Wednesday, November 23, 2005

75 million pages lift lid on Guatemala's secrets

By Ginger Thompson The New York Times
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2005

GUATEMALA CITY The reams and reams of mildewed police documents, tied in messy bundles and stacked from floor to ceiling, look on first sight like a giant trash heap. But human rights investigators are calling it a treasure hidden in plain sight.
In Guatemala, a nation still groping for the whole truth about decades of state-sponsored kidnapping and killing, the estimated 75 million pages promise a trove of new evidence for the victims, and perhaps the last best hope for some degree of justice.
Last summer, authorities from the Guatemalan human rights ombudsman's office searched a munitions depot here. They discovered what appear to be all the files of the National Police, an agency so inextricably linked to human rights abuses during Guatemala's 36-year civil war that it was disbanded as part of the peace accords signed in 1996.
At that time, the government of Álvaro Arzú, then the Guatemalan president, was struggling to usher this country through an uncertain transition to peace. His government told a truth commission that the police files did not exist. It now seems clear, human rights investigators say, that Arzú's government, as well as those that followed, knew about the files all along.
In the months since the files were discovered, archivists have kept them closed to the public and much of the press because of concerns that the files could be pilfered or destroyed. In addition, the archivists say they need time to do a preliminary examination to get a sense of what is in the files.
Following repeated requests, the ombudsman's office agreed to allow The New York Times to visit the files last week after a rudimentary security system had been installed and archivists had begun taking samples of documents from the files.
What remains unclear, investigators said, was why officials in Guatemala's prior governments - particularly the police - did not destroy the files, even though they appear to hold evidence of egregious abuses. Now that the archive has been found, almost 10 years after the end of the fighting that left at least 200,000 people dead, a new government, struggling to maintain a fledgling peace, is still grappling with how to proceed.
"This presents a serious challenge for the government because there are going to be a lot of powerful names coming out of the files, and the justice system is very weak," Frank LaRue, director of the Guatemalan Presidential Commission on Human Rights, said in an interview. "But the government remains committed to opening the archive, and prosecuting people responsible for crimes."
Later he toned down his statement, saying, "I am not sure everyone in the government would agree with that."
It is not the first batch of government documents uncovered since the end of the war. Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the U.S. National Security Archive, a nonprofit group based in Washington, pointed out that last year the government quietly opened the files of a former presidential intelligence agency, which was also accused of systematic human rights abuses and ordered disbanded. And in 1999, an activities log for a secret military unit responsible for kidnapping and killing government opponents was smuggled out of the military's files.
The intelligence agency files had been ransacked before human rights investigators could get to them. The National Police files - mildewy and messy, but still intact - promise the most complete accounting of the government's campaign against people suspected of being leftists, a campaign initiated with money and advice from the U.S. government.
As a precondition for opening the files to viewing by the press last week, an investigator for the ombudsman's office, Gustavo Meoño, asked that specific details from documents describing extrajudicial kidnappings and killings, including names of victims and police officers, not be published.
"We have to act very carefully with this archive," Meoño said. "We do not want to unduly raise the expectations of the victims. And, for our safety, and for the safety of the files, we don't want to unduly frighten the people who are identified as perpetrators."
Everything seems to be there, from traffic tickets and driver's license applications to spy logs and interrogation records. There are hundreds of rolls of film and video, along with snapshots of unidentified bodies, detainees and informants.
There are entire file cabinets marked "disappeared," "assassins" and "special cases." And there are stacks of arrest records that list "Communist" as the reason suspects were arrested.
Sergio Morales, the head of the ombudsman's office, has previously told Guatemalan reporters that the archive contained lists of children kidnapped from suspected guerrillas along with the names of the families who agreed to take them in.
Meoño said there were files that refer to well-known cases, including the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist. He said a team of Belgian lawyers investigating the assassination in 1980 of Walter Voordeckers, a Belgian priest, and the disappearance of Serge Berten, another Belgian citizen, in 1982 found files on those cases during a visit to Guatemala last September. The investigators got the Guatemalan government to subpoenaed the former chief of the national police, Germán Chupina, for the first time since the end of the war.
"I show you these," Meoño said, referring to documents from the archives, "to make clear to you that we have great hopes that this archive is going to clear up mysteries that have tormented this country for decades."
That seemed to be clear to the directors of archival projects around the world, including Iraq, Cambodia, and Serbia, who visited the police files here last week. The question that ran through many of their minds, they said, was the same one that ran through their minds when they first examined damning files kept by regimes led by dictators like Saddam Hussein and organizations like the Khmer Rouge.
"The government denied the archive's existence all these years," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, as he looked around the files. "But when they had the chance, they didn't destroy it?"
Hassan Mneimneh, of the Iraq Memory Files, said he was not surprised at all.
"Ultimately these files are the institutional memory of the bureaucracy," he said. "To expect a bureaucracy to destroy its files is to expect it to commit suicide."
Heriberto Cifuentes, a Guatemalan historian who was among the first outsiders to see the files, said the fact that the government did not destroy the files reflects a simple fact of Guatemalan life.
"Impunity reigns in Guatemala," he said. "So whether there are documents or not, people responsible for crimes do not expect to pay for them. They have always enjoyed blanket immunity."

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