In July 2005, investigators from Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office stumbled upon a vast quantity of old papers while conducting an unrelated inspection of police property. The sprawling warehouse had once been a detention and torture center known as la isla, the island, with spattered cinder block walls and cell-like inner chambers. After navigating its maze of rooms piled high with bundles of moldy records dating back more than a century, the investigators realized that they had uncovered the largest collection of secret state documents in Latin American history.

The news spread quickly in a country still deeply divided after nearly four decades of brutal counterinsurgent warfare, but the discovery raised more questions and controversies than it resolved. How would the find—an estimated 80 million decaying pages—be managed? Who would have control over this potentially explosive cache of records, believed to contain damning evidence of state abuses from an era of forced disappearances, political assassinations, and genocide? Could these archives offer a new chance at postwar reckoning, which remained stalled more than ten years after the end of a conflict that took the lives of as many as two hundred thousand citizens?

Arson attempts and death threats periodically reminded the volunteers of the real risks still faced in Guatemala by those seeking to unearth the war’s history.

Grasping for a manageable place to start, the earliest archival recovery volunteers began by rescuing a huge mound of personal identity cards that lay decomposing in a half-completed room at the building’s rear. The majority of the two hundred and fifty thousand cards had survived, but only because sun and water exposure had transformed those at the top of the pile into a tough papier-mâché crust that protected the others beneath. As Raúl, a former trade unionist who was among the first would-be archival rescuers, sifted through more and more records, on his hands and knees alongside fellow activists clad in face masks and rubber gloves, he routinely stumbled upon the names of friends and acquaintances now alive only in documents and memories.[1] In some cases, the archives revealed companions’ fates for the first time. It was difficult labor, made no easier by the arson attempts and death threats that periodically reminded the volunteers of the real risks still faced in Guatemala by those seeking to unearth the war’s history.

Since those early days, a foreign-funded activist initiative called the Project for the Recovery of the National Police Historical Archives has been working to rescue the decaying records and to analyze their contents with the aim of generating evidence to use in prosecuting war-era officials for crimes against humanity. Over time, the project grew from its improvisational beginnings into a precedent-setting effort armed with hundreds of staff, state-of-the-art technology, and support from around the world.

The National Police archives are a microcosm of the country’s larger postwar dynamics: their existence denied, their rediscovery accidental, their future uncertain given the threats faced by historical memory initiatives, their rescue initially completely ad hoc in the absence of government capacity or political will to exercise its constitutional responsibility over them, their processing funded entirely from abroad. The conditions of the police records in 2005 offered a sobering snapshot of the “peacetime” landscape; their recovery has provided another, capturing the incremental, hard-fought nature of political change on the ground. The archives thus reflect the tremendous tension of post–peace accords Guatemala. On the one hand, as Guatemalans know well, there has been so little substantive change; on the other hand, the very existence of the archival recovery initiative, however beset by challenges it has been, testifies to how much political opening has been achieved. As one activist commented to me, “Even ten years ago, they would have killed all the people working in a project like that.”

* * *

In the rescue project’s early days, conditions at the archives were precarious at best. Lacking chairs, workers sat hunched over for eight hours daily on concrete blocks; they inhaled clouds of dust and assorted molds, which lay heavy and bright across the rotting pages like strokes of paint; and they were exposed to the waste of rats, bats, and other vermin. Riskiest of all, in light of the retribution faced by other activists who sought to plumb the depths of the state’s wartime abuses, they affiliated themselves with a potentially dangerous initiative whose future was uncertain.

In a country with fewer than ten trained archivists, previous archival experience was impossible to demand; no available training, whether in criminology or history or forensic science, would have been adequate preparation for the unprecedented task of rescuing 80 million documents under such dramatic constraints. Instead, the original volunteers and workers were evaluated by one measure: confianza. In this setting, confianza’s literal translation as “trust” was a thin description; its deeper connotation was a certain level of dedication to human rights work and memory politics. Confianza, explained the project’s assistant director, was not easily quantified, but it essentially meant “that the people are referred to us by people or organizations we trust; that we know their trajectory, their level of commitment; that they’ve been linked to the causes that are worth fighting for in this country.”

As such, the initial volunteers and workers at the archives—who later became a minority as the team grew—were no average citizens plucked off the streets. Some had been combatants or clandestine actors in the organizations composing the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, which mobilized for revolution against the military state; others had been active in the student movement or were trade unionists or community organizers. Some were born into families with histories of activism stretching back to the Revolutionary Spring; others had their political consciousnesses forged in the mass strikes of the 1970s, the 1976 earthquake, or simply by growing up as campesinos. (As one worker told me, “We didn’t fight because it was in style. I fought because I was poor and had no chance to go to school, and that either kills you from hunger or kills you from ignorance.”) They had lost family and friends; they had moved in and out of exile and clandestinity. As Raúl put it, “What affects me most is that the area of the archives in which I work, and the years which I work on, are years in which I wasn’t just a witness—I was an actor, a victim, a part of all of it. And the victims who you find in the archives were your friends, your compañeros, your neighbors.”

Many reported that working in the archives had provoked the resurgence of long-repressed memories and the recurrence of dreams or nightmares. Gregorio, the odd-job man around the project, said that, “There were times I didn’t want to show up at work, times when I cried there. It makes you relive many things.” But while the labor made workers vulnerable, it also engendered processes of social reckoning and reconstruction. Workers found themselves learning about facets of the war never before understood, and they grew accustomed to sharing stories, debating the unfolding of the war, and working side by side with once-reviled police officers. Not only did they reread their own histories from the “other’s” perspective; they worked to write new chapters with an eye toward justice, finally confirming with documentation experiences long denied by the state.

* * *

Sociologist Stanley Cohen notes that “memory is less a filing cabinet that we open to examine a pre-selected file (my childhood, the war) than a book we are writing and editing.” This was especially true in a setting where survivors’ memories did not necessarily square with the omissions, silences, and bureaucratic language of the documents. Guatemala’s culture of silence regarding the war and present-day climate of violence deterred many citizens from engaging with history. But a small number of people refused to succumb to this oblivion, even as it required them to spend their days on a filthy police base echoing with the martial soundscape of gunshots and barking dogs, sifting through the dusty remembrances of atrocities past.

“The archive really got my attention,” Luisa told me in a near whisper, afraid that the National Civil Police agent nearby might hear. (The National Civil Police was created during the peace process to supplant the discredited National Police.) Before working at the archives project, she had fought for fifteen years in the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, Guatemala’s largest insurgent group. “I was interested in working here because we have family members, friends, acquaintances—many people who were disappeared, who were captured, and we never knew what happened to them. With that, I don’t want to say that I had the idea that I could ‘do something’ about that, but at least, within that history, I wanted to learn what happened, how they died, who took them.” While this was rarely workers’ sole motivation, it was never far from their minds. Dolores, a case researcher at the project and formerly an organizer with the same guerrilla organization as Luisa, reported that “even people who are new at work, they come with photos of their husbands, the same way I have a photo of my brother, and they tell me, ‘I want to find out what happened to my husband.’”

They used words like “precious,” “beautiful,” and “marvelous” to describe a daily labor that involved thumbing through grisly photos of decaying cadavers.

Others were drawn to the archives by a more general commitment to historical clarification and justice; they remained pessimistic about the possibility of solving specific cases. “I think that the things that happened here in the war years can’t be found in those archives,” Rosario said. She had been a trade unionist in the capital during the 1970s and early 1980s and was driven into a decade-long exile for it. She marveled about how, back in la época, “we never would have thought that one day we’d have access to these papers. This is back when it was terrifying to even speak of the police. And to think that we’d be working there on a police base, with those papers in our hands.”

It was common for these older staffers to speak of the recovery work as un regalo de vida, the gift of a lifetime. They used words like “precious,” “beautiful,” and “marvelous” to describe a daily labor that involved thumbing through grisly photos of decaying cadavers, scanning seemingly endless lists of police duty rotations, and performing other tasks both morbid and mundane. Working at the project offered those who defined themselves as bearers of conciencia an opportunity at political participation independent from postwar party politics, viewed widely as craven and corrupt.

The regalo de vida concept highlighted what for progressives was a bitter postwar truth: aside from the problem of high unemployment across the board, ex-militants in particular had a difficult time finding paying work that conformed to their ethics and engaged their histories. Demobilization was a shock for some who were not yet prepared to lay down arms; even more difficult, particularly for those who had joined the insurgency at a young age and had no conventional job experience, was reintegrating into normal life and finding safe spaces in which to express their convictions.

Edeliberto Cifuentes, the historian and human rights investigator who stumbled across the police archives in 2005, told me, “There are a lot of people who are unemployed in Guatemala because they aren’t willing or able to work in anything except human rights. I include myself in that group. I can’t find anywhere to work besides the academy or human rights—I can’t work in just any part of the government.” The difficulties of the reinsertion process belied the idea that a “postwar transition” could occur neatly, the fruit of top-down decisions that instantly erased wartime divisions. Instead, dissidents’ histories, and their own condition as living archives of an armed conflict, continued to contour their anything-but-“normal” lives. “The private sector would never have me!” exclaimed one worker and ex-labor militant. “I’m in a bunch of photos from the ’80s, lighting buses on fire with Molotov cocktails. And in the private sector, they have connections and they can easily find out who you are.”

* * *

History, conciencia, and necessity brought these workers to the archives; once there, however, many found that their experiences challenged their expectations and that the archives’ necessary relationship to death and history haunted them in ways that were difficult to bear.

Esperanza, as a lower-middle-class young woman in the early 1970s, began her political life as an organizer in Guatemala City’s secondary school system. She was radicalized in the aftermath of the 1976 earthquake, which laid bare the deep poverty and exploitation lived in marginal sectors of the capital. From that point on, she incorporated herself into the Guatemalan Workers’ Party, putting up a “communication barrier” between herself and her family and devoting herself to organizing students in night classes “to achieve change in our country, to build a society with different values, different principles.” She worked as a party organizer for nearly a decade, interrupted by a brief period of exile provoked by a botched attempt to kidnap her from the school where she was based.

Esperanza was no stranger to exile, having spent the first ten years of her life there as a result of her father and uncles’ opposition to the Armas regime. To exile she returned in the mid-1980s; during this final exile, her father and uncles were murdered. When she returned for good after the signing of the peace accords, she and her husband sought to avoid politics, opening a small restaurant. But they found themselves unsatisfied by apolitical life, closed the restaurant, and began reengaging with their histories.

When Esperanza arrived at the police archives in 2005, she found the work of constantly reading about violence to be an immense strain; for her, it was easier to “see the pages as nothing more than just papers that I was cleaning, cleaning, cleaning” and shut herself off emotionally from what she was reading. But after some time spent working in this manner, Esperanza decided one day that she would try to prevent herself from becoming desensitized by the sacks and sacks of files about death. “So all of a sudden, I decide to return to the reading,” she said, “and I open a new bundle of papers, and it turns out that the very first sheet I find is the report from when the bodies of my uncles were found.” Though the report Esperanza had uncovered contained no new information on the case, simply stating that her uncles had been killed by unknown assailants, the shock of finding their names archived stirred her anger and sorrow anew. “That day, for me, was a horrible day.”

Workers struggled not only with the content of the documents but also with the physical space in which the documents were housed. One area of the site in particular, the prison-like laberinto, labyrinth, was especially difficult to handle, with its windowless, dirt-floored rooms, suspicious small holes blasted in the walls, and sections fitted with what appeared to be brackets for manacles or other bindings. Evincing the undercurrents of guilt and disempowerment infrequently discussed openly by former militants, Gregorio, the odd-job man, spoke of how “the fact of entering this place made me remember, it makes you remember and it makes you think that your friends were once there, and you couldn’t help them, you couldn’t do absolutely anything for them.”

To a certain extent, the emotional strain was inherent to the work. Spending eight hours a day reading not only about political repression but also about sexual assaults, armed robberies, accidental deaths, and other “archival slivers” of violence would tax the coping skills of even a disinterested reader. José Antonio, the project’s inventory specialist, spoke of recurring dreams he began having after he started working there, in which identical scenarios to those in the documents would play out with his own children as the subjects.

But in the case of these war survivors, this strain was compounded many times over by the fact that the names appearing in the documents were theirs, belonging to their friends, their acquaintances, their schoolmates, their loved ones. Some workers even learned from the documents, for the first time, how a close relative was killed. “In there, I found out how my brother had died,” Dolores told me. “I had never known. And still today in my house, my mother, my siblings, and I, we can’t talk about our brother. We’ve been living with this for twenty years, and we still need to learn how to talk about him as he was… I was one of the lucky ones, to have been able to learn this.” In Esperanza’s words, the archives were “a space where we all return to the past, and we all come to relive the pain or to awaken what’s asleep inside each and every one of us and to face the reality of what we lived.”

Project workers deployed a variety of strategies to manage the strain. The simplest, of course, was talking: talking at the worktables, sharing experiences with coworkers, venting frustrations over a cigarette or a cup of instant coffee at la refa, the mid-morning break. After a year and a half, when the collective strain became palpable, the project instituted group discussion–based, mandatory, monthly mental health workshops.

The Guatemalan air still hung thick with a homegrown holocaust denial: the charge that the genocide of the 1980s and the urban counterinsurgency were the inventions of “subversives” seeking to discredit Guatemala on the international stage.

In terms of group approaches, however, the project’s most effective means of managing the burdens of the work was soccer. At every coffee break and lunch hour, boisterous workers—male and female, young and old—would take over the pitted concrete mall between the two archives buildings and play hard-fought games of pickup fút, which everyone else watched and cheered on. “Because of the way the games are played,” commented one member of the scanning team, “you know that people are there for catharsis. Many of the people yell, they fight, they kick, they laugh, precisely because it’s a way to escape from the tensions provoked by this routine, which is a routine of violence.”

* * *

The reivindicación, or restoring of honor and agency to the dead, was a major motivating force for nearly all the ex-militants with whom I spoke. Even in the face of the testimonial and forensic evidence compiled in reports by the Historical Clarification Commission and the Interdiocesan Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory, which painstakingly investigated the human rights abuses of the war, the Guatemalan air still hung thick with a homegrown holocaust denial: the charge that the genocide of the 1980s and the urban counterinsurgency were the inventions of “subversives” seeking to discredit Guatemala on the international stage.

Efforts by the state, business elites, and some journalists to discredit and attack war victims had always drawn their strength from the idea that nobody could “prove” the truth-value of the events in question, and therefore the victims were making it all up. Victims and testimony givers were accused of lacking patriotism—of being “traitors to the homeland”—or being too stupid to realize that their “disappeared” husbands had probably just taken up with other women outside the country. In 1986, after the Mutual Support Group, an organization formed by family members of the disappeared, had spent several years advocating for the live return of their missing loved ones, the military released a statement calling their accusations slander precisely because—and importantly, in light of the National Police archives—they were “not substantiated by documentary proof.”

The state’s constant expressions of contempt for the Left (armed or otherwise), for socialism, for intellectualism, and for the families of the disappeared were part of its counterinsurgency strategy, and these tactics affected popular movements from without and within. In peacetime, similar language was used to discredit those who continued seeking justice, often based on the charge that victims had no “proof” of what they claimed. Esperanza emphasized the extent to which militants internalized the state’s disdain for their ideals: “We played the game too, feeling that what we were doing was subversion, it was clandestine, it was something not accepted by society, and so we’ve been carrying this around like a burden of guilt ever since. I would even say it’s a shame that we carry, a shame that we’ve built up over time.” However, daily reading of the terror archives by ex-militants renewed their resistance by providing new evidence of the state’s disproportionate responses to their activism.

Raúl explained how this idea motivated him: “It will be impossible to say that we were lying because we have the proof in the documents. It will restore the histories and memories of so many people who were dismissed as being metido en tonteras, people who were written off by others who said, ‘If they’d just stayed at home, nothing would have happened to them.’ People need to know that these people who were called dangerous delinquents were very noble, people who did a duty knowing that their commitment would cost them their lives.”

* * *

The project workers’ own psychological barriers between past and present were challenged by their immersion in the records of their former lives. It was the human resonance of these archives, the unfinished lives they depicted, and the restoration of subjectivity and agency they were seen to promise that gave the archives such texture and depth. The records are invaluable resources for scholarly analysis on a range of themes, to be sure. But to understand the process by which they were given new life, we must recognize that it was the people revolving around them—the militants-turned-memory workers, the police agents, and the thousands of dead who spoke through the yellowed photographs and crumbling pages—who represented the archives’ heart. Their relationships both stretched forward and reached back in time, defining the archival work being done even as they reconstituted bonds of solidarity and visions for the future.

Many of the workers already knew each other before starting at the project. Some were spouses, some had been compañeros in the Guerrilla Army of the Poor or Rebel Armed Forces or Guatemalan Workers’ Party, some were old university friends, and others were simply acquaintances “from before” who reconnected upon arriving. Establishing these bonds anew represented, for some, a reinscription of past identities, a reconnection with their former lives.

Alberto, the project’s assistant director, lost his brother, a revolutionary combatant, during the 1980s. “For some of the people who have rescued relationships of solidarity, of much caring, it has meant that we reidentify ourselves,” he said. “For example, I was talking with a compañero from the project; it turned out that he had known my brother, they worked together, and we’ve proceeded to build a very beautiful friendship based on this past detail. ‘Oh, your brother was so-and-so, I worked with him, I remember him very well, he taught me a lot, et cetera.’ Now we’re friends, real friends.”

Personal ties between workers extended not just horizontally among older ex-militants but also vertically between generations, again for reasons linked to the history of the Left. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, when state repression made political life in Guatemala City nearly impossible, many activists went into exile in Mexico City, where the insurgent leaderships were partly based—so many that a significant exile community developed there. Exiles set up mutual assistance groups, communal houses, day cares, and job-seeking networks in their new city, aiming to ease the transition for political refugees not only from Guatemala but also from the other Central American nations riven by Cold War conflict. Others spent their exile years in Nicaragua and Cuba, where they established similar networks. Both María Elena and Esperanza, during their time in Mexico in the 1980s, worked in these communal day cares attending to the children of compañeros. It was a delight for both women to find, upon beginning at the archives, that some of the babies whose diapers they had changed in exile were now grown up and working by their side, among the project’s flood of young hires. Of the roughly forty children for whom María Elena cared in one Mexico City safe house, no fewer than three ended up at the archives. “In one way or another, seeing them working here makes you feel like you left interesting seeds, seeds which grew into a sense of social commitment,” she said. “Even though [exile] was such a hard experience and there were so many negative aspects which could have scarred them, I think that it also provoked for them some overarching questions, which brought them here.”

The National Civil Police maintained a team of more than ten agents at the archives full-time, and they shared close quarters with the project team. Working with the police was not an easy transition for many project staffers. When I asked María Elena what kinds of contact she had had with the police before the archives, she laughed heartily. “Ha! Running away! Escaping! Being in protests where they were shooting at us!”

But project staffers soon realized that to get their work done, they needed to cultivate better relations with their counterparts, despite their negative past experiences. In the process, they became more sensitive to how “these papers, these archives, belong to the police, and we were working in a space that also belonged to them,” as Rosario put it. An atmosphere of tentative mutual respect slowly began to emerge, based on a shared valuing of the archives and fostered by the project’s directors in order to speed the pace of progress. Change came in the small details: before the project had funds to install water cisterns or a microwave on-site, police agents shared theirs with project staffers. In turn, it pleased and impressed the archives agents that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was willing to provide supplies, introduce computers, and generally improve the archives’ conditions, even if the two sides had different goals in mind. It stunned many at the project to learn that the plastic cord binding document bundles together had been purchased by the police agents at their own expense and that the scissors and staplers in daily use had been brought from the agents’ own homes.

As Victoriano, another ex-guerrilla, recalled of an early workshop held with project workers and National Civil Police archives staff: “That was when I came to understand for the first time that the police were also victims of the system. With the solidarity that the police provided … we came to see their commitment to their institution from a more human perspective, seeing their children, hearing about their lives in very working-class barrios, knowing that their children can’t tell anyone that their mothers are police officers because of the gangs, knowing about their loans… They would give us water, which was scarce, and we would share space with them, and that was how things started to change for the first time, how the relationship advanced. And that’s how you open up ideologically.”

Nearly everyone I spoke with stressed the idea that the police were also victims of the war, and if this did not mitigate the National Police’s abuses, it partly served to explain them. (All were careful to specify that this applied only to regular agents and not to the death squads or the generals who actually controlled the police.) “Knowing the conditions in which the agents had to live, you can see that the police themselves had to be dehumanized in order that they could perform certain objectives or act in certain manners against victims,” said Raúl.

“Social victories are the fruit of the people’s struggle. Nothing is easy. And it all represents a lot of work, no?”

The fact that these former militants could make their fragile peace with a group of rank-and-file police officers did not mean that the age-old hostilities dividing the country had melted away. Not all state security forces were created equal; not all hands were equally bloodied. When I asked workers if they could imagine a similar rapprochement with army soldiers who had served during the war, some laughed and others frowned while giving the same response—no, of course not, absolutely not, never.

* * *

Luisa, who was older and suffered from chronic health problems, told me that what had helped her “get through” was imagining how, someday, there would exist an archive and Guatemalans would be given the opportunity to search for their family members. “It’s something beautiful, like a daydream,” she said. “It lifts your self-esteem, it lifts your energy, it lifts your desire to do your work and accomplish all the things we’re accomplishing today. That’s how we talk about it among ourselves—that one day there will be a real archive here. That is our collective thought process, and it helps us keep ourselves working as we should.”

Said María Elena: “What we cannot expect, because nowhere in the world and in no society has it ever taken place, is for social victories to be handed out for free.” She was among those who referred to their work at the archives as un regalo de vida. “Social victories are the fruit of the people’s struggle, always. Nothing is easy. And it all represents a lot of work, no?”

* * *


1. Most of the names used in this excerpt are pseudonyms.

Kirsten Weld teaches modern Latin American history at Harvard University. This essay is adapted from Weld’s Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, published March 2014 by Duke University Press. Copyright Duke University Press, 2014.

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