Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Archives and justice in Guatemala

Over the past few months, the National Security Archive has been posting about developments in the continuing struggle to recover historical truth and obtain justice for past atrocities in Guatemala, including the central role played by archived documents.

They’ve reported, for example, that
On January 26, 2012, a Guatemalan court determined that there is sufficient evidence to formally charge former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity. The ruling marks a dramatic turning point in Guatemalan efforts to redress the worst human rights violations in recent Latin American history perpetrated by the military against indigenous peoples during Ríos Montt’s “scorched earth” counterinsurgency operations in the 1980s.

…Ríos Montt is accused of laying the foundation for the military plans Victoria 82, Firmeza 83, and Plan Sofia in which the military used counterinsurgency operations to “exterminate subversive elements,” including the elderly, women, and children.
Important to the prosecution will be establishing the chain of command, and archives are key. (Plans Victoria 82 and Firmeza 83 have not been disclosed, and the National Security Archive is calling for their release.) For some insight into the complexities involved, see Writing History in International Criminal Trials:

(Not Wilson’s best work, but worthwhile for those interested in these questions.)

They’ve also reported on the discovery of the remains of two men who were death-squad victims in 1983:
The National Security Archive recently published an electronic briefing book detailing the discovery of the remains of two victims listed in the famous “death squad diary.” The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, a non-profit based out of Guatemala City, was able to identify the remains using DNA, as reported in their press statement on November 22.

The remains of Amancio Samuel Villatoro (death squad diary entry number 74) and Sergio Saúl Linares Morales (death squad diary entry number 55) were found in a mass grave at the former military detachment in Comalapa, Chimaltenango.

These two men were abducted by security forces in early 1983; their families never heard from them again. Their fates were not known until 1999 when the National Security Archive publicly released the death squad diary which recorded the disappearance of 183 people, including Villatoro and Linares. The handwriting at the bottom of their entries in the log book records the date they were murdered, March 29, 1984, and indicates their murder with the code “300.”

Here is a more detailed description of their lives and deaths.

Finally, there is the full public digitized release of the archives of the Guatemalan National Police, covering its entire century of existence.
In a public event held in Guatemala City today, Friday, December 9, the Guatemalan Historical Archive of the National Police (Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional—AHPN) and the University of Texas at Austin unveiled an extraordinary collaboration by making 10 million pages of digitalized police records available to researchers on a special Web site hosted by the university….

The project permits researchers from anywhere in the world to examine the entire digitalized collection of Guatemalan police documents via the Internet, without having to travel physically to Guatemala to see them in the archive’s reading room. Following the guidelines established by the AHPN, access is wholly unrestricted, and the collection will continue to grow as the police archive digitalizes additional records and makes the images available to UT Austin.
This is unprecedented, but not without ethical problems:
The decision on the part of the Guatemalan Police Archive to provide unrestricted digital access to records that contain countless references to private individuals – many of them entrapped by a security system designed to identify suspected subversives and kidnap or kill them solely on the basis of those suspicions – is highly controversial within the archiving world. Even in countries with no formal privacy or archive laws such as Guatemala, standard archival practice strives to protect the privacy of the victims of repression – whether by withholding entire records or selectively deleting individual names and other identifying information.
I remember reading about the elaborate protocol people had to follow to have access to their own files in post-Communist East Germany.

Those responsible in Guatemala went in an entirely different direction:
Citing several legal instruments, including Guatemala’s Constitution and an article in the country’s freedom of information law that prohibits the denial of records relating to gross human rights violations, the report, From Silence to Memory: Revelations from the Historical Archive of the National Police, found: “The armed internal conflict and repressive practices characterized a recent historic period in Guatemala that affected and continues to affect society enormously. In the face of this reality, the conclusion is inevitable that the political events that took place between 1960 and 1996 form part of the collective history of the Nation. This should be understood in its fullest dimension, so that no one has the right to hide information that comes from the actions by the State and its officials.” (See pp. 37-39)
I haven’t yet read this report, don’t know if the conversation and debate about going ahead was inclusive enough, and am unsure as to whether the right to truth so fully outweighs the protection of victims’ privacy, but this is a significant development.

No comments:

Post a Comment