News: News Archives
News Accounts Report Increasing Danger
To Forensic Scientists Trained by AAAS
Ten years ago, a group of scientists organized by AAAS, taught a team of Guatemalan anthropologists to exhume bodies and search for evidence of human rights crimes carried out during the country's 36-year civil war.
In a sense, the Guatemalans may have learned to do their job too well.
According to a recent account in the New York Times (3 May 2002), the Guatemalan forensic anthropologists, some of whom were members of the original group trained by AAAS, are in great danger. Their foes are thought to be the perpetrators of the crimes the scientists are uncovering.
"These people are probably more afraid of the dead than they are of the living," forensics expert Clyde Snow told the New York Times. "Witnesses may forget through the years, but the dead, those skeletons, they don't forget. Their testimony is silent, but it is also very eloquent."
Snow led the team of scientists that AAAS sent to Guatemala in 1992 to help families identify the remains of loved ones, and discover how they had died. Guatemala, at the time, had one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere and was the site of an intense counter-insurgency military campaign, in which thousands of civilians were killed or had disappeared. The area of forensic pathology was not very strong in Guatemala and few of the victims had been exhumed or identified. In response, AAAS offered to provide the necessary expertise.
"Exhumations conducted by our team and other forensic anthropology teams played a major role in providing evidence to Guatemala's Commission on Historical Clarification," says Audrey Chapman, director of AAAS's Science and Human Rights program. "These initiatives helped to document the responsibility of the military and paramilitary groups for the massacre of thousands of citizens, mostly members of indigenous groups."
Now, almost ten years later, members of the current team are receiving threats, apparently from various current or retired members of the Guatemalan military, who fear that the exhumations will continue to reveal evidence of the human rights abuses that led to thousands of deaths.
"When AAAS launched the forensic anthropology initiative in 1992, its scientific reputation guaranteed a certain level of security from the Guatemalan government and military and enabled the team to expose the human rights abuses," says Dan Salcedo, who worked for AAAS in its Science and Human Rights program. "Now, even though the overall level of political violence has been reduced, the situation is more chaotic and the sources of the threats cannot be controlled."
AAAS is continuing to monitor the events and has recently issued two "alerts" on its AAAS Human Rights Action Network (AAASHRAN), asking members to appeal to the President of Guatemala to respond to the threats against the anthropologists.
28 May 2002
For more information, read related article, "How AAAS Became Involved."