The Guatemalan Police Archives

Excerpt from: "Records of the Policía Nacional de Guatemala: Report and Recommendations" by Trudy Huskamp Peterson*

As the custodian of the largest body of police records in Latin America available for potential research, Guatemala has a great opportunity to show how to manage sensitive records responsibly on behalf of its citizens, its government, and concerned researchers around the world. It can demonstrate that access to archives is a key factor in ensuring the rule of law and enhancing democracy. Preserving the records is the first step.

Managing historic police records is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is an opportunity because the records of the Policía Nacional are unparalleled evidence of the activity of a key government organization during a turbulent period of the nation's history. The challenge is to arrange and describe and provide access to this body of records in a way that is professional and sensitive to the rights and interests of the people whose lives are recorded in them.

Other countries have faced similar challenges. When the KGB left Lithuania, for example, the new Lithuanian government found still warm stoves stuffed with papers that the KGB had tried unsuccessfully to burn before they departed. The Lithuanian government took over a nearly complete set of KGB records, as did the neighboring country of Latvia. Ukraine, too, took over the important KGB records of the repression and forced starvation in Ukraine in the period between the first and second world wars. The German state inherited the virtually complete records of the Stasi secret police, and after the end of the Franco regime, the Spanish government transferred all files of a political nature held in the police archives to the national historical archive. In these cases, the records passed from the control of the police or security service to an archival authority clearly distinct from the past custodian. In Latvia, Ukraine, and Spain the records went to the national archives, while in Germany a special commissioner took over the records and the national archivist served as deputy commissioner, with the likelihood that in the future the Stasi records will become part of the general national archival system. (Note 1)

The records accumulated by the police provide basic information on how the state operated; they provide information about people and places and events that have not yet been explained. They may be useful for establishing rights to property or to compensation. Research in police records can yield information that will support both the exercise of collective rights and the assertion of individual rights. They are enormously important sources.

* Trudy Huskamp Peterson had a long and distinguished career at the National Archives, rising through the ranks to become the Acting Archivist of the United States from 1993 until she retired in 1995. She was the founding executive director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, where she led efforts to preserve and make available archives from the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Most recently, she is the author of Final Acts: A Guide to Preserving the Records of Truth Commissions.

1. For an archival view of access to records of security services, see Antonio Gonzalez Quintana, "Archives of the Security Services of Former Repressive Regimes: Report prepared for UNESCO." Paris: UNESCO, 1997