While Peru celebrates the fruits of record economic growth, poverty reduction and political stability, forensic experts in an isolated, windswept Andean zone are unearthing evidence of a dark past few want to remember.
The Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team started last week to exhume the human remains from Peru’s largest known mass grave in the highland community of Putis, in the Huanta province of Ayacucho. Experts hope to identify the more than 120 victims of the massacre perpetrated in 1984 by the Peruvian military.
“We hope that this will attract more intervention … pushing the state, in a way, to fulfill its obligation to the victims,” José Pablo Baraybar, director of the forensic team, told Advocacy Net news. “They have been dragging their feet for a very long time. There’s no strategy in the search for the missing.”
Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that more than 69,000 Peruvians were killed during the nation’s 1980−2000 armed conflict, in which thousands of poor campesinos were caught in the crossfire between a bloody Maoist Shining Path insurgency and brutal government backlash.
More than 15,000 victims disappeared, many targeted by the police and armed forces.
But, since the Commission published its final report in 2003, only 505 bodies have been recovered and 269 of these identified by the Peruvian government.
The excavation and DNA testing in Putis are being funded by a grant from the Latin American Initiative for the Identification of the Disappeared, funded by the U.S. Department of State and its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, or EPAF from the Spanish acronym, is not funded by the Peruvian government.
“While the Peruvian government should provide overall guidance, said Baraybar, the tasks of exhuming bodies, identifying remains and informing relatives should be left to specialists like EPAF.”
EPAF, which has already documented more than 13,000 disappearances and was the first to introduce international standards for a Forensic Anthropology Investigation in Peru in 2001, uses state of the art technology. Computer programs allow the scientists to determine with more than 70 percent accuracy the sex of a cadaver according to the dimensions of its skull.
“Until the facts are known and bodies returned, relatives of the missing will be unable to come to terms with their loss, added Baraybar. “We must investigate the crimes of the past to build peace in the future.”
Baraybar, who headed the UN office for missing persons and forensics in Kosovo for several years, has been working on key forensic cases since his return to Peru, including several in Ayacucho, the remains in Lima of the MRTA rebels who led the kidnapping in 1997 at the Japanese Embassy, and the remains of the victims of the La Cantuta and Barrios Altos murders. He is also co-author of Skeletal Trauma, which describes the identification of injuries resulting from human rights abuse and armed conflict.
More than half of the deaths and disappearances reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place in the Department of Ayacucho. In December 1984, 123 men, women and children were summarily executed by the Peruvian army.
According to various testimonies gathered during the Commission, soldiers from the military base of Putis persuaded the villagers, who in fear of rebel attacks had abandoned their homes and communities, to come to Putis to start a new life.
“Come, you’ll be safe, that’s why we’re here,” the soldiers said. They gathered all the people living in the mountains. They came to Putis with all their belongings to create a new settlement there, because they thought they were going to be safe living next to the military base,” a solider on duty during the massacre told reporters from daily La Republica in 2001.
Held at gunpoint, the men were ordered to dig a large trench − they were told it was going to be for a trout farm.
They had unknowingly dug their own grave.
The villagers, including women and children, were then forced into the 7-by-4 and 2-meter deep pit and shot dead by the soldiers.
After the massacre, the military stole the villagers’ cattle and other livestock and sold them for profit.
Some of the military identified as responsible for the massacre, were identified by their nom de guerres: “Official Lalo,” “Lieutenant Bareta” and “Commander Oscar.”
Other similar mass graves are suspected to lie beneath the vegetation inside Putis’ military base.
From la Republica, published on Nov. 27, 2001, (excerpts from exclusive testimony of a soldier on duty and present at the time of the massacre)
I saw it with my own eyes
Nobody has seen this with his own eyes like I have. There was a call for peace: come, you’ll be safe, that’s why we’re here, the soldiers said. They gathered all the people living in the mountains. They came to Putis with all their belongings to create a new settlement there, because they thought they were going to be safe living next to the military base.
There were people from Marccaraccay who worked with the military that said: why don’t we kill these people and say they are terrorists? We could sell all their animals and make some profit. There were five from Marccaraccay, but the truth is I don’t know their names. They regularly came to the military base with cattle that they found here and there.
When we went on patrol, we found a lot of cattle in the mountains. We brought these cattle to Putis. The people from Marccaraccay took all this cattle back with them. So, they thought it would be convenient to kill these innocent people and to take their cattle and sell it to the people in Marccaraccay.
They brought them in early and put them in this large building. They duped them. They told them that they were going to build a trout farm… it took more than three hours. All the men dug their own graves. The grave is about two meters deep.
They began to kill them six by six. Some of the military officers were standing approximately 40 meters away, watching out for any possible escape routes. The courtyard where they had gathered them was part of the school. But they didn’t try to escape because they were all cornered.
There were 99, but in the end they only buried 98. A child had crawled through a hole in one of the school’s walls. They didn’t see him until they had completely covered up the grave. The chief said no, I don’t want to kill any more. It was a boy from the Calderon family. They brought him back to Marccaraccay. His mother recognized him, and they gave him back to her.”