crédito de foto:Photo Credit: Mark Kendall
By Mark Kendall
Andrew took off this morning and is going to stop off in Nahuala and Puebla to visit friends and previous host families on his way back to the States. I really can’t thank him enough for coming along on this crazy trip and for all of his help and support along the way, but I tried to nevertheless. Thank you, dude!
After moving into my new room a few blocks away in the middle of a big rain storm this morning, I hopped in a cab and headed into the capital with my gear. I swung through a few places to follow up with contacts I'd been given the past few days and had mixed results. The first place I looked for no longer existed and nobody in the building could tell me where they'd gone.
The second place I searched for was there but the person I sought to visit wasn't available. Sure enough, the third time was a charm, but if I had come 6 years earlier this place wouldn't have even been on the map. In fact, the very suggestion of its existence would have been denied at all levels by official sources.
On July 5, 2005, officials from the Guatemalan government's human rights office entered a deteriorating, rat-infested munitions depot in downtown Guatemala City to investigate complaints about improperly-stored explosives. Just a week or so before there had been an accidental explosion that sparked the need to make sure there weren't other unexploded bombs nearby.
When investigators arrived at the site they could hardly believe what they found – instead of a bombshell, they found papers and documents sitting in the windows of the building and on the verge of complete decay. The files belonged to the National Police, the central component of Guatemala's security apparatus during the civil war, and an organization so inextricably linked to violent repression, abduction, disappearances, torture and assassination that the country's 1996 peace accord mandated it be completely disbanded and a new police institution created in its place.
Over 45,000 people disappeared during this time and there is still no official story as to what happened. There's hope that this archive can help change that.
Over the past few years there has been a lot of progress being made to access, preserve, and use this information in the pursuit of justice and the recuperation of the nation's historical memory. These archives have been the subject of a PBS Frontline piece called “Guatemala: The Secret Files” and, more recently, a beautiful documentary by the German filmmaker Uli Stelzner called “La Isla: Archives of a Tragedy.” But for me, they serve a different purpose.
The National Police had already been disbanded by the time that the spree of murders of bus drivers began happening, so it's highly unlikely that any of the records would yield any information about what's . Rather, for me they serve two purposes – 1) to provide a means for visualizing the nation's history of a search for justice and 2) to help contextualize and understand how the machine of terror operated in Guatemala during those years. Although certain changes have been made, the feeling of terror here and the mistrust in authorities is far from gone.
When I got to the archive I met with Alberto Fuentes, a long-time human rights worker who had originally come here during the munitions search to make sure nearby civilians were safe. Since then, he's been an integral part of the efforts to preserve, organize, and digitize these records and now serves as its caretaker.
The archive is home to 80 million documents and 70 rolls of microfilm that contain approximately 30,000 images. They now have a staff of over 100 people and are partnering with a firm from Silicon Valley called Benetech to digitize all the records. At the end of each week, copies are encrypted and sent to Benetech servers in the USA. Due to a recent partnership with the Swiss government, a full copy of the digital archive is also being kept in the Swiss national archives. The message is clear - these records are here to stay.
I talked with Alberto for almost two hours and, before we knew it, it was time for the building to close. I willingly agreed to come back in a few days for an official tour of the archive.
The next stop was the headquarters for the Municipal Fire Department. Apparently, the firefighters are the first to arrive at the scene of the crime and usually document the events with photo and video equipment. So, I went in search of archival material regarding the killings of bus drivers.
When I arrived, I was surprised to learn that, if you submit a written request, they'll allow journalists to come along with them for the day to take their own photo/video.
On my way to the last stop of the day, my taxista Rolando and I pulled off the main road to grab a quick bite to eat at a shopping mall. It was a really high-end mall, fully equipped with a gated entrance and security guards who wore ear pieces. While my tacos were cooking, I curled up in a corner between two nice department stores and sat down. I reached into my dingy book-bag and pulled out a labyrinth of cables, adapters, memory cards, and chargers and began to connect them to my laptop in a flurry. I didn't think twice about doing it because it felt totally normal and because I needed to empty my memory cards for the final shoot of the day.
But to the rest of the folks in the mall, it might easily have looked more like I was some creepy unabomber, curled up in a corner with a multi-colored laptop keyboard and hell-bent on destruction.
A security guard came over and said that it wasn't permitted to plug in in the middle of the hallway and to sit in the middle of the floor to use the computer – she suggested I try one of the lounge areas. Fortunately, within a few minutes my cards were cleared and I just packed up and went on my way in search of tacos.
It began to rain again as we left the mall. I closed out the night by following up with someone I met last week at a bar through some friends of mine. When I mentioned the film, he started philosophizing about buses, life on the road, life as movement, and all kinds of other ideas that I had wished I could have gotten on camera that night.
So, we stayed in touch and I went by his office to follow up. At times it felt odd to abstractly talk about the components of my film as metaphors, but some of the ideas and lessons contained within those metaphors might really have some resonance when spliced into the final piece. But now's not the time to think about editing – it was an interesting conversation over a few beers and it feels like a psychological victory to have crossed one thing off the list of “things I wished I had filmed.”