ALEX CHADWICK, host:
We're continuing now our weeklong series, Guatemala: Unearthing the Future. All this week Xeni Jardin, our technical contributor, is reporting on how Guatemalans are using modern technology to look into the nation's historic problems. The country still struggles with the scars of a brutal civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed during that conflict.
And today, Xeni has the story of how human rights workers are digging into a nation police archive to find the fate of some of those victims.
XENI JARDIN: Police officers stand guard in front of a nondescript building in Guatemala City. The words area historica - historic area - are painted on the front door. And inside, each dark room overflows with documents produced by the national police.
Mr. JORGE VILLAGRAN (Project for the Recuperation, National Police Historic Archives): Eighty million papers…(Foreign language spoken)
JARDIN: Jorge Villagran works with the Project for the Recuperation of the National Police Historic Archives. The group is trying to build a digital library so the information on those crumbling pages will last.
Some of the answers the Guatemalan people have waited decades for may be buried in this enormous, dingy tomb. The national police were believed to be responsible for so many atrocities during the civil war. The group was dissolved and replaced by a new institution when the conflict ended.
Ms. GRATO GALLICH(ph) (Human Rights Investigator): (Foreign language spoken).
JARDIN: Grato Gallich is one of the human rights investigators who have been sorting through the archives since 2005. For years, authorities denied the archives existed, and Gallich says the space and all it contained were left for the rodents and the bats.
Ms. GALLICH: (Through translator) Here you'll still see some bats. But when we arrived, the place was in even worse condition. It reeked of bat excrement and urine. But slowly, the presence of humans has changed this place.
JARDIN: In a workroom, Gallich and 150 colleagues are making progress in preserving documents. It's an endless messy maze, piles of moldy, dust-covered papers stacked ceiling to floor. A hand-written sign on one heap of paper reads parking tickets - another, traffic violations.
But then, there's the one labeled missing persons 1982. That was the year during the war when many civilians were abducted, tortured and murdered. Doctor Sergio Morales is the government's human rights ombudsman, and he oversees this police archive project.
Dr. SERGIO MORALES (Ombudsman, National Human Rights, Guatemala): (Through translator) In this structure, we encounter places in which we suspect that people were detained and tortured. This building must be reclaimed, because that fact explains why the archives are located here in the first place.
(Soundbite of a vacuum cleaner)
JARDIN: One worker vacuums filth off a stack of cards marked detective files. Most of the workers here wear protective masks and latex gloves to handle the papers, some of which are more than 100 years old.
Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)
JARDIN: A woman shows me one of the oldest books she's cleaned so far.
Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)
JARDIN: This one's from 1931.
As the team brushes off other documents, I notice a notebook labeled CIA correspondence. In 1954, the CIA backed a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected president, and a long series of military dictatorships followed. These archives may shed light on early U.S. involvement in Guatemala. But now, investigators are focusing on 1975 to 1985, the 10 bloodiest years of Guatemala's civil war.
After the papers are cleaned and organized, the tech team takes over. In a workroom, they scan each document into a computer system. Those scanners can work fast - nearly 50 pages a minute - but the workers must move slowly so they don't damage the deteriorating records. Eventually, the images will form the body of a digital library. Jorge Villagran is the project's technical director.
Mr. VILLAGRAN: (Through translator) This is a huge project, 100 years of history. My interest won't end after the year is up. The product of this work may only be realized in the lives of our children.
JARDIN: Investigators plan to offer a preliminary report on the contents of the archive before July. The term of the human rights' ombudsman ends soon, and Villagran worries the project will no longer have an advocate in the government. He says a technology nonprofit from the United States, Benetech, is helping them prepare data for the report. Benetech produces free software specifically designed to record information about human rights abuses.
Computer servers here and outside the country will store the data. Protecting both the physical and digital information is critical. Gustavo Meoño is director of the police archive project.
Mr. GUSTAVO MEOÑO (Director, National Police Archive Project): (Through translator) What's inside these archives is not repeatable. If this is destroyed, if this cannot be preserve properly, there will never be another one in Guatemala.
JARDIN: Meoño wants to collaborate with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, or FAFG. That group excavates mass graves in rural areas that hold victims of political violence. Now the FAFG wants to start searching for urban victims, and Meoño believes his project can help guide those efforts.
This prospect of identifying long lost souls has made the police archives a source of hope for many Guatemalans. When the archive was first discovered, Meoño says widows, fathers and children traveled here with photographs of their missing loved ones that disappeared. He recounts the pain of hearing one elderly woman plead for information about her son.
Mr. MEOÑO: (Through Translator) To listen to a woman say that she does not want to die without knowing what happened to her child, you have to tell her that we can't promise her anything. That we might not have answers. That we might not be able to find where her child went.
JARDIN: Meoño breaks down as he recounts the exchange. But then, he says even if he's never able to answer that mother's question, what's inside the archives could mean that the perpetrators of this violence will one day be held accountable.
For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.
CHADWICK: And Xeni is with us here in the studio. Xeni, welcome again.
JARDIN: Thank you, Alex.
CHADWICK: You reported that this police archive has records of some serious human rights violations. The national police were disbanded 10 years ago, so why did they keep these records?
JARDIN: You know, that was one of the first questions I asked these people, and Gustavo Meoño said, look. They were doing their job, and they kept records of their actions. It's only with the passing of time and with a different perspective that we now look at these actions and say there were human rights abuses committed.
CHADWICK: Xeni, I saw your Web postings on these stories yesterday and the day before and now today. But these are police archives, and I would think you would have had some trouble getting in there, but the pictures and your narration - it sounds as though you're just kind of free to walk around.
JARDIN: Not at all. This is still part of an active police compound, and what's in the archives is technically the property of the police. As I moved through the archives, I was escorted by an armed guard. And there were restrictions on what I could photograph.
I spotted one document that said CIA correspondents out of the corner of my eye and kind of snuck back and took a photo, but there's a real sense that no, the information is not free yet.
CHADWICK: All right. Thanks, Xeni.
And you can find pictures and videos from the police archives at our Web site. There is a page devoted to all things Xeni. It's at npr.org/xeni - that's X-E-N-I. And there, you can also download a podcast of this and other stories in the series. And tomorrow, something else coming. Xeni?
JARDIN: Tomorrow we're going to be looking at green technology that's bringing water, power, fuel to rural communities.
CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY tech contributor Xeni Jardin. Xeni, thank you.
JARDIN: Thank you.