Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Murder of the Carpenter

After a long sabbatical from the blogosphere, I am back, writing from Nebaj, a town in the northern, mountainous region of Guatemala´s highland province, the Quich├ę. I have been here for two weeks now completing a series of exhumations with a team of two archaeologists and a cultural anthropologists from the Guatemala Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), where I am now a full-time employee. We´ll be here for another week, so I´ll be updating again soon with more stories from the field.

The single case that has struck me the most thus far was one of the first. It involved a seventeen year old young man who was massacred by the Guatemalan army in his own town. His father, Don Santiago, led us on a nearly 5 hour climb up a steep mountain in the Cuchumatanes mountain range, the highest in Central America. About an hour into the hike I was panting and gasping for oxygen in the thin air (we were at almost 2 miles of altitude), and convinced I wasn´t going to make it... but it turns out that I am far too proud let that happen! At the top, the view of the mountains was breath-taking. My FAFG friends described it as practically a scene from Heidi; sheep and goats grazed in fields of bright green grass and patches of pine forest. I took pictures of the adorable sheep, and was quite put off when dinner was served to us that night: lamb stew.

When we finally arrived in this extremely remote town of no more than about 20 families, Don Santiago led us quickly down to the site where he had buried his son after the murder. My friend and coworker, Jaime, conducted the antemortem interview, in which he asked Don Santiago a series of questions about his son, including his age, what he was like physically, what clothing he was wearing at the time of burial and any details he knew about the murder. This let us know what we should expect to find when we dug up the grave. Don Santiago told us that the military apprehended his son, and took him to nearby woods where they tied him to a tree and hacked off his limbs with a machete. This was probably a form of torture; perhaps they believed that he had information regarding the whereabouts of the leftist guerrillas in the mountains. But ultimately they killed this young man, and left him limbless to die.

The first time I visited the FAFG lab in 2004 with a group of Haverford students, it was a practically identical case that made me break down emotionally. And here I was now, four and half years later, hours from the nearest dirt road at the top of a mountain in Guatemala, about to dig up the body of an identical victim. For some reason - perhaps the thick skin that forensic anthropologists develop from dealing with this type of violent reality on a daily basis - I wasn´t overwhelmed. I was anxious to find the body in order to have physical proof of Don Santiago´s version of the story. And that is precisely what happened...

As we dug down into the earth, with a growing number of towns people crowded around watching us work, we discovered a young, male skeleton with obvious signs of serious injury. His entire right arm was located directly under his spine, an important indication that his limbs were dismembered before the burial. (This is the type of scenario that highlights the importance of the archaeologist context in forensic investigations; this information is lost as soon as the bones are removed). His wrist (the distal end of his ulna) had been completely severed with a sharp object, compatible with a machete wound. His left shin and both of his feet were completely missing. And while this is gory, it wasn´t these details that affected me as much as the discovery of a wooden tape measurer, a hammer and a blue and red carpenter´s pencil that we found with the body. Don Santiago had told us that he was a carpenter, and these were his tools. These details, and the signs from the bones that he was in his late teenage years, were what made this young man come alive for me - he was no longer a pile of bones but a person from this small town who was brutally murdered, with a father who missed him terribly.

Nevertheless, our stay in the town that night was lovely. Don Santiago´s relatives gave us their two-room, dirt-floor house to sleep in and chatted with us by candle light. There is no electricity in the town, and the darkness as the clouds covered the night sky was impressive. I slept soundly, and in the morning, Don Santiago led us back down the mountain. His spirits were high, despite the devastated reaction of his wife at the bottom of the mountain upon seeing the bones of her son. We left them alone with the remains for a few minutes, and then packed them up to be transported to the lab in Guatemala City, where I will clean and analyze them, and afterwards return them to Don Santiago and his family for a proper reburial.

P.S. I don´t have the cable for my camera with me so I can´t put photos up now! But they will be up as soon as I´m back at home in the city.


aromoser said...

Dear Jennifer,

I am glad you are writing--for us and for you! Keep it up.

I am learning a lot from your updates. The moments and cases sound dark, but I can imagine your nice spirit there does a lot to alleviate some of the tensions tied to these moments and digs.


Bosque said...
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Nick & Alana said...

Hey There! I am a friend of a friend - my bud Dave's girlfriend Emily mentioned you in conversation last night. In 26 days, I too will be in Guatemala serving a different purpose. I'm taking 14 people on my second trip to lake Izabal.

We will partner with a man who has lived in a town called Rio Dulce for over 10 years. Our team will travel by off-road vehicle, bus and boat to reach tribes of Mayans in remote jungle outposts. Many of them are descendants of people such as the ones you've exhumed. They ran from the government and have lived in these villages since then.

We will provide these people with medical care they would not otherwise receive.

You can check out some of my photos at (go to portfolio>foreign missions)

I looked up where I think you are located and I'm pretty sure you are quite a jaunt away from Rio Dulce. We are nearly on the ocean. If, by some chance, you are closer, I'd love to meet you. Also, we will be spending 3/29 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras if you happen to be down there for some odd reason. =)

I think what you are doing is amazing and have enjoyed reading your blog. I'd love to chat sometime!

God Bless,

Katie said...

Hi Jen! Wow, your work continues to inspire. Thanks for continuing to write for those of us who cannot be there...
Katie M