Memory at Risk

Boxes at the AHPN

The News

Last Monday, February 3, the judges of the Guatemalan Supreme court heard arguments asking them to extend and strengthen protections for the Historical Archive of the National Police (Archivo Historico de la Policia Nacional – AHPN).

Police Archive? Sounds kinda boring.

Actually, the history of the archive is like something torn from the pages of a John Grisham thriller.

In 2005 there was a massive explosion of stored munitions at a military base in Guatemala City. Members of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, responding to fears that other stored arms caches could similarly explode, decided to visit the former Guatemalan National Police Headquarters in the capital’s Zone 6.

What they found in the dilapidated buildings, surrounded by a junkyard full of rusting cars, wasn’t stored weapons but… over 75 million documents! Bundles upon bundles, stacks upon stacks of police records, dating back to 1881.

They had stumbled inadvertently a police archive that the Guatemalan government had denied even existed!

Cool story, but still… a police archive? Expense reports? Traffic violations? Overtime requests?

Well, yes, a large number of the documents unceremoniously dumped in the abandoned warehouse are administrative records. But there are also records of secret police surveillance, files on supposed “subversives” (including progressive politicians), and records of illegal detentions and arrests.

The documents prove that the National Police often played a repressive role, especially during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, working hand-in-hand with the military and intelligence services to capture, torture, disappear, and kill those they deemed to be enemies of the state.

But isn’t searching through 75 million documents a herculean task?

75,441,200 documents, to be exact. And yes. Especially given the fact that many of the documents were in terrible shape to begin with: waterlogged, moldy, deteriorating, and covered with the fecal droppings of cockroaches, rats, and bats.

The process of cleaning, organizing, digitalizing, archiving, and safeguarding such a large collection of documents was nothing short of groundbreaking. A highly trained team of Guatemalan archival specialists was created with the help of international experts. From 2005 to 2017, the 200 members of the Archive digitalized 23,891,199 of the historic documents!

A real plus for human rights and justice, I’m guessing?

Absolutely. The documents have been introduced as evidence in court cases concerning the forced disappearance of students, labor leaders, community organizers, and others. The Archive also provided evidence in other trials concerning grave violations of human rights: rape, torture, sexual slavery, genocide, and crimes against humanity. 

The archive also serves as factual proof (created by the State itself) that supports the tragic testimonies of the survivors and family members who lived through the repression. 

The archive is an invaluable resource for recovering and preserving Guatemala’s historic memory, especially in a country where powerful forces still attempt to hide and deny their participation in the violence and oppression. It really is a national treasure.

Finally, a story from Guatemala with a happy ending!

Not so fast. Like everything else that helps move Guatemala closer towards peace and justice, the archive has come under threat from sinister forces in country that prefer to maintain a status quo of impunity and injustice. 

During the previous administration of President Jimmy Morales, drastic and dangerous changes were made to the archive:

  • The highly respected Coordinator of the Archive, Gustavo Meoño, was unexpectedly informed that his 13-year tenure had come to an abrupt end by being physically escorted from the building.
  • Oversight of the Archive was shifted from the United Nations Development Program to the perennially underfunded Ministry of Culture and Sports. 
  • Those seeking to consult the Archive, perhaps hoping to find a loved one who had been disappeared, were told that they now had to file a Freedom of Information request to obtain access to the documents. 
  • The archive staff, as of January 2020, was reduced to fifteen workers.

Wait, there are only 15 employees?!!

Of the original staff, only 5 remain… all security guards and administrative staff. There are only a handful of newly hired, untrained employees actually working on the archive itself. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office estimates that, given the current conditions, it will take approximately 375 years to finish digitalizing the remaining documents.

Even more worrisome is that without the proper care and attention the original documents themselves might be lost forever.

Sigh. Another “abandon all hope” situation, then?

Not yet. Remember how this article started? The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, along with other concerned parties, has filed an injunction with Guatemala’s Supreme Court, demanding that the government guarantee the preservation and protection of the documents, provide unlimited access to the archive for prosecutors and the public, and the maintain the professional staffing necessary for a fully functional archive.

Those supporting the injunction also urged the Supreme Court magistrates to carry out an on-site visit to determine firsthand the precarious situation of the archive.

Supreme Court of Guatemala

How did the judges rules?

The hearing was for the judges to receive input and updates about the current state of the archive. Their ruling will be forthcoming.

I could really use an inspiring quote right about now.

My pleasure. One of the most powerful testimonies during the hearing came from Julio Solórzano Foppa, a Guatemalan artist and activist. His mother, Alaíde Foppa, was a poet and writer who was forcibly disappeared by government forces during the armed conflict.

Julio stated, in a clear and passionate voice:

“We cannot change the terrible history of Guatemala’s past, but we can change the future. We can build a different future, a future based on knowledge and remembering, instead of denial and forgetting.” 

Did you know?

  • Guatemala’s National Police existed from 1885 until its dissolution in 1997. As a result of its notorious reputation for corruption and repression, it was disbanded by the Peace Accords signed between the Guatemalan State and the URNG guerrillas. It was replaced by the National Civilian Police (PNC). 
  • The archive is the largest single depositary of official documents ever found in Latin America.
  • The building was not only used as a document dump, but during the conflict served as a site for the illegal detention and torture of suspected “subversives.” It was known as La Isla… The Island.
  • The building housing the Archive is presently the property of the Ministry of Governance. A temporary permit exists allowing the Ministry of Culture and Sports to maintain the archive there. One possible solution being discussed is to designate the building as a Site of Memory (as in Argentina) for perpetuity.
  • A partial copy the digitalized archive is maintained by the University of Texas – Austin. It is accessible online at

U.S. Congress speaks out

In marked contrast to the conspicuously silent Trump administration, 47 members of Congress, led by representatives Norma Torres and James McGovern, have signed a letter condemning the Guatemalan government’s “pattern of anti-democratic behavior.”

Warning that, absent a strong U.S. response, “Guatemala will descend into lawlessness”, the lawmakers implore the Trump administration to immediately take the following actions:

  • Publicly condemn the Guatemalan government’s blatant disregard for the rule of law and urge the government to change course;
  • Suspend assistance for, and equipment transfers to, the central government of Guatemala. The suspended assistance should be redirected to non-governmental programs that directly benefit the Guatemalan people.
  • Utilize the authority provided in the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Corruption Accountability Act to hold corrupt Guatemalan government officials accountable through travel and financial sanctions;
  • Strongly and publicly support human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the country in their exercise of fundamental rights.

Carta abierta – Apoyo a la CICIG

Guatemala, 7 de enero de 2019

Antonio Guterres
Secretario General
Organización de Naciones Unidas

Sr. Guterres

Las organizaciones y personas abajo firmantes hemos sido parte de la lucha contra la impunidad y la corrupción por años; todas realizamos esfuerzos por impulsar los Acuerdos de Paz y, desde ese compromiso, apoyamos a la CICIG y su trabajo. Guatemala se ha empobrecido mientras la corrupción y el crimen organizado ha enriquecido a los grupos responsables de la exclusión así como a una clase política sorda a las necesidades del país.

La labor de la CICIG en transferencia de capacidades desde su inicio, propuestas de reformas -incluidas las reformas constitucionales- y los importantes avances en persecución penal de estructuras criminales –incluidas CIACS- nos han fortalecido como sociedad y permitido mejorar nuestros esfuerzo por el cambio.

Una alianza de corruptos, organizaciones criminales y CIACS han tomado control de los poderes del Estado y desde el Ejecutivo y un sector del Legislativo pretenden atentar contra la Constitución desacatando las resoluciones del máximo tribunal constitucional; utilizando una disputa con la CICIG como excusa para detener no solo los avances en materia de justicia sino también en la exigibilidad y vigencia de DDHH. Esto se ha evidenciado en la crisis institucional generada el 5 y 6 de enero donde el aparato estatal hizo todo lo posible para desobedecer órdenes constitucionales para impedir el ingreso de un investigador de la Comisión.

Ante esta situación, como guatemaltecos y guatemaltecas y como miembros de los pueblos originarios Maya, Xinca y Garífuna le pedimos que confirme el nombramiento de la persona que ocupará la Comisión Adjunta de la CICIG; así como apoye el retorno de Iván Velásquez al país ya que varios jueces y la Corte de Constitucionalidad han tomado decisiones en el marco de la ley para defender los avances en contra de la impunidad y confirmar que la CICIG debe seguir trabajando y no puede impedirse el ingreso de ninguno de sus miembros.

En sus relaciones con representantes de Guatemala, tome en cuenta que toda acción formal que realicen en contra de órdenes constitucionales expresas carece de legalidad y de legitimidad

Nosotros reconocemos que el Secretario General no trabaja para uno o varios gobiernos; sino para los pueblos del mundo. Por ello, le solicitamos que sea firme en su apoyo a la paz en Guatemala manteniendo su respaldo a la CICIG y apoyando que todos su funcionarios regresen al país.


Carta Abierta al Secretario General de la ONU – Respaldo al CICIG

Las firmantes consideramos que esta decisión del Presidente Morales amenaza los avances alcanzados en la persecución de grupos criminales partícipes de abusos de poder y violaciones de derechos humanos. La forma en que el anuncio fue hecho, con fuerte presencia militar alrededor del Presidente, en la capital y otras ciudades del país, hace temer a los guatemaltecos el retorno al pasado reciente de terror militar y se interpreta en la sociedad civil como una amenaza al ejercicio de los derechos civiles y políticos y del derecho a defender derechos humanos.

Por esta razón, Excelencia, pedimos a usted realizar todas las gestiones a su alcance para que se garantice la continuidad del trabajo de la CICIG y su Comisionado Iván Velásquez en condiciones de libertad, seguridad y sin represalias de ningún tipo.


Front Line Award for Ixquisis

Front Line press conference

Front Line Defenders, the Ireland-based human rights organization, today recognized the communities of Ixquisis, in northern Huehuetenango, for their nonviolent defense of the environment.

Presenting its 2018 Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk in the Americas, Front Line praised the communities’ “collective efforts and peaceful struggle to defend their rights to land and environmental justice.”

Joel Raymundo de Ixquisis“We are in a very difficult struggle, we are growing old, but we want the future generations -our families, our children- to be able to enjoy the blessings that God had given us so that we may live on this earth.”
– Joel Raymundo, Ixquisis defender

Front Line commended the communities’ work “in response to the grave human rights violations committed in the name of ‘economic development’ in Guatemala,” specifically the imposition of hydroelectric projects that are causing environmental damage and social conflict.

The government has authorities destructive mining and hydroelectric mega-projects in the region despite the widespread opposite from the 59 villages and 7 communities in the municipality. Human rights defenders in the Peaceful Resistance risk their lives to defend the territory. In 2017 alone, there were more than 75 reported attacks against defenders in the Peaceful Resistance including killings, shootings, harassment, and defamation campaigns. – Front Line

The Human Rights Defender’s Project congratulates the families of Ixquisis for this important recognition of their valiant struggle to defend their land, water, and environment!

Here is a brief, excellent video about the Ixquisis resistance (with English subtitles):