Jessica Varat

Jessica Varat (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team - EPAF): Jessica worked at the Latin America Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C, where she specialized on politics in Bolivia. During her time at the Center, she traveled to both Peru and Bolivia, and completed a semester-long introductory Quechua class. She also coordinated projects on citizen security and the geopolitics of energy. At the time of her fellowship, Jessica was a graduate student at the Fletcher School studying Conflict Resolution and International Negotiation. After her fellowship, Jessica wrote: “I think I now see myself as someone who is open to idealism and becoming truly passionate about an issue. I am also now less afraid of being in a new situation where I might experience hardship, and have learned that with good friends, like the ones I had at EPAF, hardship becomes much less hard. I am now committed to the study of transitional justice.”

My first national strike

16 Jun

A lot has happened here in Peru since my last blog entry, and I unfortunately had to give up on trying to post up-to-the minute news analysis. What follows are a few thoughts about the last week or so here in Peru.

When I posted my first blog entry, I thought to myself “maybe this is too basic, everyone knows about memory and why it’s important.”  But I decided to post it anyways just to set the stage for the work I would be doing here in Peru.  And now, in the aftermath of a violent confrontation between indigenous groups in Bagua and police officers, I am again reminded of the importance of memory.  Indeed, some aspects of history appear to be repeating themselves in Peru these days.   News from Bagua, located in the northeast of Peru, had been grim since June 4th when violent clashes between the police and civilians erupted.  A bit of background:  over the last two months, protestors from the Bagua province have been blockading roads and demonstrating against the Peruvian government’s plans to open up Amazonian land for private energy projects.  The confrontation turned violent when both Peruvian police officers and civilians perished in the battle that ensued between the police and protestors.

On my walk to work on Monday, a few days after the violence, I passed at least four newsstands where people from the neighborhood gather every morning to read the headlines.  I had followed the news from Bagua all weekend, paying special attention to the reports coming for the Human Rights Coordinator’s Office, and so was surprised to see that almost all of the headlines focused solely on the dead police officers.  Those that did mention civilians at all either showed pictures of angry “nativos” holding spears or screamed “Bestias!”  They were clearly referring to the protesters.   The government rhetoric they echoed was harsh and drew direct comparisons between the protesters and the Shining Path.  Human rights workers were skeptical that the number of civilian deaths reported by the government was accurate.  Reports began to surface from activists working in Bagua that the police were attempting to dispose of the bodies of dead civilians by either burning them or throwing them in the river.  It was then that I was reminded of the importance of memory.  If these reports turn out to be true, then history will indeed be repeating itself.

And then, in the midst of all of the news Zack and I, as well seven other members of the EPAF, team left for Abancay, Apurímac.  We were invited to accompany EPAF in Abancay while they carried out a workshop to instruct various elements of the judicial apparatus in Apurímac in how to carry out comprehensive forensic investigations, particularly in cases of forced disappearances or mass graves. We flew into Cusco and then drove about three hours to Abancay.  The drive was spectacular-a winding road led us up and down mountain after mountain in zig-zags, all the while with colossal snow-capped summits hovering in the distance.  When we arrived, we were confronted with a very different reality than that which we experienced in Lima. The town, although located in a completely different part of the country, exuded much more solidarity with the Amazonian protesters then one might have expected from a city in the highlands.  This phenomenon played out on our third day when the city, in solidarity with the rest of the country, went on strike for the majority of the day.  Instead of opening their shops or going to the office, people took to the streets in peaceful marches demanding rights for those fighting against government decrees to exploit the Amazon.

We decided to cancel the public forum that was supposed to be held that night out of fear that after a long day of protests, not many people would be interested in attending.  However, we did still hold the three-day training and this ended up being a fascinating experience.  Not only did I have a chance to learn more about EPAF’s work in the field of forensics, but I also was able to participate in some of the interactive portions of the workshop geared at giving the public prosecutors and judges an experience in the field.  We joked that our job-entering a crime scene, examining evidence, and discovering bodies-was much like the U.S. television show CSI.  Indeed, when exhuming a mock mass grave containing the fake bodies of a family, supposedly tortured, killed and buried by military officials in 1994, joking is really all you can do to keep it together.

Public prosecutors examine a mock mass grave at EPAF training workshop in Abancay

Public prosecutors examine a mock mass grave at EPAF training workshop in Abancay

Although each subject probably deserves its own blog entry, the juxtaposition of the events in Bagua and EPAF’s training in Abancay was a poignant reminder of the responsibility we have to remember the events of the past, particularly on a national level.  Unfortunately, symbolic manifestations that recognize the past cannot address the severe economic imbalance and social contusions that some regions of the country continue to experience.   This is where EPAF can play a role.  Not only are they training officials for the tactical end of improving criminal investigations, and thus strengthening the judicial system, but also helping them to recognize the human rights violations that occurred in a population that has had very little access to the legal system.   EPAF also provides a way to support the families of those that were disappeared during the conflict.  They do this by, as my colleague Carmen Rosa explained, finding hidden graves, exhuming them, identifying the victims with a number of comprehensive tools, and finally, transferring them from the status of a “disappeared person” to a real person.  A person with an identity, a story, and a family that has been wondering what happened for the last twenty years.

Here is a short clip of the protests in Abancay, for Bagua:


Posted By Jessica Varat

Posted Jun 16th, 2009


  • Ash

    June 23, 2009


    Cool video. I’d love to hear more about EPAF’s position on the creation of an independent commmission to investigate what happened in Bagua. The Peruvian ambassador to the U.S. at a meeting last week here in DC didn’t mention anything of the sort, so I’m not sure whether the govt sees this as an open/shut case. Though I swear I saw some headline in La Republica talking about the Peruvian Congress approving a commission. Have any good details on this? Do you think the new standard of justice established with the Fujimori verdict will have ripple effects into investigations of HR violations like Bagua? What is EPAF’s take? Abrazo.

    • Jessica Varat

      June 24, 2009


      Hi Ash! As you might know already, EPAF has responded to the government’s plan to create a commission to investigate the events in Bagua with some skepticism. Give the distrust that exists between the indigenous community in the Amazon and the state right now, it seems a bit unrealistic. A few interesting updates though: on Sunday, the International Human Rights Federation released a report compiled by Elsie Monge and
      Rodolfo Stavenhagen, which includes testimonies that confirm the suspicion that the death tolls of civilians are higher than expected. At the same time, members of the civilian community are already being charged with the crimes they committed against the state, but as far as I’ve seen, none of the police have been charged for the deaths of civilians. Regarding your question about the ripple effect, I don’t think I would be alone in saying that I don’t think the new standard of the Fujimori verdict will apply here. While many in the provinces have voiced their support for the activists in Bagua, the judicial system is still fairly inaccessible for the so-called “nativos” in this country. So while the Fujimori verdict was a victory for human rights, I think you know better than any of us how difficult unequal access to justice is here.

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