Update on Work in Guatemala and the AHPN

Introduction by Megan Price, executive director, HRDAG

In 2005, an amazing discovery was made in Guatemala: the official archive for the law enforcement agency known as the National Police. In this plain-looking building are stored millions of documents detailing police operations dating from 1896. Naturally, the contents of the Archive are of great value to the human rights community, as the documents contain vast potential for building a body of knowledge about what happened, where, when, how, to whom and by whom during the 36-year civil war that took place from 1960 to 1996. HRDAG has led the way in sampling and analysis of those documents, and has even provided expert testimony against war criminals based on that analysis. In 2016 we published a book,“Una mirada al AHPN a partir de un studio de cuantitativo,” in collaboration with the Historic Archive of the National Police (AHPN).

Over the past year, we’ve been watching a frustrating political situation unfold with the Archive. It seems that political will is turning against the ongoing work at the Archive, and, subsequently, against further discovery and analysis of war crimes committed by the National Police during the civil war. In January, the Guatemalan Congress proposed legislation that would offer blanket amnesty to officials accused of war crimes—a political move that we find extremely disheartening. Last week, the second of three required readings of the bill took place in the Guatemalan Congress. Yesterday the Congressional session closed without debating the bill because they did not have a quorum. It remains unclear what the outcome of this proposed legislation will be, but regardless, HRDAG is in the fortunate position of being able to continue building the body of knowledge about war crimes so that justice can be served. As we have done often over our 27 years, HRDAG will continue to preserve data and prepare analyses while we wait for the next opportunity. We’re uncertain how or whether our colleagues at the AHPN will be able to continue with this essential work, but we avail ourselves to them.

Commentary by Carolina Lopez, Archive Technical Coordination Team

Fourteen years after the discovery of the Historic Archive of the National Police (AHPN), we have only scratched the surface of discoveries we can make regarding Guatemala’s history, and the role played in it by the National Police.

In our 2016 book,“Una mirada al AHPN a partir de un studio de cuantitativo,” we mention that the Archive is the largest repository of documents that has ever been made available to researchers in Latin America. We conducted a quantitative study over six years of research based on reliable data.

The oldest document in the Archive dates from 1892, which means that the building contains more than a century’s worth of administrative, criminal and operational history. The documents within can help us to reconstruct and understand the country’s history, with a keen eye toward the 36-year period of the internal armed conflict, or civil war. The quantitative analysis focuses on that period.

In most of the documents highlighted in the book, there is a high possibility of identifying the authors, recipients, dates and places of creation of the documents—which means we can reconstruct the communication flows and chain of command within the National Police. Several of the documents record events such as deaths and detentions that can potentially be linked to violations of human rights occurring during the conflict. Being able to reconstruct chain of command anchored our testimony in September 2013, when HRDAG’s Patrick Ball testified in a Guatemalan court in the trial of Colonel Héctor Rafael Bol de la Cruz for the 1984 kidnapping and disappearance of Fernando Garcia, a student union leader. Colonel Bol de la Cruz was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Here are a few other important notes about the book and our work at the Archive:

  • A document of the Archive is a primary source of information that can be used in different contexts: as a witness of the history, as a legal document, as a basis for a qualitative investigation, or, as in the case of documents in the AHPN, a positive or negative closure for family members and friends who lost a loved one.
  • It is important to know that the analysis process involved determining how many events and actors each document describes; a document can register an event with a single actor, an event with multiple actors, multiple events with a single actor or multiple events with multiple actors. An example of this complexity occurs in documents that record the removal of corpses by a judge, accompanied by police officers. In these documents, not only does the information describe who knew about the event, who participated in the event, and who was told about the event, the information can also include details of the event itself, such as, for example, if these people were previously abducted.
  • Another important element for the analysis was to quantify how much information is contained in the Archive. We estimate that the Archive contains more than 35 million documents dating from the period of conflict, that is, 35 million files containing information. (Many of those documents are multi-page files.)
  • It is estimated that of the documents created between 1960 and 1996, 19.9% of these (about 7 million documents) contain some of the events identified in the quantitative research as an object of study: “break-in,” “threat,” “assassination,” “attack,” “cadaver,” “capture,” “denunciation,” “disappearance,” “detention,” “habeas corpus,” “homicide,” “interrogation,” ” abuse,” ” kidnapping,” and “rape. “
  • It is also estimated that about 3 million documents created in the same period contain information on the actors identified as “Perpetrators” and 89.9% of documents can identify the perpetrator with at least one name or surname.

Because of the discovery of the Archive, it was possible to learn from, for the first time, official records generated or protected by the National Police that could confirm or reinforce the ideas already raised in the reports of the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) Project and the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), and that will help to clarify what happened during the armed conflict in Guatemala.

Our work has been used by truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental human rights organizations. We have worked with partners on projects on five continents.