Javier Alvarez doesn’t remember much from the time his father went missing from their home in Guatemala in 1982, at the height of the violence during that country's civil war.
He was only ten years old then. But he remembers the hushed conversations between his mother and grandfather, the hand-wringing as they tried to come to grips with his father’s kidnapping.
“I remember they told me that my father had disappeared, and my mother and grandfather were going around in circles," said Alvarez, who now lives near downtown Los Angeles with his family. "They were asking them for ransom, but no one came for it, for the money."
His father never reappeared.
More than three decades later, Alvarez joined the audience in a meeting hall at the Central American Resource Center near downtown, filled with fellow Guatemalan refugees.
They were there to learn about a project that’s been using DNA to identify the bodies of some of Guatemala’s roughly 45,000 wartime desaparecidos - the disappeared – most of them kidnapped by Guatemalan military. They are among the estimated 200,000 casualties of the lengthy war, which ended in 1996 after 36 years.
Unraveling the mysteries of a brutal war
Since 2004, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation has been exhuming and identifying the bodies of desaparecidos, excavating clandestine mass graves and military sites. The non-profit NGO receives U.S. and international funding. In 2008, they began collecting DNA from family members of the missing in Guatemala. So far they’ve identified more than 3,000 bodies, about 200 of them through DNA.
“We wanted to give a voice to the disappeared," said Fredy Peccerelli, a forensic anthropologist and director of the Guatemala City-based organization. "We wanted to give a voice to those bodies. We wanted the bodies, those disappeared people, to talk directly to their families so we could connect with them. We wanted them to remember that their loved one is missing, and they need to look for them.”
Peccerelli's family was personally affected by the war. His uncle was among those who disappeared and was never heard from again. His immediate family fled to the United States after his father was threatened, settling in New York. Peccerelli grew up in Brooklyn.
So far, the DNA bank has met with relative success in Guatemala, where Peccerelli says they have been receiving more than 200 DNA samples a month from families with missing loved ones. Some families have gone so far as to lend their names and photos to a campaign dubbed "Mi nombre no es XX" (My name is not XX), referring to a term used in Guatemala for unidentified bodies, similar to "John Doe."
Reaching out to immigrants in the United States
The idea now is to make inroads in the U.S., starting with Los Angeles, Guatemala's largest expatriate community. So far, the group has collected only a couple dozen DNA samples here. But Peccerelli hopes more immigrants will participate now that recent trials of accused Guatamalan war criminals - including two in the U.S. - have revived public interest.
Not everyone affected is willing to come forward. Many of those who survived the war carry their trauma silently, trying to bury the past, said Patricia Foxen, an anthropologist on the board of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission. She said it's especially complicated for the families of desaparecidos, who may never know what happened to their loved ones.
“It’s extremely difficult for them, because sometimes they are not actually sure what happened to their disappeared family member," Foxen said. "When I was doing my field work in Guatemala, for example, the guerrillas were being demobilized in these camps, and people the community that I was living in would ask me to take pictures because they thought I might be able to find their sons and husbands who had disappeared fifteen years or twenty years beforehand. I thought it was astonishing that they still had hope that they might still show up.”
None did. It’s presumed that those who went missing have long been dead. Foxen says even today, even for those who moved thousands of miles north, "it is really hard for people to live with that big question mark every single day.”
It’s a question that Javier Alvarez wants to put to rest. At the recent community meeting in Los Angeles, Alvarez sat down to have a DNA swab taken from the inside of his cheek. Afterward, he grew emotional, recalling his childhood.
Life after his father disappeared was tough. His mother was forced to raise six children alone, the oldest child just 12. Eventually they all made it to the United States. Alvarez married and now has a family of his own. But the loss of his father still haunts him.
“All of this makes me glad to know there is a possibility that I can find my father again after so much time," he said, trying to hold back tears. "You can imagine – in life, you miss your father, your mother. I would have liked to have enjoyed being with him, from the time I was small to when I grew up.”
Peccerelli says he used to think finding and burying the bodies of loved ones would provide closure to these families. Now he’s not so sure. He recalled what one man he helped said afterward.
”One of them said, ‘I had a purpose before, because my father was missing," Peccerelli said. "And he was found, and I'm very thankful. I don’t know what to do with myself now, because my entire life was about looking for him.' "
But the work continues. Peccerelli and his team will return to Southern California for the December sentencing date of Jorge Sosa in Riverside County. Sosa is an accused Guatemalan war criminal, recently convicted of U.S. immigration fraud. He will likely be stripped of his U.S. citizenship and face eventual deportation to Guatemala, to stand trial over accusations that he took part in a brutal 1982 massacre of civilians in the small village of Dos Erres.
The Guatemalan forensic team will come equipped with DNA kits, hoping that among those who are following Jorge Sosa's sentencing, they'll find more refugees like Alvarez who are seeking answers.