Saturday, April 11, 2009

Records of Guatemala's disappeared

Every now and then, I come across a story that really makes me think about the importance of archives -- and the dangers that sometimes confront archivists and other people committed to preserving the historical record and demanding accountability from their government.

Earlier today, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the Guatemalan government's efforts to provide access to records documenting the actions of the army and national police during the country's long and extremely bloody civil war. Over 200,000 people were killed during the conflict, and approximately 40,000 disappeared without a trace. The fates of many people who disappeared are documented in records that were created by the Guatemalan national police, who subsequently tossed the documents into a disused munitions depot and left them to rot there. Civilian authorities inadvertently discovered the records in 2005, and archivists then began cataloging and scanning them; to date, roughly 7.5 million of an estimated 80 million documents have been digitized.

Approximately two weeks ago, the government began making the scanned images publicly accessible. Some of the digitized records consist of photographs of arrested students and labor leaders, and others provide detailed directions about how to spy on people who were subsequently kidnapped and murdered.

Although relatives of people who disappeared or were killed are glad that these records are being made accessible, other people fear being named as informants or perpetrators -- and at least a few of the latter are intent on keeping old crimes buried. On 24 March, Sergio Morales, the Guatemalan government's human rights ombudsman, released a public report concerning the records. The next day, his wife was kidnapped, drugged, tortured for several hours, and then released; her release may have been an attempt to lure Morales to a secluded place where he could be killed, but he and his wife were reunited without incident.

Morales and the archivists are nonetheless pressing on: records the archivists have processed have led to the issuance of arrest warrants for several people, and given that they have processed less than 10 percent of the records in the archives, it's highly likely that their work will result in many more criminal cases.

Given the horrific experience of Morales's wife, I think it's fair to say that the archivists responsible for processing the Guatemalan police records are working in a fairly risky environment. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work in stable democracies speak quite frequently about the importance of archives in holding government accountable, but we tend to focus on corruption and general stupidity, not mass torture and murder. We would do well to keep in mind that the accountability concerns of colleagues in many countries do center upon torture and murder -- and they might well pay a very high price for upholding our profession's ideals.

It is possible that the archivists working on the Guatemalan police records will be able to finish their work without incident. As the article points out, the very survival of the archives is a sign that Guatemala is moving toward the rule of law. At the time of its discovery by civil authorities, the archives was guarded by Ana Corado, a police officer who had been given the task because she had spurned her superior's advances. She began trying to care for the files, and when her supervisor ordered her to burn the documents, she refused on the grounds that unauthorized destruction of records was against the law. Despite her defiance, Corado is still a police officer, which would not have been the case a short time ago:
"If this had happened 20 years ago, I wouldn't be alive," Corado said. "I would be disappeared."
Moreover, the Guatemalan government is also seeking to declassify military records documenting the army's campaigns against leftist guerillas, which often resulted in the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. Although the army is resisting this effort, the government has established an archives to house these records and continues to press for their release.

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