Victims of Guatemala’s Civil War Are Laid to Rest, 3 Decades Later

Relatives carrying coffins with the remains of 172 people who died during the Guatemalan civil war and were exhumed in 2014. The remains are being interred in a cemetery in Santa Avelina, Cotzal, Guatemala.
Credit...Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

SANTA AVELINA, Guatemala — Juana García Gómez, 75, wept over two coffins placed side by side in the sports hall of the Santa Avelina school in the western highlands of Guatemala.

Inside one lay the remains of her brother Juan, who had been abducted at age 50 more than three decades earlier. He had been found days after on the side of a rural highway, killed by a firearm.

The second coffin bore the name of her mother, María, who, at 90, had demanded the release of her son from a nearby military detachment. Instead, the soldiers beat her.

Her most serious injury was a broken femur; she died shortly after learning the fate of Juan, with gangrene in her leg.

The two coffins were among 172 containing exhumed remains of people who had died as a result of a military strategy carried out by the government in the Maya highlands during the bloodiest period of the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996.

The remains were recovered from the countryside in August 2014, and the forensic analysis has finally been completed. In November, the people of Santa Avelina, a small village near San Juan Cotzal, were preparing to inter their loved ones.

They had been awaiting a dignified interment for more than 30 years.

During the war, 70 to 90 percent of the villages in this area were destroyed, and 60 percent of the population was displaced, forced to flee and seek refuge in the neighboring mountains, according to a United Nations truth commission. The United Nations investigation estimated that around 7,000 of the Ixil, a Maya group, were killed.

Before 1982, Santa Avelina didn’t exist on the map. In its place, many small villages surrounded a land sown with sugar cane. The area was known as Kabnó, “the place of honey” in Ixil, a Mayan language.

As leftist guerrillas moved their organizing away from cities and into the Maya highlands in the late 1970s, the army identified the Ixil as a base of support for the rebels, even though the insurgents never established a strong presence in the countryside.

The dictator Gen. Romeo Lucas García ordered the first military sweep into the highlands, in late 1981, attacking villages in a strategy designed to terrorize the civilian population and destroy any possible support for the guerrillas.

The so-called scorched-earth policy against the Ixil intensified under Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who took control of the government in March 1982. The army massacred entire villages, razing buildings and destroying livestock.

General Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide in 2013 for the Ixil massacres, described the slaughter as “draining the sea the fish swim in.” His genocide conviction was thrown out on a technicality 10 days after the trial, but a new trial is underway. At 91, he is too ill to attend.

General Ríos Montt also broadened the counterinsurgency policy to establish control over the survivors. He forced them into what were called “model villages,” requiring them to work for food and pressing them into civil defense patrols, paramilitary groups that were often ordered to support the military massacres.

He was deposed in August 1983, and although the pace of the massacres slowed under his successor, Gen. Óscar Mejía Victores, the model villages persisted under military control.

Santa Avelina bears deep marks from this era. The 172 recovered remains were those of people who died between 1978, early in the army’s incursions into the region, and 1986. Of them, 15 suffered violent deaths, killed by firearm or machete.

More than half of the victims were children — 14 newborns, 66 toddlers and 28 children between the ages of 4 and 12 — who died of hunger and disease. They were most vulnerable to the harsh conditions of the mountains and of the model villages, where access to food and medicine was limited.

DNA analysis was used to match the genetic profiles of 41 victims with their families. Anthropologists also showed the clothes of the deceased to the residents of Santa Avelina with the hope that they would be able to recognize their loved ones; the families of 67 victims identified them that way.

Although there was no guarantee that the remains were those of their relatives, the families were able to close the circle of grief in some measure, and inter the remains with first and last names.

The remaining were interred as “XX,” not identified. There is still hope of identifying them through future DNA analysis of living relatives, so each burial niche in the cemetery bears a code for the remains and their genetic profiles.

The remains of 84 other victims have also been found in large common graves in the old military installation of Xolosinay — victims of torture who were executed by soldiers. Among them was Ms. García Gómez’s husband, Juan Lopéz, who was 60 when he was abducted by the army.

She was finally able to bury him last year.

The accords ending the civil war in 1996 laid out various reparation measures for the victims, but advocacy groups say these are not being put into place.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is covering the costs of coffins and the burial niches because “a dignified burial is a humanitarian priority,” said Francesco Panetta, a spokesman for the Red Cross mission in Guatemala.

Despite its small size, Guatemala has the second-highest number of disappearances from war in Latin America, after Colombia. It is estimated that 45,000 people have vanished; the remains of just over 6,000 have been found and exhumed.

Guatemala is a country where the wounds remain open.

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