Secret files open window on Guatemala’s violent past
Latin Americans say justice necessary for reconciliation

Paul Jeffrey

In a maze of dark rooms filled with endless piles of moldy files, investigators in Guatemala’s capital are beginning to comb through some 80 million pages of secret records kept by the country’s national police. The records date back more than a century, and their dusty and faded pages promise unique insight into the mechanisms of repression employed for decades by Guatemala’s brutal governments.

The files were discovered by accident two years ago when investigators searched for abandoned munitions in some decrepit buildings inside a police compound. More than 200 people, working two shifts, are dusting off and scanning the files, focusing first on records from 1975 to 1985–the worst violence of a 36-year civil war in which over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, most by government agents. Like similar processes of uncovering the past in other Latin American countries, the investigation promises to bring closure and healing to many families who have never learned the fate of friends or family who were disappeared by the region’s military regimes.

“There are as many as 45,000 families of disappeared persons, families which can’t end their grieving. The military and the police took away our right to life, but they also took away our right to death,” said Alberto Fuentes, an official of the Guatemalan human rights prosecutor’s office who manages the day to day recovery of the archives. Mr. Fuentes’ brother Julio was disappeared in 1982.

Hilda Morales, a professor of human rights law at the University of San Carlos, says she can’t count how many disappeared she knew. “There are so many people I know who lost their sister or husband or child, and they don’t know to this day what happened to them. For a long time we had the slogan that since they took them away alive, we want them back alive. But it’s been a long time. Now people just want to know what happened, and they want to know where to find the bones of their loved ones,” said Ms. Morales.

Financed largely by European governments, the operation may be the largest of its kind in the world. Secret archives have been discovered in other countries emerging from dictatorships and wars, and experts from Cambodia, Serbia, and other countries have come to share expertise. Trudy Huskamp Peterson, a former acting archivist of the U.S. National Archives, drew up a detailed plan of how to manage so much information. The documentation is carefully managed in order to preserve the chain of custody that will be necessary should any of the documents ever be used in court against those who tortured and disappeared civilians.

The government long denied that such records existed. The 1998 report of a United Nations-supervised truth commission includes 165 pages of letters that the commission wrote to the president and other government officials demanding access to police and military records from the civil war, which ended in 1996, but the commission always received the reply that such records didn’t exist.

Nor are there any files from the military, the most brutal and criminal armed force in the hemisphere at the time. Human rights activists had long hoped to discover the army’s archives, which would shed light on the scorched earth campaigns that wiped out hundreds of villages. There is little hope now of finding those; if they still existed two years ago, the discovery of the police records most likely provoked their destruction.

Guatemala is a dangerous place to dig up the past; in 1998, a Catholic bishop was assassinated two days after releasing a detailed report on who was responsible for the violence during the civil war. As a result, strict security measures are in place at the archives. Scanned documents are immediately backed up on a remote server in Switzerland. Staff aren’t allowed to travel to or from work alone. A few foreign journalists have been allowed in, although they’re not allowed to photograph individual records.

Much of the paperwork being recovered is the daily minutiae of bureaucracy: a register of when vehicles were checked in and out from the car pool, photos of bodies catalogued before burial, lists of payments to informers.

Reading through them can be emotionally trying, says Velia Muralles, who heads a section assigned with interpreting what they find in the archives. “To see our loved ones, to see friends from the university, their bodies disfigured by torture, with 15 or 20 bullet holes in them, to read lists of children who were captured and sent to live with military families or adopted to foreign couples, it’s all painful. And it’s amazing to see the comprehensive control the police exercised. They have photos of demonstrations. Details of killings. Lists of who came to the funeral, and what they said to each other. Who showed up at the Mass of eight days. There was a complete control before, during, and after each political killing,” she said.

Why weren’t the files destroyed?

Anyone walking through room after musty room in the archives, bats roosting overhead, asks the obvious question: Why weren’t these files destroyed?

According to the director of the archive investigation, Gustavo Meoño, the question gets to the heart of what the records demonstrate.

“Everywhere they’ve found archives like this in the world, people ask this same question. Why did the Nazis not destroy their records? Why did Pol Pot hang on to documents that demonstrate the magnitude of that genocide? We’ve got to remember that no matter how atrocious the acts were, they were administrative measures. And administrative actions have to be documented,” he said.

“The only way a state functionary can prove that they’ve done their job is to compile a written record and file it away. But what are for us shameful crimes against humanity, for the perpetrator it’s simply a matter of complying with patriotic duty. There’s a tendency to leave proof of their contribution, even in expectation of material or moral compensation. When these archives were compiled, those who elaborated these documents and filed them away felt all powerful. They felt that their power was never going to end. And if the people changed, the system would remain. Impunity guaranteed that there would be no negative consequences,” Mr. Meoño said.

In addition to opening up a unique viewpoint on this Central American nation’s political history, particularly the support and training the police received from the U.S. government, Mr. Meoño says that in reading documents from the archives he’s come to understand better the idiosyncracies of Guatemalans.

“When I read through almost 120 years of police history, I can understand better why we Guatemalans are like we are, our characteristics of timidity, lack of trust, of being afraid to express what we think or feel. You can understand this better when you see how decade after decade we’ve lived with a situation of control. People were infiltrated into every type of organization of the state, in the universities, in churches and sports teams. Wherever you went there was someone there listening to what you said, taking note of what you read, and all of this was passed to the head of the police,” he said.

This authoritarian attitude of the state over the decades began to take root in the soul of individuals and families throughout Guatemala, says Ms. Morales.

“We’re all repressed, we’re all timid. We’re afraid to speak, because speaking out means expressing what we think, and that’s been sanctioned for centuries,” she said. “This is reflected in our families, the majority of which are authoritarian. Who is in charge? Men. And women and children must submit to them. An authoritarian society produces authoritarian families.”

Such authoritarianism spawns repressive violence, she says. A wave of unsolved murders of women has plagued this Central American nation in recent years, and Ms. Morales argues the killings are related to how women were treated differently during the war. While soldiers usually killed men outright, they would often force women to do domestic chores, then they would rape them, and only then kill them.

“Many people in this country grew up surrounded by violence, witnessing how people were repressed and yet no one faced any consequences for it. Impunity ruled. It’s the same modus operandi we’re seeing today with the assassinations of women, the same torture and killing,” she said. “Then it was anticommunism, now it’s women who step out of traditional roles and express themselves in public. If women, especially indigenous women, gained anything in the war is that they now have a public voice, and more opportunities to participate. Before, you didn’t see many indigenous women in the universities, but now you see many. Although there aren’t enough, there are many women working in the public sphere today. Some men believe that violence is a manner to force women to return to traditional roles. You are transgressors, subversive like those we killed in the war. So women have to die. And just as there was impunity for the killers then, there’s impunity today for the killers of women.”

Only road to national reconciliation

The investigation of the archives will take years, but researchers plan an initial report soon. Former military and police officials certainly won’t like it, but Mr. Meoño says the risk is worth it.

“Knowing the truth is the only road to national reconciliation. Of course there will be negative reactions. Many of the authors of these crimes against humanity are still alive, and still maintain quotas of power. So anything could happen. But our posture has been clear and unequivocal. We’re committed to truth and justice and memory, without concessions to anyone. There’s too much at stake for our future, and for the viability of Guatemala as a nation,” he said.

Mr. Meoño says those who are worried about the archives are thinking not just of the past.

“The state of Guatemala has been constructed upon a strategy of impunity. While that was a means for some sectors, it’s become an end in itself. We have a state that is based on impunity because the powerful need it to avoid justice, in order to survive politically and economically. They need impunity because their businesses are linked to organized crime or state corruption,” Mr. Meoño said. “This effort will contribute to unmasking the past, and will produce a reaction in which wider sectors of civil society will get involved in changing Guatemala in the future.”

As investigators comb the archives, others continue to exhume mass graves throughout the countryside. The director of the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology, Fredy Peccerelli, the country’s largest grave digging group, has faced repeated death threats for his work. But he argues that he isn’t the culprit.

“We are the least political people around,” Mr. Peccerelli said. “We’re scientists who try to solve crimes, and thus dignify the victims, providing evidence to the police and to the public prosecutor. We’re rewriting the history of Guatemala through science. Nothing of what we do involves pointing out the responsible ones. Who is doing the pointing are the thousands of cadavers they left behind.”

Sidebar: The region faces up to its past

Guatemala is not alone in the region in wrestling with its past. A U.N.-sponsored truth commission investigated who was responsible for the massacres and death squads in neighboring El Salvador after that country’s civil war came to an end in 1992, but the names of those implicated were kept secret. Half-truths about the past yield little change in the future. In the lexicon of Latin America today, no justice means no reconciliation.

Yet the times are changing. In Chile, Peru, Uruguay and elsewhere, government officials have joined human rights activists and church leaders in recognizing that reconciliation without justice is a cheap bargain that leaves the future subject to the same brutal insanity that reigned in the past.

When Nestor Kirchner became president in Argentina in 2003 after an unprecedented period of social and economic turmoil, his attention was focused not only on restoring international credit and boosting employment. Kirchner also quickly repealed two amnesties for lower-ranking officers that were passed in the eighties, and undid pardons granted to rights-violating generals. While the amnesty and pardons had played a significant role at the time in preventing barracks rebellions and allowing the country’s nascent democracy to solidify, Kirchner’s moves signaled that the pragmatic deal struck with militaries throughout the region was no longer in force. Democracy, it seems, had matured enough to take on its enemies.

The former Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, where as many as 5,000 political prisoners were tortured to death, is in the process of becoming the official Museum of Memory. A mass grave containing more than 120 skeletons was dug up near Cordoba. A former police official was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006 for crimes against humanity. Scores of other military officials are worried they’ll face a similar fate. France, Sweden and Germany all have requested the extradition of some of the worst violators, and one former naval officer, convicted in 2005, is serving a 30-year sentence in Spain for crimes against humanity.

Yet the villains weren’t all Argentines. At the height of the Argentine military’s dirty war in the seventies, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Argentine foreign minister that the U.S. government supported the murders, according to a recently declassified U.S. document.

“Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed,” Kissinger reassured Navy Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti in a 1976 meeting in New York City, according to the notes of a State Department secretary contained in a seven-page cable obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Washington-based National Security Archive. “I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed, the better.”

Earlier in the conversation, Guzzetti had assured Kissinger that the counterinsurgency campaign would be finished by the end of that year. Yet Guzzetti, according to another State Department cable, returned home from the Kissinger meeting “in a state of jubilation.” The killings continued for the next two years; between 9,000 and 30,000 people were executed or disappeared.

Kissinger has long refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, despite the fact that he was a principle architect of Operation Condor, the U.S.-sponsored regional network of repression in the Southern Cone.