Guatemala civil war veterans recover the National Police Archives, and their own history
In July 2005, investigators from Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office stumbled upon a vast quantity of old papers while conducting an unrelated inspection of police property. The sprawling warehouse had once been a detention and torture center known asla isla, the island, with spattered cinder block walls and cell-like inner chambers. After navigating its maze of rooms piled high with bundles of moldy records dating back more than a century, the investigators realized that they had uncovered the largest collection of secret state documents in Latin American history.
The news spread quickly in a country still deeply divided after nearly four decades of brutal counterinsurgent warfare, but the discovery raised more questions and controversies than it resolved. How would the find—an estimated 80 million decaying pages—be managed? Who would have control over this potentially explosive cache of records, believed to contain damning evidence of state abuses from an era of forced disappearances, political assassinations, and genocide? Could these archives offer a new chance at postwar reckoning, which remained stalled more than ten years after the end of a conflict that took the lives of as many as two hundred thousand citizens?
Arson attempts and death threats periodically reminded the volunteers of the real risks still faced in Guatemala by those seeking to unearth the war’s history.
Grasping for a manageable place to start, the earliest archival recovery volunteers began by rescuing a huge mound of personal identity cards that lay decomposing in a half-completed room at the building’s rear. The majority of the two hundred and fifty thousand cards had survived, but only because sun and water exposure had transformed those at the top of the pile into a tough papier-mâché crust that protected the others beneath. As Raúl, a former trade unionist who was among the first would-be archival rescuers, sifted through more and more records, on his hands and knees alongside fellow activists clad in face masks and rubber gloves, he routinely stumbled upon the names of friends and acquaintances now alive only in documents and memories. In some cases, the archives revealed companions’ fates for the first time. It was difficult labor, made no easier by the arson attempts and death threats that periodically reminded the volunteers of the real risks still faced in Guatemala by those seeking to unearth the war’s history.
Since those early days, a foreign-funded activist initiative called the Project for the Recovery of the National Police Historical Archives has been working to rescue the decaying records and to analyze their contents with the aim of generating evidence to use in prosecuting war-era officials for crimes against humanity. Over time, the project grew from its improvisational beginnings into a precedent-setting effort armed with hundreds of staff, state-of-the-art technology, and support from around the world.
The National Police archives are a microcosm of the country’s larger postwar dynamics: their existence denied, their rediscovery accidental, their future uncertain given the threats faced by historical memory initiatives, their rescue initially completely ad hoc in the absence of government capacity or political will to exercise its constitutional responsibility over them, their processing funded entirely from abroad. The conditions of the police records in 2005 offered a sobering snapshot of the “peacetime” landscape; their recovery has provided another, capturing the incremental, hard-fought nature of political change on the ground. The archives thus reflect the tremendous tension of post–peace accords Guatemala. On the one hand, as Guatemalans know well, there has been so little substantive change; on the other hand, the very existence of the archival recovery initiative, however beset by challenges it has been, testifies to how much political opening has been achieved. As one activist commented to me, “Even ten years ago, they would have killed all the people working in a project like that.”
read the rest: Guernica Magazine
by Kirsten Weld