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Last Updated: Monday, 5 December 2005, 15:57 GMT
Guatemala secret files uncovered
By Simon Watts
BBC News website

A 1967 book containing names and photos of detainees (National Security Archive)
Some documents contain the names and photos of detainees
Investigators in Guatemala have made a discovery that brings hope to tens of thousands of families still waiting for justice, nearly a decade after a brutal civil war.

They have found a huge archive of paperwork stored by the National Police - a force whose reputation for violence was so bad that it was disbanded as part of a peace settlement in 1996.

Officials say the archive contains 75 million pages of documents, as well as photographic and audio evidence.

Human rights groups want the discovery to kick-start government efforts to deal with the legacy of decades of state repression of left-wing guerrillas, which had a devastating effect on Guatemala's civilian population.

Kate Doyle (National Security Archive)
When you walk in, you are overcome by the smell of decay, and by awe at the sight of these staggeringly high piles of paper
Kate Doyle
National Security Archive
When investigators from the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office were summoned to a police compound in Guatemala City this summer, they could not have imagined what lay inside.

They had been called by local residents worried about the safety risk from explosives which were being stored at the compound for use as evidence in trials.

The investigators asked the police to open five deteriorating buildings in the compound. Inside were National Police documents going back about 100 years.

"When you walk in, you are overcome by the smell of decay, and by awe at the sight of these staggeringly high piles of paper," said Kate Doyle, of the National Security Archive, an American campaign group that specialises in tracing documents.

"The buildings are literally stuffed to the roof with documents, photographs, video cassettes and computer discs."

The documents are a mixture of the every day - traffic tickets, personnel records - and the potentially critical, including filing cabinets marked "Murders" and "Disappeared".

Ms Doyle, who visited the archive in August, told the BBC the papers contained "an extraordinary wealth of material about key human rights cases". One example is the killing of the renowned anthropologist, Myrna Mack.

Completing the picture

The find is particularly important because the Guatemalan security forces have always denied the existence of documentary evidence.

Guatemala's Truth Commission released a report in 1999 without access to crucial information. Its members were told either that documents did not exist or that they had been destroyed in fires.

Files are labelled by case type and year (National Security Archive)
Files are crudely labelled by case type such as "Murders"
Daniel Wilkinson, of the New-York based group Human Rights Watch, said the National Police papers would help complete the picture of how state repression worked.

"Guatemala now has documents that go into great detail about individual victims, about the operations that led to peoples' deaths," Mr Wilkinson said.

"So a lot of the holes in the history will be filled in."

Human Rights Watch says access to the documents will help relatives still waiting to bury their dead or to learn how loved ones died.

"There are tens of thousands of families in Guatemala living with the ongoing trauma of having relatives killed or disappeared," Mr Wilkinson said. "There may be information that's critical for those particular families to deal with their loss and suffering".

Protecting the documents

The first task is to safeguard the documents. Human rights activists in Guatemala say they live with death threats and unexplained raids on their offices, which they blame on shadowy right-wing groups.

The Guatemalan president's human rights adviser, Frank La Rue, told the BBC the government had responded positively to his recommendation for the archive to be protected "politically and physically".

Officials are preparing a decree to place the premises under formal state custody, and guards from the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office are already on duty.

As for the mammoth task of processing the archive, Mr La Rue said Guatemala was talking to the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, about help with funding and expertise.

The presidential adviser said the information would be made available to a planned government commission on tracing the disappeared, which will be modelled on similar panels in Argentina and Chile.


The most difficult challenge will be to use this new evidence for criminal prosecutions.

Piles of documents (National Security Archive)
The archives contain an estimated 75m pages
Mr La Rue said the government, which took office nearly two years ago, was committed to making the archive available to the attorney-general's office.

There is a "consensus" among all elements of the administration to back President Berger's human rights strategy, Mr La Rue said.

He said the security forces "have little say" because the president has halved their numbers and they have re-focused on fighting drugs.

But recent experience elsewhere in Latin America shows the military will resist strongly once their members start being put behind bars. New democratic governments have often had to compromise on some of their human rights promises.

President Berger has taken some bold steps, but the hard work starts now if he is to use this historic discovery to close with justice a dark period in Guatemalan history.

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