Author: FAFG

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.

A long journey of perseverance

A long journey of perseverance. After 36 years of searching, relatives of Mr. Pablo Ixpatá close a cycle of uncertainty.
According to the report of the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH), it is estimatedthat between 500,000 and 1.5 million Guatemalans were forced to flee as a direct consequence of the repression.

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