When a federal court in Riverside sentences an accused Guatemalan war criminal on immigration fraud charges next month, onlookers will include members of a forensic anthropology team from Guatemala.
Their goal: connect with members of Los Angeles' Guatemalan immigrant community and collect their DNA in hopes of identifying some of the long-unidentified dead from that country's civil war, which ended in 1996 after 36 years of conflict.
Members of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation were last in Los Angeles in October. That's when Jorge Sosa was convicted on charges that he omitted information on his U.S. citizenship application about his involvement in the Guatemalan military during the war.
Sosa, who is to be sentenced Jan. 13, is a former member of an elite unit involved in a notorious 1982 massacre that nearly wiped out the entire village of Dos Erres. He stands to lose his U.S. citizenship and eventually be deported to Guatemala to stand trial for his alleged crimes there.
For Fredy Peccerelli, a forensic anthropologist who directs the non-profit foundation, the closely-followed Sosa trial has provided a way to connect with Guatemalan immigrants who lost – and never found – family members during the war.
“It is important that they understand that they are entitled to know the truth about what happened," Peccerelli said. "That is something that a lot of people have forgotten throughout the years.”
Since 2004, the Guatemala-based group has been exhuming and identifying the bodies of desaparecidos - the disappeared - excavating clandestine mass graves and military sites. Of the estimated 200,000 people who lost their lives during the war, about 45,000 simply vanished, most of them kidnapped by Guatemalan military.
The non-profit NGO receives U.S. and international funding. In 2008, they began collecting DNA from family members with missing relatives in Guatemala. So far they’ve identified more than 3,000 bodies, almost 250 through DNA.
They now hope to expand their reach into the United States. In October, Peccerelli and a technician collected five DNA samples in L.A. In January, he and two technicians plan to come armed with a hundred DNA kits.
In anticipation of their trip next month, they've been working with community groups in Los Angeles to set up meetings and appointments here.
Rosa Posadas heads a Guatemalan immigrant group in L.A. and is among those helping spread the word. She said at least being able to bury a missing loved one provides survivors with a measure of comfort.
“Spiritually, it helps," Posadas said in Spanish, "because being able to have a loved one buried in a holy place at least provides some sort of satisfaction. At least, for our customs – to be able to leave them a flower, to at least be able to speak with them, although we know their souls are in the air, but that their remains are there.”
Peccerelli, who grew up in New York after his own family fled the war, said some family members of desaparecidos are reluctant to come forward because they're still not ready to accept the loss, even decades later.
“You actually only begin to look for your loved one among the dead when you decide to give a DNA sample," he said. "Every single one of these family members still hopes today, even though it is very improbable, that their loved one is alive.”
But he says the likelihood is that they aren’t.
Peccerelli said he's become aware of another need for closure among Guatemalans after meeting with immigrants here last fall, one that has little connection to the long-ago war.
"We have encountered that a lot of their loved ones are disappearing en route to the United States today," he said.
To that end, he hopes to expand the DNA bank to the families of missing migrants, both in Guatemala and the United States, and make that data available to authorities in hopes that more families can find answers.