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Tech Culture Journalist; Partner, Contributor, Co-editor, Boing Boing; Executive Producer, host, Boing Boing Video
Tech Culture Journalist; Co-editor, BoingBoing; Commentator, NPR; Columnist, Wired

Truth Prevails. Sometimes, Technology Helps

I became a born-again optimist this year in an unlikely place: surrounded by hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with the dead.

They were indigenous victims of Guatemala's civil war. Row after row, stacked floor to roof, on the top level of a building protected by concertina wire and armed guards in Guatemala City. This site is home to a group called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala.

The living were downstairs. Using open source software, recycled computers, and DNA forensics help from labs in the United States, they work to identify the dead. The FAFG staff includes lawyers, 'antropologos forensicos' and I.T. engineers. The process begins when someone tips them on the whereabouts of one of these clandestine mass graves. Then comes the slow digging, and what must be painful conversations with the surviving relatives, who often fear retribution from the perpetrators — because the killers sometimes live in the same village, right next door. The army recruited soldiers from the same Mayan villages their scorched-earth policies sought to destroy.

The FAFG exhumations yield clumps of bones, flesh, sometimes the clothing the victim wore when the killing happened. And back in this Guatemala City building now, the living are cleaning and scraping and sorting those clumps of bone and dirt, laying them out on tables, brushing the soil off, marking each tibia and fibula and tooth with codes that will soon be tapped into databases. When everything comes together just right — the survivor's testimony, the database tables, the DNA prints, the bullet holes through the dry cranium, the dig maps — when all of that clicks, someone then writes a code in black marker on the side of a cardboard box.

"Jacinto Rodriguez, FAFG-482-V-I, Nebaj, El Quiché." He was one of thousands whose deaths the military authorities denied or discounted for decades.

Sometimes, governments turn on their own citizens, and those corrupt regimes are sustained in part by lies. Sometimes the lies last for decades. Sometimes longer.

But science does not lie.

These boxes full of bones, and all the data with which they're tagged: none of that lies. Even though the living in this building work under death threats (they're texted in by SMS now), even though they lack financial, technical and practical resources — day after day, more of those boxes fill with codes and names. And eventually, the dead return to their pueblos, inside these boxes, for reburial.

"The survivors want to know that their family members will rest in a dignified way, instead of being dumped by the side of the road like dogs," one of the anthropologists told me. "More than justice in the American sense of the word — more than revenge, or legal process — they just want their people back."

I met with other organizations like FAFG this year in Guatemala and other countries. Organizations run by individuals who are working very hard, under impossibly difficult conditions, to uncover and preserve the truth of past human rights violations. And what I saw — in particular, new uses of technological tools to solve old problems — gave me hope.

Even with the greatest of challenges, and the passing of years, the truth eventually prevails. When at least one person believes the truth matters, there is hope.