(IPS) – With international support, experts in Guatemala are salvaging and digitising millions of National Police records discovered two years ago in a munitions depot. Thanks to their painstaking work, light could be shed on the tens of thousands of murders and forced disappearances committed during the country’s bloody 36-year civil war.
The vast collection of documents, comprised of roughly 80 million pages, was found by accident in mid-2005 in a half-finished building on the north side of Guatemala City. The messy bundles of records were stacked floor to ceiling in dozens of rooms infested by rats, bats and cockroaches, and many of the files were in an advanced state of decay.
But thanks to an ambitious plan designed by the Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos (PDH) — the office of Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman — the archives documenting official policies of political terror and repression followed in this Central American country since the late 19th century are being cleaned, catalogued, and scanned into databases.
"We are in the process of recuperating the National Police records that were kept from the force’s creation in 1881 until its transformation in 1997," Alberto Fuentes, assistant project director for the archive, told IPS.
In 1997, the National Police force was disbanded and replaced by the National Civilian Police, as a result of the 1996 peace agreement that put an end to the country’s armed conflict.
The PDH, human rights groups and victims’ families hope the treasure trove of documents will help clarify some of the innumerable human rights violations committed during the 1960-1996 civil war, which left 200,000 people — mainly Indians from rural villages — dead (including 45,000 victims of forced disappearance) and over one million refugees.
According to the United Nations Truth Commission — the Historical Clarification Commission — the army and other security forces like the National Police were responsible for over 90 percent of the atrocities.
The archive project forms part of a broader process aimed at the "recovery of the country’s historical memory," which was stipulated by the December 1996 peace accord signed by the government of Álvaro Arzú and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), which was made up of four insurgent groups.
"In the process of classification, we have ordered the documents according to three National Police structures: the Joint Operations Centre, which linked the army with the National Police, the Criminological Investigation Department, and the Identification Unit," said Fuentes.
These three offices formed the backbone of the National Police’s political control and repressive activities in the capital.
A cross comparison of Identification Unit documents and records on the 45,000 people "disappeared" in Guatemala City and its surroundings, many of whom were buried without a name in the local La Verbena cemetery, could finally lead to the identification of some of the remains.
"The civil war and political repression not only derived thousands of victims of the right to life, but also of their right to death, while depriving their families of the right to mourn them properly," said Fuentes.
"There are tens of thousands of Guatemalan families who have never been able to identify the remains of their loved ones, and thus were never able to conclude their mourning process," he said.
The hope is that the recovery of the National Police archives could help them reach a sense of closure. "As soon as we identify any of the victims, we immediately inform the families, so they can demand that the authorities give them back the remains of their murdered loved ones," he explained.
The massive cache of records includes mundane documents like traffic tickets, drivers’ licence applications, invoices for new uniforms and personnel files, as well as snapshots of unidentified bodies, detainees and informants, heaps of identification documents, surveillance reports, interrogation records, fingerprint files, rolls of film and videos, transcripts of radio communications, computer discs, and ledgers full of photographs and names.
A sub-category of documents includes records kept by the notorious National Police Second Corps’ Commando Six, which operated as a death squad during the bloodiest years of the repression, from 1975 to 1985.
The archive project also attempted to obtain police documents on the northwestern province of Quiché, where 344 of the 669 documented massacres were committed.
"But the National Police did not leave a single piece of paper on El Quiché," said Fuentes.
In the massacres, more than 400 villages were completely destroyed and all of their inhabitants killed by the army and the "civil defence patrols", paramilitary bodies formed at military behest that operated under military orders.
The abandoned National Police archives were stumbled onto by chance two years ago when an explosion in a police munitions depot in the densely populated northern part of Guatemala City was investigated by historian Edeliberto Cifuentes, who was commissioned by the PDH.
During the inspection, Cifuentes visited the half-finished building that was to have been the National Police hospital but was never completed, and discovered room upon room of mildewed documents.
The PDH immediately applied for and obtained, through the Justice Ministry, a legal resolution ordering the archive to be closed and guarded, so that nothing could be removed or destroyed.
The resolution also gave the PDH custody of the documents and the authority to investigate the role of the National Police in human rights crimes.
The analysis and classification of the documents finally got underway in November 2006, after the arduous work of cleaning and safeguarding the files from vermin and mildew, and shelving and crating them, while repairing the building itself.
For the project, the PDH has received financial support from countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, and international experts in the recovery and preservation of archives have visited to assist in salvaging the reams of documents.
The enormous classification effort is following the United Nations’ ISAD(G) system, and is being carried out with the assistance of Benetech, a nonprofit technology development company based in the U.S. state of California.
Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) has worked with truth commissions in a number of countries, including El Salvador, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor, building statistical evidence of human rights abuses.
The archive project’s staff members are scanning and entering the data from the documents into encrypted bulletins, which are backed up over the Internet to three secure servers, one of which is located directly in the old archive building, another in the PDH, and the third in Switzerland.
Through the electronic archives, the documents will be accessible to the public without the need for anyone to handle the fragile, deteriorated files, some of which date back over 100 years.
This work, which is still in the initial stages, has already enabled investigators to fully identify some of those responsible for human rights violations.
In Guatemala, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, so few crimes are solved that a joint Guatemalan – United Nations Commission against Impunity (CICIG) was recently set up. It will begin its work investigating the national police and the prison and customs systems. Impunity also remains the norm for the human rights crimes of the past.
The PDH investigators have also found inexplicable gaps in the National Police’s documentation and investigation of high-profile political crimes.
For example, the archives contain no report or information on the Oct. 20, 1978 murder of university student leader Oliverio Castañeda de León, who was chased down by several vehicles, one of which had government licence plates, and shot and killed by a death squad in broad daylight just 100 metres from the seat of government.
The documentary value of the archives goes beyond recent history, all the way back to 1881. By preserving the crumbling old records and files and entering the information into an electronic database, the investigators will enable scholars to carry out in-depth studies into the mechanisms of political control and repression used by Guatemala’s dictatorships in the first half of the 20th century, like those of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920) and Jorge Ubico (1931-1944).
"For the oligarchic agro-export state that took shape in Guatemala after 1871, the army and the National Police were the two instruments of repression of political opponents," Fuentes noted.
He said the National Police archives show how the various regimes controlled all activity in the country, including the most politically innocuous, "from what films could be shown in the movie theatres to the slaughterhouses, wrestling matches and religious ceremonies."