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 https://ahpn.lib.utexas.edu

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.
2019.01.07-Letter-to-President-Trump-re-Guatemala

Article: “Milestone judgement” in Guatemala

The Molina Theissen family holds a press conference

GENEVA (24 May 2018) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein today welcomed the ruling issued unanimously by the High Risk “C” Tribunal in Guatemala yesterday against four high-ranking former military officials for crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual violence and enforced disappearance.

“This is a milestone judgement for Guatemala and beyond with regards to the investigation, prosecution and punishment of serious human rights violations committed by senior military officers during an internal armed conflict,” High Commissioner Zeid said.

The High Commissioner said that this ruling, together with the jurisprudential precedents established in other transitional justice cases, such as Sepur Zarco, Dos Erres, Plan de Sánchez and Myrna Mack, sends a clear message that it is possible for Guatemala to advance in the fight against impunity of the past, which in turn, strengthens the fight against the impunity of the present and the consolidation of the rule of law.

“I pay tribute to the Molina Theissen family for their courage and perseverance to fight for over three decades for their right to justice and the truth,” Zeid said.

Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen was detained at a military checkpoint on 27 September 1981 and transferred to the “Manuel Lisandro Barillas” Military Brigade in Quetzaltenango, where she was held captive, interrogated, subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as sexual violence. She escaped on 5 October 1981.

The following day, her 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio was taken by force from the family’s home in Guatemala City, put into a nylon sack and taken to an unknown destination in a vehicle with an official Government license plate. He has never been found.

Read the entire article on the OHCHR website!

Criminalizing the LGBTI Community during Guatemala’s Internal Conflict

Criminalizing LGBTI

Report of the AHPN
Report of the AHPN – see link below

On Friday, Dania and I had the privilege of attending the presentation of a groundbreaking report entitled “Criminalization of the LGBTI Population in the Police Records, 1960 – 1990.”

The event was held at the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive (AHPN), a warehouse where millions of official police documents had been unceremoniously dumped over decades.

Thirteen years ago, this treasure trove of historic documents was rediscovered by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the process of preserving, digitizing, and cataloguing these institutional records began.

The archival work of the AHPN has played an important role in the prosecution of human rights violations and war crimes that occurred during Guatemala’s armed conflict. The information has also been essential in the reconstruction and recovery of Guatemala’s historical memory.

One of the least-discussed aspects of Guatemala’s recent history, however, has been the discrimination, exclusion, and repression of the LGBTI community at the hands of State actors and institutions.

Katia Orantes, one of the lead AHPN investigators, shared some of the chilling documents that revealed how men and women were targeted, arrested, and mistreated by the National Police simply because of their sexual orientation.

Fernando Us
Fernando Us

The director of the Archive, Gustavo Meoño, stated that documents confirm many instances where people were charged with the “crime” of being homosexual, despite the fact that homosexuality isn’t illegal.

Fernando Us, a gay rights activist, spoke eloquently about the challenges of being gay in Guatemala. “I think that reaffirming my cultural identity as a Mayan later helped me to assume my sexual identity… Our LGBTI community also faces discrimination, hate, and exclusion. More than struggling for the right to love who we please, we are fighting for the right to life itself.”

Links:

La criminalización de la población LGBTI en los registros policiales 1960-1990 (this is a very large pdf file, en español. 421 mb)

La persecución a homosexuales y el “álbum del terror” de la Policía, por Javier Estrada Tobar, de Nómada (article, español)

El Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (website, español)

Digital Archive of the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive (website, English)

Threats to Civil Society Around the World 

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Here is an invitation to join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on threats to civil society around the world:

Date: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 – 1:00pm

The hearing will be live-streamed via YouTube on the Commission website, https://humanrightscommission.house.gov/.

A healthy and functioning civil society is vital for human rights and democracy everywhere. Civil society organizations (CSOs) play a crucial role in realizing the rights protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  They educate individuals about their rights; document human rights abuses; monitor the behavior of governments, including police and security forces; and advocate for the rule of law. CSOs also contribute to development, provide disaster relief, and deliver humanitarian aid in war zones.

But in recent years, civil society has been under threat. The legal “space” in which civil society is permitted to operate is being systematically “closed.”  More and more countries are passing restrictive laws that hamper civil society organizations by limiting or even criminalizing the receipt of foreign funding, imposing onerous administrative requirements, or defaming CSOs as terrorists or foreign agents.  Even worse, advocates for human rights and political reform face torture, disappearance, and assassination. These repressive policies are no longer confined to authoritarian states or countries in transition, but are occurring in established democracies, including in close U.S. allies like India, Egypt, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

Presenters:

  • Maina Kiai, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of  peaceful assembly and of association
  • Vanessa Tucker, Vice President for Analysis, Freedom House
  • Margaret Huang, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA
  • Douglas Rutzen, President & CEO, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
  • Maria Stephan, Senior Policy Fellow, United States Institute of Peace

Source: Threats to Civil Society Around the World