Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Guatemalan National Police Archive Goes Online

Guest Beneblog by Ann Harrison

In 2006, the Benetech Human Rights Program was asked to participate in one of the most important human rights data projects in the world. The Guatemalan government human rights ombudsman invited the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) to analyze the contents of the estimated 80 million documents in the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive or the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (AHPN). HRDAG designed a process to randomly sample the Archive and the archivists began using Benetech’s Martus software to organize and secure information generated from the samples. Just last month, the University of Texas at Austin made a large portion of the Archive available to the public unveiling a digital repository that contains 12 million of these critical records. This repository is an important step forward for the people of Guatemala and those seeking information about human rights abuses that occurred during the country’s 36 years of armed internal conflict.

The Guatemalan government and the police long denied the existence of these records - particularly during investigations by truth commissions organized by the United Nations and the Catholic Church during the final years of the conflict. Discovered by chance in 2005, the Archive has revealed a trove of documents dating from 1882 to 1997 including millions of arrest warrants, surveillance reports, identification documents, interrogation records, snapshots of detainees and informants, and unidentified bodies, fingerprint files, transcripts of radio communications, and ledgers of names and photographs. These records shed light on the complicity of police and other security forces during the years of violence that killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans. The Archive has also provided valuable information corroborating findings that involve the U.S. in medical experimentation on Guatemalan citizens as part of syphilis research in the 1940s.

According to Archive Deputy Director Alberto Fuentes, the Archive contains key information about crimes and violent acts, as well as records of social control and surveillance, especially of opposition politicians. Fuentes says archivists have found more than 900,000 personal dossiers containing names, photographs and fingerprints of individuals, as well as notes about their political activities. Documents from the Guatemala City-based Archive have already provided critical information in the prosecution of former members of Guatemalan security forces accused of human rights abuses. Expert testimony by Benetech statistician Daniel Guzmán, based on analysis of Archive documents, provided key evidence in the conviction of two former Guatemalan National Police officers accused of disappearing and murdering Guatemalan union leader Edgar Fernando García.

Dr. Patrick Ball, Chief Scientist and Vice President of Benetech’s Human Rights Program, presented research data from six years of Archive analysis during a conference at the University of Texas where the digital repository was unveiled. You can read about Benetech’s findings from the Archive here and here. In addition to producing findings used to convict former police officers, the Archive has produced documents that have provided evidence for the arrest and prosecution of senior officials.

Family members of those who disappeared during the years of violence are also using the Archive to help locate their loved ones. José Suasnabar, Assistant Director of the non-governmental Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), told the Inter Press Service (IPS) that investigators have found records in the Archive that will help them identify bodies buried in unmarked graves. The creators of the repository said in a statement that the online records, “will bring together previously disparate experiences of personal memory and trauma, and promote public dialogue.”

“Documents about our family members have been found, and it is helping bring the cases to trial,” Aura Elena Farfán of the Guatemalan Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared (FAMDEGUA), told the IPS. "Our concern now is that everyone who in one way or another has come under scrutiny for the repression during the war wants the archive to disappear.”

Documents in the Archive continue to be digitized by a committed team of archivists and added to the digital repository to help secure historical memory, legal and scholarly use. Benetech is proud to support this project and our ongoing work with the Archive to analyze the contents of the records. According to the organizers of the University of Texas conference, the repository will provide “researchers, human rights activists, and prosecutors around the world an archive that has already begun to help rewrite the history of state repression in Guatemala.”

You can read more about the Guatemalan National Police Archive digital repository here.

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