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.

The archives have yielded revelations about Colom's family. Files contain details of 20 years of police surveillance of the president's uncle, Manuel Colom Argueta, a popular former mayor who was assassinated in 1979 in an operation that employed military helicopters.

"People who committed crimes or who collaborated are afraid they will be found out. All of the names are there," said Sergio Morales, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman.

Morales released a report about the archives on March 24 and announced they would be open to the public. The next morning, kidnappers seized his wife, Gladys Monterroso, at a restaurant.

"It was terrifying. They tortured her, burned her, choked her, drugged her," he said in an interview at his office.

She was released that night and called family. Morales picked her up, accompanied by the defense minister and security. Sources said authorities suspected the kidnappers were using her to lure him to a place where he could be assassinated.

Morales said the attack was hauntingly similar to the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was beaten to death with a concrete slab in April 1998 in his rectory in Guatemala City after he released a report on the human cost of the war. In 2001, three army officers were convicted in the slaying.

"Bishop Gerardi released the human rights report and they killed him," Morales said. "And in my case, they kidnapped my wife. They are using violence to spread fear."

The case of the disappeared labor leader, Fernando García, was dormant until recent months, when archivists began to recover his police file, piece by piece. Authorities last month arrested Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos, a regional police commander based in Quetzaltenango, and retired policeman Abraham Lancerio Gómez. There are warrants for the arrest of others as well.

The police archives might have been destroyed before their discovery in July 2005 had it not been for Ana Corado, an unassuming, bespectacled police officer.

Corado said she had been assigned to the archive six months earlier as punishment by a police supervisor she refused to date.

She found a filthy, depressingly dark concrete-block building strewn with papers soiled with rat and bird droppings.

Police brought truckloads of new files, mixed with used condoms, toilet paper and underwear, dumping them "like trash" in the parking lot, she said.

Corado began to bundle the papers. One day the supervisor ordered her to burn them. She told him that unauthorized destruction would be a crime.

When a police munitions depot blew up nearby, worried residents demanded a search of the mysterious facility. One investigator, historian Heriberto Cifuentes, spotted the papers through a window and asked to take a look. Morales, the human rights ombudsman, secured the facility while workers sorted through photos of bodies, traffic tickets, surveillance transcripts and records of people arrested on the charge of "communist."

"If this had happened 20 years ago, I wouldn't be alive," Corado said. "I would be disappeared."

A handful of people trek to the facility each day. Some fear giving their names or going alone.

Julia Poyon Cumez, a receptionist, has asked friends who also want to search the archives to go with her. Her father, Felipe Poyon, a Catholic catechist, was kidnapped by authorities in 1981 in San Juan Comalapa, the home town of her close family of weavers and primitive painters, scattered since the war.

"I would feel better knowing what happened to him, though I will also be very sad to know how they murdered him and what they did to him before," she said.

Colom said his government is bracing for the declassification of military archives of the scorched-earth campaigns against leftist guerrillas, in which entire villages were destroyed and their inhabitants massacred.

For those who could be held responsible, Colom said, "these archives raise a lot of fears."

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