Pedro Linger-Gasiglia is a freelance photographer based in New York City. Born in Argentina, and raised in Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, he is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, and French. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, Clarín, and La Nación. He has participated in exhibits in the United States and throughout Latin America. He received a BFA from New York University and an award for “Continuous Excellency in Documentary Photography.”
Since 1997, through an initial grant from Andean University and in collaboration with the United Farm Workers, Gasiglia has been documenting Latin American immigrant communities in the United States. He has been working with juvenile detainees in Nicaragua during the implementation of a reform intended to empower local judicial courts and police. Since 1998 he has collaborated with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). During 2001 and 2002, he traveled to El Salvador to document their work in conjunction with local human rights organizations to recover and identify victims of the Salvadoran civil war. Currently he works in New York with photographer Susan Meiselas.
My collaboration with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) began in 1998. In 2001 and 2002 I traveled to El Salvador to document their work exhuming and identifying the victims of the El Mozote massacre. I learned first-hand that the involvement of relatives and survivors was essential to the reading of recovered bones from mass graves and the historical reconstruction of the massacre. The process of identifying the victims through forensic science and returning the remains to the families for proper burial are prerequisites for the healing of the victims and the restoration of the social order. The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. But atrocities refuse to be buried.
Between the 6th and 16th of December, 1981, the Salvadoran armed forces conducted a large-scale operation in Morazán, a province in the northeastern region of the country. Over this period, they allegedly massacred approximately 800 civilians in six neighboring villages. There was no Salvadoran opposition press in the early 1980s, and information regarding the nature of military operations was controlled by the armed forces. Only one local newspaper reported on “Operation Rescue” while it was taking place. Journalists and the International Red Cross were denied access to the area. Radio Venceremos, the rebel radio station, didn’t report on the massacre until the end of December 1981.
The international community found out about the massacre on January 27, 1982, when the New York Times and the Washington Post published pictures and detailed stories from survivors. Neither the United States nor the Salvadoran government conducted a serious investigation, and the Salvadoran government refused to allow independent investigations.
Human rights groups, survivors, and relatives of the victims continued to press for a thorough investigation. In 1989, Tutela Legal (the Human Rights Legal Office of the Archbishop of San Salvador, established by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero) and local organizations from Morazán began an extensive investigation into the massacre. In 1990, Tutela Legal filed an initial brief on behalf of survivors and insisted on exhumations in the villages where the massacre took place. In 1992, shortly after the Salvadoran government and the guerrilla army signed peace agreements ending the war, Tutela Legal invited the EAAF to assist with its investigation. In the fall of 1992, under the auspices of the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, EAAF exhumed a site in El Mozote and recovered the skeletons of 147 individuals, 131 of whom were children under the age of 12.
These findings were one of the principal reasons for the U.N. Truth Commission’s conclusion that the Salvadoran Army had committed a massacre in El Mozote and five nearby villages resulting in the deaths of at least 500 people and probably many more. The findings prompted the Clinton administration to publicly rectify the U.S. State Department’s position that the massacre had not occurred. Just days after the United Nations issued its report the Salvadoran legislature passed an amnesty law that barred prosecution of human rights violators. Nevertheless, relatives of the victims continued to demand further investigations and EAAF conducted more exhumations from 2000 to 2002. EAAF is preparing to continue its investigations in 2003.
I have often wondered why relatives of the victims continue to demand the exhumation of their loved ones 20 years after their deaths. There certainly isn’t only one answer. Identification of victims is a great source of relief to family members who lived through the massacre. Only after this process is finished can the people in Morazán begin to re-create a sense of community. Through these photographs I hope to convey the complexities of achieving peace in the absence of war.
—Pedro Linger-Gasiglia, January 2003