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Guatemala - St Petersburg Times 11/7/1991

Anthropologist uncovering sordid part of past

Chronicle of Higher Education article

Economist article

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  • Bodies of those caught in middle of a war are being exhumed. Twenty-seven bodies have been found.
By Robin Lubbock
Times Correspondent

CHICHICASTENANGO, Guatemala - Under the boughs of an avocado tree in the spectacular Guatemalan highlands, a group of people sift through the sandy red earth to reveal the skeleton of a man murdered in this peaceful spot nearly a decade ago.

St Petersburg Times 11/7/1991 Intently overseeing the digging is U.S. forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow. From under a broad-rimmed bush hat, the 63-year-old Texan watches the steady progress of the exhumation, downplaying the intensity and seriousness of the search with his easygoing attitude and disarming sense of humor.

The clothes covering the bones are in good condition, which will be an asset in identifying the dead man. "Guatemala seems to be a land of fairly permanent clothes, and disposable people," said Snow.

Snow is at the front of an effort coordinated by U.S. and Guatemalan human rights groups to literally uncover the truth about killings by the Guatemalan Armed Forces and Civil Patrols in the early 1980s as they attempted to stamp out guerrilla sympathizers in a war that continues to this day.

"Even though the bad guys may never go to jail, at least we can say these crimes, and upon this scale, occurred here in Guatemala." said Snow. "Revisionists can't come along a few years from now and say 'no this didn't really happen.'

"It's very difficult to argue with a skull with a bullet in it's head," he concluded.

For Snow it is another step in investigations into the dead that have taken him all around the world.

He was born in 1928 in Ralls, Texas, the son of a country doctor. He was raised in Texas and New Mexico, and after many travels now lives in Oklahoma.

In forensic anthropology, the tools and methods of anthropologists are used to produce evidence on how and why a person may have died. It is a rare skill that Snow has practiced in, among other countries, the United States, the Philippines, Chile and Bolivia.

Snow was among those called to Brazil in 1985 to identify the body of the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. "It was definitely him," he said reassuringly. "Don't lose any sleep over it."

More recently he formed and trained a unit of forensic scientists in Argentina to work on the exhumation and identification of the thousands of people "disappeared" by the military in the years of terror between 1976 and 1978.

Clyde Snow
Special to the Times - JEREMY BIGWOOD
Tomas Tol, a former Civil Patrol member, says many killings were ordered by the Guatemalan army.
But the project in Guatemala is the first time he has worked in a war that is still continuing and in communities where the killers and the victims' families still live together as neighbors in a permanent state of fear.

Human rights organizations in Guatemala say as many as 90 civilians may have died in the tiny scattered village of Chontola in the central Guatemalan highlands where Snow's team is unearthing their 27th body since July.

Villagers say the men who did much of the killing were part of the Civil Patrol, a locally recruited paramilitary force urged on by the military to find "subversives" and kill them.

Tomas Tol, a former member of the Patrol, who lives only a few minutes walk from where Snow's team is digging, said he saw some of the killings. "None of us knew who the guerrillas in the community were," said Tol. "We were under orders of the army." He said anyone in the patrol who refused to act on the orders of the army or patrol leaders would himself be accused of being a guerrilla and killed.

Many patrol members still live in the village. Snow said this adds an element of jeopardy for the Guatemalans involved in the dig, some of whom also live nearby. "For them there have been death threats," he said. "In previous cases of this sort, local people, particularly the local civil patrols, have attempted to obstruct or physically block the exhumations."

Villagers said that soon after the dig began members of the Civil Patrol told them the forensic investigators were in fact guerrilla leaders who would dig up the bones of their murdered family members and make them into soup.

Although the threats did not stop the dig, they had their effect. Local Judge Rafael Yani said he has noted that people do not turn up to claim the bodies of their family members but send an intermediary. He said that is probably due to the fear and threats.

The judge says he doubts the digs will result in any legal proceedings. "As things are at the moment, if they don't want to even make identifications they are much less likely to come forward and say who was responsible for a crime like this."

Clyde Snow
Special to the Times - JEREMY BIGWOOD
Forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow is overseeing the search for bodies of villagers murdered by Guatemalan Armed Forces and Civil Patrols in the 1980s.
It is a fear Snow respects. He said the disappearance of a relative is extremely traumatic for the survivors. "It's almost as if the torture does not end with the death of the victim, it passes from one generation to another because they don't know what happened to their family members." He said recovering the bodies helps family members to get over the grieving process and get on with their lives.

Snow compared the killing in Guatemala to the murders of serial killers of the Untied States "on a massive scale." But whereas serial killings are carried out by people Clyde describes as "lost in the labyrinth of their own minds," he says the slaughter of Guatemalans is made more horrifying by its cold blooded nature.

"We have people far removed from the actual killing sitting around in offices and conference rooms, well dressed in their suits and uniforms, making decisions to exterminate people as if they were some kind of obnoxious agricultural pest," Snow said.

 Snow hopes that his work bringing to light some of the more horrifying moments of Guatemala's recent past may help keep similar murders from happening there in the future. He hopes that perpetrators will realize "they may not be able to get away with these crimes in the future as easily as they have in the past, and maybe we can discourage some of this homicidal behavior.


Chronicle of Higher Education article | Economist article

Robin Lubbock's resume