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200,000 died in Guatemala’s civil war — this digital archive is finally bringing families closure

Counting the vanished

Photography by Anna-Cat Brigida

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On May 15th, 1984, Felix Estrada went on a morning run near the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, just as he did every day. His brother Salomon, who he shared a room with, heard him come back, shower, get dressed, and leave again at 6:30AM. At first, it seemed like any other morning.

But Felix never came home for dinner, and as his cold dinner plate sat on the kitchen table, Salomon and his mother began to worry. “On that day, I did feel like something was strange, particularly because my mother felt it,” Salomon says. “My brother usually arrived at nine o’clock, and at 11 my mom felt something was wrong and said, “Felix hasn’t come home. What could have happened?’”

Salomon never saw Felix again. A 25-year-old university student, Felix was involved in leftist political organizing during the height of the country’s civil war, when leftists were seen as a threat by the state. Until the discovery of state documents two decades later, the Estrada family had no information on what happened to Felix that day.

Felix Estrada.
Felix Estrada.

Now, a project to catalog and digitize Guatemala’s National Police Archives has helped families like the Estradas finally find answers and come closer to reaching justice for the disappearance of their loved ones.  

“As a family, what we suffered is difficult to forget,” says Salomon. “You have a life with your disappeared family member. In the case of my brother Felix, I was 17 and he was 25. He was the older one who always took us to play sports or to do the shopping. How does the state expect us to forget?”

“As a family, what we suffered is difficult to forget.” 

An estimated 200,000 people were killed, and 45,000 more disappeared, during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. A truth commission later found the state to be responsible for 93 percent of the human rights abuses during that time. And the 80 million pages of police documents currently being cataloged and digitized reveal incriminating details of how forced disappearances were carried out by the state.

The significance of these documents is invaluable to families, human rights groups, and prosecutors working to uncover the circumstances of the disappearances and killings. The archives are one of three key elements needed to serve justice to perpetrators of wide-scale state-sponsored human rights abuses: witness testimony, forensic evidence, and official documentation. Organizing such a large amount of documents into a digital database is a tedious and resource-intensive process that can cost millions of dollars and last decades, but it’s a necessary one.

“Guatemala’s history is one in which the country, particularly the state, has a great debt to pay to the victims and their family members,” says Alberto Fuentes, director of public relations at the National Police Archives.

Archivists at the National Police Archives.
Archivists at the National Police Archives.

For nearly a decade following the 1996 peace accords, access to archival documents from the civil war period was limited. The military archives were closed to the public and the existence of the police archives was denied by the government. Then, in 2005 a nearby bomb threat inadvertently brought authorities to the National Police Archives. For human rights groups, the archives were a treasure trove hidden in plain sight. The building in which they were stored was a half-constructed police hospital, repurposed as an unkept warehouse. Anyone driving by the capital city’s Zone 6 neighborhood wouldn’t have noticed the poorly kept building littered with trash and abandoned cars. But inside were the long-sought-after police archives.

“When the archives appeared, we immediately realized the importance that this held to tell the country’s story,” Fuentes says. “For us, recovering the archives was a golden opportunity.”

A nearby bomb threat inadvertently brought authorities to the National Police archives

The discovery sparked further investigation in the area by the country’s human rights ombudsman, a state employee in charge of protecting human rights. Inside the building, workers revealed rooms full of stacks of documents and books that detailed the police operations.

The documents dated from the founding of the police in 1881 to 1997 when the National Police was dissolved and replaced with a new police body. The files cataloged every tiny detail of police operations, such as vacation days, daily time logs, and other mundane internal communication. At first glance, some of these administrative documents seemed irrelevant to forced disappearances. But with a closer look, the significance of the archives became immediately clear: a series of found files showed a police surveillance system that tracked the political activity of leftist students, activists, and politicians as far back as the 1950s. Statistical analysis of the documents revealed that the mass disappearances were not rogue operations, but part of a systematic method to repress leftist movements.

Investigators also discovered a section in the center of the warehouse that had been completely sealed off by concrete. The ombudsman later said he believed the room was a clandestine detention center used to torture people during the civil war.

Archivists at the National Police Archives.
Archivists at the National Police Archives.

Soon after the warehouse’s discovery, human rights organizations and archivists began a coordinated effort to catalog and digitize the documents. This process will take years and is resource-intensive. Today, more than a decade after it was started, just over 20 million pages have been archived, or a quarter of all the material. Fuentes estimates it could be decades before the project is complete.

Nevertheless, the work is critical for Guatemala to come to terms with its past.

“The absolute best source for holding someone accountable is by using his or her own words. By using the records of the police in human rights cases involving policemen and women, you can follow their own actions as reflected in the records they created at the time,” says Trudy Peterson, an archivist from the US who trained the original team of 100 individuals working in Guatemala on the archival process. The project was coordinated by Gustavo Meoño, a lawyer and former guerrilla fighter. Fuentes, another former guerrilla, was also part of this group.

“The challenge was not only figuring out what records existed and describing them, but also protecting them from rain, insects, bats, and grime.”

Peterson trained this group of Guatemalans on the key principles of archiving official records. “One of the main challenges was the carelessness of the police in caring for the records, which essentially were dumped in the warehouse,” Peterson says. “The challenge was not only figuring out what records existed and describing them, but also protecting them from rain, insects, bats, and grime.”

In tan coats, rubber gloves, and protective masks, the team of archivists sit at tables in the musty, cold, concrete-walled warehouse where the original documents were found, removing staples and adhesives from documents and folders. The documents are then sent over to the digitization wing of the building to be scanned and put into a digital database.

The project has been made possible by funding from the governments of Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Research institutions such as the University of Texas and University of Oregon have also contributed to the project, housing a part of the archives in their own digital databases.

In its earliest days, many individuals involved worried about government interference with the project in a country where many powerful people still don’t want these documents brought to light. As a precaution, the Swiss Embassy in Guatemala has a backup of the database of the police archives, but the archives report that the project has never been seriously threatened by political interests.

Archivists at the National Police Archives.
Archivists at the National Police Archives.

By 2009, the project had advanced enough to be able to answer information requests from family members, local judges, and international human rights organizations. Given the full name of the disappeared person along with the date and location of disappearance, it takes the archivists about 15 days to search the digital database. Nearly 6,000 family members have filed information requests to date. More than 80 percent of these families have received records about their relatives’ disappearances.

“We always knew clearly that our biggest objective and purpose was to give access to the information that the archive holds,” Fuentes says. Salomon Estrada was among the first to file a query for information. At the same time that he filed a request about Felix, he also filed one for his brother Cesar, who had also disappeared during the civil war.

Thanks to the archives, Salomon now has more information about the circumstances of Felix’s disappearance.  

After leaving his house, Felix headed to a meeting of political organizers. He and a group of friends were then intercepted by authorities, who brought them to a clandestine torture center. The forced disappearance of Felix and 27 other students was chronicled in what has become known as the “Caso Diario Militar,” named after a leaked military document found in 1999. Felix was tortured for about a month before he was shot to death.

Felix’s body was never found, and no one has been held responsible for his murder

After that, the trail goes cold. Felix’s body was never found, and no one has been held responsible for his murder. Salomon found no information on the disappearance of his brother Cesar.

To this day, Salomon continues to search for truth and justice as one of the founders of an activist group for family members of the disappeared, called Asociación Verdad y Justicia por el Diario Militar, known as Grupo AVEJA. The group was founded after the discovery of the “Diario Militar” documents to demand information about their own family members. Since the founding of the group, its members have all filed information requests through the National Police Archives. Grupo AVEJA also advocates for and shares information about the archives with other institutions that help families find information on the disappeared. “We fight without wanting vengeance and without wanting to create divisions in society,” Salomon says.

Using the National Police Archives and the “Diario Militar” documents, the families of the victims filed a human rights case against the Guatemalan state. In 2012, the case was presented to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where lawyers relied on more than 3,000 documents in relation to the “Caso Diario Militar,” and 19 documents directly tied to Felix that were found through the police archives. The court ruled that state was responsible for the forced disappearance of the 27 students and for failing to properly investigate the cases.

“It’s a huge victory and it sets a precedent because it shows the new generations that you don’t have to be scared,” Salomon says. “Fear fades away as you continue to fight.”

The “Caso Diario Militar” case presented a largely symbolic victory. To this day, no Guatemalan military or police official has been tried or sentenced for the disappearances in that case. But in other cases that used the documents from the police archives, high-ranking police and military officers have been convicted for human rights abuses.

Salomon Estrada standing next to a recreation of Felix's desk, part of an exhibit about forced disappearances in Guatemala.
Salomon Estrada standing next to a recreation of Felix's desk, part of an exhibit about forced disappearances in Guatemala.

“In Guatemala, we lived 30 years of absolute impunity,” says Fuentes. “This process of archiving the police documents wasn’t the only thing that changed this, but it is important. It was one of the factors that started to make justice possible.”

More archived documents are digitized and cataloged each day, but funding has started to become more scarce. During the peak of the archives’ digitization efforts, a team of 100 people digitized 2 million documents per year. Now a team of 60 digitizes about half a million pages per year. At this rate, Fuentes estimates that the process could go on for 15 to 20 years.

“It’s important to me to keep searching for more information, because that is how we are going to prove that these things did happen,” says Salomon. “When we have more information and we know the truth, it makes us stronger. We can say to the new generations that they shouldn’t be afraid, because many things that have happened in this country have made people fearful.”

“We are saying to people, ‘This happened, and the only way of making sure it doesn’t happen again is to speak out.’”

In October 2017, Salomon filed another request of information on his brother’s Cesar’s death. Again, the search results came up empty.