Guatemala is still plagued by urban crime, but it is peaceful now compared to the decades of bloody civil war that convulsed the small Central American country. As he arrives in the capital, Guatemala City, FRONTLINE/World reporter Clark Boyd recalls, “When the fighting ended in the 1990s, many here wanted to move on, burying the secrets of the war along with hundreds of thousands of the dead and disappeared. But then, in July 2005, the past thundered back.”
It all started with an explosion at a military munitions dump that caused officials to inspect nearby warehouses. What they stumbled upon was another kind of bombshell: the historical archive of the much-feared National Police. The Guatemalan government had for years denied the existence of this archive, but here it was -- a warehouse full of documents in a state of advanced disarray. “Rats, bats, bugs and mold had taken over the building,” says Boyd, over video footage of an early inspection.
“Unit 6 of the National Police in [former dictator] General Rios Montt’s government was based in this building,” says Gustavo Meono, the official who is now in charge of the archive. “And there are many accounts [here] of grave violations of human rights: illegal detentions, illegal prisons, tortures. It is possible that extra-judicial executions took place in this space.”
During more than 30 years of warfare, state-sponsored violence against the country’s indigenous population became a matter of course in the countryside. In the cities, many intellectuals, labor leaders and activists lived in fear of being “disappeared” or executed by the National Police. After the disappearance of her brother, Aura Elena Farfan founded an organization dedicated to finding out the truth about what happened during the war. She shows Boyd photos of some of the 45,000 Guatemalans who were illegally detained and then vanished. She hopes the records uncovered in the warehouse will provide some answers.
So does Carla Villagran, a lawyer and chief human rights investigator at the archive. She, too, has a personal motivation. At the age of 19, she was married to a leader of a guerrilla movement. “He was kidnapped by the police and disappeared,” she tells Boyd.
But it was a daunting task to deal with the 80 million pages of material. The Guatemalan investigators were overwhelmed and they appealed for help.
Assistance came from an unlikely place – far away in California’s Silicon Valley from a small nonprofit called Benetech. Former rocket scientist Jim Fruchterman founded Benetech to provide high-tech solutions to humanitarian problems. Scanning and analyzing millions of documents did not faze him. “Oh, I thought that’s [just] a medium-sized asbestos litigation.” And when he realized what was at stake in the Guatemalan police archive project – that an official record of abuses in Latin America’s longest, dirtiest war might be lost – he vowed, “That was an injustice we had to fight.”
Dr. Patrick Ball, a computer scientist at Benetech, took on the Guatemala project, providing software that would preserve and analyze the police records, potentially giving families – and human rights prosecutors – the information they’d been hoping to find.
But back in Guatemala, as staff and volunteers cleaned, sorted and scanned the documents into computers, there was resistance from others who feared what dark secrets might be revealed. There were death threats and an attempted fire bombing of the warehouse. Security cameras were installed and the scanned files were encrypted and stored in back-up computers outside the country in Silicon Valley and other locales.
Boyd tracks down the current chief of police to ask him how he feels about the archive project. Although he came up through the ranks of the police during the civil war, the chief insists he is not worried. “If something comes out, then let it come out.”
In a country where many people still do not talk openly about what happened during the war, the biggest vote of confidence in the archive project came from Guatemala’s newly elected president, Alvaro Colom, who made an historic visit to the warehouse earlier this year.
“When I visited the National Police archives I had a very strong feeling, a longing for justice,” President Colom tells FRONTLINE/World. “My head was filled with images of the past we should never forget. We want justice.”
Like so many others, the president has a personal connection. His uncle, a well-known opposition leader, was gunned down in his car in Guatemala City in 1979 in what was widely believed to be a government-sponsored assassination. The evidence of that murder may lie buried in the archive records, waiting to be scanned by a volunteer and spotted by a computer search.
“I have in my hands a great responsibility,” a young worker at the archive tells Boyd, saying she feels like she’s saving Guatemala’s history for future generations. Soon, the staff hopes these records will be open to the public. And then, they say, thanks to a chance discovery, and some computer technology, the recovered stories of men and women who disappeared from history will never disappear again.
I am so happy that the Guatemalan President is trying to do what no other president in Guatemala's history didn't even think of doing; well done Seor Presidente. It is about time to bring those who committed those crimes to justice. The people of Guatemala had suffered to much, they deserve justice and peace.
Thank you Frontline and PBS for this great report.
As a Guatemalan citizen I truly appreciate stories as compelling and sad as those stories you have shared with the world. I owe what my life is today to this great country.
I lived in Gutemala during this time. People I knew disappeared. But this is one sided. I never heard of the attocities the "guerilleros" commited mentioned,Like kidnappings, killings, explosions in the city, farms burned to the ground, using citizens as shields. The guerrillas were terrorists trying to overthrow the government. They were communists. Did they respect human rights? I don't think so!
RD, AB, Canada
I left Guatemala in December 1984. My father had been kidnaped by the "judicial" Secret Police earlier that year. My oldest brother had gone to Mexico as the G2 was looking for him. I think that this is a move in the right direction, for some of us closure may never come. We will just continue moving along this journey we call life.
As a staff member of the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, I am very familiar with this story. In fact, a co-worker's partner worked on the archiving project. However, I didn't know about Benetech's key involvement in this project. Since hearing about this project, which links modern technology to human rights, I always thought it would make a good story. Thanks for covering it and so well!
It's about time! Well done!
Los Angeles, CA
Hopefully this project will be done and people will be healed from all the pain the police and the army brought in the 1900s.
London, United Kingdom
Reston wonders if this could be a hangover from the Conquistadors. I think you shouldn't go back five centuries. It is sufficient to consider and go deep into US foreign politics over the last 110 years.
I wish PBS Small World would report on the atrocities of the guerrilla en Guatemala, the death squads. The assassination of Gordon Main, US Ambassador, the German Ambassador, the torture and killings of the guerrilla in Mayan villages where everybody from 10 years and older were executed for not helping them. They should also report on the abuses of the FARC, colombian guerrillas, the abuses of Fidel Castro. This was a dirty war of a few guerrillas who wanted to take over the goverment to impose their comunist ideas.
Los Angeles, CA
Once again you've outdone yourselves. May we always have PBS to keep us well informed and well educated. Thank you.
A very sad history--the one we've lived, and the one we've escaped. My peoplo have endure much suffering and now we need all the help we can get to reconstruct our lives and our society. With no justice there can be no peace. We have not forgoten and we will seek justice in the name of those who have suffered.
Appropos of the comment from Reston, VA, it is also an outgrowth of the high-handed imperialism of the United States intervening throughout the twentieth century to install and support dictators who would support our foreign policy agendas in return for our support of their oppression of their own people. The list of dictators we have imposed upon Latin American countries is horrible: Bautista in Cuba, Samoza in Nicaragua, Duvalier in Haiti are just the beginning.
Mark E. Smith
San Diego, CA
As usual, the ones who secretly plan and carry out genocide are called "the government" and those who openly oppose or resist fascism and genocide are called "guerrillas."
I'm too old to keep up with these linguistic changes. Back in my day we called people who waged wars of aggression "the enemy" and we called those who opposed genocide and crimes against humanity "the resistance" or "the Allies" or "Americans."
San Francisco Bay Area, Ca
Guatemala is tragically beautiful. I've been enamored and captive by this country since my first visit in 1997. The gross atrocities committed against the Mayans breaks my heart.
I highly recommend the book by Daniel Wilkinson, "Silence on the Mountain," and any book by Jennifer Harbury, including "Searching for Everado".
Thanks for doing a great job documenting the cover-up and calculated effort by those in power to further oppress the poor.
In closing, it is a shameful act to oppress the poor for the sake of any power.
I guess the Maya were not that nice to each other either.
Does anybody know the name of the guitar music at the end?
Los Angeles, CA
That was a good story, hopefully much good will come of this project.
I loved this because I just went on study abroad this past term to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. We met with members from the Famdegua foundation, the same building you went to. That was so awesome to see that. I would love to work for Frontline World view after I graduate in 2009!
Fr. Georges Toussaint
A good video. I have been in Guatemala during 40 years and I have to say we meet that kind of violence in our slum where I am each day.
Considering Guatemala's sad history, the 'dirty war' in Argentina, Peru's Shining Path, and the death squads in Nicaragua (as well as others not coming to mind at the moment), Latin America hasn't been that much of a human rights haven. Could this be a hangover from the cruel brutality of the Conquistadors?