Memory at Risk

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 https://ahpn.lib.utexas.edu

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