Benetech’s Daniel Guzmán Publishes Account of Landmark Guatemalan Human Rights Case

Benetech’s Human Rights Program supports critical human rights cases around the world helping to end impunity and bring justice to communities torn apart by violence. Benetech statistician Daniel Guzmán has just published his account of one legal case which set a historic precedent for human rights in Guatemala. Guzmán’s article, entitled Speaking Stats to Justice: Expert Testimony in a Guatemalan Human Rights Trial Based on Statistical Sampling, appears in the most recent issue of CHANCE, a quarterly journal published by the American Statistical Association. The story illustrates the crucial role that scientists can play in analyzing large collections of human rights data and presenting findings that can help hold perpetrators accountable for terrible crimes.

The article describes Guzmán’s presentation of key evidence in the trial of two former Guatemalan National Police agents accused of forcibly disappearing 26-year-old student and union leader Edgar Fernando García. A husband and father, García disappeared in 1984 after being detained by police on his way to work one morning. His family never stopped looking for him.

The Guatemalan Attorney General’s office summoned Guzmán to present evidence based on his analysis of random samples drawn from the millions of documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive. Discovered by chance in 2005 in an explosives storehouse in Guatemala City, the archive contains what archivists estimate to be 8 kilometers or approximately 80 million sheets, of paper. Many of the police documents contained in the archive were created during the country’s internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, during which an estimated tens of thousands of Guatemalans disappeared.

Benetech’s Human Rights Program was asked to help analyze the documents in this vast archive. We have been working in partnership with the archive staff who have been using Benetech’s Martus software to secure the data. Guzmán and his colleagues at Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group spent four years intensely analyzing the documents. In October 2010, Guzmán stood before three judges to defend his statistical findings, which supported the prosecutor’s case against the police officers. Statistical data are very seldom used as evidence in court cases in Guatemala, and defense attorneys were attempting to discredit his testimony.

One week after Guzmán presented his statistical evidence, the judges found the two former police officers guilty of forced disappearance and sentenced each to 40 years in prison. Analysis of the archive documents by Guzmán and his colleagues also provided critical information used to support the arrest in June 2011 of Hector Bol de la Cruz, the former chief of the Guatemalan National Police who is accused of complicity in García’s disappearance.

The arrest of a commanding officer accused of involvement in the many disappearances that took place during Guatemala’s 36 years of armed internal conflict is a big step towards justice in that country. The statistical evidence that Guzmán presented in the García case set a precedent for this type of analysis in court and we are proud of him. Guzmán’s groundbreaking testimony will help judges trust the validity of the archive documents and accept statistical evidence in future human rights cases. I urge you to read Guzmán’s compelling account of how he helped build the case against the former police officers, the trial, the verdict, and its long term implications for justice in Guatemala.


Stephanie Wood said…
We are Wired Humanities Projects, U of Oregon, would like to know if we could be of assistance in creating an online digital collection. One thing we can envision would be to help create English translations of key documents and serve them as open-source. Or perhaps you can imagine other ways we might help--? I visited the AHPN about two months ago, and I hope to return soon. I would really like to put my team at your assistance. Un abrazo solidario, Stephanie Wood
Jim Fruchterman said…
Thanks for this kind offer, Stephanie. We get great pro bono help on other parts of this work, and so I'll check with the team to brainstorm what might be possible with this new offer!

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