39
Now, Manuel Chen was three years old.
07:41
His mother went to the river to wash
clothes, and she left him with a neighbor.
07:45
That's when the army came
07:49
and that's when he was taken away in
a helicopter and never seen again
07:51
until we found him in Grave 15.
07:55
So now with science, with archaeology,
with anthropology, with genetics,
07:57
what we're doing is, we're
giving a voice to the voiceless.
08:02
But we're doing more than that.
08:05
We're actually providing
evidence for trials,
08:07
like the genocide trial that happened
last year in Guatemala
08:09
where General Ríos Montt was found guilty
of genocide and sentenced to 80 years.
08:13
So I came here to tell you today
that this is happening everywhere --
08:18
it's happening in Mexico
right in front of us today --
08:21
and we can't let it go on anymore.
08:24
We have to now come together and decide
08:26
that we're not going to have
any more missing.
08:29
So no more missing, guys.
08:31
Okay? No more missing.
08:32
Thank you.
08:35
(Applause)
08:36

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About the Speaker:

Fredy Peccerelli - Forensic anthropologist
Fredy Peccerelli works with families whose loved ones “disappeared” in the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala. The executive director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, he helps locate bodies and give back identities to those buried in mass graves.

Why you should listen

In Guatemala’s brutal civil war, 200,000 civilians were killed — and more than 40,000 of them were never found. They are referred to as the “disappeared,” and since the end of the conflict, their bodies have been found in unmarked mass graves with very little information to identify them. 

Fredy Peccerelli has a personal connection to this tragic story. He was born in Guatemala, but when his father received threats from a death squad, his family left for the United States. It was 1980 and Peccerelli was 9. He quickly adapted to life in Brooklyn, New York. But in 1994, while a college student, he heard a presentation on the emerging field of forensic anthropology. The speakers talked about exhuming bodies from mass graves in Guatemala, and Peccerelli was fascinated. He wanted to help.

Peccerelli founded the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which meets with the families of the “disappeared,” listens to their stories and takes DNA samples to match to exhumed bodies. In this way, they are able to piece together narratives of what happened — in order to give families closure and to provide evidence for the trials of those involved in the deaths. 

Pecerrelli has been profiled on PBS, in The New York Times and more. He recently launched the “No More Missing” campaign to raise money for an interactive website to tell the stories of the Guatemalan "disappeared" on the global stage. He wants people across the world to see the connection between what happened Guatemala and what is happening today in countries like Mexico. 

More profile about the speaker
Fredy Peccerelli | Speaker | TED.com