Without a Trace
August 30th was International Day of the Disappeared. This week’s blog entry looks at forced disappearances perpetrated by Guatemalan authorities during the civil war (1960s-1990s) where more than 200,000 people were killed and 45,000 were made to disappear.
Without a Trace
Imagine waking, late at night, to a pounding on your door. Armed government agents grab one of your loved ones, and speed away in an unmarked car. The next morning, your questions at the police station go unanswered. They claim they have no records of any arrest. Day after day, you hope for their return, not knowing if they are still alive. No records, no evidence of the crime, or what happened to the victim after their abduction. How do you fight for justice, when there is no record that an injustice occurred?
The secret abduction of a person by a government or its agents is called an “enforced disappearance.” Victims are held captive without any legal protections and are often tortured, sexually assaulted and eventually executed. Their fate remains unknown to their friends and families.
Dozens of logbooks and ledgers have been found, containing the names and photos of countless [Guatemalan] detainees. This one is dated July 24, 1967. (Photo Courtesy National Security Archives)
Enforced Disappearance is a crime
Since the end of the war in 1996, Guatemalans have struggled to recover historical memory and bring perpetrators to justice in the aftermath of these violations. The 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance makes secret abduction and imprisonment a crime in international law, and seeks to make governments accountable for enforced disappearances.
Although it will take time before the first set of documents can be opened for public access, the files will provide families of the disappeared a wealth of new evidence about the Guatemalan government's operations during the conflict. (Photo Courtesy National Security Archives)
The Right to Truth
There is an undeniable link between archives (documentary and historical evidence) and human rights. Archival records can be used to enforce or protect individual and collective rights. They can be a means of reconciliation and healing, and they can be a means of prosecution and the right to justice where rights have been violated.
While archival records can be used to protect rights, they can also serve as a means of oppression. Records created by the Guatemalan National Police Force, key security enforcers during the civil war, were used to track, enable and report on their pursuit of “subversives.”
Documentation can be a powerful tool for controlling citizens and for manipulating the truth. When a commission was created to look into the violence of the Guatemalan civil war, all requests for documentation were refused. Officials claimed that records had been destroyed, or did not exist.
Newly-discovered Guatemalan police records fill dozens of rooms in five buildings on an active police compound in Zone 6, downtown Guatemala City. (Photo Courtesy National Security Archives, © Daniel Hernández-Salazar)
In 2005, while investigating claims of unsafe munitions storage, the human rights office of the Guatemalan government discovered a massive collection of documents. Spread through 5 buildings and totalling over 75 million pages, these were the records of the Guatemalan National Police.
The Archive's Guatemala Project Director Kate Doyle visited the police archives in August and again in September . The buildings in which the documents are kept are so deteriorated from the presence of trash, vermin and mold, that employees working with the records risk serious health hazards (Photo Courtesy National Security Archives)
Since their discovery, archivists have dedicated years to sorting, cleaning, describing and deciphering these records in order to find out what happened to the over 200,000 victims of the civil war.
Beginning in 2008, Guatemala’s courts have begun to try people accused of perpetrating enforced disappearances during the war. The discovery of this archive has given families of the disappeared the right to truth. The right to know the fate of their loved ones. The right to the pursuit of justice.
By Heather Bidzinski, Head of Collections
In collaboration with Clint Curle, Researcher
The blog authors would like to acknowledge the kind generosity of Kate Doyle, National Security Archive, for granting permission to use the above photos and for providing additional background information.
For more information:
- The National Security Archive and the discovery of the Guatemalan National Policy Historical Archive.
- The Digital Archive of the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive website, containing over 10 million scanned images of documents from the National Police Historical Archive.
- The International Day of the Disappeared.