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Guatemalan forensic work brings award and death threats

Seattle

“I like Bournemouth,” says Fredy Peccerelli of his temporary home, a genteel town on England's south coast. “No one has tried to kill me yet.”

In his native Guatemala, death threats were a regular occurrence for Peccerelli, a forensic anthropologist who has spent most of the past decade exhuming bodies from mass graves — the legacy of Guatemala's 35 years of conflict.

Peccerelli got international recognition for his work on 14 February, when he received a human-rights award at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle.

He is now taking a break to study for a masters degree in anthropology at the University of Bournemouth. But he thinks that the work in Guatemala has only just begun. “In 12 years we have investigated 400 cases and exhumed around 3,000 bodies,” he says. “There is enough work for another 25 years.”

At least 200,000 people are thought to have been killed in Guatemala during fighting between government forces and left-wing insurgents from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s. Once the conflict receded, Peccerelli, who studied anthropology at Brooklyn College, New York, jumped at the chance to tackle his homeland's problems.

Using funding from charities and the AAAS, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation began responding to requests from rural communities that want to prosecute military officers alleged to have massacred innocent villagers.

The foundation gathers evidence on the attacks and then exhumes the bodies. By determining the cause of death and matching the remains with details of those who have disappeared, Peccerelli's team helps to inform government officials charged with investigating the attacks.

In Guatemala, Peccerelli travels with a bodyguard, as does his family. “I've woken up to find bullet holes in my garage door,” he recalls. Other members of his team have been threatened at gunpoint.

Peccerelli is considering further academic studies, although he continues to raise money to keep the investigations going. “I need some stability in my life,” says Peccerelli. “I might have to change my work for my own sanity.”

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