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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 February, 2004, 04:05 GMT
Guatemala rights scientist honoured
By Richard Black
BBC science correspondent, in Seattle

Most scientists face nothing more serious in their working lives than a low salary, a major caffeine habit and the spectre of a rival making the grand breakthrough first.

The work provides some closure for victims' families
Fredy Peccerelli has faced death threats to himself and his family, and been forced to leave his native Guatemala.

At this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Mr Peccerelli and his colleagues at the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) are being honoured for their commitment to using science to promote human rights.

Since 1992, the Foundation has been investigating human rights abuses committed during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, particularly the 18-month period in the early 1980s when General Efrain Rios Montt pursued what has been described as a "scorched earth policy".

His target was the country's indigenous Mayan population, whom he accused of sheltering guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).

In that period, the junta destroyed between 400 and 600 Mayan villages.

Altogether, it is estimated about 200,000 people were killed or "disappeared", making the civil war one of Latin America's bloodiest.

Grisly detail

Mr Peccerelli and his team investigate each massacre, each atrocity, through the principles of sound science.

"What we do is we interview witnesses to build up a profile of the victims," he told BBC News Online.

Fredy Peccerelli
In the last 12 years, we have exhumed over 400 graves and recovered over 3,000 human skeletal remains
Fredy Peccerelli
"We look for documents - anything that can aid in identification; we search for the graves, we excavate them, and exhume the remains. Then everything is taken to the laboratory for analysis."

From the remains, Mr Peccerelli's team tries to construct a picture of what happened at the time of death.

For example, was the victim shot or struck by a machete? Where did the bullet enter and exit the body? What was the victim's posture at the time, and what does that imply about what they were doing?

Evidence is given to the Prosecutor's Office where it can be used as evidence in legal cases. But Mr Peccerelli says their work has far wider significance.

"It is important for three reasons really," he says. "One is because we need to make sure there is scientific proof of the recent history of Guatemala.

"The second is to provide closure for the families and dignity to the dead; and the third is to provide evidence for possible criminal convictions in the future."

UK refuge

However, only a handful of the hundreds of cases brought to court so far have resulted in prosecution.

Investigations at site of mass burial
Investigations are detailed and gruesome
Intimidation of the forensic team is frequent.

"There is a culture of impunity in Guatemala, and the group are facing serious threats," says Victoria Baxter, Senior Program Associate with the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program which is honouring Mr Peccerelli's group.

"They face death threats to themselves and their families. We hope his award will raise the profile of their work internationally, and so provide them with some protection."

Born in Guatemala in 1971, Mr Peccerelli went into exile with his family in New York when he was nine years old.

After graduating with an anthropology degree from the City University of New York, he met up with internationally renowned forensic anthropologists Karen Ramey Burns and Clyde Snow, who were already involved in human rights investigations in Guatemala.

Mr Peccerelli has been working for FAFG ever since, now as its Executive Director.

Guatemalan mothers
The work provides some closure for victims' families
Because of threats to himself and his family, he is currently undertaking further study in Britain.

He says when he returns to Guatemala, his children may remain in the UK for their own safety.

"Unfortunately, we have only just begun this work," he says with a resigned shrug.

"In the last 12 years, we have exhumed over 400 graves and recovered over 3,000 human skeletal remains.

"If we continue working at this rate, about 70 investigations per year, we will need another 25 or 30 years to finish the work."

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