LIMA, Peru – DNA tests have identified 23 victims from a mass grave in Peru's southern highlands, a quarter century after they were killed by Peru's military, forensic scientists and a lawyer for the victims' relatives said Wednesday.
Peru's government-appointed truth commission said that 123 people were killed in the 1984 massacre in Putis — the largest mass slaying in the bloody 20-year standoff between Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and a state-sponsored counterinsurgency campaign.
Peru's prosecutor's office and a team of anthropologists and other experts dug up the remains of 92 victims last year at the high-altitude site.
DNA tests, carried out at Virginia-based forensic lab Bode Technology and partially funded by the U.S. State Department, have thus far identified 23 victims by name, including 15 women and five children, according to a statement from the Peruvian Team of Forensic Anthropology.
German Vargas, a lawyer for victims' relatives, told The Associated Press that the majority of those identified are related to members of the group he represents, Paz y Esperanza.
The forensic team expects more identifications, but warned that not all the victims will be identified because some bodies have decayed too much over the past 25 years to still provide DNA that can be matched with relatives. More than half of the victims were children, whose bodies decompose faster than adults.
In other cases, entire families were massacred, leaving no living relatives to make a match, DNA specialist Marcela Lumbreras told the AP.
Peruvian forensic expert Jose Pablo Baraybar said in a statement that the 23 victims represent "the single largest group of victims identified from the conflict in Peru."
He hopes the identification can "add weight to the efforts to open a legal process against those responsible" for the massacre.
No one has been charged for the Putis killings. According to the truth commission, the military offered Putis as a safe haven for people fleeing Shining Path rebels in the region. Soldiers then killed some of them on suspicion of ties to the guerrillas.
The military has not confirmed or denied its role. Vargas says that prosecutors have taken statements from several ex-military officers and expect to present criminal charges in April.
The state of Ayacucho, where Putis is located, was the epicenter of the violent conflict unleashed by the Shining Path and state counterinsurgency forces. Forty percent of the nearly 70,000 killings that occurred between 1980 and 2000 took place in Ayacucho, whose name means "The Corner of the Dead" in the native Quechua language.
The Shining Path nearly brought the government to its knees by the late 1980s but faded after the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzman, in 1992.