The Emerging Secrets of Guatemala's Disappeared

By Anne-Marie O'Connor
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 11, 2009

GUATEMALA CITY -- For years the national police dumped millions of old files in a onetime munitions depot inhabited by bats.

About two weeks ago, authorities opened the door to the warehouse, stacked floor to ceiling with musty papers. Now Guatemalans are using the documents to search for information about loved ones murdered or disappeared in the long dirty war against critics of security forces.

"For 25 years we knew absolutely nothing," said Alejandra García Montenegro, 26, who was a baby when her father, labor leader Fernando García, left for a meeting in February 1984 -- when Guatemala was under military rule -- and never came home.

"It was as if the earth had swallowed up my father and he had never existed," she said. "Then a paper turns up that confirms our suspicion that he had been captured by state security."

The files were hidden by the national police and their protectors until 2005, when civil authorities accidentally discovered the warehouse. Some of the logs date to the 1880s, but the most significant archives were amassed during Guatemala's civil war, when an estimated 200,000 people died and 40,000 disappeared between 1960 and 1996.

Guatemalan human rights advocates describe the files as the largest such archive ever released in Latin America. Archivists believe there are more than 80 million documents. Many pages are in chaotic, unsorted piles, green and yellow with mold. Others are stacked neatly.

About 7.5 million documents have been catalogued and digitized so far. The files give detailed accounts of the shadowy world of police disappearances of activists, with photographs of students and labor leaders arrested by police and explicit instructions on how to spy on military critics who were later clandestinely seized and murdered.

"I don't think anyone truly believed this day would come," said Barbara Bocek, the Guatemala country specialist for Amnesty International USA. "It's an incredible achievement, especially for Guatemala. In other countries these records would be buried underground, shredded, destroyed."

The decision to open the archives has sent tremors through Guatemala, where some fear they are named as perpetrators or informants.

But the files bring hope to many Guatemalans who have spent years not knowing what happened to loved ones.

"The disappearances cause terrible suffering," Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom said in an interview at his official residence. "The national police were a very significant instrument of repression. In Guatemala, there was an armed conflict but also a systematic extermination of citizens. There were excesses. There were abuses.

"This liberation of the archives will have a positive impact in the struggle against impunity," he said.

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