The skeletal remains of a grandfather executed by soldiers more than 30 years ago during Guatemala’s brutal internal armed conflict have been exhumed and analysed by science students on a unique field trip.

The group of postgraduates from the University of Lincoln, UK, were accompanied by programme leader Gillian Fowler and forensic anthropology technician Marco Perez.

Gillian previously spent six years working for the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) where she was involved in the exhumation of graves containing innocent victims of the uprising against the military dictatorship of the 1980s. Marco spent 12 years working for the FAFG as the Head of the Social Anthropology Unit.

The team travelled to a remote region in the highlands of Guatemala to carry out two exhumations, both graves containing victims extra judicially executed by the army.

Accompanied by archaeologists from the FAFG, they exhumed the body of a man in the village of Batz Chocola, a three hour drive from the town of Nebaj. Family members were present as the remains of the grandfather were uncovered.

The second exhumation took place on an ex-military base, on the outskirts of Cotzal, near to Nebaj, where the students spent three further days digging trenches. On the third day one trench revealed clothing and further careful excavation uncovered a grave of six individuals. They had been thrown into the grave and all had their hands tied. Ballistic evidence was also recovered from the grave, indicating the victims had been shot.

Back in Guatemala City, the group of students from Lincoln’s MSc Forensic Anthropology programme returned to the FAFG laboratory to analyse the remains. Their findings will add to evidence being collected by the country’s state prosecutor to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice.

Postgraduate student Ryan Austin said: “The field trip gave us the opportunity to experience first-hand the demands of being a Forensic Anthropologist and both the practical and mental challenges that ensue. Comparatively, on a personal level to work on human rights issues and know that we have contributed in some small way to the families in their pursuit of closure and justice while still on our Masters is a remarkable privilege.”

Fellow student Stephanie Morgan said: “It was an honour to be able to meet the family of one of the victims, and to see how the community deals with the disappeared was a humbling experience. To witness how the FAFG helps the community and what it means to the families shows how important this work is.”

On the students’ work Nancy Valdez, FAFG Field School Coordinator, said: “During the two week field school the students demonstrated an excellent performance in both the development of professional and sociocultural activities. They displayed huge interest in the work and were eager to learn, as well as showing respect and thoughtfulness towards the families.”

Gillian Fowler, Senior Lecturer in the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, leads the MSc in Forensic Anthropology and established the student field work with the FAFG. Recognised internationally for her work on mass grave exhumations, she has also been involved with the Afghan Forensic Science Organisation (AFSO) from its inception in 2010 and contributed to a special report which outlines steps Afghanistan can take to help identify the victims of the country’s 35-year conflict.

She said: “The students have been well-trained throughout their course to carry out complicated analytical tasks taking instruction in Spanish and the FAFG were very impressed with their abilities. The final day was spent in the FAFG’s DNA lab where they worked on family reference samples and prepared bone samples for DNA extraction and analysis.

“This was a real test for the students who had to prove themselves and work in very difficult conditions. I am extremely proud of how they handled themselves and they are a credit to the University of Lincoln. We are the only Masters programme to incorporate this type of experience within the course in the UK and I believe this hands-on experience is essential to anyone wishing to develop their skills in forensic anthropology.”

Guatemala 1 Guatemala 2 Guatemala 4 Guatemala 5 Guatemala 6 Guatemala 7 Guatemala 8 Ryan Austin