Police Files May Hold Clues to Atrocities in Guatemala"
by Ginger Thompson
New York Times
November 21, 2005
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Washington, D.C., November 21, 2005 - On July 5, officials
from the Guatemalan government's human rights office (PDH - Procuraduría
de Derechos Humanos) entered a deteriorating, rat-infested munitions
depot in downtown Guatemala City to investigate complaints about improperly-stored
explosives. During inspection of the site, investigators found a vast
collection of documents, stored in five buildings and in an advanced
state of decay. The files belonged to the National Police, the central
branch of Guatemala's security forces during the war - an entity so
inextricably linked to violent repression, abduction, disappearances,
torture and assassination that the country's 1996 peace accord mandated
it be completely disbanded and a new police institution created in
personnel files for police informants are part of these abandoned
The scope of this find is staggering - PDH officials estimate that
there are 4.5 kilometers - some 75 million pages - of materials.
During a visit to the site in early August, I saw file cabinets
marked "assassinations," "disappeared" and "homicides,"
as well as folders labeled with the names of internationally-known
victims of political murder, such as anthropologist Myrna Mack (killed
by security forces in 1990).
There were hundreds of rolls of still photography, which the PDH
is developing now. There were pictures of bodies and of detainees,
there were lists of police informants with names and photos, there
were vehicle license plates, video tapes and computer disks. The
installations themselves, which are in a terrible state of neglect
- humid and exposed to the open air, infested with vermin and full
of trash - contain what appear to be clandestine cells.
The importance of the discovery cannot be overstated. Since 1996,
when the government signed a peace accord with guerrilla forces,
Guatemalans have fought to recover historical memory, end impunity
and institute the rule of law after more than 30 years of violent
civil conflict. In 1997, a UN-sponsored truth commission was created
to investigate the war and analyze its origins.
Despite a mandate granting it the right to request records from
all parties to the conflict, the Historical Clarification Commission
was stonewalled at every turn by military, intelligence and security
officials, who refused to turn over internal files on the grounds
that they had been destroyed during the war, or simply did not exist.
The truth commission released its final report in 1999 without the
benefit of access to such critical material. According to the report,
some 150,000 Guatemalan citizens died in the war, and another 40,000
were abducted and disappeared.
Despite this terrible legacy, Guatemala represents today an extraordinary
example of how information can advance the cause of justice over
the barriers of impunity. Guatemalan investigators have drawn on
victims' accounts, forensic records, published human rights reports,
perpetrators' testimonies and thousands of declassified U.S. documents
obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information
Act in an attempt to provide some historical and judicial accountability
for what happened during the war. Openness advocates have used the
government's silence about the war to press their case for the passage
of a national freedom of information law. Prosecutors have incorporated
U.S. declassified documents into legal battles targeting military
and police abusers in key human rights cases. And now Guatemalans
are discovering their own buried, hidden, and abandoned records
from the files of the repressive Guatemalan security services.
The newly discovered police archives, which cover a century of
police operations, promises to be one of the most revealing collections
of military or police records ever discovered in Latin America.
The appearance of these documents has created an extraordinary opportunity
for preserving history and advancing justice that the Archive is
mobilizing to meet.
With support from the Fund for Constitutional Government and the
Open Society Institute, the Archive sent international experts to
examine the files and provide assessments for their recovery and
management. Trudy Huskamp Peterson, a leading U.S. archivist, spent
a week in Guatemala in September, and delivered a report two weeks
later that will serve as an invaluable guide once an institution
is designated to begin cleaning and ordering the documents.
In October, the Archive's Carlos Osorio accompanied two senior
members of the "Memory Commission" ("Comisión
por la Memoria") from La Plata, Argentina, to Guatemala
- Ana Cacopardo, the director, and her chief archivist Ingrid Jaschek.
The commission is a coalition of government and civil society groups
dedicated to the study of Argentina's dirty war, which also oversees
millions of police intelligence files. They examined the Guatemalan
archives and met with government officials and NGOs to discuss some
of the political and legal challenges inherent in designing long-term
custody and control of the documents.
Once the authority to manage the files is established, the most
urgent need will be for expert technical assistance to carry out
the monumental task of ordering, cleaning, scanning, and databasing
the files, with the goal of providing at least limited public access
as soon as possible. Such assistance will be invaluable over the
long run to those most likely to consult the material: lawyers,
journalists, historians, human rights groups and the families of
The Archive will dedicate itself in the coming months to supporting
this unprecedented rescue, recovery and restoration operation. This
historical salvage mission is intended to secure these records of
repression, restore them to readable form, and organize them into
what promises to be the largest and most revealing collection of
'dirty war' documentation ever unearthed in Latin America.
from a report written by Trudy Huskamp Peterson, a
leading archivist and consultant for the National Security Archive
on the Guatemalan Police Files. The report, "Records of the
Policía Nacional de Guatemala: Report and Recommendations,"
was translated into Spanish and delivered to several different Guatemalan
organizations in early November.
1: Newly-discovered Guatemalan police records fill
dozens of rooms in five buildings on an active police compound in
Zone 6, downtown Guatemala City.
2: The archives contain an estimated 4.5 kilometers
- or 75 million pages - of paper.
3: For years, the documents have been stored haphazardly
in and on top of file cabinets or stacked in towering piles, under
open windows, in hallways, and in huge trash heaps inside rat-infested
records show advanced signs of decay; some of them are seriously
contaminated with mold and either are wet or have been wet in the
past. There are documents that have been partially burned or charred;
others are simply disintegrating with age and neglect.
Archive's Guatemala Project Director Kate Doyle visited the police
archives in August and again in September. The buildings in which
the documents are kept are so deteriorated from the presence of
trash, vermin and mold, that employees working with the records
risk serious health hazards.
through records on the police compound during a visit in October,
Archive analyst Carlos Osorio finds a reminder of the historical
ties between Guatemala and the United States.
7: Files are crudely labeled by case type and year.
There are whole file cabinets marked "assassinations,"
"disappeared" and "homicides."
include internal reports, criminal records, promotion lists, surveillance
reports, and fingerprint files, among many others.
are thousands of photographs of the living and the dead.
of logbooks and ledgers have been found, containing the names and
photos of countless detainees. This one is dated July 24, 1967.
personnel files for police informants are part of these abandoned
records. This man participated in a "Servicio especial de vigilancia"
("Special surveillance service")
12: Although it will take time before the first set
of documents can be opened for public access, the files will provide
families of the disappeared a wealth of new evidence about the Guatemalan
government's operations during the conflict.
13: International experts in the field of archives
recovery, preservation and public access have visited the Guatemalan
archives to assist in the salvaging of this massive cache of records.
14: The office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuraduría
de Derechos Humanos-PDH), which discovered the site, has taken many
important steps to protect the archive and begin the recovery of