IT IS LATE SEPTEMBER and I am standing on a hill in El Quiché, Guatemala, with a shovel in my hand. For the past month, I have been working alongside forensic anthropologists to recover bodies of the missing victims of Central America’s longest, bloodiest civil war. Graduate students like me jump at the chance to do forensic fieldwork in Guatemala. Here, you can see more bodies in a few weeks than in a year back home. Guatemala has so many dead.
We shovel trenches, roughly eight feet long and six feet deep — about the size of a coffin. It is backward grave-digging, pulling bodies out of the ground, not putting them in. I have never been at an exhumation before. Swinging the pickaxe, I imagine hitting a body, and the idea makes me cringe, gives me a visceral reaction of horror. When I think this, I break my swing, let the shovel land soft on the dirt. Before coming here, I had read anthropologist Victoria Sanford’s 2003 book Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala, an account of her extensive fieldwork in the mid-1990s documenting the aftermath of La Violencia, as the conflict is locally known. At Sanford’s first encounter with a mass grave, she repeated to herself: “Don’t faint. Don’t vomit,” and I adopt this as my prayer too. Let us find the bodies, but let me not hit anything with my shovel.
Everything begins to look like a body. The white roots of plants and sticks look like bones. Rotted leaves look like fabric; the perfect impression of our own footprints dried in the mud look like the rubber soles of shoes. Underneath the ground, deep down, we find tunnels from moles, colonies of black-winged insects, thick white grubs, ants. Everything seems like potent proof. And they could be clues. There are cycles of life associated with decay. The presence of insects can be a sign: these subterranean creatures are attracted to the bodies. Even after 30 years, when the flesh has decomposed completely, there are still trace nutrients. Like schools of fish in a shipwreck, things take up residence in the armature of bones. As I dig, I think of the lines from The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Thousands of men, women, and children are buried in Guatemalan earth, lives taken and made into bones, hidden in this strange underground world.
As we dig, members of the forensic team examine the soil strata: red humus, packed brown dirt, harder yellow clay. They are looking for evidence that the layers are revuelto, mixed together. This shows that the earth has been disturbed, that the area has been previously dug up. Shoveling is repetitive work, physically exhausting, but not boring. It is electrified by the promise of finding the bodies. But after hours, we still find nothing.
A few times a day someone unearths pottery shards. We all gather around to look at them. Several members of the team are classically trained archeologists who have worked at ancient Mayan sites. One day a farmer brings us a ceramic figure he found while tilling his maize field. The clay head is about the size of a peso coin, and the face bears a serious, concerned expression. It looks like something you would see in a museum. It almost certainly should be in a museum. The farmer wants to sell it for 100 USD, but it would be illegal to buy. A photographer visiting the site pays him 5 USD to take a picture of it. This haunting little face has been unearthed after being buried perhaps hundreds of years in the sorrowful dirt of Guatemala, where the bones of an American-backed genocide are stacked on top of the bones of the long and brutal Spanish conquest. Another time, we find part of a clay vessel, its fragile rim nearly intact. Esteban, a senior team member, dates it as pre-contact. Then he throws it back in the pit. Like catch-and-release fishing, it isn’t legal to take any of the shards. Anyway, it isn’t what we are here for.
We are here searching for mass graves, the grim legacy of the armed conflict that took place in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. I am training with the Guatemalan forensic team, Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG), learning how to exhume and identify the dead. Every morning we make the 40-minute drive from the cement block rooms we’re renting in a bigger town through the green and hilly rural province of El Quiché. The country is dotted with a few villages, clusters of buildings along the road, cement squares of schools and houses and little stores painted with Coca-Cola signs. Every little town has two or three evangelical churches, and these are the only buildings that are freshly painted. Mostly we drive past milpa, steep hillsides of land planted with corn.
We pull over on a deeply rutted dirt road. From the back of the pickup truck, Esteban hands us pickaxes and shovels. It has been raining, and the path through the woods is slick. We trudge our way through the trees, swinging the tools into the ground in front of us to anchor our steps. After a 10-minute walk, the narrow path opens into a field. It’s an ordinary field, a rolling meadow ringed by trees. The sky has cleared. With the sun shining, in the fresh air and quiet, it looks like a good place for a picnic.
It takes a moment for the eye to see the holes in the ground, dozens of them, short trenches. These are exploratory excavations, abandoned when they yielded no bodies. The holes are half-filled with rainwater and trash now. So far, about 20 bodies have been found, in small graves of two or three people, but this is just the beginning. Members of the forensic team guess there are 200 bodies here under the earth. Maybe more. Guatemala is riddled with mass graves. Most are still waiting to be exhumed. Many will never be found.
In the cool morning, we excavate above the field on a hill that drops off steeply to one side into thick woods. From the excavation site, you can hear but not see a river running nearby. As the crow flies, we are not that far from the nearest town. Across the valley, you can just make out the brightly painted nichos of the cemetery at the edge of the village, and sometimes you can hear strains of music from the local church. It is easy to forget that we are so close. It feels isolated.
In the 1980s, this was the site of Xolosinay, an army garrison long since abandoned. People were detained in the camp and never seen again. No one knows how many people were killed and buried here. One man managed to escape this military encampment. One morning, the soldiers made the prisoners dig a pit, then lined them up in front of it and shot them one by one. During the executions, the lone survivor managed to dive into the underbrush. A soldier spotted him and shot him in the arm, but he fled into the deep woods. Like many others, he spent years on the run in the mountains, almost starving.
In the three decades since he was held prisoner, the site has changed. The soldiers are gone. The tents and paths have disappeared. The trees have grown. But he remembers where he stood in front of the pit of bodies — on the crest of the hill where we are digging.
Guatemala’s unrest began in 1954 when the US government sponsored the overthrow of the democratically elected, left-leaning president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The coup d’état was carried out in the name of fighting communism and protecting the interests of the megalithic United Fruit Company, whose profits had been threatened by Guzmán’s land-reform policies. The coup sparked the longest conflict in Central American history, a region notable for its intransigent political struggles. Thirty-six years of violence and terror followed, as a string of dictators ruled the country.
From the beginning, the United States funded and advised Guatemala’s authoritarian governments, with Green Berets and CIA advisors coaching the military on brutal counter-insurgency tactics. In the 1980s, the Guatemalan military pursued a scorched-earth policy of wholesale slaughter of civilians, destruction of villages, burning of crops, kidnapping, disappearance, rape, and torture. These bloody years reached an apex of cruelty during the government of General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose ties to the United States were particularly close. In the 1950s, he was trained at the School of the Americas; in the 1970s, he served at the Embassy in Washington; he became an evangelical preacher at The Church of the Word in Eureka, California. He was admired by Ronald Reagan and was chums with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. His daughter, Zury Ríos Montt, a powerful Guatemalan political figure in her own right, is married to US Congressman Jerry Weller.
Although General Ríos Montt held power for less than two years, he wrought apocalyptic violence on the country. Under plans like fusiles y frijoles (guns and beans), his government razed villages and carried out massacres. In the first five months of Ríos Montt’s tenure, his death squads killed more than 10,000 people. Like Guatemalan dictators before and after him, Ríos Montt targeted rural Maya communities for their perceived sympathy with leftist guerilla groups, proclaiming his aim to “drain the sea in which the fish swim.”
As part of the peace process begun in 1996, the United Nations quantified the staggering toll of the violence in Guatemala. In a country with a population of eight million people, there were 200,000 dead and 45,000 disappeared. There were 626 massacres and 430 villages razed. The UN determined the Guatemalan military to be responsible for 93 percent of the documented abuses. The vast majority — 83 percent — of the victims of the armed conflict were indigenous Maya-speaking Guatemalans.
These numbers are shocking, but they do not capture the cruelty of La Violencia. In interviews, people told me stories of babies beaten against walls, pregnant women sliced open, men burned alive, girls raped in front of their families, still-living boys eviscerated, women hanged from trees and hacked to death with machetes, children decapitated. These grisly testimonials are confirmed by UN investigations and documented by human rights groups like Amnesty International. The bones we uncover in the mass graves offer forensic proof of ruthless violence.
For decades, the Guatemalan government and military acted with near-total impunity. But in a landmark 2013 case, a Guatemalan court tried Ríos Montt for the massacre of 1,771 people in the Ixil Maya villages of El Quiché. He was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison, making him the first former head of state to suffer such a conviction in his own country.
Ten days later, the conviction was overturned. In April 2018, Ríos Montt died of a heart attack at his home in the suburbs of Guatemala City. He was 91 years old — 90 years older than the boy whose skull I tried to piece together in the FAFG lab, his head crushed by a soldier’s rifle butt in 1983.
The massive scale of the violence in Guatemala means that forensic teams are faced with a daunting task. There are about eight FAFG members at the site in Xolosinay at any one time. It is a rotating cast, with people coming and going, leaving to work at other exhumation sites or return to the lab in Guatemala City. In Guatemala, as in most of Latin America, there is no formal training for forensic anthropology. Teams mentor students from various branches of anthropology, teaching them forensic skills. You can tell the archeologists newly arrived to the team by the way they dig. They are slow and precise. They excavate layer by layer, attentive to subtle changes in the soil. “It won’t last, it takes too damn long,” jokes a more experienced team member as we watch a young archeologist carve a precise corner angle in a deep excavation. “Why don’t you add a window and some stairs?” someone else yells. They are joking, but there’s a hint of irritation. Funding is tight. Working fast is imperative to finding more bodies.
FAFG, like most forensic teams, runs on a shoestring budget. Ever financially precarious, FAFG entrepreneurially uses its DNA lab to offer paternity testing and has turned to crowd-sourced funding. I am here as part of a field school, a hands-on training in forensic anthropology for graduate students. Field schools are an important part of forensic education and also afford forensic teams a much-needed source of extra income.
There are three graduate students in our field school: a biological anthropologist, a forensic anthropologist, and me, a social anthropologist. We are all from US universities. Most field schools are bigger, but ours was organized at the last minute. Students of forensic anthropology from North America and Europe flock to Guatemala, attracted by the dead. An abundance of corpses creates an abundance of training opportunities.
In addition to the 200,000 people killed during the 30-year armed conflict, there are new dead bodies every day. Guatemala City is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Violence wrought by organized crime, drug trafficking, and street gangs has resulted in peacetime murder rates that rival the death toll of the civil war.
Violence hangs over Guatemala City. It is nearly palpable. Small shops do business through secured doors, passing sodas and cigarettes through bars to customers who hand in cash. On a late-night return from a rural exhumation site, we drive on the main artery into Guatemala City. A body is sprawled across the center lane of the highway. We slowly pass the dead man, lying in a halo of blood. A gang execution, everyone agrees.
A few weeks after I leave Guatemala, I get an email informing me that a member of the team, a soft-spoken man I crossed paths with at the lab, has been killed. He was stabbed 17 times for the money in his wallet and his 10-year-old car. It happened near a fancy mall where we once all went for lunch, eating sandwiches on the steps of a new faux-Tuscan shopping emporium. The mall is part of a gated development that promises comfort and safety. The security guards carry concealed weapons, and the cheapest condos sell for 70 times the average Guatemalan’s annual salary. Residents say that it gives them a chance to escape the violence of the city. The architect puts it more bluntly, saying it “sells an illusion that everything is okay.”
There are no illusions at the Guatemala City morgue, which does not have refrigeration and overflows with the dead. There is literally no more room in the municipal cemeteries, where corpses are aggressively disinterred to make space. The scale of violence past and present, Guatemala’s open wounds, offer a sought-after learning experience for students of forensic anthropology from the Global North.
The Mummy and the Girl
I am the only one in the field school without any training or experience in forensic anthropology. I quickly learn a new vocabulary of the dead: skeletonized bodies, fleshed bodies, partially fleshed bodies, mummified bodies, saponified bodies. It’s the saponified bodies that worry me the most. I haven’t seen one, but others have, and they describe them in clinical yet lurid detail. It’s a tone of gossipy scientific horror that will come to be familiar, a way of talking that breaks out over beer in the evenings.
Saponification is a process in which decomposition transforms fat into a rancid waxy material, technically known as adipocere, but also called “grave wax.” According to the stories, it smells vile — my colleague Nicole tells me that, once it gets on your clothes, you can never wash it out; you have to throw everything away.
I desperately hope that we don’t encounter saponified bodies. Sanford’s prayer runs through my mind: Let me not faint or vomit … or cry. I am afraid I will be overwhelmed by horror or disgust. If I show my emotions, I am sure that I will be ostracized from the forensic anthropologists, marked as unprofessional, weak, not one of them. My colleague Maxi likes to joke, “Why don’t you stay here and we’ll teach you to be a real anthropologist?”
Before arriving in the field, we trained at the FAFG lab in Guatemala City. Here, exhumed bodies are carefully pieced back together and the painstaking process of identification takes place. The lab has a small collection of skeletons for students. The first skeleton I work with is called “the mummy” because he was found mummified in the municipal dump. His flesh has been stripped away (most labs have a machine for this purpose, which students jokingly call the “stew pot”). When I encounter the mummy, he is a skeleton. On his spine, there is a square cut, a chunk missing. I think it must be a mortal wound, but the others laugh and say it’s from a surgery for a herniated disk. How in one life does a man go from being wheeled through a hospital, exquisitely cared for (though brutally too — you can see the surgical cut through bone), to being left dead at the city dump? His body was unclaimed at the morgue. No one knows his story.
Bones are smooth and rough; they slide against each other and hang together like a medieval machine. You remember them by saying that this one looks like the Indian continent, this one looks like the head of a bull. Each vertebra has its clues. They are jigsaw pieces. Ribs fit together in a nested arc. Puzzling out the full skeleton is absorbing and satisfying.
One morning in the lab, a small piece of skin is being passed around, to be analyzed and discussed. It is handed from person to person. I see it coming toward me and I feel sick. I don’t want to touch it, but there is no way to excuse myself without being obvious. When it arrives, however, it seems like a piece of tree bark. I can’t connect the stiff brown flake to anything human. The bodies are changeable. They flicker in and out of personhood.
A few days later, we are learning about teeth. In determining the age of a body, dentition offers important clues. We study a skull that can be “aged” with precision, because the secondary (adult) teeth are visible growing through the jawbone, about to push through. The juvenile teeth are loose. Our instructor removes them and we take turns holding them in our palms, where they rattle like dice. We examine their shapes — a canine? a bicuspid? When we think we know, we fit them into holes in the mandible. In the right location, they slip into place, a perfect fit. All at once, she appears: the child whose skull I am holding. She appears to me so vividly that it verges on hallucination. She is a girl of five or six, with big brown eyes and bedhead. Then she’s gone. Then I touch her teeth like dice again.
My original fear of crying begins to be replaced by a new fear. That I won’t cry, that I won’t feel anything. Is it worse when the child appears or when she does not?
I spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning bones with a toothbrush and a pan of water. Massive, solid femurs. Fragile, tissue-paper-thin bones inside the nasal passage. Young bones are more fragmented, more porous, fragile. Soaked in water, some start to have a strange, soft, life-like consistency. But mostly it is like washing mud off sticks.
The Truth I’m Telling You
In El Quiché, families arrive at the exhumation site in waves all day, standing and watching above the pits where we are working. Men from the community do most of the shoveling, which is all by hand. Members of the forensic team direct, indicating where to dig and when to give up and fill the holes back in.
I often dig with Don Jaime. He is 40 years old, with an open face and a gold tooth. He asks me where I’m from.
“Me too, I lived in the Central Valley for seven years!”
Don Jaime worked as a migrant laborer, picking lettuce and strawberries in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States. He came back because he has a wife and son here. While we work, he likes to practice his English. We exchange words in English, Spanish, and Ixil. Shovel. Mud. Bucket. A vocabulary of the things at hand. We dig together, but at some point it becomes apparent that he’s humoring me. He encourages me to take breaks and drink water, and when I come back he has dug alone in 10 minutes what it took us an hour to dig together. When I point this out, he laughs, “Well, you’re not used to it.” Stanford University is about a four-hour drive from the fields where Don Jaime worked. Four hours and a world apart.
Don Jaime wants to go back to California. When? Soon. “You can’t make any money here.” The crossing is difficult, however, and it can be deadly. To discourage undocumented migration, the US government secured areas on the border with Mexico that were easier to enter, like San Diego, compelling migrants to cross in treacherous areas like Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. This did not diminish crossings, but it dramatically increased migrant deaths, resulting in what human rights advocates have called a “mass disaster” at the border. Don Jaime worries about going to California and he worries about staying in Guatemala. His teenage son needs his fatherly guidance, but without the money he makes in California the family struggles. Digging for the team is better than most local jobs, but it isn’t steady work — they don’t excavate all the time. But it doesn’t matter, Don Jaime tells me, he’d do it for free. His brother disappeared during the armed conflict. He was last seen entering this army camp.
The very logic of disappearance implies that bodies are never recovered. In Argentina, people were thrown from planes into the ocean. In Mexico, bodies are burned with tires. There are seemingly endless variations of cruel strategies thought up to make the recovery and identification of bodies difficult, if not impossible. It is thus not surprising that even the most rigorous and well-funded forensic exhumation projects tend to have only modest success. Typically, only a relatively small number of the missing are recovered. In Guatemala, of the approximately 200,000 people killed during the armed conflict, FAFG has identified about 1,600 bodies. A mere “drop in the bucket,” as one visitor to the exhumation site characterized it.
What is remarkable, given the difficulty of the task, is the monumental effort applied to the attempt. Observing teams at work, I have been struck by the almost superhuman effort that recovering and identifying bodies entails. One night, in the only bar in town, between jokes and forensic horror stories, I ask Maxi and José how many hours it takes to identify a single body. They scribble on napkins, but the hours are almost incalculable. Even if you don’t include the time the drivers spend transporting the team to the site, or the time the women in the community spend cooking everyone lunch every day, even if your calculations are strictly centered on the efforts of the core forensic team, the total hours are staggering. There are the trips on barely passable dirt roads to find families to record oral histories and take DNA samples. There are the hours digging. There is the careful cleaning of the bodies at the field site. The photography. The meticulous removal and parsing of the bodies into labeled bags and boxes. At the lab there is more cleaning, the extraction of a piece of bone or tooth for DNA sampling; there is the task of piecing the remains together, then identifying age, sex, and the trauma suffered.
When put on the spot, Maxi and José hazard a guess that each body requires about a month of effort to exhume and develop a forensic profile. At that rate, it would take nearly 4,000 years of human effort to identify all of the 45,000 disappeared in Guatemala. Seen like this, the task of exhumation is epic, biblical in scope. It is a quixotic task, carried out with scientific precision. Of course, these calculations are only a sort of game — our scribbled napkins end up under bottles of Gallo beer — but they point out the scale of the task, the near impossibility of the undertaking. They also make it clear that many of those most closely affected by disappearance — parents, partners, even children — will not live long enough to see the return of their loved ones’ bodies. As forensic team members are well aware, they are in a race against the clock to find and return the missing while there are still living mourners to grieve and bury them.
One afternoon I ask Don Jaime if he will tell me the story of what happened to his family during the conflict. I am tentative. I haven’t asked anyone for an interview yet. It feels like prying. I’m worried that he’ll do it just to be nice, as when he humors me by digging slowly. “Yes,” he says without hesitating, “I want to.”
Don Jaime appears after lunch in a clean shirt, his hair combed back. Things quickly take shape, a stump for him to sit on, people gather, a photographer who is visiting the project approaches and soon has set up a tripod. One of the plastic tarps used to cover graves is spread on the ground, adding to a sense of ceremony. What I had imagined as a private interview has turned into an event. In Latin America, there is a long history of testimonio — a public witnessing of violence and oppression that sets the story straight.
By the time we are ready to start, I am sitting in front of Don Jaime on the tarp and about 20 people are gathered around, mostly women from the community, but various people from the team too. I start by telling Don Jaime that I won’t use his real name, because I always assign pseudonyms. This is standard anthropological practice, but all the more necessary in Guatemala, where the legacy of impunity means that perpetrators and victims continue to live side by side, and speaking up about the crimes of the past can have dangerous repercussions in the present.
Exhumations can be political flash points. For example, on June 14, 2003, the community of Rabinal gathered to rebury the remains of 70 people exhumed from a mass grave. A Maya-Achí village in the province of Baja Verapaz, Rabinal was the site of more than 20 documented massacres, the majority carried out as part of Ríos Montt’s scorched-earth campaigns. As people converged on the main square carrying coffins, Ríos Montt himself arrived, flanked by supporters. He claimed to be making a campaign stop in his bid to run in the 2003 presidential election, but local families interpreted his presence as an attempt to silence and intimidate them.
“Use my real name,” Don Jaime says, not so much to me but to the people gathered around. “I am not afraid, I will tell my story. Use my real name.” Then he turns to me and says in English, “Well, use my first name.” This is the last question I ask because Don Jaime, which is not his real name, begins to tell his story, his testimonio, and there is no pause, no hesitation, no room for questions. Don Jaime sits on the stump, straightens his back, and begins to speak.
“What I am going to say is real, it is the truth, and I saw it with my own eyes when I was 12 years old. I was very young but I remember very well…” Don Jaime’s family had decided to move from their village to a more remote area. His parents were increasingly worried about the steady influx of the military, including elite special-force units like the Kaibiles, notorious for massacring entire villages.
Don Jaime’s father woke up early one Monday morning to go look at a piece of land. Don Jaime insisted on accompanying him, and they began hiking into the mountains. At about 5:30 a.m., when they were a half-hour’s walk away from the village, they heard two explosions. Don Jaime recognized the sound as detonating hand grenades, but his father tried to convince him it was only fireworks from a nearby village celebrating a fair day. They took a few more steps along the path before hearing the unmistakable sound of sustained machine-gun fire. From their vantage point, they could see thick smoke rising from the village and knew that the soldiers had begun to burn houses, a common scorched-earth tactic.
Don Jaime and his father waited, thinking that people from the village would flee along the path. People passed them, but Don Jaime’s mother and siblings were not among them. “I felt a knot in my throat. I felt something so heavy in my heart. I knew, I just knew then that my mother must have died.” Eventually, they left the path to hide in the woods, afraid of being discovered by the soldiers.
The next day at dawn, Don Jaime and his father made their way back to their village. They found Don Jaime’s mother lying dead in their house. “She was covered in blood and she was totally exposed to the morning cold. My baby brother was still on her back and he’d been shot. They had shot her in the stomach and the back, and the bullets had come out through her heart.” At the neighbor’s house they found a scene of intense carnage. One of the daughters of the family, a girl about Don Jaime’s age, had been decapitated. “We thought maybe dogs had eaten her, but it wasn’t dogs. It was hand grenades that did that to her, cut off her head.” At another house, they found a woman lying face up, holding her eight-month-old baby. “They killed them both with one bullet,” says Don Jaime. “This is the truth I’m telling you.”
When Don Jaime finishes his testimonio, we all sit in silence for perhaps two minutes, the thud of shovels and pickaxes behind us, and the sound of the river that you cannot see. An elderly woman named Doña María who comes to the site most days has been listening and says that she would like to give her testimonio too. Like nearly all of the women who visit the site from the community, she is wearing a huipil, an embroidered top, her hair braided with ribbons. Her daughter helps her to the stump, gingerly crossing the slippery plastic tarp. The translator moves close.
Doña María, like most of the women in the community, does not speak Spanish fluently. She gives her testimonio in Ixil, one of the 21 varieties of the Maya language spoken in Guatemala. Doña María leans close to the audio recorder and states her whole name, first and last. Then she says, in Spanish: fue en el mes de octubre, tres de octubre, en día sábado … It was in the month of October, the third of October, a Saturday …
The rest of the afternoon, people take turns giving their testimonios, seven in all, all delivered without pause.
A Lovely Grave for Learning
After four days of digging, we have found nothing. Esteban and other senior team members decide that we will be allowed to exhume bodies that have already been located but not yet recovered. We are students, we need bodies to learn, and we won’t be in the field forever. I hear rumors that the bodies have not yet been exhumed because journalists from The New York Times are coming to visit the site and the team wants to be sure there is something for them to see. The visiting students whisper about this, mildly scandalized. Is it cheap theatrics to “perform” an exhumation for journalists? Is it fair to the families, who know that bodies have been found and are waiting for their return?
More experienced members of the team accept the situation with a pragmatic shrug. The journalists won’t wait days for the team to find bodies. A newspaper article can raise awareness, help with fundraising, tell the story. As for the waiting families, the wait will be long, and these few weeks are just a part of it. Even after a body is found, it takes months and sometimes years for it to be identified and for all the legal and bureaucratic hurdles to be cleared so that the remains can be returned. The exhumations for a nearby community in El Quiché began in 2006, but the bodies weren’t returned until 2015.
We move to a partially excavated area where bodies have been located. We dig until we hit plastic soda bottles. This confuses me, until I realize that the team placed the bottles here to mark the presence of bodies and then covered up the site with earth. Now we shift from shoveling dirt as fast as we can. Setting shovels aside, we kneel down and dig using small gardening spades, big paintbrushes, our hands. Vicente exposes the edge of a bone and some blue fabric. Even though I know that there are bodies here, it doesn’t seem real.
People, women and children mostly, gather around the mass grave to watch us work. We fill plastic colanders with dirt and pass them to José, who inspects them before he dumps them out. He runs his fingers through, looking for teeth and the small bones of the hands and feet. Our tools get even smaller, fine paintbrushes, chopsticks, bamboo barbecue skewers, our fingertips. José keeps a close eye on us and directs us — use a brush now, use the chopsticks, leave the dirt there for support. Within an hour, the distinct forms of bodies are visible. Two of the bodies are directly on top of each other and one is slightly to the side. All are skeletonized, meaning that all the flesh has decomposed and only bone is left.
(On a break, Don Jaime asks me, “When you see the bones, are you scared?” I say not scared, but sad. He nods his head knowingly, as if in agreement, though I’m not quite sure what we are agreeing on. Is sadness, not fear, the correct reaction?)
I am assigned the job of cleaning the legs of the uppermost body. Based on a preliminary examination of the jaw and skull shape, and the tattered men’s work clothes covering the skeleton, the body appears to be male. After about an hour, we shift roles. Exhumation requires holding yourself in uncomfortable positions, and it is a relief to assume a new, if ultimately equally uncomfortable, posture. I work on the head. What initially appeared to be a single skull has been revealed to be two crania, one on top of the other. The lower one seems to be intact, at least so far, but the upper one is shattered with a clear point of impact. There is a bullet casing in the dirt next to it. I slowly uncover several inches of the lower skull, and then work my way along his shoulder and arm. He wears a blue-and-red plaid shirt. As I carefully dislodge and brush the dirt away, the shirt is revealed to be quite intact. The buttons are still tightly stitched in place. I feel like someone could easily recognize the shirt and I wonder who is watching.
The first hour of work has been in near silence, but now the people observing are talking and laughing and taking cell phone calls. You can hear noises from the nearby town floating up through the valley, off-key heartfelt church singing, ice cream trucks, oom-pah-pah beats. There is no funerary feeling, no sense that there should be silence. But there is something — contained outrage — when Vicente says there are at least five bodies. Five.
Among the team there is a sense of excitement. Are there signs of trauma? Yes. Is that a pair of pants — no, it’s a shirt. Is that the leg of this one or that one? There are two bodies with shoes and one without. The feet are missing. Watch carefully to see the position of the hands — that can tell you a lot: are they bound, at their sides, covering their faces? The most exposed body has a rope ligature tying his wrists behind his back. Esteban remarks to Maxi that it is una bonita fosa para aprender — a lovely grave for learning.
Using a chopstick to loosen the earth, I follow the outline of the leg, sweeping the dirt with a paintbrush into a plastic dustpan and then dumping it into the colander. José instructs me to work from the knee in both directions. From a certain angle, through the fabric of the pants, the shinbone feels familiar, it’s the same feeling as rubbing my own leg, only the ridge of the bone is sharper. But if my hand slips around the side of the leg, where his calf should be, there is nothing.
I put all my focus into the tip of the chopstick, the bristles of the paintbrush, into the task at hand. When I reach the feet, José tells me to go slow, take care: the bones are small and easy to disturb, to miss or to throw away. Fortunately, the body is wearing boots. Socks and shoes are “lucky” to find because they trap the small bones, hold them together in tidy packets that can be unwrapped and pieced together in the lab. The boots are perfectly preserved. I scrape mud from between the treads, see where the heel has worn down. I look up from the grave. Don Jaime and other men from the community are standing by the edge watching, taking a break from shoveling. They are all wearing the same rubber boots as the dead man.
Alexa Hagerty is an anthropologist with a PhD from Stanford University. She works on issues of human rights and violence with a focus on ethics and technology. Her current research explores the links between social media, extremism, and the refugee crisis in Europe.