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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 July 2006, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Finding Guatemala's missing
By Nick Caistor
BBC News, Guatemala

Graciela Azmitia lost four members of her family in one week at the height of the political violence in Guatemala.

Graciela Azmitia
Graciela has heard nothing from the Guatemalan authorities

First her father was abducted by members of the security forces, only a few hundred metres from where he worked in Guatemala City cathedral as personal secretary to the cardinal.

A few days later, her brother and sister also disappeared, never to be seen again.

Graciela points to the fourth name on one of the 12 pillars engraved with thousands of the victims of Guatemala's civil war, which claimed as many as 250,000 lives over three decades.

It is the name of her sister Dora's unborn child. Dora was several months pregnant when she was snatched.

"I've heard that she was seen with the baby in captivity months later. I think she may have given birth, and that child was sold or given away in adoption," she says.

Police files

In the 25 years since she lost her family, Graciela has heard nothing from the Guatemalan authorities.

Last year, the new government under President Oscar Berger published a full-page "apology" in the Guatemalan press for all that the family had suffered, but there has never been any explanation of what happened.

A room full of national police files

Now Graciela and thousands more Guatemalans in a similar situation may have the chance to find out exactly what happened to their relatives.

This is because the national police files - more than 75 million documents - have been discovered in a nondescript police building in the heart of Guatemala City.

The Guatemalan human rights ombudsman's office stumbled across them by accident in July 2005, when they went to investigate complaints that police explosives were being stored in a residential neighbourhood.

"The rooms just went on and on, piled from floor to ceiling with files of paper. None of them had been classified, and none of the police agents working there had any idea of what they contained," recalls Carla Villagran, from the ombudsman's office.

Guatemala's civil war was brought to an end in 1996 after lengthy peace talks, but never at any moment in the talks did the security forces reveal the existence of these daily records kept by all branches of the police - some of whom were deeply involved in the repression.

Piled high in room after room of a never-completed police hospital, these documents could hold the key to Guatemala's years of internal conflict.

Race against time

Some of them are simply applications for identity cards or for driving licences.

But as often as not, on the back of these same forms are details of that person's political affiliations, and when and where they were arrested by the security forces.

People like Graciela, or Jorge Hernandez, whose daughter Luz Leticia was picked up in a police operation in 1982, are hoping to find out what happened to their relatives, and if possible give them a proper burial.

Jorge Hernandez with photos of his daughter
Jorge wants to find out what happened to his daughter

"We heard from the newspapers that the police had arrested her, but after that we don't know a thing. Until Luz Leticia's death is accounted for, she is just another political disappearance," says Mirtala, her sister.

While the victims of the state violence want the documents used to bring those responsible for human rights crimes to trial, human rights ombudsman Sergio Morales is more cautious.

"The problem is you can't just pick up a folder and find all the information for a case. It's all there, but it is scattered all over the place."

But Morales also says there could well be a trial before the year is out, based on what has been found in the police archive.

The discovery of the police archive has stirred up the old political enmities in Guatemala. Mr. Morales has received several death threats, and there has been a suspicious fire near the archive building.

In a country with as divided and violent a past as Guatemala, it is a race against time to glean all that the millions of documents have to offer before time or someone keen to remove evidence destroys them forever.

If that happens, the chance will be lost to piece together the jigsaw of a state repression that cost so many thousands of lives.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday, 27 July 2006, at 1102 BST. The programme will be repeated on Monday, 31July at 2030 BST.

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