Justice Can Prevail in Guatemala

A march for justice in Guatemala

It has been frustrating to witness as powerful forces in Guatemala have implemented an authoritarian agenda of closing political spaces, limiting access to historical documents, labeling as ‘terrorist’ those who oppose state policies, and weakening the protections for human rights and those who defend them.

Thankfully individuals, organizations and communities have been working together to resist these perverse efforts, through meetings, forums, publications, public protests, and legal actions.

Their efforts have not been in vain.

In the past 48 hours Guatemala’s two highest courts have handed down important rulings that help preserve the rule of law and access to truth and justice. 

Lifting the Limits on Nonprofits

Yesterday afternoon the Constitutional Court provisionally suspended the regressive legislation (Bill 5257, signed into law as Decree 4-2020) that puts at risk the work of nonprofit organizations in Guatemala. The Court stated that the bill “poses a threat to human rights.”

The court added that “the rights to freedom of assembly and to freedom of association provide protection against arbitrary interference by the state and are fundamental to the existence and functioning of a democratic society.”

Bringing the Truth to Light

Just hours ago, the Guatemalan Supreme Court upheld the request of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) to guarantee the protection and full functioning of the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN).

The Archive has played an important role by providing evidence leading to the conviction of high-level police and military officials for crimes they committed during the armed conflict. For that reason, it has come under attack by those advancing an agenda of state-sponsored amnesia, amnesty, and impunity.

“Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, 1984

The former Minister of the Interior (and head of the National Civilian Police), Enrique Degenhart, even tried to restrict access to the archives alleging that “they contain sensitive information concerning national security.”

The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of protecting and perpetuating this national resource for years to come.

In their groundbreaking ruling, the magistrates:

  • Declared that, as “a guarantee of the no-repetition” of the crimes committed during the armed conflict, any jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior over the archive has been terminated.
  • Ordered the Ministry of the Interior “to cease adopting measures that threaten the integrity of the archive” affirming that the Ministry of Culture has “exclusive jurisdiction to determine the necessary measures for its conservation, protection, and care.”
  • Ordered the Ministry of the Interior to guarantee the permanent use and/or transfer of the building housing the Archive to the Ministry of Culture.
  • Urged the Ministry of Culture to officially designate the Archive as a “a National Cultural Heritage.”
  • Ordered the Ministry of Culture -in no more than four months- to adopt the necessary financial and administrative measures, along with hiring sufficient numbers of qualified personnel, to guarantee the continuity and sustainability of the archival process. 
  • Also ordered the Ministry of Culture, in that same time period, to design and implement a plan for the conservation and safeguarding of the Archive according to international standards relating to “the right to the truth” and the United Nation’s “updated Set of Principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity.” In order to create this plan, the Ministry should consult with renowned national and international archival experts.

Guatemala often feels like a “one step forward, two steps back” kind of country, at least as far as respect for human rights is concerned. These two rulings, however, provide a glimmer of hope that justice can prevail even in the most difficult of circumstances.

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

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)