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11-Nov-2017 11:37

Col spent the rest of the war in fear, certain she would be next.

In other houses families refused to speak of their vanished children; others clung to hope.

Farmers across the country reported wells full of bodies; fields that turned up bones when plowed.

“But the government wouldn't give us any resources to exhume them.

After a long career that included excavations at Little Big Horn and identifying the body of Nazi scientist Josef Mengele, Snow had, in his 60s, adopted the idea that forensics held the key to untangling the brutal legacies of Cold War-era military dictatorships in places like Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala, where US-backed governments and intelligence services embarked on campaigns of so-called “forced disappearances” against their own people.

In the late 1990s, after he had spent years in Argentina building a crack forensics team to investigate that country’s politically motivated atrocities, he went to Guatemala to do the same thing.

For the next two decades until his own death in 2014, Snow flew down to Guatemala several times a year, often bringing American forensics experts to give clinics on subjects like ballistics, bone development, or the decay of soft tissues.

Still, he emphasized hands-on training over academic degrees: all the anthropologists and archaeologists I met at FAFG had been hired out of school and trained on the job.

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In most it was the same pattern: skeletons wrapped in old clothes, piled atop each other, wrists tied, blindfolds over their eyes. In eight years of fieldwork with the FAFG, Hernandez had been on dozens of digs in lonely cornfields and on military bases looking for missing bodies, but this was the biggest case he had ever seen.

Those trials represented an electrifying new development: after fifteen years of foot dragging, the Ministerio Publico, Guatemala’s independent prosecutor's office, was finally cracking down on the country's former military leaders. The Families By the time Maria Luisa Col's husband Otto disappeared in 1983, it was an open secret in the villages around Coban that the military was kidnapping people.

“There were those who knew and those who hadn't figured it out yet,” she said. He wasn't involved in anything.’ They didn't understand that didn’t matter.” She was 23 then, with four children.

Some were suspected by the government of leftist affiliations; many others were civilians with no apparent ties to the rebels. Other times, stories circulated about relatives being forced into cars and driven to the Military District 21 base, now Creompaz.

Walking onto the base, Hernandez had not expected much. Decades had passed since the war ended, and it was not uncommon for a FAFG team to spend weeks on a site and not unearth anything. “We were there barely three hours when we started finding bodies.” While digging the first trench, they discovered human bones, evidence that beneath the ground lay a fosa — a pit or grave.

Then, surrounded by soldiers, the archaeologists staked out thin exploratory trenches and began to dig.