Friday, December 22, 2006

Protecting Guatemala's National Police Historical Archive

Protecting Guatemala's National Police Historical Archive
A Guest Blog By Ann Harrison
Benetech Communications Director

Since 2003, Benetech's Martus information management software has helped human rights activists create encrypted databases and back up their data remotely to their choice of publicly available servers. Martus has been used in fifteen countries to secure sensitive information and protect witnesses.

Last month, I had a chance to visit the largest Martus project which is unfolding inside a mammoth warehouse in Guatemala City. Discovered last summer, the warehouse contains approximately 80 million records from the archive of the Guatemalan National Police. These papers, books, photos and floppy disks contain critical information about police procedures during Guatemala's 30-year internal armed conflict that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. This data is now under the protection of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, Sergio Morales, who is researching human rights violations that occurred during those 30 years.

Room filled with file cabinets and stacks of documents
When the National Police were disbanded after the country's 1996 Peace Accords, police officials denied that any records existed. Guatemalan government investigators eventually found stacks of documents soaked by rainwater from broken windows, inside a decaying building overrun by rats, bats and cockroaches. Portions of the archive were still used by the police. During my first visit to the archive eight months ago, Dr. Patrick Ball, director of Benetech's Human Rights Program, developed a plan to collect a scientific random sample of the jumbled documents and secure them with Martus for later analysis and public access. Working together with the Guatemalan Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and several Guatemalan NGOs, the largest human right archive project in history was launched.

Worker scanning documents
When I visited the archive again last month, I walked into an efficient and orderly data gathering operation equipped with copiers, cameras and flatbed digital scanners. Escorted by assistant project director Alberto Fuentes and IT manager Jorge Villagran, I toured immaculate storerooms of crated and shelved documents. Workers in lab coats and dust masks sat at long tables meticulously cleaning fragile papers some of which date back to 1889. Technicians in adjacent computer rooms have entered data from these documents into more than 10,000 encrypted Martus bulletins backed up to secure servers outside the country. According to Fuentes, three million documents and 2,000 books have already been examined and approximately 400,000 pages have been scanned.

The archive workers are racing against time. In March the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman is up for reelection. The project must take full advantage of the current Ombudsman's unconditional support while he is in charge. In a country that has a long tradition of impunity and denial of justice, prominent figures may feel affected by the archive investigations. The destruction of the archive by those who would rather not see its secrets come to light is always possible.
Three workers on PCs using Martus

Villagran notes that he expects to find financing to expand the 141-person archive staff from one to two eight-hour shifts. He points out that many archive workers originally came from civil society groups. During my visit to Guatemala, I spoke with a woman named Juanita who supports the archive project. In 1971, when Juanita was three years old, two plainclothes men burst through the door of her house in the Guatemalan state of Retalhuleu and took away her father who was a schoolteacher. Juanita's family never found out what happened to him. Like so many others, he simply vanished. "It is a hard thing to think about," said Juanita. "It took place years ago, but it still hurts."

Juanita says she hopes that the archive might contain clues about her father's disappearance. But searching for the historical truth still carries risk for those involved. Juanita chose not to give us her real name because she believes that it might put her in danger.

Two archive workers sitting in stacks and stacks of documents taller than they are
The Guatemalan National Police archive project is expected to take years to complete, but members of the international community have stepped in to provide assistance. Switzerland has donated more $2 million to clean the archive and support the staff. If you can help donate to Martus development or the archive project, please get in touch with us. Protecting sensitive historical data - and those who provide it - is an essential step in pursuing social justice in Guatemala and around the world.

"For the family of the person who is lost, it is very important that his relatives know something," explained Juanita. "Personally, it would be extremely joyful if there is some finding about my father. It is a little too late for the people who have relatives missing, but it is a little bit of justice."

Ann Harrison's journey to Guatemala was financed by Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization that held their annual conference in Guatemala City and invited Benetech to present a Martus demo there.

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