Monday, October 15, 2018
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When the dead speak
Barbara J. Fraser
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A forensic anthropology team is slowly uncovering the truth about forced disappearances in Peru.

Haiti, the Congo, Guatemala, Rwanda, Kosovo. José Pablo Baraybar has roamed the world, coaxing the dead to tell their stories. Now he has come home to tease from the bones of the disappeared the secrets of their deaths.

"The most important thing is to know how to talk to death, so it will tell you something," Baraybar said.

In Peru, the task is just beginning. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established last July (LP, July 23, 2001) is gathering testimony about human rights violations committed during the political violence that began in 1980, when Shining Path rebels set fire to ballot boxes in Chuschi, a village in the highland department of Ayacucho, and virtually ended in 1992, with the capture of most of the rebel leaders.

During those years, more than 5,500 cases of forced disappearance or summary execution were reported, according to the Peruvian Ombudsman’s Office. The real figure, however, remains unknown.

The Ombudsman’s Office has received reports of about 150 clandestine graves. In a remote area of Ayacucho — the department in which nearly half of all disappearances were registered during the 1980s and early 1990s — known as the "dog’s ear," there are unconfirmed reports of as many as 250 sites.

Although reports of clandestine graves in the central highlands have sporadically made headlines for more than a year, the first case handled by the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, which Baraybar heads, was of campesinos forcibly detained, executed and buried near Chuschi in May 1983.

After gathering detailed descriptions of the events and victims from residents of Quispillacta, the community where the campesinos had lived, the team painstakingly excavated the remains and took them to a makeshift morgue in the local school.

"It’s very important that people not feel that the remains are being taken away to Lima or the provincial capital," Baraybar said. Several graves found last year in other parts of the country were dug up by community members or judicial officials with no training in forensic anthropology, and the bones were sent to Lima, where it was impossible to reconstruct the skeletons, identify the victims or draw any conclusions about how they had died, Baraybar said.

"The bones are rotting in Lima — it’s a second disappearance," he added.

Along with its detailed report on disappearances, the Ombudsman’s Office has published a book of wrenching accounts by families of the victims, telling of their fruitless searches for their loved ones, of threats and extortion by police and military officers, of poverty, discrimination and the agony of never knowing what really happened.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which the forensic anthropology team participates, is working against the clock to finish its task by February 2003.

"In 18 months, the commission isn’t going to be able to investigate everything. But it has a moral weight that can make the state assume its responsibility," Baraybar said. He added that his team "isn’t going to be able to recover 100 percent of the bodies and identify them all. It would be impossible. And we understand the frustration that this represents for the families."

The largest number of disappearances, 42.7 percent, took place during the administration of President Alan García (1985-90), followed by the governments of President Fernando Belaunde (1980-85), with 31.3 percent, and President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), with 26 percent. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, 57.4 percent of the victims were campesinos.

Of the summary executions reported, 46.1 percent occurred during the Fujimori years, 39 percent under García and 14.9 percent under Belaunde.

One of the most infamous cases was the execution of some 300 inmates after a prison riot in a Lima penitentiary in 1986. The Peruvian government recently agreed to pay damages of US$125,000 to the survivors of two victims, Nolberto Durand Ugarte and Gabriel Pablo Ugarte Rivero.

In December, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to pay more than $2 million in damages to relatives of 15 people killed in November 1991 by a death squad during a barbecue in the Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima.

And the parents of Mariella Barreto, an army intelligence agent allegedly tortured to death by her colleagues after she leaked information about death squad activities to the press (LP, April 17, 1997), received a settlement of $156,923 in December.

Leonor La Rosa, another intelligence agent who was tortured with Barreto and left disabled, returned to the country from exile and on Feb. 18 received an official apology from President Alejandro Toledo.

La Rosa is now testifying before a congressional committee investigating Fujimori’s national security adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos, and his network of espionage and corruption. Following a lead from an unidentified witness, committee members found an underground brick incinerator in the military headquarters in Lima. Investigations are under way to determine whether it was used to incinerate human remains.

Meanwhile, Baraybar’s team continues to dig away at the past. It also assisted with autopsies of 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement who held 70 people hostage for four months in the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima (LP, April 24, 1997). Officials said that all the rebels were killed when military troops stormed the building and freed the hostages in April 1997, but last year a Japanese diplomat claimed that he had seen several in custody after the raid (LP, April 9, 2001).

While the team’s report was confidential, a version leaked to the press indicated that at least eight of the bodies showed signs of having been summarily executed with a gunshot to the base of the skull.

Baraybar said that his goal is not just to exhume the remains of the disappeared, but to bring the perpetrators to justice, "to say to them, ‘I’m going to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that you did this, and these people whom you have silenced — I’m going to make them speak.’"



Experts exhume remains from a
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