Official Histories

“Veterans of Guatemala’s long civil war recover the secret archive of the National Police, pulling together the missing parts of the country’s past, and of their own.

In July 2005, investigators from Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office stumbled upon a vast quantity of old papers while conducting an unrelated inspection of police property. The sprawling warehouse had once been a detention and torture center known as la isla, the island, with spattered cinder block walls and cell-like inner chambers. After navigating its maze of rooms piled high with bundles of moldy records dating back more than a century, the investigators realized that they had uncovered the largest collection of secret state documents in Latin American history.

The news spread quickly in a country still deeply divided after nearly four decades of brutal counterinsurgent warfare, but the discovery raised more questions and controversies than it resolved. How would the find—an estimated 80 million decaying pages—be managed? Who would have control over this potentially explosive cache of records, believed to contain damning evidence of state abuses from an era of forced disappearances, political assassinations, and genocide? Could these archives offer a new chance at postwar reckoning, which remained stalled more than ten years after the end of a conflict that took the lives of as many as two hundred thousand citizens?

Arson attempts and death threats periodically reminded the volunteers of the real risks still faced in Guatemala by those seeking to unearth the war’s history.”

You can read the full essay by Kirsten Weld, here, on the Guernica website and it is adapted from Kirsten’s new book, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala.

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Categories: Culture, Justice

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