Documents Shed Light on Guatemala's Past - Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala
suburbs Antigua during our mountainbiketour at the first day
Published by AP World News 12/07/05
By JUAN CARLOS LLORCA
GUATEMALA CITY -- A trove of newly discovered police documents confirms that Guatemala's infamous National Police helped identify and kill leftists during the country's 36-year civil war.
Amid the piles of molding files -- 48 million in all -- investigators have found lists of thousands of people, classified under the labels "disappeared," "assassinated" and "political detainee."
Some files hold fingerprints of the dead. Many include pictures of corpses -- some showing signs of torture, with their hands tied behind their backs or bullet holes in their heads.
"They logged people who turned up dead, and some were even photographed. From there, we can identify the disappeared," said Gustavo Meono, leader of 20 investigators going through the files.
He said the evidence so far supports a U.N. truth commission's finding that the National Police helped the military track down leftist activists and, in some cases, aided in their killing.
The files were discovered by human rights prosecutors in June while they searched for explosives in a musty police building in Guatemala City. The Associated Press was given access to the files, stacked as high as the ceiling and including police logs and reports on robberies and other more mundane crimes. Some date back to 1900.
Guatemala has reluctantly accepted reports by the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church that the country's security forces carried out massacres, torture and political killings during the civil war. "Nobody ordered me to kill people, and I didn't kill anyone," he said. Although the files are closed to the public, investigators have invited people to come forward with information on missing relatives so they can be made aware of relevant findings. Few people have done that, mostly because the project hasn't received much attention in Guatemala.
But the new files are expected to shed light on details of the abuses and possibly help relatives learn what happened to some of the estimated 40,000 people who disappeared during the war, most between 1975-85.
While many files document daily police activity, even such seemingly routine information could be key to solving old mysteries.
"In many cases, the disappeared were taken into custody on routine violations, and they disappeared after officials discovered they were activists or people with political profiles," Meono said.
The army was responsible for most of the killings during the 1960-1996 civil war, which left an estimated 200,000 people dead. But the U.N. commission, which spent more than two years investigating the war's human rights abuses, found the National Police supported the military with information and intelligence.
When the civil war reached Guatemala City, the commission found, the police -- mostly detectives -- carried out some killings themselves.
For example, the U.N. commission found evidence that
Human rights groups say German Chupina, police director from 1980-82, was responsible for the National Police's most atrocious abuses. But so far, investigators have found nothing linking him to atrocities.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Chupina, 84, said investigators would find nothing to incriminate him.
One person who did contact investigators was lawmaker Nineth Montenegro, who learned the names of the police on duty Feb. 18, 1984, the day her husband was taken into custody. A union organizer allegedly linked to leftist guerrillas, he was never seen again.
She told The Associated Press the police record says 27 people were detained that day, but doesn't name them. She assumes her husband was one of them and hopes to find other records to support that.
For now, at least, she thinks she has found the name of her husband's arresting officers -- a small clue in her more than 20-year search for answers.
But the work is slow. In five months, the investigators have preserved only a few thousand of the millions of files.
Ruben Alvarez, one of the investigators, is hoping to find out what happened to his university friends, among thousands of students who disappeared or were killed during the war.
"You have to be objective, and it's likely that nothing will appear," he said. "But I haven't lost hope of finding something about my university buddies."
Meono says some of the findings could lead to investigations and possibly even charges against the killers. But he knows the chance is remote, mostly because past attempts to bring security officials to justice for crimes committed during the war have failed.
Prosecutors tried to bring charges against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on allegations he directed an anti-insurgency campaign that killed thousands of mostly Mayan civilians in Guatemala's isolated highlands, but an army of lawyers has stalled the case.
Police agents in charge of the archive were amazed to discover the files they believed to be "old papers" were actually a treasure trove for investigators.
"The thing is, no one knew about this," Meono said. "In 1997, police told the U.N. truth commission that the files didn't exist."
"Nobody ordered me to kill people, and I didn't kill anyone," he said.
Although the files are closed to the public, investigators have invited people to come forward with information on missing relatives so they can be made aware of relevant findings. Few people have done that, mostly because the project hasn't received much attention in Guatemala.