During the civil war that raged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, over 200,000 people were killed and over 45,000 were disappeared. The UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (commonly known as the “Comisión de la verdad” or “Truth Commission”) concluded in a 1999 report that that the state was responsible for 93% of the human rights violations committed during the war, including over 400 massacres committed by the Guatemalan army and paramilitary.
The majority of the violence was carried out by the police force in urban centers, and by the army and paramilitary forces in rural areas. In a single day of June or July in 1980, it is estimated that over 100 cadavers were “processed” by police forces around Guatemala City alone. In the early 1990s as the peace process was beginning (peace accords formally ending the conflict wouldn’t be signed until December 1996), the Truth Commission asked to gain access to the archives of the national police; the government repeatedly denied the existence of any such archive. This continued to be the government’s line during the entirety of the peace process.
In July 2005, a large explosion took place at a military munitions dump in a residential neighborhood in Guatemala City. Residents were concerned that other explosives were being stored nearby and asked investigators to inspect the area, including a decaying building used by the National Civil Police (the successor to the National Police, which were disbanded after the civil war).
A team from the government-backed Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) walked up to the building and asked the person at the door what it was being used for. Without hesitating, he stated that it was the National Police Archive. Inside, the team discovered an enormous stockpile of documents.
The PDH immediately took legal steps to gain access to the archive. In July 2005, the Civil Court of Guatemala issued a historic ruling enabling the PDH to investigate the documents. This marked the first time in Guatemalan history that human rights investigators had received judicial support from the courts.
Alberto Fuentes points out the signatories of the Archive’s founding statement, including the former president of Costa Rica, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the directors of various historical archives and international human rights organizations.
At the time of discovery, the archive contained over 80 million sheets of paper, making this the largest single cache of documents made available to a human rights investigation process in history. If stacked, these documents would stretch over 8 km.
These police records were stored in a building that had only been half built, and into which water was constantly leaking. Stacks of documents were crammed into every possible building alcove. The structure was also infested by rats, cockroaches, bats, and other animals.
The PDH immediately repaired the building’s roof, installed a security system, and conducted a number of fumigations to rid the building of the pests.
Alberto Fuentes has been one of the coordinators of the project since the archive was discovered.
“When we found the archive, it was still in use. Police were still using it to look up information. It had never been shut down.” Fuentes explained. “It is completely impossible that the higher levels of government didn’t know it existed. In the 1990s, when they were asked about it, they made a political decision to not reveal its existence.”
These documents are still in the bundles and boxes in which they were originally found.
The PDH quickly realized the enormity of the task that lay ahead of them in organizing the millions of documents contained in the archive, but also the potential of the project to reveal the workings of the “machina de terror” (machine of terror) that ruled the country during the civil war.
“This archive enables us to move closer to the truth and to contribute to the reconstruction of memory and history,” Fuentes said.
While the project is working on preserving and creating digital copies of all of the documents, their focus is on those from the years 1975-1985, when the worst violations of the civil war took place.
As of last February, over 10 million documents from that decade have been preserved and digitized.
The project has already made a number of disturbing discoveries about the policies the police established during those years, such as those concerning the handling of cadavers.
Even some of the most innocuous documents have provided valuable insights. One administrative record simply logged repairs conducted on vehicles owned by the police. Using this document, the project has been able to positively link a number of abductions in which witnesses recorded vehicle license plate numbers to the police force.
Large efforts are also being made to uncover the police forces’ internal structure.
“Understanding the chain of command is fundamental to the pursuit of justice in Guatemala,” Fuentes said. “While the agents that actively captured and assassinated citizens lie at the very bottom of the chain, the orders and true responsibility for what took place occurred at higher levels.”
Charts created and posted at the Archive to demonstrate the chain of command within the police force.
As of March 2009, all of the digitized documents have been made available to the public. Since then, the project has received 1278 requests for information; to 86% of the requests, they have been able to supply information. Of the requests that have been made, around 350 have come from individuals, most often by family members of a disappeared person seeking any information on what happened.
One of the machines used to digitize documents.
For decades, and especially since the discovery of the police archives, many have speculated that the military must possess similar archives. Six months into his presidency, the current President, Álvaro Colom, gave orders for these to be opened. Two years later, no steps have been taken to reveal or give access to these archives. This shows the enormous power the military in Guatemala continues to hold today, almost 15 years after the Peace Accord ending the civil war was signed.
Nevertheless, for me, the fact that the investigation of at least the police archive has been allowed to take place is eminently hopeful. Impunity is one of the most serious problems in Guatemala, and this project has the potential to gradually erode at this, while providing invaluable support to other organizations and individuals with similar goals. And, while it does not constitute justice, and will never be close to enough, it is heartening that the project can finally give some answers to those with loved ones who were killed or disappeared by the police.
A sign posted in one of the Archive’s rooms.