The Miami Herald
Mon, March 30, 2009

Guatemala opens book on decades of abuses

Special to The Miami Herald

Marylena Bustamante traveled 24 hours on a bus from Mexico City for a new chance at finding information about her brother, who disappeared 27 years ago during Guatemala's civil war.

Guatemalan human rights authorities recently opened a vast archive of police records that could contain information about Bustamante's brother, Emil, and thousands of other victims of state repression during the country's 36-year civil war.

''Like every family member of a detained/disappeared person, you have no idea how much I long to find the truth,'' said Bustamante, who arrived at the archive building holding a large portrait of Emil, whom she described as a ``university intellectual.''

Human rights officials discovered the archive by accident in July 2005 while investigating a complaint by neighbors about improperly stored explosives. Soon after, hundreds of workers set about cleaning up the ratinfested, mildewed building and restoring and organizing the estimated 80 million documents contained within.

The archive is considered the complete record of the National Police, with documents dating from 1881 until 1997. At the latter date, the police corps was replaced by the current National Civil Police.

Less than 10 percent of the documents have been digitized thus far, but victims' family members, investigators and academics can now file requests for information that may be contained in those documents, which primarily correspond to the most violent years of the war, 1975-85.

''For the first time, Guatemalan citizens are going to be able to see for themselves how the government planned, ordered and then carried out kidnappings, illegal detentions and forced disappearances,'' said Kate Doyle, senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington D.C., a nongovernmental research organization dedicated to collecting and publishing declassified U.S. documents.

''In that sense, the Guatemalan police archive represents something totally unique in Latin America,'' Doyle said.


The war between the Guatemalan government and leftist guerrillas left more than 200,000 people dead, while 45,000 more disappeared. A United Nations truth commission, formed after peace accords were signed in 1996, blamed state security forces for the majority of the violent acts.

The National Police collaborated closely with the army in terms of vigilance and persecution of people suspected to be involved in ''communist activities,'' according to the truth commission. The police were found responsible for torture, arbitrary execution and forced disappearance of victims.

Human rights activists and families of war victims hope the police archive will provide information about the fate of the disappeared, and in some cases, evidence that can be used in criminal prosecutions.

Already, documents found in the archive helped lead to the arrest earlier this month of two former National Police officers accused of participating in the forced disappearance of student and union activist, Edgar Fernando García, in 1984.

At the newly painted, nearly empty building hosting the Reference Service on Human Rights Violations, Bustamante was led into a private room where an archive worker took down information about the date and circumstances of her brother's disappearance.

She was told to come back in 10 working days, when she would be allowed to review the results of the information search on a computer screen. Eventually, a public prosecutor's office will be set up at the reference center in order to assist people who are pursuing, or hope to pursue, legal cases against suspected perpetrators.

Besides requesting information on specific cases, the public can consult a limited number of reports and document series, including the official daily police orders from 1975-85 and the chain of command within the police department. This information will be online within a month or two, said Alejandra González, coordinator of the reference service.

Bustamante was hopeful but skeptical about finding information about the perpetrators of her brother's disappearance and about his ultimate fate.

''I'm a skeptic because in this country the truth is hidden everywhere. Where it seems it's going to appear, someone always shows up to hide it,'' she said. Nevertheless, Bustamante said she'd be back in Guatemala and at the archive in May to see what archive workers turned up about her brother.


Human rights workers continue to be attacked in Guatemala.

The wife of human rights ombudsman Sergio Morales was kidnapped for 12 hours last week and then released in a residential neighborhood in Guatemala City. Morales said she was beaten and burned with cigarettes during the ordeal. Earlier in the month, another official at the human rights ombudsman's office was attacked. The official, Luis Romero, is head of the team investigating the case of Fernando García, the disappeared union activist.

In a news release, Amnesty International said it ``believes the attacks and threats have been made to intimidate the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office and stop them from carrying out their work.''

Besides the reference service, a museum dedicated to the war, park and memorial are planned for the area surrounding the archive, said Morales, the human rights ombudsman.

''We hope to be able to build here the Historical Memory Center,'' he said. ``There are people who want to get closer to their family members that are no longer here, and we're opening spaces to achieve that objective.''