Dec 9, 2011

Where Archives and Human Rights Connect: Millions of pages of Guatemalan Police Archive released digitally

Dec. 9, 2011

Source: Unredacted

In a public event held in Guatemala City today, Friday, December 9, the Guatemalan Historical Archive of the National Police(Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional—AHPN) and the University of Texas at Austin unveiled an extraordinary collaboration by making 10 million pages of digitalized police records available to researchers on a special Web site hosted by the university. The event followed a U.S. launch of the Web site at a conference held in UT Austin’s School of Law on December 2.

The project permits researchers from anywhere in the world to examine the entire digitalized collection of Guatemalan police documents via the Internet, without having to travel physically to Guatemala to see them in the archive’s reading room. Following the guidelines established by the AHPN, access is wholly unrestricted, and the collection will continue to grow as the police archive digitalizes additional records and makes the images available to UT Austin.

Since 2005 when the archives were discoveredon a police base in downtown Guatemala City, a staff of dozens has labored for years to rescue the massive collection of government records. After cleaning, sorting, describing, and digitalizing more than ten percent of the estimated 80 million pages of documents found, the AHPN opened a public reading room in 2009 and granted access to anyone able to visit in person. The AHPN also accepted requests for specific documents from prosecutors, human rights investigators, families of the disappeared, scholars and journalists.

When the documents were first discovered, many showed signs of decay. Since then, staff members have been working tirelessly to preserve and digitize them.

The archive’s holdings cover the entire history of the Guatemalan National Police, from its creation in the late 19th century to its dissolution in 1997. Staff investigators and most researchers have focused on records from the most violent years of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1975-85), however, when human rights violations spiked in intensity and security forces operated in the capital and other urban centers with impunity. In October 2010, a trial of two former police agents for the 1984 forced disappearance of labor activist Edgar Fernando García resulted in their conviction, based in part on documents located in the AHPN. The Public Ministry, Guatemala’s office of the attorney general, opened a special office inside the archive’s installations in May 2011, in order to be able to conduct continuous investigations into key human rights criminal cases.

There is no parallel for on-line, unrestricted access to an archive of this magnitude anywhere in the world. Less than one week after its first unveiling in the United States, UT Austin reports that there have been over 17,000 page-views by individuals from 47 countries.  Without a doubt, the digitalized repository of the AHPN through the UT Austin servers will not only serve as a rich resource for historians, social scientists, journalists and human rights investigators for decades to come, it will also serve to protect the integrity and security of the holdings inside Guatemala.

The decision on the part of the Guatemalan Police Archive to provide unrestricted digital access to records that contain countless references to private individuals – many of them entrapped by a security system designed to identify suspected subversives and kidnap or kill them solely on the basis of those suspicions – is highly controversial within the archiving world. Even in countries with no formal privacy or archive laws such as Guatemala, standard archival practice strives to protect the privacy of the victims of repression – whether by withholding entire records or selectively deleting individual names and other identifying information.

Antonio González Quintana is a renowned Spanish archivist and author of a seminal report on the “archives of repression,” written in 1995 for UNESCO and the International Council of Archives (ICA). In 2008, the ICA published an updated and expanded version of the report, Archival Policies for the Defense of Human Rights, in which González Quintana made a clear case for the protection of personal data even in the records of formerly repressive regimes. In a section on the ethical obligations of archivists, for example, González Quintana observed: “The most common and also the most difficult conflict is usually produced between the right to privacy and the right to historical research. In those cases, the deletion of the possible names of victims or third parties in the reproduction of original documents can be a solution.” (See page 106)

This was an approach ultimately rejected by the Guatemalan Police Archive. The process by which the archive decided to open the records related to political repression without restriction involved a long internal debate within the archive’s management and staff, as well as a panel discussion held in 2009 inviting public comment. It is also described in the archive’s own report, published in June 2011.

Citing several legal instruments, including Guatemala’s Constitution and an article in the country’s freedom of information law that prohibits the denial of records relating to gross human rights violations, the report, From Silence to Memory: Revelations from the Historical Archive of the National Police, found: “The armed internal conflict and repressive practices characterized a recent historic period in Guatemala that affected and continues to affect society enormously. In the face of this reality, the conclusion is inevitable that the political events that took place between 1960 and 1996 form part of the collective history of the Nation. This should be understood in its fullest dimension, so that no one has the right to hide information that comes from the actions by the State and its officials.”  (See pp. 37-39)

Some of these issues were touched on in a day-long conference held in UT Austin’s School of Law on December 2, called “Politics of Memory: Guatemala’s National Police Archive.” University scholars – including Charles Hale, director of the Latin American Studies Institute and the Benson Latin American Collection; Karen Engle and Daniel Brinks, co-directors of the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice; and Ariel Dulitzky, director of the law school’s Human Rights Clinic – joined Gustavo Meoño, coordinator of the Police Archive, and Jorge Villagrán, the archive’s information systems manager, to launch the digital repository before an audience of over 100 students and scholars. Panels on Guatemala’s history of violence and contemporary political challenges – including one in which I spoke, along with Patrick Ball, vice president of the Human Rights Program  at Benetech, and Virgilio Álvarez Aragón, director of the Guatemalan research institute FLACSO – helped define the context within which the unprecedented research site was announced and unveiled.

For press coverage from the conference, background information, and additional resources, please visit the “Related Links” page of UT Austin’s conference website:

For photos and video from the event, please visit:

The University of Texas at Austin agreed to host the digital collection after years of discussions with the AHPN, with input and support from the National Security Archive and Benetech, among other international and national institutions. The resulting letter of understanding, signed in January 2011, created a broad partnership between the two institutions – not only in support of universal access to the police records, but also to promote the exchange of technical expertise, bi-lateral cooperation in research, and mutual capacity-building for legal and academic networks. Read more about the agreement between UT Austin and the AHPN here.


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