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Experts Look for Bones in Guatemala

October 6, 1999

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ ``Where are they?″ ask posters pasted on the wall of a former military headquarters, listing the names of people who vanished during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

About a dozen men working with jackhammers, picks and shovels are trying to find the answer, hunting for the remains of suspected leftists prosecutors believe may have been tortured and killed by a former military government.

The workers discovered several bone fragments on their second day of digging at the military headquarters on Tuesday and at first suggested they might be human. But forensics experts at the site took a closer look and said they appeared to be animal bones.

Still the hunt goes on, with families of missing men watching the workers go about their macabre task.

``We have received over 40 direct testimonies from people or families of people who were brought here,″ said Fernando Mendizabal, the prosecutor in charge of the case.

More than 45,000 people disappeared and more than 200,000 people are estimated to have died during the civil war, which reached its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The search for remains at the former military headquarters was prompted by news that workers found bones in June as they were laying drains for a new dormitory at what is now the national police academy.

Academy director Virgio Fuentes Orosco said at the time he believed the remains were animal bones, though they were found along with boots and clothing. He ordered the bones reburied and construction finished. He told authorities about them only after the work was finished.

Among those allegedly brought to the headquarters were 27 union members kidnapped during a meeting in June 1980. Witnesses said the union members were beaten by police and military officers and were taken to the military police headquarters.

According to the Commission for Historical Clarity, created by the 1996 peace accords to investigate human rights abuses during the war, the union members’ kidnapping was an outgrowth of the government’s decision to extend its definition of ``enemy″ to any social organization critical of the state, rather than just the guerrillas.

``Many witnesses say they saw people being brought in. Others say they saw people being taken out,″ Mendizabal said.

One of those watching workers dig Tuesday was Marta Samayoa, who said she wanted to find the remains of her son. He disappeared in 1981, but surfaced two years later when she saw him by chance in front of the military police headquarters, walking beside an undercover officer.

She said her son refused to acknowledge her, but after she fainted from shock, he asked permission to accompany Samayoa to her daughter’s house several blocks away.

There the rest of the family recognized him, but with the officer at his side, he continued to deny his identity, Samayoa said.

``When his sister took his hand it was ice cold, and he had tears in his eyes, but he said he didn’t know her,″ she said, adding that the family believes the reason he denied his identity was because of the officer standing beside him.

Relatives followed the young man to the military police headquarters, but Samayoa said she never saw him again.

Although remains have been found in other military barracks, the uncovering of bones in the former military police would be the first such discovery in the capital.

Update hourly