Photograph by Lynn Johnson
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Wearing a mask and gloves to protect fragile documents, an archivist opens one of the thousands of books of photographs held by the Historical Archives of the National Police. The Guatemalans pictured inside were all detained or arrested by the National Police during the country’s long civil war. Many of their fates remain unknown. Sometimes, visitors to the archive—or the archivists themselves—will turn a page and recognize a friend or relative not seen in decades.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

This Secret Police Archive Holds Clues to Terrible Crimes

Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed during the country's long civil war. Their families come to the archive for answers.

Near the traffic-choked center of Guatemala City, the Historical Archives of the National Police—known by its Spanish abbreviation AHPN—is an island of quiet.

Inside the cluster of nondescript cinderblock buildings, more than 60 people, most wearing identical light-brown coveralls, hairnets, and rubber gloves, are bent over boxes of papers and photographs. Some of the documents are charred at the edges, some are stained with mildew, and all are fragile with age. They are weapons in a long battle against forgetting.

These documents hold the secrets of Guatemala’s civil war, which began after the United States engineered a military coup in 1954 and lasted for more than 35 years. During the conflict, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were abducted, tortured, and assassinated. While the National Police, closely allied with the military, were suspected of carrying out many of these kidnappings and killings, officials had long denied the existence of any records of police activities.

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Archivist Oscar Hernández, left, cleans and sorts a file of documents concerning police detention of children and minors in the 1980s. Hernández, 34, was a young boy when his father was abducted by the National Police. In the course of his daily work at the archive, he has discovered some clues to his father’s disappearance, but he may never know the full story.

Not until 2005—nearly a decade after the formal end of the war—did a nearby bomb threat bring human-rights investigators to these buildings, where they discovered bundles of documents piled in damp, rat-infested rooms.

“Why waste time with this pile of old papers?” asked Carlos Vielman, then the country’s Minister of the Interior, shortly after the discovery. But historians and human-rights activists realized that the old papers—an estimated 80 million pages—were the long-sought archives of the National Police.

A Place of Conscience

With the support of international aid organizations, a small group of Guatemalan volunteers began the enormous task of preserving and organizing the documents. The buildings had been used as a clandestine prison as well as a makeshift repository—their dark corners held human-sized cages and other evidence of torture—and the archive was kept in place for both practical and symbolic reasons.

“This is a place of conscience,” says archive director Gustavo Meoño. “It’s a place where things happened that should never happen.”

While Meoño and others repaired leaking roofs, set out bags of calcium chloride to absorb the humidity, and sorted the documents into clean, dry boxes in order to halt their deterioration, the former prison was transformed into a school: Between 2006 and 2008, Trudy Peterson, the former acting archivist of the United States and an expert in the preservation of archives for human-rights investigations, trained more than 150 Guatemalans in standard archival techniques.

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Guatemalans lived in fear of the National Police, which routinely detained and arrested citizens for vague reasons, and used information gathered during arrests to further intimidate and silence ordinary people. The archivists estimate that during the 1980s, the police possessed information about more than 1 million Guatemalans—some 15 percent of the population at the time.

During the years since, the archivists of the AHPN have digitized and cataloged 20 million pages, using the documents to methodically reconstruct the institutional structure of the National Police and the activities of each of its branches during the war.

In January 2009, the archive opened to the public; since then, some 28,000 people have searched its documents for names of missing family members. Few find complete answers, says Meoño, but most of those who inquire have found some information.

The documents have also been used as evidence in more than a dozen court cases, helping to convict perpetrators for decades-old crimes.

“It’s been incredibly valuable for court cases and for individuals, and it has incredible symbolic value too,” says Kelsey Alford-Jones, who served as the director of the U.S.-based Guatemala Human Rights Commission during the establishment of the archive. In a country where the atrocities of the past are rarely discussed publicly, the very existence of the AHPN speaks volumes.

With the work of the AHPN now in its second decade, international attention and funding have turned elsewhere. In recent years, the number of archivists has been reduced by more than two-thirds, and families that have waited decades for information may have to wait decades more.

But the cataloging continues. Duplicates of every digitized page are held by cooperating institutions in Texas and Switzerland. “Our accomplishments can’t be reversed,” says Meoño.

Every day, Meoño and his colleagues learn more from the archive, and some of its stories hit very close to home. Meoño has encountered the names of hundreds of friends—and even, on occasion, photographs of their corpses.

Archivist Oscar Hernández, 34, was only a young boy when his father, a firefighter, was abducted by the National Police, never to be seen again. Hernández has found his father’s name in the archives, and has begun to reconstruct the circumstances of his death. The documents, he says, may eventually tell him how it happened. Like so many others, however, he will always wonder why.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided grant support for this story.