An online repository of decades of police terror in Guatemala

Guatemala's 36-year counterinsurgency conflict, a US-backed war involving disappearances, torture, rape and murder which ultimately took the lives of 250,000 - mostly indigenous Mayans - ended in 1996. Procuring the incriminating evidence has proved difficult, but as in Chile, another victim of the US 'dirty war' in Latin America (see box), the process of bringing to justice those responsible has picked up in recent years.

Millions of documents from the Guatemalan national police archive, shedding light on torture, forced disappearances and murders committed during the 1960-1996 counterinsurgency war in this country, are now available online thanks to a collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin.

The Politics of Memory conference held 2 December at the University of Texas unveiled a digital archive hosted by the university, holding 12 million of the roughly 80 million pages of national police documents discovered by chance in 2005.

The online digital repository from the Historical Archive of the National Police of Guatemala (AHPN) will be available to the public 'with no requisite whatsoever,' Alberto Fuentes, one of the experts working at the AHPN, told Inter Press Service (IPS). 'Essentially, it contains two things: documents on cases involving crimes and violence in the country, as well as records of social control and surveillance, especially of opposition politicians,' Fuentes explained.

'We have found more than 900,000 personal dossiers containing names, photographs and fingerprints of individuals, as well as notes about their political activities,' he said.

In July 2005, the Procuraduia de los Derechos Humanos - the office of Guatemala's human rights ombudsman - found the abandoned documents by accident in an abandoned munitions depot on the north side of Guatemala City. The messy bundles of records were stacked floor to ceiling in dozens of rooms infested by rats, bats and cockroaches, and many of the files were in an advanced state of decay.

The administrative police records, which date from 1882 to 1997, document the repressive role played by the police during the 36-year armed conflict between leftist insurgents and government forces, which left a death toll of 250,000.

That total included at least 45,000 people who were seized by the security forces and forcibly disappeared, their bodies buried in unmarked graves in cemeteries or in secret graves, often in military bases, according to the Historical Clarification Commission. The UN-mandated truth commission found that the army was responsible for more than 90% of the killings in the civil war, most of whose victims were rural Maya Indians.

The records that came to light in 2005 document the role played by the National Police during - and before - the conflict. The AHPN began to salvage and digitise the archives in 2006. The documents are held under tight security.

The archive includes arrest warrants, surveillance reports, identification documents, interrogation records, snapshots of detainees and informants, and of unidentified bodies, fingerprint files, transcripts of radio communications, ledgers full of photographs and names, as well as more mundane documents like traffic tickets, drivers' licence applications, invoices for new uniforms and personnel files.

So far, 13 million documents have been cleaned, classified and digitised. Documents from the archive have served as evidence in several trials against members of the military prosecuted for human rights abuses committed during the war.

'In just one single case, the disappearance of Fernando Garcia, a trade unionist and student leader, the archive provided the court with 667 documents,' Fuentes said. Garcia disappeared on 18 February 1984. But it was not until 26 years later that two of those responsible for his death, both former policemen, were sentenced to 40 years in prison on charges of forced disappearance.

Fuentes said the AHPN also provided documents that contributed to this year's arrest of retired general Hector Lopez, accused of the crime of genocide in connection with the deaths of more than 300 people between 1978 and 1985, and the arrest of former police chief Hector Bol for the disappearance of Garcia.

'The documents in the archive are being used as proof to enable the justice system to issue arrest warrants and bring people to trial,' Fuentes said.

Justice is essential to bringing about reconciliation in this impoverished Central American nation. Ada Melgar, whose father was assassinated during the armed conflict, told IPS that 'once it has been clearly demonstrated that army officers and the high command played a role in the thousands of massacres and murders in the country, we will be able to feel a measure of peace.'

The massacres included the wholesale destruction of around 440 indigenous villages in the country, as part of a scorched-earth counterinsurgency policy applied in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

'We have filed a case against the state, because we are sure that my father's death was planned by the security forces,' said the daughter of Hugo Rolando Melgar, a law professor at the University of San Carlos who was machine-gunned on 24 March 1980.

Ada Melgar, who works in the police archive, believes the institution has 'very valuable documents that can prove the existence of lists of names of people held in police custody that coincide with many men and women who were captured and disappeared.'

Forensic experts have also found answers in the archive. 'The first photos we saw there were from post-mortem records of several bodies that had not been identified. But there were even references in the records to the fingerprints that they took from the bodies,' Jose Suasnabar, assistant director of the non-governmental Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), told IPS.

The AHPN 'has become a primary source of information' for the search for people who were disappeared during the armed conflict, he said. - IPS

Boxed article

Chilean judge indicts former US officer over coup killings

Joe Hinchcliffe

CHILE's Supreme Court has requested the extradition of former US army officer, Capt. Raymond E Davis, over his alleged involvement in the murder of two US citizens in Chile, days after the coup d'etat of 11 September 1973 that ushered in 17 years of brutal military rule.

Judge Jorge Zepeda issued the indictment request as part of a long-running trial into the deaths of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, triggered by a criminal suit filed in 2000 by the widow of one of the victims, Joyce Horman.

Capt. Davis, who was commander of the US Military Group in Chile, is accused of providing Chilean military intelligence agents with information that led to the arrest, torture and subsequent death in custody of the journalists.

The trial has already made significant advances in its attempt to establish the chain of command that led to the arrest of former Chilean military officers accused of tracking the journalists in the last days of their lives.

The case was given high international profile following the 1982 release of the award-winning film Missing, which promotes the allegations of Joyce Horman that her husband was murdered because he was unwittingly made aware of CIA involvement in the military coup.

The victims were both involved in the American Information Source (FIN), a left-wing organisation which supported socialist President Salvador Allende in the years leading up to the coup.

Horman is believed to have made contact with Capt. Davis in a hotel in the port city of Via del Mar and was later driven by the former naval officer to Santiago, days before his detention. Both bodies were later discovered in the streets of the capital, riddled with bullets and showing signs of torture.

In 2001 the Chilean government issued a request to hear the testimony of former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, over the role of US intelligence services in the case.

The US government has officially denied any involvement in the coup, although government documents, declassified by the Clinton administration in 1999, declare that 'US intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death.'

Judge Zepeda's ruling drew heavily on evidence procured from the heavily redacted documents, which describe Capt. Davis as 'being in a position. . . [to] prevent the murder' of the journalists, given his 'coordination with Chilean agents'.

The US Embassy in Santiago released a statement stating that it does not comment on specific cases. 'The US government continues to support a thorough investigation into the Horman and Teruggi deaths in order to bring those responsible to justice,' the statement said.

Capt. Davis has denied his involvement in the murders. His whereabouts are currently unknown. - The Santiago Times (

Editor's note: Capt. Davis' wife has since been reported by the Associated Press as saying that her husband is in a US nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's. Patricia Davis, who lives in Florida, refused to name the nursing home.

*Third World Resurgence No. 255/256, November/December 2011, pp 64-65