Without a Trace

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

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.  


A book with portraits of people and names

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. 


Two hands holding a document with four photos of the same person.

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.


A room filled with archives.

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. 

A person in an archive room is taking notes.

The Archive's Guatemala Project Director Kate Doyle visited the police archives in August and again in September [2005]. 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:


See more of Russel Johnsen's posts
If we're going to discuss and appropriate human rights abuses in Guatemala lets look to the source. I'm sorry to say that you've missed the source by a light year. Certainly the people on the ground were the forces of Guatemala but you're ignoring the actions of American companies in the Banana Republics as well as the operations of the USA's CIA and government in the vile activities that were a part of almost all countries in Central and South America. I'm not surprised as this is what I expected of this museum focused primarily on the Holocaust.

See more of Russel Johnsen's posts
Here's a Little During a month of testimony before the three-judge panel that found General Ríos Montt guilty last Friday, the prosecution never raised the issue of American military backing in the army’s war against leftist guerrillas. The 86-year-old former dictator barely mentioned the United States when he argued in his own defense that he had no operational command over the troops that massacred and terrorized the Maya-Ixil population during his rule in 1982 and 1983. “This was a trial about Guatemala, about the structure of the country, about racism,” said Kate Doyle, a Guatemala expert at the National Security Archive in Washington, an independent research organization that seeks the release of classified government documents. Adrián Zapata, a former guerrilla who is now a professor of social sciences at the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, said that to prove a genocide charge, “it was not pertinent to point out the international context or the external actors.” But Washington’s cold war alliance with General Ríos Montt three decades ago was not forgotten in the giant vaulted courtroom, where the current American ambassador, Arnold A. Chacon, sat as a spectator in a show of support for the trial.

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