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Posts in category Latin America

Ayacucho (Putka blog – Part III)

Zach Parker | Posted August 20th, 2009 | Latin America

We arrived around dinner time to the capitol of the region of Ayacucho.  The snow had left us long behind in the altitude of the mountains, but the rain started when we reached the city.  We stopped to get something to eat at a local restaurant that served deep-fried guinea pig, a typical Peruvian dish.  I had tried it before, but this was the first time that the entire guinea pig was presented before me in its entirety, with his eyes starting up at me and his hands outstretched.  I did the best I could, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat the parts that I wouldn’t eat of a chicken.  None of the kids had this problem, and the guinea pigs were nearly gone before I knew it.  I guess they never had a guinea pig as a pet.  It wasn’t half bad.

Since it was the Independence Day holiday weekend, there were slim pickings for accommodation.  When we arrived to our hotel, we realized why it wasn’t our first choice.  We had to wait for them to put some of the beds together from scratch before we could get into the rooms, since the hotel was nearing capacity.   We decided to take a walk around the city, and get some snacks and drinks for the next day’s journey.  I was able to see the university in Ayacucho where the former leader of the Shining Path had been a philosophy professor, San Cristóbal of Huamanga University.  Little colorful mini-taxis roamed the streets around the Plaza de Armas, which is the name given to the main square in most Latin American cities and towns.   The taxis were basically motorcycles with three wheels and a small box-like cabin for passengers.  I got the chance to take a ride around the town, moving as fast as the taxi could possibly go–and it was pretty cheap too.

We had to get up pretty early in the morning.  We left the city around 5 in the morning to drive about an hour to Huanta, the town where we would meet three family members of victims of the Putka massacre, and one of the few survivors.  These four Peruvians, originally from the area near Putka, would guide us to the site of the massacre.  They would also tell the story of what had happened on Christmas day in 1984 in Putka, so long ago.  It would be the first time they had returned to Putka since the massacre.  I will not use their names, just in case.

Stay tuned for Part 4

Traveling on Independence Day (Putka blog Part II)

Zach Parker | Posted August 17th, 2009 | Latin America

The trip would coincide exactly with the national holiday celebrating Peru’s independence.  From Friday until the following Wednesday Peruvians would be traveling around Peru taking advantage of the holiday.  We would also be traveling around Peru, only under different circumstances.  We left later than we had anticipated from Lima.  We didn’t get on the road until dusk.  We spent the day gathering supplies for the trip, and getting everything organized before our departure.  We decided that with our late start we would need to cut the trip to Ayacucho in half, and stay for the night in a town called Huaytara.  Stopping in Huaytara would also give us a chance to begin adjusting to the higher altitude, which often causes headaches and nausea to people such as ourselves who aren’t accustomed to the thinner air.  Huaytara is situated at a little less than half the altitude that we would need to climb on our way to Ayacucho­­­–which would take us to a couple hundred meters shy of 5000m above sea level in a relatively short period of time. 

After about a 5-hour drive with a dinner break at the halfway point, we arrived in Huaytara at one o’clock in the morning at our hostel.  We were in no hurry to hit the road to following day, when the real climb to higher altitude would begin.  We spent a couple of hours eating breakfast and exploring the town.  Overlooking the town was an old yellow church that was built upon the remnants of an old Inca building, which seems to be a common trait of a lot of old churches in Peru.  After exploring the town we got back on the road.  The kids must have been tired after going to bed so late the night before, as we adults were, but they seemed to be excited about the drive ahead.

We immediately began to climb up the mountain to thinner air.  The climb was dramatic and the scenery was amazing.  Mountains and snow-capped peaks surrounded us, with small villages at various heights of the mountains in the distance.  We encountered many llamas and alpacas grazing along the road and stopped a few times to get some pictures and some video.  There were hundreds of them at one point along the road, and we stopped and chatted with their owners as they let them graze.  Not long after we climbed above 4000m did we encounter a flock of vicuña, a wild relative of the llama and alpaca who only live at high altitudes.  They are an endangered species and are protected by law, as the wool that they produce is very fine and expensive.   We couldn’t get very close, but it was a rare experience all the same.  We eventually reached the highest point, which was marked by a sign along the road.  Jose Pablo went outside among the snow flurries to take a picture as proof.  It was only downhill from there, as we descended back into the 2000m range on our way to our destination, the city of Ayacucho.          

Stay tuned for Part III

Christmas in Putka (Putka blog Part I)

Zach Parker | Posted August 8th, 2009 | Latin America

On December 25th, 1984 the ronderos of the CDC (Civil Defense Committees) of several communities in the district of Huanta, in the region of Ayacucho, and several supposed members of the Armed Forces perpetrated the forced disappearance of 40 people, the majority being children.  The victims were taken from their villages, held against their will, and ultimately taken to a nearby village called Putka where they were murdered with knives and left in a mass grave in a cave referred to as “mina Putka” at the top of a steep hill situated nearly 4600m above sea level (nearly 15,000 ft.). 


We set out for Putka from Lima to document the expedition and the work that EPAF does in recovering the remains of the forcibly disappeared in Peru during the internal conflict of the 80s and 90s, as well as the obstacles they face.  Jose Pablo, the director of EPAF, led the way, bringing along Jason and Jim of 77 international to document the trip and conduct interviews.  Renzo Aroni, EPAF’s historian, came along to conduct the interviews in Quechua and organize the meetings with the victims’ relatives, including one survivor, who would also accompany us and guide us on the trip when we got closer to Putka.  Jose Pablo really wanted to documentary to go well, and as a testament to his dedication to EPAF he brought his family along on the first leg of the journey.  His two daughters, his girlfriend and her three sons, all made the trip to Ayacucho, the capital of the region where Putka, now an abandoned village, is located. 

The trip would take several days.  We would need to travel first to Ayacucho, which is roughly 8 hours from Lima through mountainous roads.  We would then need to travel about an hour to Huanta, where we would meet with the family members who would accompany us and provide testimony of the events that took place on Christmas in 1984.  From Huanta, we would have to travel 3 hours by dirt road through the mountains to a town called Parcorra, where the road ends, leaving us with a 3 hour walk up the mountain to the cave near Putka.  

Stay tuned for part II….

Lucanamarca to Putka

Zach Parker | Posted August 4th, 2009 | Latin America

I went to see a documentary with Jess and Jesus, a program designer at EPAF, at a cultural theater in the neighborhood of Barranco.  Barranco is a neighborhood situated just south of my neighborhood on the coast.  The documentary was called Lucanamarca, and it was named for the massacre that took place in 1983 around a rural town of that name, where 69 people were killed including women and children, by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Maoist guerilla organization based in the region of Ayacucho. 

The massacre was in response to the murder of a Shining Path leader by ronderos.  Ronderos is the name given to the patrols of rural Peruvians who operated as an autonomous civil defense force, in response to the growing guerilla movement in rural Peru, and lack of protection by the government.  The government did eventually begin to act as military rule was enforced in several provinces, after the conflict escalated around 1982, and ronderos were employed by the military. 

The documentary showed various testimonies of survivors and relatives of victims over the course of the documentary, the exhumation of the bodies from their graves, and the events leading up to and including the trial of Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Shining Path.  It even included a scene where the president of Peru at the time of the documentary, Alejandro Toledo, the first president of Peru (2001-2006) of indigenous ancestry, made a speech at the town of Lucanamarca expressing his solidarity.  He made promises about improving the lives of the residents of Lucanamarca–those improvements have yet to be seen in the area.    

It was the first time I had heard testimony about the terrible events that took place repeatedly in the time of conflict in Peru in the 80s and 90s, particularly in the early 80s.  It was hard to believe that so many massacres such as Lucanamarca were perpetrated by both sides of the conflict.  It wasn’t however the last time I heard such testimony.  Shortly after watching the Lucanamarca documentary, two video journalists arrived to Peru from the U.S. from an organization called 77 International, to do a documentary on EPAF.  In order to help get the documentary going, Jose Pablo Baraybar, the director of EPAF, decided it would be a good idea to take the journalists to the site of one of the massacres that took place in Peru in 1984, a place called Putka, pretty close to where EPAF excavated the largest mass grave to date from the conflict, in Putis.  I was able to tag along as well.  The following several blogs will describe the details of our journey to Putka.

La Cantuta

Zach Parker | Posted July 22nd, 2009 | Latin America

Last week was the 17th anniversary of “La Cantuta” Massacre.  Jess and I attended two of the three events that took place during the week.  The first was on Tuesday night.  Fours speakers talked about the memory of “La Cantuta” and of the fight against impunity, what it meant to finally achieve some justice after 17 years, and what it also means for the future.  Gisela Ortiz, the director of operations at EPAF, was the last speaker.  Her brother was one of the students forcibly disappeared during the massacre.  The family members of the other victims were also there.  They wore pictures of their lost loved ones on their shirts.  It’s difficult to imagine how terrible it must have been to have a family member taken and killed, and then have that event covered up like nothing happened.  Gisela is a powerful speaker.  Her emotions and pain were evident when she spoke, and her words affected everyone in the crowd.               

On Friday night a catholic mass was held in memory of “La Cantuta” in the historical center of Lima at the Recoleta Church.  The mass was precluded by traditional music as part of a march for “La Cantuta” victims, as their entrance to the church and the proceedings.  The priest’s sermon was accompanied by several people reading brief statements at the pulpit, and by some very beautiful music.  Hayden, a program officer at EPAF, was one of the speakers at the pulpit.  At the end the mass, the march of traditional music exited the church as they had entered.  Following the mass, the people in attendance gathered outside of the church to listen to the various musicians that played in memory of “La Cantuta.”  The concert lasted for a couple of hours, and covered many genres of music, including even a rap trio, and the impressive guitar playing of Gisela’s boyfriend Omar.  The following morning an event that was more intimate for the victims’ families took place at “El Ángel” Cemetary, the place where the victims now lie after their exhumation and recovery from the clandestine graves where they were originally placed by the “Collina Group” that murdered them.

On Monday, while having lunch at our usual restaurant, the television happened to be showing the sentencing of Ex President Alberto Fujimori on charges of corruption.  Fujimori was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for giving a $15 million bribe to his spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.  This is the third conviction for Fujimori since his return to Peru.  He was already sentenced to 25 years for human rights violations.  Montesinos, and ultimately Fujimori himself, were responsible for ordering the Collina Group in “La Cantuta Massacre.”

Walking to the airport

Zach Parker | Posted July 14th, 2009 | Latin America

I managed to get to Cuzco again, but this time it wasn’t with EPAF.  Last week my parents paid a visit to Peru, and we spent a couple days in Cuzco.  It was my second time to visit the city since I arrived in Peru.  This time I got to see more of the city and explore.  I also visited Machu Picchu for the second time, and it happened to be on the second anniversary of it becoming an official member of the “seven wonders of the world.”  They had a big ceremony before the sun rose over the mountains, with the local Peruvians in traditional dress conducting the proceedings.   We probably wouldn’t have seen the sunrise or the ceremony were it not for the insistence of the two Peruvian guys that we had met the night before, who accompanied us on our tour of Machu Picchu at 5 in the morning.  They were both electricians and had very interesting jobs.  They decided to take the tour in English with us to get some practice.  One of them lived in Zambia for a mining company, which we thought was a great coincidence, because while I lived in Malawi a few years ago, I had visited the city where he was living in the north of Zambia.  The other was an electrician for a cruise line and traveled for ten months out of the year.   We thought they were very interesting guys. 

On the day that we were leaving Cuzco, there was a national transportation strike, and Cuzco was no exception.  Luckily the airport wasn’t too far from our hostel in the center of town, because we walked more than half of the way to the Cuzco airport with our luggage!  The strike included taxis too, and only a few taxis braved the protest marches.  Many of the taxis that did were the recipients of a showering of stones thrown at them by the protesters.  This happened a few times right in front of us, and needless to say, we didn’t get into a taxi.  We pretended to have no interest in taxis as we continued to walk to the airport.  Eventually, after we got further away from the center of town, we tried our luck with a taxi and arrived safely at the airport.        

Things have been relatively slow at EPAF this past week or so.  However, tonight several of the people from EPAF are heading to an event in Lima in memory of the “La Cantuta” massacre.  In 1992, under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, nine students and a professor of La Cantuta University were abducted by a military death squad and never returned.  Tonight there will be some speakers and an art exhibit on display, to remember the victims and their families.  Jess and I will attend.   The case of “La Cantuta” was recently ratified, reinforcing the prison sentences of those responsible for the massacre. 

To follow EPAF on twitter, please use this link (http://twitter.com/epafperu).  We hope to update it in both English and Spanish.   Our website is also in transition.  For a more up to date version of our website, you can follow this link (http://www.epafperu.org/wordpress).  We will be putting it on the main site shortly (http://www.epafperu.org).


Zach Parker | Posted July 3rd, 2009 | Latin America

The situation in Peru is becoming more volatile.  Protests have broken out in several regions of Peru over the past few weeks, for various reasons.  Perhaps because of the result of the protests in Bagua, of the repeal of the two laws (although at the expense of many lives), other people in Peru with grievances have taken it as a sign that their protests may produce results as well.  If all went according to plan, I would have just returned from my second workshop on forensic anthropology with EPAF in Huancayo, the capital of the Junin region east of Lima.  EPAF had scheduled the workshop for last week, but the plan changed when the road became impassable due to a blockade by protestors.  EPAF was forced to postpone the workshop until August, and the team remained in Lima. 

The east-west highway leading to Huancayo was blocked by groups of workers and local residents, in protest to the handling of the US based Doe Run mining company operating in Peru.  One of the two major issues with Doe Run has been its failure to clean up the years of mining effluents that have made their way into the local water and local environment in La Oroya, the town in which Doe Run operates its smelter, that was set to be completed several years ago and whose completion had been required by the government of Peru.  Many of the residents of La Oroya are living with toxic lead levels in their bodies due to the lack of cleanup by Doe Run.  However troubling the quality of the local environment may seem, which has ranked it as one of the most polluted places in the world, the problem with Doe Run does not end with the pollution of the environment. 

Doe Run’s effect on La Oroya is a double-edged sword to local residents.  While on the one hand its pollution has caused serious health problems to residents, it also provides livelihoods to the residents of the town who work for Doe Run or whose livelihoods depend on its presence.  One of the excuses used by Doe Run to account for its lack of environmental cleanup has been the lack of revenue that the company has been receiving as of late because of lead prices, leading to a near collapse of the company’s operation in La Oroya.  This situation has led Doe Run to consider closing operations for several months, and has already slowed operations as of now.  The protesters are fighting for their livelihoods and their health, and hopefully a solution that benefits the local residents can be reached.  The health of an entire town has been put in jeopardy, thousands of jobs are at stake, and the protests are certainly justified.             

EPAF itself has met with roadblock after roadblock in its attempt to continue with its work of recovering the identities and remains of the disappeared of Peru.  The policy in Peru at the moment requires that for any bodies to be examined and recovered by EPAF, for a family member of a victim, it needs to be part of an official case with a suspect named in conjunction with the case.  This policy leaves little chance for EPAF to continue recovering victims remains for family members so that they can have at least some closure and comfort in knowing what ultimately happened with their loved ones.  Additionally, with any exhumation requiring an official case to be opened by a prosecutor and the official oversight of said prosecutor, EPAF’s main task has been recently reduced to navigating roadblocks with little success.

Forensic Anthropology 101

Zach Parker | Posted June 18th, 2009 | Latin America

The workshop was a great success.  Jess and I returned to Lima from Abancay, Apurimac on Monday, back to the office in Jesus Maria.  We spent last week learning about forensic anthropology from EPAF, alongside judges and prosecutors from the Apurimac region of Peru.  EPAF brought its tools, expertise, and its human-sized dolls to the workshop.  There were nine of us from EPAF, including Jess and I, on hand at the workshop. 

Armed with our cameras, we recorded much of the workshop including the three different cases that were used as tutorials for the participants, who were divided into three groups.  One case was of a very recent murder in a hotel room, where the victims–represented by the dolls–were strewn about the room along with the evidence.  The other two cases were of the bodies of victims buried in mass graves for the participants to uncover and examine.  The tutorials were preceded by comprehensive lectures on the application and interpretation of human rights law both internationally and in Peru, as well as a step by step description of the methods used in forensic anthropology to gather and examine evidence.  The workshop concluded with presentations by each group outlining the evidence collected, their assumptions, and finally their conclusions demonstrating what they had learned.

The day before the workshop, on Wednesday, EPAF held a meeting with local human rights organizations; CDH (Center for Human Development), APRODEH (Association for Human Rights), FONCODES (Social Development Cooperation Foundation), Defensoría del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman), as well as four family members of victims of forced disappearances.  The meeting was held to introduce EPAF to the community and the organizations in Abancay, and serve as a jumping off point to further collaboration on human rights efforts, preserving the memory and seeking justice for the victims of forced disappearances.         

The open forum that was to kick off the workshop on Thursday night was cancelled, and the workshop was nearly cancelled altogether due to the protest marches that took place in Abancay.  The marches, as in many areas of Peru, were in protest to the violence that took place recently in northern Peru.  Protesters clashed with police in Bagua, over two laws that were passed, opening up mineral and mining rights on land being used in that area by Amazon tribal groups, leaving many dead.  Today in Peru’s congress, the laws were finally reversed.   

While the protestors marched, Abancay shut down.  The street was full of protestors all morning and into the afternoon, with different groups marching along the streets in all directions.  The protests were peaceful, and Jess was able to capture some video of the marches themselves.  While everything shut down during the day, Abancay was back to normal by nightfall.  The protests only took place on Thursday, and things calmed down after that.  We spent the rest of that Thursday strolling through Abancay and seeing the sights. 

Savoring our last free moments before the workshop began the following day, Jess, Renzo (the historian), and I took the opportunity to look for the memorial that we had heard was within the city of Abancay, dedicated to the memory of victims of forced disappearances in the region.  As we had a general idea of its location, we ventured into the city in search of this memorial relying on the local residents as our guides.  As we walked in search of the memorial, we asked various residents of Abancay if they could point us in the direction of this memorial.  To our frustration, not a soul that we asked had the same answer, and all lead us to a certain park which looked like an enormous jungle gym for kids.  We didn’t find the memorial that day. 

Renzo set out the following morning with better information, and did finally find the memorial.  Perhaps the lack of knowledge of the memorial’s existence in Abancay is a further testament to the work that remains for human rights organizations and the victims’ families in preserving their memory.  Or maybe we didn’t ask enough people.     


People gather in the Plaza de Armas to protest (Abancay, Peru)
People gather in the Plaza de Armas to protest (Abancay, Peru)

People gather in the Plaza de Armas to protest (Abancay, Peru)

More than CSI Peru

Zach Parker | Posted June 10th, 2009 | Latin America

I have finished my first week here in Lima, working with EPAF.  The work that they do is incredibly interesting and I am constantly asking questions to learn more about their methods.  The team is quite large, made up of more than twenty people, including archeologists, forensic anthropologists, human rights specialists, and even a veterinarian and a historian.  They have worked on projects in many countries outside of Peru, such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Colombia, the Philippines, and others.  Their work doesn’t stop with forensic anthropology, and it extends far into the realm of human rights and advocacy. 

EPAF spends a lot of time searching for the remains of people who have been forcibly disappeared in Peru, but it is also trying to use what it has discovered to advocate for the victims’ families and for the victims themselves, by not letting the acknowledgement that those terrible events took place disappear as well.  EPAF hopes to help strengthen and amplify the voices of the families of the victims of disappearances and to link the victims together into a network, while helping them to create a means to preserve the memory of the victims and the events that lead to their disappearance.  It is also working with a development organization called Vecinos Peru to help with development projects for those areas that were affected by the violence.

After spending a week here, I am getting used to living in Lima.  I have taken the local bus (or  ‘Micro’) several times on my own to get to work, after going with a coworker the first few times.  It is really not that simple of a bus system, and for me it was quite an accomplishment.  There is more than one bus that I can take, and each one takes a different route with various turns onto roads that are unmarked at times.  I have taken all of the different micros that can get me to work, and I feel pretty comfortable moving around the city.  I have also grown accustomed to eating lunch at a Peruvian restaurant a few blocks from the office in Jesus Maria.  They have completely different food every day of the week, so each day it is like going to a new restaurant.  The food is very inexpensive and tasty, and aside from one day when I strayed and ate at one of the ubiquitous Chifa restaurants (Peruvian Chinese food), I have eaten there every day.  I have met most of the people in the office at EPAF, and everyone is very welcoming and friendly.  Every day at lunch, a different mix of coworkers go out to eat with Jess (my advocacy project coworker) and I, and we are getting to know them little by little. 

Jess and I arrived with Carmen Rosa, one of the senior anthropologists, in Abancay yesterday to take part in a workshop that EPAF is putting together this week to train civil servants and prosecutors in basic forensic anthropology.   We flew into Cuzco, the staging point for any trip to Maccu Piccu, and traversed the mountains through breathtaking vistas to arrive at Abancay, which is nestled in a valley in the mountains a few hours west of Cuzco by car.  The training will last until Sunday and I will be able to tell you more after it has been completed.  Jess and I are here to document as much as we can of the workshop and meet some representatives from organizations in the area, and possibly meet some families of victims of disappearances who live in the area surrounding Abancay.  Stay tuned!

Advocacy Training in Washington DC

Zach Parker | Posted May 27th, 2009 | Latin America

My trip to Peru in 2004
My trip to Peru in 2004


This is my first blog. 

I will be working with the Equipo Peruano de Antropologia Forense (EPAF), the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team in Lima, Peru for the next few months.  I will start training tomorrow with the Advocacy Project in Washington, D.C.  The training will last for three days, and I will leave for Peru the following day.  I am excited to get to Peru and get started. 

My first experience in Latin America was in Chile.  I studied there for a semester in 2004.  There, I learned about the term “disappeared.”  The government in Chile under Augusto Pinochet had the tendency of making people disappear who openly criticized the policies of the government.  I remember when one of my friends had told me that his father had “disappeared.”  The situation in Peru is certainly different, and I am looking forward to learning about the experiences of the people I encounter in Peru. 

I have been to Peru once before, several years ago, but I never made it to Lima.  Peru was actually the first developing country that I had ever visited.  It was a sobering experience.  I am very excited to start working with EPAF.  I hope to learn a great deal from the organization and the people with whom I will work.  I have always wanted to learn more about advocacy using new media.  It can be a very powerful tool.  The internet has such a broad reach even in developing countries.  It is amazing how far things have come with internet technology. 

It is an exciting time to be working with EPAF in light of the recent developments in the country.  Former President Alberto Fujimori of Peru has been recently convicted of human rights violations and sentenced to serve many years in prison.

Fellow: Zach Parker

EPAF in Peru





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Sarosh Syed
Shirin Sahani
Chiara Zerunian
Ewa Sobczynska
MacKenzie Frady
Margaret Swink
Sabri Ben-Achour
Nitzan Goldberger

2004 Interns

Ginny Barahona
Michael Keller
Sarah Schores
Melinda Willis
Pia Schneider
Stacy Kosko
Carmen Morcos
Christina Fetterhoff
Stacy Kosko
Bushra Mukbil

2003 Interns

Erica Williams
Kate Kuo
Claudia Zambra
Julie Lee
Kimberly Birdsall
Marta Schaaf
Caitlin Williams
Courtney Radsch