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National Archives

Guatemala’s 36-year civil war created the neighborhood that I now work in. The conflict raged through the countryside, particularly in the highlands where indigenous people worked the land. The commonly accepted estimate is that 200,000 civilians died and/or disappeared (who are presumed dead, but their bodies were never found) n the civil war. It is impossible to know actual numbers, and this doesn’t include the number of military personnel that were among those killed. There are periods during the civil war where the estimated population dropped dramatically. But this decrease was not only attributable to those that died. To escape the widespread violence and death that was pervading almost every community in the Guatemalan highlands at that time, throngs of people fled Guatemala; many ended up in the U.S. Those who couldn’t get out swarmed to the city in hopes of safe haven. However, many indigenous populations did not speak Spanish, and their skills were closely tied to agriculture. This was the perfect storm for the rampant poverty seen in Guatemala City today. There was nowhere for these people to go and not much they were qualified to do in the city. This gave rise to the slums surrounding the city dump: scavenging the dump was a means for survival, and shelter could be sought on the otherwise undesired area surrounding the landfill. For those unfamiliar, PBS has a comprehensive, though not impartial, timeline of the civil conflict: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/guatemala704/history/timeline.html#

The civil war has remained a dark shadow in Guatemala’s past; those that remember it are very reluctant to discuss it. Those that don’t remember don’t want to know. But, in 2005, that memory was jolted back from the recesses of the mind. An explosion at a military building led to a search for bombs that needed to be disarmed. What was found certainly must have felt like a bomb was dropped. Discovered in one of the old, decaying buildings were rotting stacks of records. These records turned out to be a large portion of the National Police Archive, which chronicled the events of the civil war.

The National Police were implicated in some 93% of the violence during the civil war, but nobody had the evidence to prove it. The National Police were disbanded as part of 1996 Peace Accords, and the existence of police records was denied. Within a week of their discovery, the national civil court ruled that the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, or PDH, could conduct a search of the records; it was the first time a human rights investigation received judicial support in Guatemala. A total of 30 additional police archives were discovered throughout Guatemala, with the PDH having jurisdiction over all of them.

Safe Passage has been paying particular attention this year to doing more education with volunteers to raise awareness about Guatemala’s history. One such effort was a trip arranged for volunteers to visit the National Police Archive. This week we all piled in the bus and took the trip across the city to spend the afternoon at the archive facility, learning more about what happened during the conflict, as well as the process of bringing about justice. The day was simply unbelievable, and I’m so glad we had the opportunity to go.

Upon arrival, we were taken into a large meeting room, where our guides gave us a history of the civil conflict, and an overview of the archive facility. After our introduction, we were brought in two smaller groups to tour the facility. We were taken from room to room to see the documents being cleaned, sorted, scanned and analyzed. The environment was clean and technical — almost medical, although darker — but, yet, somehow it didn’t feel barren. And, most surprisingly, it didn’t feel uninviting. I was constantly overwhelmed with the importance of these records: to individual families to Guatemala’s national history and to our collective history.

There are some 80 million documents in all — it is the largest collection of documents to be studied for a human rights investigation in history. In addition to the documents, a mountain of other pieces of evidence, from photos to floppy disks, were discovered. Sadly, the documents were found in a pretty precarious state. The warehouse was old and leaky. Between seasonal rains and poor protection, the water and mold damage was too severe to save some of the records. Damage was also caused by cockroaches, mice and the like. Luckily, the vast majority of the archives were at least partly salvageable.

However, in a country as unstable as Guatemala has been, just having the documents now doesn’t mean that the process can be finalized. There is a very real fear that when the next president is elected in November 2011 that the project may be shut down entirely. Archivers, largely funded by a $2 million grant the governments of Switzerland and Sweden, are cleaning and scanning documents to make as many electronic records as possible, should the project ever be shut down. They must find the delicate balance between meticulous care of the documents and the perceived need to work as quickly as possible.

So, where do you even begin copying 80 million documents when you may only have a few years to do it? Luckily, Benetech stepped in to help. Benetech is a social venture based in California that harnesses technology for social change. One of their key services is data management solutions. They devised a plan to randomly sample the 80 million documents contained in the archive, and then will run a sophisticated data mapping model on the data mined from the documents to analyze trends and fill in the missing gaps. Once the documents are scanned, secure electronic copies are saved in Switzerland to ensure the integrity of the digitized archives should anything happen in Guatemala.

The most striking reality of the day was watching the archivers at work. They wore coveralls, hairnets and latex gloves to protect the documents they were working on. However, the surgical masks they wore were intended to protect their identities as much as they were meant to protect the papers. As soon as we entered a room, there was the immediate shuffle as masks were checked and re-positioned. Although certainly a less dangerous place than it was 15 years ago, this country is anything but innocuous. People can still be marked for knowing too much. These archivers are doing necessary work for their country, but it places them at a very real personal risk. A number of other security measures also serve to protect workers’ identities, even extending as far as how they arrive at the archive site.