Álvaro Colom

Álvaro Colom

Álvaro Colom became Guatemala’s president after run-off elections in November 2007.

Álvaro Colom became Guatemala’s president after run-off elections in November 2007. The center-left politician and former businessman has promised to crack down on the country’s violent crime and find reconciliation after years of conflict. Despite the signing of a peace accord that ended the country’s 30-year civil war in 1996, Colom tells correspondent Clark Boyd, “We have to construct justice if we want peace.”

Colom lost members of his own family in political assassinations during the war and believes it will take time to gather evidence from the National Police Archive to deliver justice. But he says his government has the will to find the truth. “Our government has nothing to hide,” Colom says. “It’s time to know the truth. It’s time for Guatemala to sleep peacefully without dwelling on the past and living with these realities.”

The interview took place in April 2008, in Guatemala City. It has been edited for clarity.

Q: Can you respond to why it’s taking so long for any findings to come out since the  police archive was discovered in 2005?

Colom: I am sure that the team working at the National Police Archive is very professional. I’ve been there; I know the director; he’s a responsible person. And I hope very soon what comes out will be very beneficial to justice, to history, to the knowledge of our country.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is that there is information on some emblematic cases from the past that were never resolved. But we will now probably have more evidence; reaching justice is a fundamental element of the National Police Archive. We are a week away from letting out the archives kept by the military. It’s been a big legal battle there. When two lawyers get together, you have five opinions. So we are in the legal phase, but we are working on liberating those archives, which have been guarded well. They are sealed. It’s just a matter of time.

Q: Does the government have anything to hide?
Our government has nothing to hide. We don’t want to hide anything. What we want is justice and peace, so we can find reconciliation. And I think those archives will contribute to that peace and reconciliation.

Q: So those archives are important for the people of Guatemala?

Definitely. For people who are democratic and conscientious, we want to be just, yes. There are some people who don’t like it -- they feel put upon. But for me, I don’t have anything in my closet. It’s time to know the truth. It’s time for Guatemala to sleep peacefully without dwelling on the past and living with these realities.

Q: And for you personally? Your uncle was assassinated during the war.

Obviously, I’d like to initiate something with my uncle, but I don’t think that would be fair. There are thousands of Guatemalans who are in the same situation. If the case of Manuel [Colom Argueta, a former Guatemala City mayor and the president’s uncle] came out in the course of justice, as president, I would respect the independence of the judicial system. The list is enormous of people who we knew -- my cousin, my uncle, it was a ton of people. But I have to act for the nation. The system of investigation has to play out without any instruction from the presidency; I would be getting involved where I don’t belong.

Q: Do you think cases will eventually come to court?

I don’t think that there will be a lot. I don’t think so. Even though the archives are huge – and they still have to go through a lot – I think that there will be an emblematic case -- possibly involving massacres, not massacres, but counterinsurgency plans or repression. Those archives ultimately are about these things. What happens with those archives is that someone finds a small note; then they connect it with another note. Even if [the documentation] isn’t all there, it shines a light on one of their cases. That takes a lot of time, great investigators, but we have the will.

It’s been more than 10 years [since the end of the civil war], and there are still doubts. Now we are at peace, but there hasn’t been resolution. We have to construct justice if we want peace. It’s justice that we need.

Q: What’s your hope for the future?

We hope that it is going to end up being a historic archive, both that of the military and the police. I think the new generations need all that to happen so history doesn’t repeat, so nothing is hidden, so it is completely open. It’s going to be important thing for our country.

Q: Do you think the police force today works well?

We’re getting better. Our police are very disorganized, very contaminated. In 1993, I think we discharged 439 officers. Now we are going to graduate 500. We are doing everything professionally. We’re reconstructing all the commissaries [police barracks] that are in a terrible condition. How can I ask a police officer to perform well if he doesn’t even have a place to sleep? If he doesn’t have bullets? We’re already seeing the effects; they are still small because we still lack manpower and resources. But we’re working on it.

Q: What is your personal motivation?
A profound desire for justice. Seven of my friends from the university were assassinated. My uncle, two uncles, one who was famous, and a cousin [were assassinated]. Obviously with the political climate of that time, before they assassinated Manuel, they assassinated 69 other leaders. It was systematic.

Q: How do you define justice?

Justice should not be vengeance. Justice is justice. It’s simply knowing what happened. I have an aunt whose son never reappeared. I think she is still waiting for him to return. It’s that martyrdom of a mother that can’t be quantified. It is this that creates a feeling for justice.

Q: What was it like for you visiting the National Police Archive?

Obviously a lot of images from the past came to my head that we don’t want to forget. I think the strongest feeling was to do everything I can as president to bring justice. I have to do it.