Heidi McKinnon

Heidi McKinnon (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí - ADIVIMA): Heidi holds a BA in anthropology and Spanish from the University of New Mexico and has worked with indigenous communities throughout Latin America since1997. Heidi worked at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in the late 1990s. Heidi researched human rights and sovereignty issues in every region of Latin America as she was developing content for the permanent exhibits at NMAI. Her research led her to ADIVIMA and the Chixoy Dam, which she recommended for inclusion at the Museum.

A Simple Swab

19 Jun

Whenever people start moving tables around the office, I know something interesting is about to happen. Today ADIVIMA´s Department of Exhumations hosted a workshop on DNA testing with a group of seventeen Río Negro survivors who now live scattered throughout the rural villages surrounding Rabinal.

A team from the Missing Persons Investigation Office of FAFG is here for two days to request DNA samples from the relatives of a group of 74 murder victims exhumed from a well at the former military outpost outside of Pacux. I discussed this briefly in a previous blog, The Road to Pacux. None of the victims have been identified yet, and this is the sixth round of testing this team has done in Rabinal since 2004, when FAFG exhumed the bodies.

When the exhumations took place, families were invited to the site in an attempt to identify missing relatives and give their testimonies regarding what they knew of each individual disappearance, as well as the clothing, facial features, or anything unusual that might help the FAFG team in their investigation. ADIVIMA has helped FAFG stay in touch with these relatives over the years for DNA testing workshops like this one.

Since 2004, new relatives have come forward to testify and request to be included in the process, so periodically, more workshops take place. One cannot forget the level of psychological strain and real and present fear that has affected this community. No matter how much time has passed or how routine a day one may have as a survivor of violence, there exists an inquietude that permeates that life. That unconscious sense of “What if” that makes a person hold back, stay silent, or simply close their door.

Sixteen women and one man attended the morning session. Amílcar, from the FAFG team, explained some basic kinship terminology with a color-coded wall chart and the importance of getting DNA samples from as wide a sample of relatives as possible.

Kinship Chart

Amílcar and Ofélia travel throughout rural regions of Guatemala and have seen first hand how many generations were lost during the internal conflict. Often there is only an older female relative still living, or sometimes a single adult who was the child of a victim.

Chart Detail

Once the relatives understand the process and are comfortable, they work with other team members who take the samples.


Four separate mouth swabs are needed to get a good sample from each person. From there, the samples go to the FAFG DNA lab for analysis.

Ana Getting Tested

ADIVIMA´s Department of Legal Cases has an open investigation on the Rabinal Military Outpost near Pacux which I will review in a future blog. Once the FAFG reports are finished, years from now, ADIVIMA will hopefully be able to take those findings and proceed even further with the case.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Jun 19th, 2008


  • Margot

    June 20, 2008


    It’s interesting to read that they put so much effort into educating and gathering DNA samples, yet there have been no/few victim identifications. What are some of the reasons or issues – those surrounding the implications of victim identification on a more political level – for this discrepancy?

  • Heidi

    June 20, 2008


    Hi Margot,

    Thanks for the question. First, it can be very difficult to obtain DNA samples from bones or teeth that have been buried for a long time, even a few years. Hair, fluids, and skin are more reliable sources of viable DNA samples than bones and teeth tend to be. As an example, only two of the more than 150 Rio Negro victims have been positively identified to date.

    There are new DNA extraction techniques, but only the more well-equipped labs conduct those tests. FAFG is a non-profit foundation and it has taken them a long time to equip their lab properly to perform the kinds of analyses they need to do their work. I believe they recently purchased an X-ray machine. Not to say they do not have access to resources, but for some analyses they have to send samples out of the country. That slows the process.

    So the issue is not so much political as it is functional, but their work is dangerous. The Director of FAFG certainly receives death threats, even recently. For that reasons alone, I have not always showed the faces of FAFG staff in the blogs and will continue that practice. Thankfully, their work continues no matter what the politics may be.


  • Mackenzie

    June 25, 2008


    “One cannot forget the level of psychological strain and real and present fear that has affected this community. No matter how much time has passed or how routine a day one may have as a survivor of violence, there exists an inquietude that permeates that life.”

    This is wonderful commentary Heidi.. I was thinking about this emotional distress in relation to your work, as we had some Guatemalan refugees visit a class last fall who spoke about how living in hiding for 10+ years heavily impacted their psyches..

    anyways you did a great job identifying it in this blog. I’m eager to hear more about your experiences as the summer goes on!

    take care,

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