Digging for truth in Guatemala

Kyle Matthews and photographer Tristan Brand follow the forensic team unearthing and identifying victims of decades of civil war.

By: /
21 August, 2014
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

This past June I had the unique if not morbid opportunity to travel to Guatemala with photographer Tristan Brand. Invited by the International Field Initiatives and Forensic Training, in partnership with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), we followed a group of forensic anthropologists around the country for a week to observe first-hand how they help unearth the remains of the missing and murdered victims of Guatemala’s civil war.

The statistics are bewildering. From 1960 to 1996, just on the doorstep of North America, more than 200,000 people were killed and another 50,000 thousand “disappeared” — eerily similar to what happened in Argentina under military rule. The conflict was triggered when the Guatemalan government backed Washington in opposing Fidel Castro and communism.  Parts of the Guatemalan military rebelled against the central government.

In urban areas, many civilians who were students and labour organizers were swept up by police, never to be seen again. In the rural areas of the country, with most violence taking place in the Guatemalan Highlands, the indigenous communities were targeted by the military, who saw them as being sympathetic to the left-leaning armed rebellion.

Many scholars and human rights activists believe a genocide was committed during the conflict. My visit took place on the heels of the country’s trial against the former head of state, Efrain Rios Montt, in which he was found guilty only to have the verdict overturned after 10 days. I had hoped to meet Claudia Paz y Paz, the country’s attorney general who lead the charge to prosecute Rios Montt, but she had recently fled the country after having her mandate cut short seven months early.

My visit was fascinating and the following photos highlight key aspects of the work forensic anthropologists and human rights activists are pursuing to bring to justice those responsible for massive human rights abuses and to identify the victims of what was a savage conflict.

While Guatemala is an incredibly beautiful country, I did get to see the darker side of its recent history which continues to shape and influence politics. With Rios Montt’s trial still set to resume in 2015, unless an amnesty is granted or political interference ends it all, the country’s civil war and the victims it claimed will pop back up on the international news media’s radar, reminding us all that while peace deals might stop war, it is just the beginning of the process of seeking truth and achieving justice.

Photography: Tristan Brand


In the highlands of Quiché province, Kyle Matthews, along with other forensic workers, students and local residents, listens to the testimony of a man who recalls the murder of his wife and infant daughter.

Guat 4

Digging at an exhumation site in Quiché province.


Forensic staff and local volunteers dig trenches in an area where family members are believed to have buried their dead in the early 1980s.


A student collects a cheek swab for a DNA sample from an Ixil woman, whose brother was murdered.


Remains from an exhumation site are displayed at a forensic lab in Guatemala City.


Clothing and personal belongings recovered from a clandestine grave are carefully laid out.


A forensic anthropologist works to isolate fragments of human bone from other materials. Human remains are registered, analyzed, and a biological profile is built to help identify victims and their cause of death.


Fragments of bone at a DNA laboratory in Guatemala City. DNA samples from over 6000 sets of human remains, taken from over 1000 burial sites have been analyzed at the FAFG’s headquarters.

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