75 million pages lift lid on Guatemala's secrets
By Ginger Thompson The New York Times
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2005
GUATEMALA CITY The reams and reams of mildewed police documents, tied
in messy bundles and stacked from floor to ceiling, look on first
sight like a giant trash heap. But human rights investigators are
calling it a treasure hidden in plain sight.
In Guatemala, a nation still groping for the whole truth about decades
of state-sponsored kidnapping and killing, the estimated 75 million
pages promise a trove of new evidence for the victims, and perhaps the
last best hope for some degree of justice.
Last summer, authorities from the Guatemalan human rights ombudsman's
office searched a munitions depot here. They discovered what appear to
be all the files of the National Police, an agency so inextricably
linked to human rights abuses during Guatemala's 36-year civil war
that it was disbanded as part of the peace accords signed in 1996.
At that time, the government of Álvaro Arzú, then the Guatemalan
president, was struggling to usher this country through an uncertain
transition to peace. His government told a truth commission that the
police files did not exist. It now seems clear, human rights
investigators say, that Arzú's government, as well as those that
followed, knew about the files all along.
In the months since the files were discovered, archivists have kept
them closed to the public and much of the press because of concerns
that the files could be pilfered or destroyed. In addition, the
archivists say they need time to do a preliminary examination to get a
sense of what is in the files.
Following repeated requests, the ombudsman's office agreed to allow
The New York Times to visit the files last week after a rudimentary
security system had been installed and archivists had begun taking
samples of documents from the files.
What remains unclear, investigators said, was why officials in
Guatemala's prior governments - particularly the police - did not
destroy the files, even though they appear to hold evidence of
egregious abuses. Now that the archive has been found, almost 10 years
after the end of the fighting that left at least 200,000 people dead,
a new government, struggling to maintain a fledgling peace, is still
grappling with how to proceed.
"This presents a serious challenge for the government because there
are going to be a lot of powerful names coming out of the files, and
the justice system is very weak," Frank LaRue, director of the
Guatemalan Presidential Commission on Human Rights, said in an
interview. "But the government remains committed to opening the
archive, and prosecuting people responsible for crimes."
Later he toned down his statement, saying, "I am not sure everyone in
the government would agree with that."
It is not the first batch of government documents uncovered since the
end of the war. Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the U.S. National
Security Archive, a nonprofit group based in Washington, pointed out
that last year the government quietly opened the files of a former
presidential intelligence agency, which was also accused of systematic
human rights abuses and ordered disbanded. And in 1999, an activities
log for a secret military unit responsible for kidnapping and killing
government opponents was smuggled out of the military's files.
The intelligence agency files had been ransacked before human rights
investigators could get to them. The National Police files - mildewy
and messy, but still intact - promise the most complete accounting of
the government's campaign against people suspected of being leftists,
a campaign initiated with money and advice from the U.S. government.
As a precondition for opening the files to viewing by the press last
week, an investigator for the ombudsman's office, Gustavo Meoņo, asked
that specific details from documents describing extrajudicial
kidnappings and killings, including names of victims and police
officers, not be published.
"We have to act very carefully with this archive," Meoņo said. "We do
not want to unduly raise the expectations of the victims. And, for our
safety, and for the safety of the files, we don't want to unduly
frighten the people who are identified as perpetrators."
Everything seems to be there, from traffic tickets and driver's
license applications to spy logs and interrogation records. There are
hundreds of rolls of film and video, along with snapshots of
unidentified bodies, detainees and informants.
There are entire file cabinets marked "disappeared," "assassins" and
"special cases." And there are stacks of arrest records that list
"Communist" as the reason suspects were arrested.
Sergio Morales, the head of the ombudsman's office, has previously
told Guatemalan reporters that the archive contained lists of children
kidnapped from suspected guerrillas along with the names of the
families who agreed to take them in.
Meoņo said there were files that refer to well-known cases, including
the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist. He said a
team of Belgian lawyers investigating the assassination in 1980 of
Walter Voordeckers, a Belgian priest, and the disappearance of Serge
Berten, another Belgian citizen, in 1982 found files on those cases
during a visit to Guatemala last September. The investigators got the
Guatemalan government to subpoenaed the former chief of the national
police, Germán Chupina, for the first time since the end of the war.
"I show you these," Meoņo said, referring to documents from the
archives, "to make clear to you that we have great hopes that this
archive is going to clear up mysteries that have tormented this
country for decades."
That seemed to be clear to the directors of archival projects around
the world, including Iraq, Cambodia, and Serbia, who visited the
police files here last week. The question that ran through many of
their minds, they said, was the same one that ran through their minds
when they first examined damning files kept by regimes led by
dictators like Saddam Hussein and organizations like the Khmer Rouge.
"The government denied the archive's existence all these years," said
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, as he
looked around the files. "But when they had the chance, they didn't
Hassan Mneimneh, of the Iraq Memory Files, said he was not surprised
"Ultimately these files are the institutional memory of the
bureaucracy," he said. "To expect a bureaucracy to destroy its files
is to expect it to commit suicide."
Heriberto Cifuentes, a Guatemalan historian who was among the first
outsiders to see the files, said the fact that the government did not
destroy the files reflects a simple fact of Guatemalan life.
"Impunity reigns in Guatemala," he said. "So whether there are
documents or not, people responsible for crimes do not expect to pay
for them. They have always enjoyed blanket immunity."