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Human rights researchers in Guatemala have launched one of the biggest detective projects in history. They are trying to understand the abuses in Guatemala's civil war. A mammoth warehouse discovered last year contains tens of millions of documents comprising the National Police archive. The government first denied the records existed, now those papers are expected to offer clues of the role of the police in the murders and disappearances during what that country calls its dirty war.

NPR's John Burnett reports.

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JOHN BURNETT reporting:

A portly, bearded human rights investigator leads the way into a dim concrete building that smells of dust and mildew. Through the doorway are visible towers of bundled documents.

Mr. ALBERTO FUENTES(ph) (Assistant Director, Recuperation of the Historical Archive of the National Police): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: The dimension of the archive is truly gigantic, says Alberto Fuentes, assistant director of the project formally known as the Recuperation of the Historical Archive of the National Police.

Mr. FUENTES: (Through translator) So they say there are 80 million pages of documents here. So in every possible space, in every alcove, there are just stacks and stacks and stacks of these police records.

BURNETT: When the police archive was discovered last summer it was in frightful condition. Rats, bats and cockroaches had made homes there. Rain blew in broken windows. It was like discovering some ancient tomb, and what they found was astonishing. A worker brings Fuentes a handful of file cards. On top is a black and white police photo of a frightened young man.

Mr. FUENTES: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Look, for example, this is an index card on a person, he says. It has the fingerprints of his left hand, his name and his address. It says, subversive activities. The date is January 9, 1970. These people were killed. We have the information. One of the challenges is to find out what happened to these detainees.

Mr. FUENTES: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: With millions of yellowed police documents, some dating back to the 1880s, human rights investigators will focus on the most savage years of the counter-insurgency. According to the Guatemalan Truth Commission, the years between 1975 and 1985 are when a majority of the estimated 200,000 war victims died, mostly at the hands of state security forces.

The Swiss government has donated $2 million to the project. The records warehouse is now supplied with copiers, digital scanners and Dell computers, and staffed with 70 employees wearing dust masks and tan lab coats. They clean typewritten documents at long wooden tables. A curly-haired 26-year-old university student named Mauricio Paniawa(ph) is asked why he took the job here at the police archive.

Mr. MAURICIO PANIAWA (Investigator, Guatemalan National Police Archive): (Through translator) To discover why they killed my father, to know the truth. I passed the years of my youth always missing him, always wishing he was there. I want to know why they took him.

BURNETT: The director of the National Police from 1978 to 1982, during the height of urban political violence, was General German Chupina Barahona(ph). Last month, a Spanish National Court judge issued an international arrest warrant for torture, murder and illegal detention against Chupina and seven other former security officials. The charge is considered more symbolic than enforceable. The general, now 85, lives in a walled residence south of Guatemala City perfumed with flowering trees. During an hour-long interview, the wizened and weary old police chief insisted he treated his prisoners humanely and had very little to do with urban guerrillas in the first place.

General GERMAN CHUPINA BARAHONA (Director, National Police, 1978-1982): (Through translator) I am here where you see me, and here I'll die. I'm not interested in what happened in the past, but fortunately nothing grave happened on my watch. Nevertheless, if they find anything delicate, they should take me to court. But I'm sure there's nothing they'll find.

BURNETT: The recuperation of the Guatemalan police archive has employed one of the world's pre-eminent human rights data analysts, Patrick Ball. His nonprofit company, Benetech, is located in Palo Alto, California. Ball has worked with truth commissions in a dozen countries, including El Salvador, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. He's aware of other massive police archives, such as that of the East German Stasi and the Soviet KGB, but he says there's never been anything like the Guatemalan police archive.

Mr. PATRICK BALL (Director, Benetech): This is, by far, the single largest cache of documents that's been made available to a human rights process in history.

BURNETT: The detective work is so difficult because the archive is so disordered. Researchers have to burrow through masses of bureaucratic paperwork such as police pay stubs and invoices for new uniforms before finding a picture of a bullet-riddled corpse.

Mr. BALL: The Guatemalans talk about the logic of the broom - things were just swept together and tied up into bundles and stuffed into bags and then heaped substantially taller than I am in these mountains of bags of incredibly valuable information.

BURNETT: With so much potentially incriminating evidence, one wonders why the police didn't destroy the archive. For instance, the Guatemalan army laundered the records of its brutal presidential guard before turning them over the Truth Commission. Carla Villagran is a lawyer in charge of the police archive project.

Ms. CARLA VILLAGRAN (Director of Analysis, Office of National Human Rights Ombudsman, Guatemala): The police thought during all those years that they were doing the correct thing. If your job is well done, are you going to destroy your records? Of course not.

BURNETT: Human rights researchers have been reluctant to discuss their findings until they're ready to go public with compelling evidence of police misdeeds. But the government human rights ombudsman, Sergio Morales, who's overseeing the project, agreed to reveal one finding.

Mr. SERGIO MORALES (National Human Rights Ombudsman, Guatemala): (Through translator) But what I can tell you is there are codes. We found documents coded by numbers, and we found the translation. Within these codes are the words kill, abduct, disappear, therefore these are indicators of what there is.

BURNETT: At the most, human rights workers hope to unearth specific crimes by the police, such as their involvement in the storming of the Spanish embassy in 1980, in which 39 protesters were burned alive. At the least, it's hoped the archive will clear up unsolved murders. Morales says he hopes to be able to match fingerprints of police detainees with some 3,000 unidentified corpses that were fingerprinted at the city morgue before being interred in paupers' graves.

Mr. MORALES: (Through translator) Today, with these fingerprints, we hope to be able to finally compare and find out where they are in the cemetery.

BURNETT: Time is of the essence. The ombudsman's term expires in a year and a half. Researchers expect to make their first public revelations from the Guatemalan National Police archive later this fall.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: John lived in Guatemala City during one of the bloodiest periods of the armed conflict. You can read his reporter's notebook at npr.org.

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