Glimmers of Hope in Guatemala

From Silence to Memory: Revelations of the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional

with a foreword by Carlos Aguirre and a preface by Kate Doyle
University of Oregon Libraries, 476 pp., available at
Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
The Kaibiles, a special counterinsurgency force of the Guatemalan army that has been accused of human rights violations, Guatemala City, 1988

A few weeks ago in Guatemala, I participated in a long-overdue commemoration. September 14 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of President Jacobo Árbenz, a former army officer who was elected in 1950, then ousted in 1954 in a coup organized by the CIA, and replaced by a military junta. His name has been taboo in Guatemala for most of the time since then. Many in the ruling elite still consider the causes he championed—land reform above all—repugnant and mortally dangerous. September’s commemoration included speeches, conferences, and a vote by the city council in Quetzaltenango, where Árbenz was born in 1913, to name the local airport in his honor.

This commemoration unfolded at the end of a year during which Guatemalans’ attention was focused on a very different period of their history, the horrifically violent 1980s. In May a Guatemalan court convicted General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was head of state from 1982 to 1983, of genocide. A higher court quickly annulled the verdict, but nonetheless it was a spectacular triumph for victims of the thirty-six-year civil war that broke out soon after Árbenz was overthrown.

While I was in Guatemala, I visited a chilling police archive that reflects yet another aspect of this country’s attempt to confront its past. It came to light after investigators entered a Guatemala City police compound in 2005 and found, piled in moldy and vermin-infested heaps, nearly 80 million documents comprising a minute history of the National Police from 1882 to 1997. I was led past teams of archivists who, wearing gloves and hairnets, are meticulously digitizing this collection. They have scanned about 15 million documents so far. A single-volume collection of highlights was published in Guatemala two years ago, and an English translation, From Silence to Memory, has just appeared. It is a cold but intimate self-portrait of the terror state.

This is an almost unimaginable chain of events for Guatemala: discovery of the police archive and publication of its contents; a genocide verdict against General Ríos Montt; and the reemergence of Árbenz from historical oblivion. It cannot be taken to mean that Guatemala has matured as a nation. Guatemala is no longer at war, but its democracy is one of the weakest in the hemisphere. Its politics is corrupt. The range of choices at election time is narrow, and Congress is splintered and frozen into immobility. Drug gangs have penetrated government. Violence is endemic. Entire populations of indigenous people are still suffering from the effects of political violence. Millions subsist in acute poverty.

Yet as the civil war fades into history—peace accords were signed in 1996—Guatemala’s old power structure is losing its grip. All three of the institutions that have run the country as a virtual…

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