Guatemala: Laying a mother to rest after 31 years

Mario Garcia in front of the casket containing remains of Martina Rojas, his mother, who disappeared in May 1982. Photo: Lucy Turner / UNDP Guatemala

In Guatemala, UNDP is helping some of the family members of more than 45,000 victims of the country’s “disappeared” to finally find out what happened to their loved ones.

The murmur of chanting and the smell of incense fill the air in a small house in Rabinal, about 50 km from Guatemala City. A Maya-Achi funeral is in full swing as friends and neighbours pay their respects to Martina Rojas, a woman who was well-known and well-liked in her community.


  • Over 200,000 people died in Guatemala’s 36 year civil war and over 45,000 “disappeared,” including an estimated 5,000 children. 93 percent of atrocities were carried out by the army
  • UNDP will spend US$ 36 million between 2010 and 2014 to support transitional justice in Guatemala
  • 200 victims have now been named through UNDP support to DNA matching programmes

This funeral, however, is more than three decades too late.

In May 1982 as part of a brutal military campaign in which human rights violations were committed on a massive scale, Rojas, then 46, was detained by security forces and murdered. Becoming one of Guatemala’s 45,000 “disappeared, ” Rojas’ family never saw her again - until recently, when a UNDP-supported programme identified her remains.

“My experience - more than anything - has been sadness,” says Rojas’ son, Mario Garcia, who was a young adult when his mother, niece and nephew were taken away by the army. “The separation from my mother has been very hard. They killed so many of my family members and neighbours and took others away.”

UNDP assistance to the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation and the Prosecutor’s Office is helping Garcia and many others to gain closure and discover what happened to relatives killed by government forces during Guatemala’s conflict between 1960 and 1996. While more than 200,000 people were killed, an estimated 45,000 are still missing.

For more than 13 years, UNDP funding has enabled the foundation to exhume hundreds of unidentified bodies, develop and strengthen a genetic database which now holds and compares thousands of processed DNA samples, and carry out national public information campaigns directed at family members. This has helped put a name to over 200 confirmed victims so far.

While legal and psycho-social support to victims´ families (including help with funerals), is fundamental, the exhumations are also making significant contributions to the Human Rights Division of the Public Prosecutors Office's criminal investigations. In early 2012, a former military base in Coban became the focus of forensic investigations. The site has so far yielded at least 535 skeletal remains, including those of Martina Rojas. Many of these victims were found blindfolded, gagged or with hands and feet tied. Some had evidence of machete and gunshot wounds.

“The evidentiary value of this type of proof confirms 100 percent the facts as told by the victims,” says Hilda Pineda, head of the Internal Armed Conflict Unit at the Guatemalan Public Prosecutors Office. “With this proof we can greatly reduce the probability that perpetrators are acquitted, and achieve justice for victims of crimes against humanity.”

UNDP says this work gives hope to family members dealing with the unbearable uncertainty of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. “This work has enormous personal significance, especially to children who lost parents at a young age,” says Lucy Turner, Coordinator of UNDP Guatemala´s Transitional Justice Accompaniment Programme. “They finally know their parents’ fate, and have the opportunity to mourn and bury the body. This is motivating others to come forward and tell their story, and provide their DNA to the database. But more broadly, it is helping to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala. The evidence is traumatic but hard to deny. And it is helping the country to face up to its past, heal and build peace.”Elvia Cac Ican, was four years old when the army detained and murdered her father and dumped him in an anonymous grave. She says she is proud to finally give her father a proper burial. “We want to encourage other victims to give their DNA so that their loved ones may be identified too. They are human beings, not animals to be just left in the ground.”

Mario Garcia agrees. “After the massacre, my wife and I struggled to survive. We had to live in the mountains for two years with other survivors,” he says at the emotional farewell ceremony for his mother. “But I feel happy today. Congratulations and thanks to the organizations involved, because it was through them that I found my mother. Alone I would never have found her.”

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