In late May, Guatemala’s interior minister held a press conference to announce that he was reviewing the public’s right to access the country’s Historical Archive of the National Police, citing security concerns and suggesting that it was time for his agency, which oversees the country’s security forces, to take the archive back from the Ministry of Culture. This is no featureless bureaucratic debate. At stake are literally miles of paper files — nearly five miles, in fact — related to Guatemala’s brutal internal armed conflict, which contain clues to the whereabouts of people who were forcibly disappeared decades ago.
The archive’s employees and supporters have been in crisis mode since its director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, was dismissed last August; there have been major cuts to its budget and staff. To learn more about the threat to this unique library in the history of human rights, I spoke with Kate Doyle, senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., who has been involved with the archive since its discovery in 2005. She has served on the archive’s advisory board and assisted in human rights investigations that turned into criminal trials. She sees the attack on the archive as part of “an aggressive rejection of human rights principles” on the part of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, a rejection that is also evident in other countries across the region.
“Somehow in this part of the world, we’ve come to this point of turning our backs on human rights justice and the rule of law in ways that are terribly troubling,” Doyle said. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What exactly is the Historical Archive of the National Police, and what kind of documents does it contain?
The archive is a repository for the entire historical record of the National Police of Guatemala, an institution that was founded in the 19th century as the country’s first national security force, and abolished and dismantled in 1997 by order of the peace accords that were signed in 1996 to end Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict.
This historical archive is not just their origin records from the 1890s. It goes right through those terrible years following the U.S.-funded and supported coup in 1954, which destroyed the democratic government that Guatemala had then, through the military dictatorship in the 1960s, when real anti-communist fervor gripped the country, through the 1970s and ’80s when there were these waves of state violence, including military operations in the countryside but also many clandestine covert operations in Guatemala City and other urban areas. The National Police had intimate and undeniable involvement in some of the worst acts of state terror and repression during the height of the conflict, that is, during the 1970s and ’80s. They were known as killers, torturers, kidnappers. They served as an instrument for the Guatemalan army for hunting down people they suspected to be either armed guerrillas or militants or subversives or leftists or people who they just didn’t like, who thought a different way or talked a different way or imagined a different Guatemala. The peace negotiators basically considered them unreformable and ordered them abolished.
Their records ended up on a sprawling police base in Zone 6 of Guatemala City, a busy working-class neighborhood downtown. They were shut up inside an abandoned cluster of buildings inside this big base that had a lot of different barracks and activities and all kinds of things going on. Fast forward to 2005, when residents of that neighborhood called the government’s human rights prosecutor and asked for his help in determining whether weapons and munitions were being stored properly on the base. In the course of that somewhat routine inspection of the base, the investigators found these documents, and that is how this enormous, abandoned, moldering collection of documents — millions and millions of historical files of the abolished National Police — came to be found.
What were some of the first things they found, the things that were immediately and evidently important as evidence of forced disappearances and other crimes?
Among the great tragedies of the armed conflict of course were the massacres in the rural areas that targeted Indigenous communities all over the country. They were massacred by the military. But there were also these covert campaigns to hunt out subversives in the cities. The most common method of dealing with [people labeled subversives] was to disappear them; they would be snatched off the street and taken to some clandestine detention center and tortured, interrogated, and then secretly killed and their bodies disposed of. There were, in the 1970s and ’80s, and there still are today, tens of thousands of people who are listed as disappeared people, and there continues to be this incredibly pressing and painful question for the families of those disappeared people as to what happened, where are they, and who did this, and can they ever find their bodies? Some of the things that were immediately found on this police base in this collection of deteriorating files were lists of some of those people.
They were clearly lists of people who were targeted by the various military regimes that succeeded each other during that period; sometimes they were just lists of names, but if you looked at lists of the disappeared from that era, they were immediately recognizable. The lists often had check marks or little red crosses next to them, or names were crossed out — these were working lists that people were using. It was so immediately evident from your first encounter with this pile of papers that there was information in there about how repression was executed in Guatemala. There were files called “assassinations” and files called “kidnapping”!
“Lists often had check marks next to them, or names were crossed out. There were files called ‘assassinations’ and files called ‘kidnapping’!”
The first thing that the human rights prosecutor at the time, Sergio Morales, had to do upon being alerted by his team that [there] was this enormous, decaying pile of files sitting there on the base and that no one on the base seemed to know their significance, was to immediately put in place some kind of legal protection for the archive. They had to protect the documents from the government once the government found out what they had. In a very smart move, Morales went to a judge to get an order of protection that essentially gave his office the right to use and access and preserve those files as they saw fit.
What are some of the landmark cases in which documents from the archives have been instrumental?
One example is the burning of the Spanish Embassy in 1980. Indigenous activists had come from their communities to Guatemala City to protest the seizure of their land by large plantation owners, and they holed up in the Spanish embassy, effectively taking the embassy and everybody in it hostage. The embassy said, “You’re welcome to stay, we don’t have a problem with that,” but the government turned the police on them, and the police burned the embassy down, and every single person who was inside except for the ambassador and one other person was burned to death. That moment really showed how determined and brutal the government was to stamp out any opposition. There was a trial about that incident, and there were many relevant police records that the staff of the Police Archive found and analyzed and presented in an expert report in support of the prosecution.
They did the same thing for the Molina Theissen case, in which [political activist] Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen was kidnapped by the military, taken to a base and raped repeatedly, and presumably would have disappeared but she escaped. And the military and police went after her family and kidnapped her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio, and disappeared him as a kind of revenge. That case just was heard last year. It ended up getting some of the most senior military officials who have been convicted at trial, and that was partially due to police records. Then there was the case of Edgar Fernando García, who was a leftist, a labor leader, and a member of the Guatemalan Communist Party, who was kidnapped and disappeared in 1984. They found an extraordinary set of documents in the Police Archive, including one that names the four police who kidnapped him: It was actually an announcement that they were getting an award for their role in his arrest or capture. That was an extraordinary case, not just because they actually tracked down two of the four men who snatched him away from a public market but also because there was a follow-up trial several years later of their superior, who was the commander of the police corps that they were part of, and of his superior, who was the police chief, a retired military officer named Colonel Héctor Bol de la Cruz. These documents have led to very high-level convictions of senior military and police officers.
How does it function for the general public — can they visit the archive and request documents on friends and family members? How is it being used to look for missing persons, to bring families closure, or more generally as a cultural entity?
It has been very powerfully used by families of the disappeared and by those who survived but also by scholars, historians, journalists, and investigators — all kinds of people, both Guatemalan and not Guatemalan. The archive has essentially opened its doors without restrictions to anyone. They made a very considered decision early on, which was the product of a number of public discussions, to not censor or restrict the documents in any way. It was controversial among archivists. Though the documents are absolutely chock-full of private information — some of it true, some of it absolutely made up by police — they made the decision that they could not be responsible for censoring information that they felt Guatemalans had the right to know. Many thousands of people have flocked to the archive to read those records, and it’s been a very powerful source of information about that terrible period for many people.
What has happened since last August when the archives director was abruptly removed? Who fired him, and what were the reasons given? Who is in charge now?
About 10 years ago, a handful of employees had been dismissed by the director of the archive, Gustavo Meoño Brenner — who was the only director the archives had ever had, until now. They felt that they were wrongly dismissed, and they filed a labor complaint, which worked its way through the system for a ridiculously long time because the system is slow and dysfunctional. And in 2017, this dispute was finally resolved by a judge in favor of the employees. The judge ruled that the Ministry of Culture — the overseer of the archive — owed many hundreds of thousands of quetzales in back pay to these dismissed employees.
“The documents are absolutely chock-full of private information. But they could not censor information they felt Guatemalans had the right to know.”
There always has been an acute political animus against Meoño — who was a very senior figure in the EGP, one of the guerrilla groups active in the 1970s and ’80s — on the part of the right in Guatemala. Long before the labor dispute, Meoño had been the target of overt, very explicit expressions of hatred, smear campaigns, and legal actions from extreme right-wing figures and retired military hard-liners. These same people also have been openly disgusted with the very existence of this archive and what it does, especially since this archive has, among many other functions, served as a source for information that has become evidence in criminal trials against some of these same retired military and police figures.
Then you have this labor dispute that suddenly makes the government liable for hundreds of thousands of quetzales, due to, according to the ruling, an improper action on the part of Meoño. So that is what began a series of increasingly intensive inquiries, by first the government and then the United Nations Development Program [which coordinates foreign funding for the archive]. This culminated in the extremely abrupt decision to essentially fire Meoño by saying his contract is up for negotiation and we’re not going to renew it. But it was done in a very abrasive and abrupt way; there was no warning to the staff, and it was very upsetting to everybody. Meoño had led the archive for 13 years and led it with incredible effectiveness. It’s hard to overstate how much he did to bring this thing from a state of grotesque, abandoned piles of paper to an ordered collection of scanned and archived records.
So the crisis began last summer with the firing of Meoño without any kind of plan on the part of the government or civil society or UNDP because nobody was prepared for it. That crisis led to increasing involvement and interest in the archive on the part of the Morales government — first the Ministry of Culture and now the Ministry of Interior, which has just revealed that they have plans to reinsert themselves back into the administration of the archive. And that is a very alarming development.
Do you have specific concerns that access to the archives could be limited? Or documents be removed?
I have very specific concerns about that. Minister of Interior Enrique Degenhart held a press conference on Monday, May 27, during which he explicitly said that access to the information in that archive was going to be reviewed and that the rules of the access would be changed. He repeatedly used the access to information law — which is akin to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and which, just like our FOIA, is meant to provide the public with access to reserved government information. He used that same law to invoke restrictions that should be placed on this archive. Because the Guatemalan access to information law has, like many such laws, restrictions on material that, if released, could damage national security or expose ongoing law enforcement operations. So he was citing that law to say that the unfettered access that people have been able to have to the Guatemalan police archive has to end, because the access to information law requires that information be restricted on the basis of such issues as national security.
I have concerns that a minister of the Morales government, who is very much a part of the most extreme right-wing and who is very much aligned with the hard-line military and retired military intelligence, will be in some way in control of or in command of this archive. He also said at his press conference that the government was looking into legal action against two entities that have backup copies of archive documents: the Swiss government and the University of Texas at Austin. So that raises a whole slew of concerns about the safety of these records, the safety of the paper file, the safety of the servers, the computer systems, the safety of the staff. It’s very troubling and scary.
Do you see this situation with the archive as a reflection of the overall tenor of Morales’s administration? He’s known to be connected to and supported by the extreme right-wing and military hard-liners. Do you see a connection with Morales’s actions against the U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission known as CICIG, for instance?
I see his decision to move in on the archive as absolutely consistent with his attacks on human rights, justice, rule of law, and anti-corruption initiatives in the country. These are attacks that have been unfolding incrementally during the course of his term in office, but in the past year, they have rapidly accelerated. One of the first and most dramatic gestures or attacks was to order that CICIG be closed prematurely, to revoke the visas of the foreign staff, to harass and smear [CICIG director] Iván Velásquez, generally denigrate the work of CICIG, and in fact, lobby the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress very heavily to participate in that campaign to shut down CICIG. And it has done so with a tremendous amount of success, I’m sad to say.
There have been ongoing campaigns to harass and torment [opponents] through social media and through frivolous legal actions. The government has spent an inordinate amount of time targeting human rights defenders, land and water defenders, feminists, Indigenous rights activists — you name it, the government has found a way to go after them.
The Morales government has already turned its attention to other archives that have human rights implications. According to press reports, the government pressured the head of the archive of a body that’s akin to the Justice Department — a key collection of historic and current court records, including the files of open cases that have not yet gone to trial — to resign, and there has been no replacement for her. That archive of the judicial body is now very vulnerable, and there’s a lot of concern that those files are being raided or could be raided in the future. The government has also laid off staff at the National Archives that worked on a special collection of records that came out of the old Estado Mayor Presidencial, or the Presidential General Staff, which was another entity of the Guatemalan government in the past that was inextricably intertwined with the worst of the violent repression, kidnapping, torture, and so forth, and which was also disbanded by the peace accords.
So the police archive attack is not an isolated attack. They know the value of these records, and they have gone after them in a way that is very much in keeping with Morales’s attention to human rights and anti-corruption efforts in the country and finding ways of dismantling them.
“They know the value of these records and they have gone after them.”
Why is the United Nations Development Program going along with the administration in this decision? Or is there some indication that they are not?
The UNDP, as part of its mandate, must work with the government and that I understand. The UNDP has in the past, under different leadership, been a very important and vocal ally of the police archive. But in this case, the UNDP has tried to work in good faith with a government that is not itself working in good faith, and I think they’ve been politically terribly naive. They have failed in their mission to ensure that the archive remains under the oversight of the Ministry of Culture. Now time is running out: On June 30, the agreement [that ensures the archive stays with Culture] is over. But I suspect there will be many legal actions in support of the archive in order to preserve the status quo.
Could those legal actions try to block its move to the Interior?
Yes, basically, what [the current human rights prosecutor] Jordán Rodas Andrade has done is to file a legal action against the government, demanding that the government renegotiate the agreement so that the archive would remain with Culture.
Morales’s term is up this year, and Guatemalans will vote in an election without a clear front-runner on June 16. Will these problems end with his presidency?
The attacks on the archive in Guatemala right now are not just an extension of the Morales government’s dislike for human rights. It’s part of a pattern, unfortunately, that exists broadly throughout Latin America. You see a regression on human rights justice in country after country — in Brazil, Argentina, Chile. In El Salvador, which after more than 25 years had just begun to bring human rights cases like for the El Mozote Massacre [in which a U.S.-trained military unit killed more than 600 civilians in a village in the country’s northeast] and is now in the middle of a debate about a new amnesty law (as is the Guatemalan Congress) — they haven’t even had a chance to try their very first case yet, and they’re already talking about reverting to amnesty. So I see what is happening in Guatemala as part and parcel with a very broad strategy on the part of the right in Latin America, and I would even say in the Americas so that I can include our own country.
Three years ago, you would have had a U.S. ambassador who strongly spoke out in support of the archive and that would have been enough to send the signal that “you may be doing this, that, and the other thing, but do not mess with this.” And that hasn’t happened. The U.S. is virtually silent on this and many other subjects. As I said, the Morales administration has not only achieved the obstruction of CICIG, but it’s managed to bring people from the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress along with it. They’ve done a very effective lobbying campaign, and there were people who were receptive to that: Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Chris Smith, people in the State Department. That’s also part of the problem here: We don’t have a lot of the powerful allies that we would have had just a handful of years ago.