Migrants' DNA could help ID missing Guatemalans

Published on NewsOK Modified: September 22, 2013 at 11:10 am •  Published: September 22, 2013
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SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Aracely Garrido returned to her native Guatemala last month to bury one of 13 family members who disappeared during the country's decades-long civil war and was identified years later through DNA from surviving relatives.

The 55-year-old tax preparer now living in a Los Angeles suburb is among a small group of Guatemalan immigrants in the area who have given DNA samples in hopes of finding loved ones who vanished during the fighting from 1960 to 1996. Many more soon will be able to do the same as forensic experts who run a Guatemalan lab that matches victims' remains to the living are expanding their outreach to Guatemalans abroad.

"Being able to find him was at least some relief," Garrido said of her cousin, a construction worker and political activist who she said was seized by authorities along with his teenage son.

She hopes the Forensic Anthropology Foundation will locate the remains of her other missing relatives, many of whom were targeted by the government because they were politically active.

"It is important to clarify the past, to try to find out the truth. That will at least give us a personal sort of peace," she said.

For the last two decades, the foundation has exhumed the remains of victims from mass graves. More recently, it has searched for victims of "forced disappearances" carried out by wartime governments by matching DNA from the remains of unidentified victims found in military installations and cemeteries with samples from living relatives.

More than 7,000 survivors have given DNA samples, including about 20 Guatemalans in Los Angeles when foundation members made a brief trip here last year, said Fredy Peccerelli, the organization's executive director and a Guatemalan who grew up in New York.

The move to expand efforts abroad comes as the Guatemalan conflict takes center stage in a California courtroom. The trial and its intersection with the DNA program underscore that while the conflict that killed an estimated 200,000 people has ended, the effects of the war endure for survivors.

While ex-military personnel have been convicted in recent years in Guatemala of atrocities committed during the war, one of the country's former soldiers is preparing to stand trial in the U.S. on charges of lying on his American citizenship application about his role in one of the era's most violent episodes — a massacre that killed more than 200 people in the village of Dos Erres in 1982.

One of the key witnesses for the U.S. government's case against former special forces commander Jorge Sosa is Oscar Ramirez, a Guatemalan immigrant living in Framingham, Mass., who learned two years ago — through the DNA program — that he had been seized as a toddler and raised by one of Sosa's comrades after nearly his entire family was killed in Dos Erres.

Sosa, 55, was arrested in Canada last year and extradited to the U.S. to face charges of lying on his naturalization application. His trial is scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Riverside, where he lived.

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