The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Found in Guatemala:
files on killings, disappearances


While investigating neighbouring residents’ complaints about the insecure storage of explosives in a run-down munitions depot in Guatemala City, officials of the ombudsman’s office discovered masses of once-secret records from the National Police. The force was so closely identified with the myriad government-sponsored human rights abuses that occurred during the 36-year guerrilla war in the Central American country that it was disbanded as part of the 1996 peace accords and replaced by another body.

The documents should give a more complete record of the conflict in which over 200,000 people died. The Government’s bloody campaign against the left was initiated, advised and financed by a succession of US administrations to try to contain the growth of socialist movements in the region.

Every administration since that of President Álvaro Arzú has denied the existence of such incriminating files, but here they were and apparently intact. Records from the presidential intelligence agency had been opened last year and in 1999 a log of the activities of a secret military unit responsible for killing and kidnapping government opponents was smuggled out of the military’s files and made public. However, both of these sets of documents had been ransacked and lacked the evidence necessary to prosecute those responsible for the atrocities.

The latest discovery is in a different league. The mildewed files stand in three metre high stacks and reportedly contain enough documents to stretch the length of 130 football fields. Some contain transcripts of radio broadcasts. Others have records of arrests with "Communist" given as the reason for the police action. There are lists of the names of children kidnapped from guerrillas and the names of the families they were given to.

The records could lead to a number of long-discontinued investigations being re-opened, including those of foreigners like Belgian priest Walter Voordeckers who was assassinated in 1980 and anthropologist Myrna Mack who was killed in 1990. They have got an explosive potential for the government of Guatemala. Many highly-placed Guatemalan government figures could be incriminated by the find.

The New York Times was granted access to the bat-infested rooms housing the files last month but on condition that no names of the victims or the state sanctioned terrorists were revealed. Leading ombudsman’s office investigator Gustavo Meoño was very aware of the records’ potential during his contact with the US journalist Ginger Thompson: "We have to act very carefully with this archive. We do not want to unduly raise the expectations of the victims. And, for our safety, and for the safety of the files, we don’t want to unduly frighten the people who are identified as perpetrators."

Another widespread concern is that the discovery might change nothing. The New York Times quoted Guatemalan historian Heriberto Cifuentes about the distressing possibility: "Impunity reigns in Guatemala. So whether there are documents or not, people responsible for crimes do not expect to pay for them. They have always enjoyed blanket immunity."

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