PUTIS, Peru – Forensics experts began piling the dusty skeletons of 60 people — including children and babies — into boxes Friday, 24 years after they were killed by the military in this village in Peru's highlands.
Peru's government-appointed truth commission said that 123 people were killed in the 1984 massacre in Putis — the largest mass slaying of the bloody standoff between Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and a state-sponsored counterinsurgency campaign.
The guerrillas nearly brought the government to its knees in the 1980s and early 1990s, but faded after the capture of their leader, Abimael Guzman, in 1992.
The state of Ayacucho, where Putis is located, was the epicenter of the violent conflict. Forty percent of the nearly 70,000 killings in the period took place in Ayacucho, whose name means "The Corner of the Dead" in the native Indian Quechua language.
The truth commission found that the military offered Putis as a safe haven for people fleeing Shining Path rebels in the region. Soldiers then tricked villagers into digging their own grave and killed them on suspicion of ties to the guerrillas.
Forensic experts have found 60 skeletons in Putis, but four other graves in the area remain unearthed. Relatives are helping experts identify the remains and testifying in the chief prosecutor office's probe of the massacre.
Marina Quispe, 50, said one of the victims was her only daughter, barely 12 when she was shot by soldiers and shoved into a mass grave.
The daughter had fled to Putis with her grandmother, uncle and aunt after the military offered them protection from the Shining Path.
"They killed her here," said Quispe, who cried and mumbled in Quechua as investigators unearthed the bones.
The soldiers also "took our animals — we were left without a house, without anything," Quispe said.
Some villagers claim the military falsely alleged links with the rebels to provide soldiers with an excuse to massacre the victims, then pillage and sell their belongings.
The prosecutor's office and a team of anthropologists and other experts have been working at the site for more than two weeks, braving bitterly low temperatures 11,600 feet above sea level.
German Vargas, a lawyer for the organization Paz y Esperanza, which provides legal counseling for victims' relatives, said that the Defense Ministry has refused to provide information on the soldiers who were involved in the massacre.