A Human Rights Breakthrough in Guatemala

A chance discovery of police archives may reveal the fate of tens of thousands of people who disappeared in Guatemala’s civil war

Some 80 million "lost" pages include records of people and police assassination orders. (Daniel Leclair / Reuters / Corbis)
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As the details of daily reports and operational orders accumulate in the Martus database, a larger picture has emerged, allowing investigators to understand how the National Police functioned as an organization. "We're asking, ‘What's going on here?'" says Ball. Did the police get their orders directly from military intelligence or senior officials within the police force? Did mid-level officials give the orders without consulting superiors? Or did individual police officers commit these acts on their own initiative?

Ball insists that Benetech's job is to "clarify history," not to dictate policy. Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom showed his support with a visit to the archive last year. Still, "in this country, it has become dangerous to remember," says Gustavo Meoño, director of the archive project. There has been at least one attempt to firebomb the archive. Not everyone is eager to dig up the recent past, especially police—some still serving on active duty—who could be implicated in crimes. But at the very least, the researchers hope to give closure to victims' relatives and survivors. "If you have an official document that proves what you've been saying is true," Villagran says, "it's more difficult for anyone to say that you're lying about what happened to you, your family and the ones you loved." Villagran's voice cracks as she tells how her husband was kidnapped and then disappeared during the war.

This past March, Sergio Morales, the Guatemalan government's human rights ombudsman, released the first official report on the police archives project, "El Derecho a Saber" ("The Right to Know"). Though many human rights watchers had expected sweeping revelations, the 262-page report mostly just described the archive. Ball was among those disappointed, though he hopes a second report currently under development will include more details.

Yet the report did cite one specific case—that of Edgar Fernando García, a student who was shot in 1984, taken to a police hospital and never heard from again. (García's widow is now a congresswoman.) Based on evidence recovered from the archive, two former members of a police unit linked to death squads were arrested, and arrest orders have been issued for two other suspects. It was an alarming precedent for those who still could be implicated: the day after the report's release, Morales' wife was kidnapped and tortured. "They are using violence to spread fear," Morales told newspapers.

The question about what to do with future findings remains open. "Prosecutions are a great way of creating moral closure—I've participated in many," says Ball. "But they aren't what will change a country." In his view, understanding how the National Police went bad and preventing it from happening again—"that's real improvement."

The work at the archive is expected to continue. Villagran hopes to have another 12 million documents digitized over the next five years. Meanwhile, the databases have been made available to Guatemalan citizens and human rights groups everywhere, says Ball. "Now it's the world's job to dig through the material and make sense of it."

Julian Smith's book Chasing the Leopard will be published in summer 2010.


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