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The disappeared of Guatemala: a family’s search for their murdered son

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/06/2018 Nina Lakhani in Guatemala City
A forensic anthropologist analyses exhumed bones removed from a mass grave in La Verbena cemetery. © AP A forensic anthropologist analyses exhumed bones removed from a mass grave in La Verbena cemetery.

As the court delivered the damning verdict convicting powerful ex-military officers of crimes against humanity, sexual violence and the forced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, his three older sisters and mother clung to each other and wept.

It’s almost 37 years since the schoolboy was bundled into a sack by officers after they had ransacked the family home looking for his sister, Emma Guadalupe, who had managed to escape a military torture chamber.

Marco Antonio’s family has never stopped looking for him, but the boy who dreamed of becoming an engineer was disappeared by a military regime that considered children fair game in its quest to crush political dissent.

The guilty verdicts handed down in Guatemala City last month satisfied the Molina Theissen family’s pursuit for justice against the former “untouchables” – the high command that ordered the systematic persecution, torture, murder and disappearance of civilians considered enemies of the state. 

Peacetime efforts to tackle impunity have been impeded by the domination of post-war governments by military strongmen. Now is no exception. In the aftermath of the verdict, as rescue workers searched for victims of the Fuego volcano, politicians with military links attempted to sneak through a reform guaranteeing impunity for officers accused of crimes against humanity.

The convictions in Marco Antonio’s case were a victory not just for his family but for thousands of Guatemalans whose lives were destroyed by a US-backed counter insurgency war masquerading as a legitimate national security policy.

“The verdict is in our name but belongs to all the people like us, who were terrorised and bereaved just for thinking differently,” Maria Eugenia Molina Theissen, one of Marco Antonio’s sisters, tells the Guardian.

However, the legal win was bittersweet. An unofficial military pact of silence means the fundamental question remains unanswered: where is Marco Antonio?

“The verdict validated our testimonies as part of Guatemala’s historical truth, and to get justice after years of struggle is hugely satisfying. But we are left crying because the pain and bitterness over Marco Antonio’s disappearance are still with us,” says Emma Guadalupe, who was 21 when she was captured, in September 1981, after attending a political meeting. 

The young activist was taken for interrogation to a military base in Quetzaltenango, western Guatemala, but refused to collaborate. She was given electric shocks to the eyelids, was raped by her captors, and deprived of food and water to create sensory disorientation. Emma escaped by slipping through the cell railings because she had lost so much weight. She fled to Mexico a few weeks later, unaware that her little brother had been taken, most likely in retaliation for her audacious escape.

“Those men know what happened to Marco Antonio, they know where he is, but they won’t tell us,” she says.

Fighting back tears, her mother, Emma Theissen Álvarez de Molina, 84, adds: “It’s very unlikely they will tell us. What I hope is that one day, one person who saw what they did and where they buried my son [will come] forward. Perhaps I won’t be here to see that day, but that’s my hope.”

An estimated 45,000 civilians were forcibly disappeared during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, including 5,000 children who, like Marco Antonio, were snatched and never returned. The whereabouts of most victims remains a torturous mystery for their families.

The armed forces and allied paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of violations during the conflict, which includes more than 150,000 murders in addition to the disappearances, according to the post-war Commission for Historical Clarification.

Indigenous Mayans accounted for 83% of the victims. For Mayans, the burial ritual represents a crucial step between life and death. Mayans believe that until this has taken place, the deceased cannot enter the spiritual world and the survivors will be tormented by their frightened spirits.

The state has shown little interest in tackling this anguish despite various international court rulings. A civil society initiative to establish a national commission to search for the disappeared has been blocked by congress since 2006.

Instead, the search has been left to courageous families, backed by tenacious prosecutors and scientists who have vowed to uncover the truth.

In an inconspicuous colonial house-turned-high-tech lab on the northern outskirts of the capital, the independently funded Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) is dedicated to identifying and returning disappeared loved ones to their families.

Laid on one table are the bones of two women found buried together, which have been cleaned, X-Rayed and arranged in the correct anatomical position. The younger woman was found with shoes but no clothes. The older woman’s cranium was shattered by a single bullet; she was still wearing a threadbare huipil, or embroidered blouse. A handful of coins give clues to the date of death. On another table sits a set of milk teeth from a different grave.

Tissue samples sent for DNA profiling will take several months to process. Then, quality permitting, the profiles will be digitally crosschecked with the 14,000 samples on the FAFG genetic database. From excavation to identification, this is painstaking, expensive work hindered by the military’s refusal to share information.

In spite of this, the FAFG says it has so far uncovered graves in 37 of the 44 military bases its archaeologists have exhumed. Of the 1,510 victims recovered, many were found blindfolded, gagged, with hands tied.

“In the few bases where we’ve not found bodies, it’s because we’ve not yet looked in the right place,” says José Suasnavar, deputy director of FAFG.

There were secret military installations in most of the 300 or so municipalities – like councils – during the conflict, some spread out over acres of private farmland. Without leads from witnesses, it’s like looking for a yellow needle in a giant haystack.

Executed victims were also buried in public cemeteries. In La Verbena, a big cemetery in the capital, FAFG archaeologists discovered 16,000 unidentified bodies in common graves. The cemetery register lists 879 unidentified bodies from 1980 to 1984 – the war’s bloodiest period – with at least one execution-style bullet wound. 

It’s possible that Marco Antonio is among the victims, but only 10 people have so far been identified. It’s a matter of resources and military secrets.

“For us to move forward with the search for Marco Antonio, information from the armed forces about where to look is essential … but they won’t give it up,” says Suasnavar.

The Molina Theissen case is the 14th criminal prosecution of civil war crimes since the 1996 peace accords – and the first against high-ranking officers since the 2013 genocide verdict was controversially returned to trial.

The family’s eldest sibling, Ana Lucrecia, 63, who spearheaded the legal chase, explains why she could never let it go. “They were my youngest siblings … I’ve been driven by an absolute conviction that something so atrocious, so cruel, so perverse and ruthless could not go unpunished.”

The four military men were sentenced to between 33 and 58 years in jail. The court has since ordered an array of reparations, including the long-awaited national commission, financial rewards for individuals who turn in credible information about clandestine graves, and the conversion of the base where Emma was tortured into a museum of memory.

Those found guilty in the Molina Theissen case will appeal against the verdict, but for the family, justice has been served no matter what the court rules. Now, they just want Marco Antonio back.

“Like thousands and thousands of other families, all we want is a chance to give him one last hug and bury him so we have a place to go and cry, and to leave flowers,” says Emma.

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