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Guatemala Police Archive Yields Clues to 'Dirty War'

Alberto Fuentes, an official with the Guatemalan Office of Human Rights Ombudsman, stands with some of the estimated 80 million documents of the National Police Archive. "The dimension of the archive is truly gigantic," he says. <strong>Scroll down to read John Burnett's Reporter's Notebook about covering Guatemala's civil war in the 1980s.</strong>
Alberto Fuentes, an official with the Guatemalan Office of Human Rights Ombudsman, stands with some of the estimated 80 million documents of the National Police Archive. "The dimension of the archive is truly gigantic," he says. Scroll down to read John Burnett's Reporter's Notebook about covering Guatemala's civil war in the 1980s.
Workers clean documents in the Police Archive, preparing the records for analysis by human rights researchers.
John Burnett, NPR /
Workers clean documents in the Police Archive, preparing the records for analysis by human rights researchers.
Retired Gen. German Chupina Barahona, 85, former director of the National Police, at his home south of Guatemala City. He is accused of presiding over a department that committed human rights abuses against suspected insurgents. But he says, "Fortunately, nothing grave happened on my watch."
John Burnett, NPR /
Retired Gen. German Chupina Barahona, 85, former director of the National Police, at his home south of Guatemala City. He is accused of presiding over a department that committed human rights abuses against suspected insurgents. But he says, "Fortunately, nothing grave happened on my watch."

Human rights researchers seeking to understand abuses during Guatemala's bloody civil war have launched one of the largest detective projects in history.

A mammoth warehouse discovered last year contains tens of millions of documents comprising the National Police Archive. The records, which the government first denied existed, are expected to offer evidence of a police role in murders and disappearances during Guatemala's "dirty war."

"The dimension of the archive is truly gigantic," says Alberto Fuentes, assistant director of the project formally known as the Recuperation of the Historical Archive of the National Police.

"They say there are 80 million pages of documents here," he says. "So in every possible space, in every alcove, there are just stacks and stacks and stacks of these police records."

When the police archive was discovered last summer, it was in frightful condition. Rats, bats and cockroaches had made homes there. Rain blew in broken windows.

Among one handful of file cards is a black-and-white police photo of a frightened young man. The record, dated Jan. 9, 1970, includes the man's name, address and fingerprints. It's labeled "subversive activities."

"These people were killed," Fuentes says. "We have the information. One of the challenges is to find out what happened to these detainees."

With millions of yellowed documents, human rights investigators will focus on the most savage years of the counter-insurgency. According to the Guatemalan truth commission, a majority of the estimated 200,000 war victims died between 1975 and 1985, mostly at the hands of state security forces.

The Swiss government has donated $2 million to the project. The records warehouse is now supplied with copiers, digital scanners and computers. Seventy employees, wearing dust masks and tan lab coats, clean typewritten documents at long wooden tables.

Mauricio Paniawa, curly-haired 26-year-old, says he took a job at the warehouse "to discover why they killed my father."

"I passed the years of my youth always missing him, always wishing he was there," he says. "I want to know why they took him."

The director of the National Police from 1978 to 1982 -- during the height of urban political violence -- was Gen. German Chupina Barahona. Last month, a Spanish National Court judge issued an international arrest warrant for torture, murder and illegal detention against Chupina and seven other former security officials. The charge is considered more symbolic than enforceable.

The general, now 85, lives in a walled residence south of Guatemala City. During an hour-long interview, he insisted he treated his prisoners humanely, and had very little to do with urban guerrillas in the first place.

"I am here where you see me, and here I'll die," Chupina says. "I'm not interested in what happened in the past. But fortunately nothing grave happened on my watch. Nevertheless, if they find anything delicate, they should take me to court. But I'm sure that there's nothing there...."

One of the world's preeminent human rights data analysts, Patrick Ball, is working on the project. Ball, whose nonprofit company, Benetech, is located in Palo Alto, Calif., has worked with truth commissions in a dozen places, including El Salvador, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

"This is, by far, the largest single cache of documents that's been made available to a human rights process in history," Ball says.

The archive's disorderly state makes the detective work difficult. Researchers have to burrow through masses of bureaucratic paperwork, including police pay stubs and invoices for new uniforms, before finding a picture of a bullet-riddled corpse.

Human rights researchers have been reluctant to discuss their findings until they're ready to go public with compelling evidence of police misdeeds. But the government human rights ombudsman, Sergio Morales, who's overseeing the project, agreed to reveal one finding.

"What I can tell you is... there are codes," he says. "We found documents coded by numbers. And we found the translation. Within these codes are the words 'kill,' 'abduct,' 'disappear.' Therefore, these are indicators of what there is."

At the most, human rights workers hope to unearth specific crimes of the police, such as their involvement in the storming of the Spanish Embassy in 1980, in which 39 protesters were burned alive.

At the least, it is hoped the archive will clear up unsolved murders.

Morales says he hopes to be able to match fingerprints of police detainees with some 3,000 unidentified corpses that were fingerprinted at the city morgue before being interred in paupers' graves.

Time is of the essence. The ombudsman's term expires in a year and a half. Researchers expect to make their first public revelations from the Guatemalan National Police Archive later this fall.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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