Author: FAFG

Telma Sánchez, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”

Telma shows us the importance of following our dreams! Learn about her story in this edition of our “Staff Spotlight”.

Meet Telma

Hello! My name is Telma Sánchez, my colleagues call me Telma. My personal motto is “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

Hello Telma! Tell us what is your position within the FAFG and what tasks do you perform?

I am Project Coordinator within the Department of Programs and Projects. My role is to assist this Department by following through with the project planning to respond to donors, and ensure that projects and donations are executed in accordance with the provisions of the agreements.

How did you become interested in this area?

When I was finishing high school, the topic of International Cooperation caught my attention, although I did not understand it much at the time. I got a hold of a brochure from the School of Political Sciences of the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, which mentioned International Relations and International Cooperation. That is how I began to investigate what the career consisted of. All these years of professional practice have been linked to that moment.

Who inspired you to dedicate yourself to this work?

It was one of my grandmothers. She always gave a lot of humanitarian aid, just like my mom. They were my inspiration to have this social approach.

How long have you been working at the FAFG? What was it like in the beginning?

In June I will celebrate 8 years of working at the Foundation. I remember very well the first day of induction within the FAFG.When I went into the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory, I was very impressed by all the work and the processes that are carried out.

Telma Sánchez during the 1st. Anniversay of “Lanscapes of the Memory”

“What I really like is that we can help other people, especially families who are still searching and hoping.” – Telma Sánchez

Can you share with us any anecdotes or memorable experiences from your time working at the FAFG?

Working at the Foundation has given me the opportunity to generate external links and one of them is with the community of Comalapa, where I was in charge of the construction process of the Memorial of the Victims of Forced Disappearance (Landscapes of Memory). On a certain occasion, Don Basilio López’s son was at the memorial in Comalapa, and he approached me because he wanted to know the place where his father was [referring to the FAFG Laboratory], who had just been identified by the FAFG. I spoke with the Executive Director and arrangements were made to finance his and his wife’s trip to our facilities. I accompanied them and it was very impressive because he did not expect all the respectful and dignified treatment that the Foundation gives to the victims. I remember that at one point I saw him crying and it was very special for me to know that all the work we do helps these people.

During your time at FAFG, what have you learned on a personal and professional level?

It has been a continuous learning process. We are an organization that does not stop and is always innovating; there is always something new to learn. Since my first day, I have been learning everything about forensic sciences. I have to understand how each of these disciplines works to play the role within my job. It has been a day-to-day growth.

That ability to constantly innovate has been one of the most important lessons I have learned on a personal level. Also, that we are able to adjust to any change. With the pandemic, we had to adapt to different situations, as humans we are capable of doing so, no matter the circumstances.

What do you enjoy about your job?

What I really like is that we can help other people, especially families who are still searching and hoping. We give them hope because the Foundation is fighting every day to continue the search.

What do you want to contribute or continue contributing to the FAFG?

I know that through the reports, workshops, meetings, and other activities, we reflect the work we do and they are one face of the organization. I would like to continue doing that, because it is a form of accountability and transparency that allows our institutional continuity in view of those who trust us for financing, our donors. And also, continue to provide support from my work and a role for the response to families who continue to search for their loved ones

Mention three words that relate to the Foundation:

I have a personal motto, and I think it also applies to the work and it is “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. If we intend to achieve something, with hard work and a lot of effort we can achieve it, and the Foundation is an example of this. Throughout all these years, with a lot of work, the FAFG has managed to position itself where it is.

Any final message for our readers?

If we have a dream, we have to fight for it. Obstacles are not an impediment to achieving them, but they are lessons learned to improve those aspects and be able to achieve those dreams, and as I mentioned “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

Wendy Argueta, achieving goals in science

Meet Wendy Argueta, Chief of the FAFG Forensic Genetics Laboratory, in this special edition of our Staff Spotlight, as the FAFG dedicates this week to women and girls in science.

Meet Wendy

Hello! My name is Wendy Argueta, everyone knows me as Wendy. One of the things I like the most is dancing. I also really like extreme activities; I love adrenaline.

Hello Wendy. Tell us what is your position at the FAFG and what tasks do you perform?

In the Foundation, I have recently been named the Chief of the Forensic Genetics Laboratory, and previously I worked as a DNA Analyst. Our main objective in the laboratory is to process the samples that relatives donate to us, which we call reference samples, and to process the samples obtained from the recovered bones in order to obtain their genetic profiles and then to run a comparison in search of a possible genetic coincidence.

How did your interest in forensic genetics arise? What has been your journey to date?

Before deciding on my university career, I was reading and seeing how science, in terms of chemical and immunological techniques, was applied to forensic investigations. At that time there was little talk of DNA and the use of molecular techniques in forensics. I was very passionate about all of this. When I found out that there was a Biochemistry and Microbiology degree in Guatemala, and that it facilitated the study of DNA, the first thing I thought was: “I want to study this to apply it to a forensic investigation”, without knowing that 10 years later I would be able to do it.

After graduating, I began to apply what I had learned in the area of health. Later, I learned about the FAFG and that its laboratory was applying molecular techniques to forensics, and at that moment I said that this is where I wanted to be and that is where I have been for the last few years. I am very satisfied with my journey all these years.

Can you share with us any anecdote or memorable experience in the time you have been working at the FAFG?

Laboratory work is quite technical, objective, monotonous, scientific, and that is the way it should be. But getting out of this space and seeing how your work impacts the lives of others is what has left the biggest impression on me. I remember in a forum with relatives, there was a mother whose son is Disappeared spoke. She said that, generally, when a woman loses her husband, she is considered a ‘widow’, when a son or daughter loses their parents, they are considered ‘orphans.’ But what title do you receive when you lose a child? There is no way to name it. That impacted me alot, because it means that in the end the work we do can become a response for all the people who have that emptiness in their lives.

Wendy Argueta working at FAFG Forensic Genetics Laboratory.

Laboratory work is quite technical, objective, monotonous, scientific, and that is the way it should be. But getting out of this space and seeing how your work impacts the lives of others is what has left the biggest impression on me.

What is your vision for the FAFG? What impact do you want to see?

In the laboratory, we have always strived to be up-to-date with technology. From testing new extraction methods that have allowed us to recover more information from skeletal samples, incorporating kits that now have more markers that allow us to extract more genetic information from the samples, and recently integrating new sequencing technology that also impacts forensic genetics in general. I have seen the evolution as well as the openness and adaptability of all to be able to move towards the future.

Regarding the FAFG, I admire how it has always sought to adapt to new needs. We have a technical process that has been changing, where more departments or disciplines have been incorporated into the entire system in order to achieve identifications. Also, due to our experience, we have contributed to other institutions and countries. I think that in the future the FAFG is going down that path of generating and sharing these same skills in other places, so they can resolve their cases as we do here.

How has your experience been with the FAFG working outside of Guatemala?

It is something constant to see that perhaps the forms and scenarios are not identical, but the end the result is the same: there are people who are Disappeared, there are relatives who are looking for their Disappeared, and that for the institutions that are involved to resolve this problem there are answers that we can provide..

In Mexico, at the Regional Center for Human Identification in Coahuila, my contribution and participation has been more technical, strengthening the team, helping to establish the functioning of the team in the staff training processes, and validating the protocols to be used in the laboratory in the future. I have also participated in workshops with family members in Colombia, where we explain how science contributes to the search, localization, and analysis of the samples that they provide and those that are recovered.

What lessons have you learned during the pandemic?

The main lesson for me, both professionally and personally, is the importance of being adaptable, for success and knowing that adaptation is different for each person.

What is your message for all the girls who want to dedicate themselves to science?

If there is something that we are passionate about, we must follow it. We are going to encounter obstacles, but if we have a clear goal we can reach it and give more.If we have already reached the goal, we have to set ourselves the next one and work towards it. As well, we have to fight and support other women so that the path laid and they can achieve their objective.

To finish, what are three words that you relate to the FAFG?

Reparation, dignity, and truth.

Gladis Martínez, preserving history

Gladis Martínez has been with FAFG for 21 years as the Evidence Unit Coordinator. Her professionalism, integrity, and companionship are some of her great qualities. We are proud to have people like Gladis on our team and to present her story in a new edition of our “Staff Spotlight”.

Meet Gladis

My name is Gladis Amparo, but I like to be called Gladis. My favorite hobby is cooking traditional meals. I always say that things can only be done in two ways: Well done or poorly done.

Hello Gladis, tell us, what is your job at FAFG and what tasks do you perform?

Since 2001, I have been the Evidence Unit Coordinator. In this role, my tasks and functions are aimed at guaranteeing the chain of custody of all the evidence so that it is carried out correctly from entry to discharge, and the official delivery to the competent authority, in this case, to the Public Ministry. The chain of custody are the steps that are followed to monitor the movement of evidence, be it remains, material, or metallic vestiges. To demonstrate its authenticity and that it does not lose its value, we take into account the identity factors, original state, and conditions of collection, packaging and preservation, places of permanence; changes suffered of all evidence are recorded.

Could you tell us about when you initially started and first experiences at the FAFG?

I started on February 1, 2001. At the beginning I was implementing the necessary processes, so I invited the Public Ministry to offer a training course.

In those years, some FBI officials also came to give training to the Police Academy. I told them, “Next time you come, invite me, I want to learn from you.” One of them told me, “Don’t worry, we are going to invite you, but so that you can also give us training.” I was overwhelmed with emotion, this was a satisfying experience for me.

I have always said that there are only two ways of doing things, one is poorly done and the other is well done, there is no middle ground. Here we cannot say that we are “trying to do …”, here we do not try, here we have to do it, and do it well.

What motivates you at work?

There are several motivations, the main one for me is that I like my job, I always come to work with great pleasure. The greatest motivation is when the relatives of the victims visit the evidence storage. Family members are amazed at the amount of work and they thank us for taking care of their evidence and finding their relatives. I have a case in which a woman’s husband came along with a forensic expert. The forensic expert took a skull out of a box and when he saw the skull said: “She is my wife.” I was surprised. I asked him how he could identify her, he replied: “Because I saw her when they hit her with the gun in her mouth and broke her teeth. There must be a perraje that she used for our wedding, a poncho that I put on her and some boots that I had just bought for my children”. He had buried his wife and three of his children. I looked and there were the rubber boots. It was very hard.

Gladis attending the visit of relatives of disappeared persons in the Evidence Unit.

“I have learned that everything has a percentage of error, but much more can be done. You can always give more than you think you can give” – Gladis Martínez

During almost 21 years of working at FAFG, what have you learned about yourself?

I have learned that you have to do things well, be strict, but also humane. If I see that a colleague has a problem, I seek others’ support and show solidarity with the person affected. I have learned that everything has a percentage of error, but much more can be done. You can always give more than you think you can give.

What is your vision for FAFG? What impact would you like to see?

20 years ago I wanted to see FAFG as it is today. I think that the Foundation has not stopped growing, it will not stop growing, and it will continue for a long time to come. I probably won’t be around to see it, but there are young people who will see FAFG at its best and will continue with the Foundation’s work.

What lessons have you learned from this time of pandemic?

The first lesson is being able to educate my family regarding preventive measures. I learned that one must be very careful of COVID-19 and that we must show solidarity with those who are ill because of this virus.

Name three words that you associate with the FAFG:

Justice, rights, and quality.

Any final message for the readers of this interview?

That they continue to take care of themselves and show solidarity with the people who have problems due to the pandemic. I think the work of FAFG is unique and I see that the colleagues are very professional. I am really proud to work for FAFG and to have colleagues like the ones I have.

Gladis in the FAFG evidence storage.

Carol Castillo, the impact of an identification

For Carol, an identification goes beyond numbers. It is to give back the name, personality and body to the person who disappeared. Meet Carol, Human Identification Assitant, in this edition of our “Staff Spotlight”.

Meet Carol

My name is Carolina but I like to be called Carol. My first language is sign language, I am curious and my favorite hobby is singing. My favorite phrase is a personal adaptation of a phrase my grandfather used to say: “If you do something with passion, everything will be fine.”

Hello Carol, tell us, what is your job at FAFG and what tasks do you perfom?

am a Human Identification Assistant. In summary, when the Forensic Genetics Department reports a match between a skeletal remain and a family group, we collect and analyze all the information related to those remains and the Disappeared victim, collected by other technical areas. This leads us to determine if the match is an identification or if we need to investigate further. Also, as a result of all the identifications that have arisen, we investigate, analyze, and formulate hypotheses about possible new identifications or about the information that we need to collect to confirm more identifications.

What led you to work as a Human Identification Assistant?

When I was at university, what I wanted to do was “assemble puzzles.”  That’s what it is like to do an investigation, you have to put the pieces together until you have the whole picture. I never imagined that in the Department of Confirmation of Human Identification that I was going to be putting together a puzzle, but I like it a lot.

How long have you been at the FAFG and how were your first work experiences?

I have been in the FAFG for two years. From the start, I felt very welcome. At the beginning, we spent a week learning from other areas about the processes we use. It was interesting because we learned the basics about all of the work. Also, in 2016 I was a volunteer in the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory. I remember that during that time I washed the skeletal remains from the Santa Avelina case in San Juan Cotzal, Quiché, and there were many children’s remains. This had a great impact on me and motivated me to want to continue doing my job for the sake of seeking justice.

Working in the Department of Confirmation of Human Identification, can you share with us any case that has impacted you?

There are many. One of them is a match from a recovered skeleton in the old San Juan Comalapa military detachment. We looked up all the information on the case and I found the interview of the victim’s sister very interesting. The skeleton belonged to a teacher who worked in Tecpán. One day, she and her husband were taken. She was pregnant. When we reviewed the information on the recovered skeleton, we also found the bones of a newborn within the pelvis of those remains. I was very impressed by how they managed to exhume those very small bones and that a pregnant woman was in the detachment.

As of July 20, 2021, a total of 3,711 people identified by the FAFG are reported.

“Despite difficulties, we did not stop and confirmed 154 identifications last year.” – Carol Castillo

What is your motivation to keep doing this job?

To see the results, to know that I can continue to do more, and that my work is that grain of sand contributing to something bigger. For the department, a result can be an identification, but an identification goes further. It is to give back the name, personality, and body to that person who disappeared. It is helping their family close a cycle and also contributing to justice.

What is your vision for the FAFG? What impact do you want to see?

My vision is to be able to confirm all the identifications and that the work we do speaks for itself. That FAFG be recognized, nationally and internationally, as a scientific entity that dignifies Disappeared people, and provides justice.

What lessons have you learned from this pandemic?

Mainly, it taught me to be grateful. To be thankful for my health, time with my family, my work, and life in general. Unfortunately, I have seen people get sick and die from COVID-19. That shocked me and gave me another perspective of making the most of my life. In the professional sense, it taught me to be resilient, adapt to changes and know that you can continue to do the job. Despite these difficulties, we did not stop and confirmed 154 identifications last year.

Any message for the readers of this interview?

All your work and effort is valid and part of something bigger. Motivate yourself to find out about what is happening in your country / city and find a space to get involved and contribute.

If you want to contribute to the work we do and have a family member who disappeared between 1960 and 1996, you can contact us. At the FAFG, we are committed to searching for the Disappeared and we continue working to obtain all possible identifications.

Mention three words with wich you identify the FAFG:

Commitment, progressive, and scientific.

Andrea Cárcamo, the importance of believing in yourself

Andrea was clear about what she wanted to study since she was little. She is currently a DNA Analyst and Accreditation Officer for the FAFG Forensic Genetics Laboratory. Learn about her story in this edition of our “Staff Spotlight”.

Meet Andrea

Hello! I am a biochemist and a microbiologist. I love listening to music and discovering new sounds and artists. Also, appreciate and take photographs of old floors, such as those in the Historic Center (Zone 1, Guatemala), travel and go to museums. I am very curious and questioning. My favorite phrases are: “Let go” and “Omnia in bonum” (Everything is for the best).

Hello Andrea! Tell us, what is your position within the FAFG and what tasks do you perform?

In the Forensic Genetics Laboratory I have two positions. One is DNA Analyst II, which consists of extracting the genetic material from the samples that we have in the laboratory, both referential (from relatives) and skeletal, among other tasks. And the other is Accreditation Officer, which consists of maintaining the quality management system under the NTG / ISO / IEC 17025: 2017 standard implemented in the laboratory.

How did your interest in Biochemistry and Genetics come about?

At the age of 14, I already knew what I wanted to study. I wanted to study chemistry and microorganisms, because my parents were chemical engineers. That greatly influenced and stimulated my interest. Then, I entered university, it was a great effort from my parents and it is something for which I am deeply grateful to them. As my career progressed, I began to take some courses such as Molecular Biology, Genetics, among others.

“A great lesson from being in the laboratory and FAFG has given me is to believe in myself, to know that I am good at what I do and that I can give more.” – Andrea Cárcamo

Being an Accreditation Officer, could you share with us: how did the laboratory receive its accreditation?

When an institution seeks to work under any ISO quality standard, it is necessary to comply with their standard requirements. In our case, we applied to the accreditation under the ISO 17025 standard because we are a testing laboratory and this supports that the results obtained are reliable and that the personnel are competent.

Annually, we are evaluated to verify that we are complying with the requirements of this standard. In addition, we do internal self-assessments. Each accreditation cycle lasts four years, that means that every four years, in addition to the annual visits of the accrediting body, they evaluate us to re-accredit the laboratory. In November 2010, we were accredited under the NTG ISO / IEC 17025 version 2005 standard and now we are in the third cycle of accreditation, but with the 2017 version.

All this is an administrative task and it has been possible because everyone in the laboratory is committed to complying with the standards of the norm. Additionally, we have always had the unconditional support of the directors of the institution. This has been key in the implementation and maintenance of our quality system.

It is not the work of one person, it is teamwork.

What skills do you consider necessary for this job or which have helped you personally?

Be a structured, orderly and attentive person; because we work with many samples and they could easily be confused with each other. Apply critical thinking, ask questions, and being curious is important. Also read a lot, be up to date, and objective, without forgetting that you work with human remains.

How have you grown these past 11 years working at the FAFG?

On a personal level, a great lesson from being in the laboratory and FAFG has given me is to believe in myself, to know that I am good at what I do and that I can give more. It has also taught me, through my work, the commitment I have to my country. That is one of the greatest impacts FAFG has had in my life. Knowing that with our work we are helping our country in some way, to all the people who have no voice, who have no way to demand justice, and to be able to feel that one gives them back a piece of themselves with their loved one. It moves me to speak about it. We all have the responsibility to say what happened; when you talk about things, somehow you heal. People who want to find their family member and have him or her back need their story to be known, and this is something that the foundation is doing in many ways.

And on a professional level, continuing my education. That has allowed us to grow a lot professionally because we are constantly training, updating, learning, and we have an open mind to solve situations in many ways. Also, the great influence of the team I work because they are all people I admire and from whom I have learned a lot.

What lessons have you learned from this time of pandemic?

I learned that I am very resilient, and I dare to speak not only for myself, but for my team. We learned to adapt and to be in constant change. I also learned to value people, shared experiences, and friendship, both with my family and with my colleagues, who I consider more than coworkers, they are friends. They are like an extended family.

Any final message for the readers?

Believe in yourself. We can achieve our goals as long as we have them well-defined. By doing what we like and motivates us, we can contribute to having a better country.Let’s think, what am I doing for my country? Am I satisfied with what I am doing?

Finally, mention a few words with which you relate to the FAFG:

Innovation, motivation, growth and commitment.

Gabriela Meléndez, uncovering history through bones

In 2004, Gabriela Meléndez, began an 8-month volunteering at FAFG, without imagining that it would turn into more than 15 years of forensic work. Meet Gaby in our new issue of #StaffSpotlight.

Meet Gaby

Hi! I am a forensic anthropologist. I like the photography. One of my favorite quotes is “The mind is like a parachute. It only works if we keep it open.” – Albert Einstein

Hello Gaby. To begin, tell us, what is your position in the FAFG and what tasks do you perform?

I’m a forensic anthropologist at the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory. As forensic anthropologists we are dedicated to reconstructing the biological profile (sex, age, height, etc.) of a person, through the study of human skeletal remains. We look for specific individual characteristics, such as fractures or cavities and / or very significant oral diseases. Also, we determine the injuries that may have caused their death, depending on the state of the bones.

How did your interest in forensic anthropology arise?

I remember as a child I went on a trip and the tour guide told us many lies about the Mayans. He even spoke of spaceships, which perhaps do exist; however, there is no physical evidence to prove it. I felt like he was cheating us. I was outraged at the age of 12 (laughs). I said, “I have to study something like archeology and history to check.”

Later, I studied archeology at the School of History at the University of San Carlos Guatemala. I was excited to imagine that there was the possibility of learning from past populations through the study of human skeletal remains; and indeed, within the career there was a class in physical anthropology, which was very short because it only lasted one semester. So I decided to volunteer at the FAFG for 8 months, without imagining that it would turn into approximately 15 years of work.

“Sometimes I think that bones are like a book. That going from bone to bone is like going from page to page, and knowing how to interpret what you find helps to identify someone.” – Gabriela Meléndez

Could you tell us about a forensic case that has impacted you?

One of the cases occurred in Xecax, a village in Nebaj, Quiché. During the Armed Conflict, one of the attacks against this community occurred one morning, in which they shot and set fire to people, mostly the elderly, women, and children. In the afternoon, when those who had gone to work returned, they found everything burned, including their families. Behind a house for grinding corn they made a grave and there they buried everyone.

The exhumation was very complex, let alone the analysis of everything. In the laboratory I was tasked to see that. I worked in constant communication with the archaeologists, because the archaeological record is very important, and with my colleagues in the laboratory, they supported me in finding the best approach in investigating the case.

It has been the most symbolic case that I have worked on so far. It taught me a lot and I think that is the case that made me graduate from my degree.

What is your vision for the FAFG? What impact do you want to see and how would you like to continue contributing?

My vision is to continue working cohesively as a team. That’s pretty good because you learn a lot from your coworkers. We can see that great objectives have been achieved in the formation and development of the search and identification processes; which is the main thing to dignify, not only the victims of the Internal Armed Conflict, but also their family members.

The impact that I want to see in the FAFG is that, with the objectivity with which we have worked for many years, the knowledge and experience continue to expand, at national and international level, with whom in different contexts have the same objective: Search for their Disappeared.

What lessons have you learned from this time of pandemic?

The main thing is that even if there are barriers, you look for a way forward and don’t get stuck saying “I can’t” or “I don’t know.” Things that we did not know must be learned. I also learned to prioritize my time with the family, working on the computer, or resting. Sometimes they are out of balance with each other, but it is about balancing. Organization is vital.

Many young people often contact us asking how they can have a forensic profession, such as FAFG. What advice would you give them?

Always trust your dreams and goals; thinking about them a lot lays the foundations of the constant struggle to achieve them.

Gaby sharing with students of De Montfort University.

What skills do you consider necessary for these areas or which have personally helped you?

What has helped me is reading. Also, getting out of the comfort zone. Know that it is not always office work and that if you have to go to the field to investigate you will have to walk, etc. A good way to learn is through practical and technical volunteering, and also in archaeological projects.

Finally, can you mention three words that you associate with the work of the FAFG?

Commitment, respect, and projection.

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