Interview: Fredy Peccerelli

Patricia Flynn: Give us a big picture of what happened, particularly with the Rio Negro case and the results that we see here.

Fredy PeccerelliFredy Peccerelli: From the two exhumations we've done on the Rio Negro case -- this being the second one -- we were able to determine that in the exhumation we conducted in 1993 we recovered a minimum number of individuals of 143. And this was all women and children -- not a single adult male. During that case they also told us about the men that were killed -- between 70 and 80 men. And supposedly these men were taken from the community by men from Xococ for questioning. They were taken somewhere, most likely the town of Xococ. Later they told us that these men never came back, and that they were believed to have been killed. And they knew the place. They knew where the site was.

Now this was eight years ago. It's taken some time and definitely there's been a lot of fear because we are working within the community that killed the men from Rio Negro, or where most of the civil patrolsmen from this area live. It's been difficult for the families of the people who were killed to actually gather enough courage to put this petition so that the prosecutor's office can investigate this case. Now that we're here we're finding out that the site is a lot larger than we'd thought. The testimony's telling us that most of the bodies were removed, burnt and then thrown in the river. So we believed that we weren't going to find that many remains. And sure enough the first couple of days we only found some graves that were robbed of the remains.

In other words, there was a large group of people who came back at some point, most likely after the 1993 exhumation. They came back to this site, reexcavated the holes, took the bones out and that's all we can tell at this point. We can't tell if they were burned or if they were taken to the river. We can tell that they were taken out -- they were extracted from the grave -- but we are also finding complete bodies in other graves. So we're not too sure what to make of that yet. Maybe they just missed them, or maybe they weren't interested in those bodies. But I'm guessing they just missed them, because usually robbing of graves occurs at night, and it occurs under a lot of pressure. Most likely nobody wanted to do the work. So they left a lot of graves behind.

So overall that's the picture we have right now, that some of the skeletons we are finding might belong to the men of Rio Negro. And we hope that the work we're doing serves it's purpose, and helps them find their true history and find out what happened, and to be able to identify the lost lives of Rio Negro.

Flynn: We were talking to the relatives of Denese who were here who said that their family back in the states couldn't really understand what is the point of going back and digging up a grave of people that have been buried. So I wonder if you could explain why is it important, all these years later -- what is the point in coming back and digging up these remains?

Peccerelli: Well, I think the important reason for conducting this type of investigation -- no matter what the timeframe is -- is, well, one, because of historical reasons. We have to scientifically prove historical accounts that so far have only been told from person to person -- they have not been proven. We have to try to identify the victims, legally -- and we have to recover the evidence for criminal prosecution, if that's what the prosecutor's office wants...

[T]o understand the importance of it [to the families], you would have to put yourself in their place. Imagine that they would kill your husband, my wife, my brother and my sister -- in front of me. That I couldn't do anything about it. That all the women I knew in my neighborhood were raped in front of me. That all the small children that my small children played with were taken by the hands and legs, and their heads were smashed against trees or rocks. And I witnessed everything. Then they were put in a grave. I saw where the grave was dug. But I still couldn't do anything about it. If that happened to me, I know I would feel frustrated, and I would feel that I couldn't rest until something was done about it.

So I guess to understand it, you would have to put yourself in their place -- to feel the loss that they felt, to feel the pain that they felt. It's a human necessity to find out the truth. You need to say goodbye properly. You need to be able to go to the cemetery and leave flowers, without hiding in the mountainside. For dignity, you know. They deserve dignity as much as we do. The people who were killed, and the people who survived. So this work is extremely necessary for all of those reasons.

Flynn: You referred to investigation. Can you explain how this process of exhuming the remains fits into a bigger picture of an attempt to perhaps bring justice?

Peccerelli: Well, in this case, the prosecutor requested the foundation come out to the site, excavate and recover all the evidence -- whether that be skeletal evidence or material evidence. The bones, after they were recovered, they will be analyzed. A report will be written and handed over to the prosecutor, along with the remains. And eventually the family members will get the remains back so they can have a proper and dignified burial.

Flynn: And how does this fit into future legal proceedings against the perpetrators of the crime?

Peccerelli: The legal proceedings are basically up to the prosecutor. If the evidence that we present in our report is strong enough to back a case, then I'm sure he'll go along with it and follow that case up. But it's completely out of our hands -- it's really up to the lawyers -- all we do is present the evidence, and then the lawyers have to decide what to do with it.

Flynn: What is the scale and extent of the killings that took place, and how did it happen? Give us a sense of the immensity of what we're talking about.

Peccerelli: OK -- in Guatemala, during 1981 and 1982, mostly -- there was hundreds, if not more than a thousand mass killings happening all over the country -- more than half of those in one specific part of the country, in Quicheh, for example. The Historical Clarification Commission -- the Truth Commission in Guatemala -- determined that there was at least 669 massacres throughout the country. There are other books that mention over a thousand massacres.

In the nine years that the foundation has been working, we've investigated 168 cases. So we've only begun to investigate what really happened in Guatemala -- and we won't know, until every single one of these cases is investigated. And that might take decades. The amount of people that were killed is immense -- I have no idea as to numbers -- numbers like 200,000 are used and 50,000 disappeared, 200,000 killed. But the truth is that there is no real number. We don't know. That's why we're doing this work -- to try to find out what really happened.

Flynn: [Can you] talk about [the importance of knowing] the truth? What is the purpose of doing these exhumations in terms of truth?

Discovering Dominga - Freddy Peccerelli at a site. Fredy Peccerelli: "We have to scientifically prove historical accounts that so far have only been told from person to person -- they have not been proven."

Peccerelli: Well, these investigations are carried out for several reasons. At a national level, I think they are beginning to scientifically prove history -- or to rewrite history. It's really sad to see that most kids that are in school today have no idea of what happened 20 years ago. And slowly through these investigations, what really happened -- the real history of what happened in Guatemala is being known. Even though it's a horrible history, it's one we have to learn from. It's very important that all Guatemalans know that this does form part of their history. And they do have to know that there will not be real peace in Guatemala until all of the victims who were killed and buried in these clandestine graves are exhumed and hopefully identified. I think it's ridiculous to speak of peace when you have hundreds and hundreds of mass clandestine graves all over the countryside and their families members are still looking for them or are not allowed to look for them. So, in all, historical clarification is important; identification for individual purposes is important; and obviously evidence for criminal prosecution is important.

But I think knowing the truth has to be one of the many bases for the peace process. And we can't begin to reconciliate until we really know what happened.

Fredy Peccerelli and FAFG continue their work in Guatemala to this day. In 2003, Peccerelli and members of the foundation received death threats and Peccerelli's front door was shot at.