THE GUARDIAN - Friday, February 2, 2007
SECRETS OF THE DEAD
More than 200,000 people died or vanished in Guatemala's civil war and thousands are still executed by police and vigilantes every year. Now secret state files detailing the atrocities are to be made public - despite death threats from the security forces. Billy Briggs reports.
Wendy Mendez was nine years old when she last saw her mother Luz alive. It was March 8 1984. The two of them were in police custody in Guatemala City, and Wendy was being tortured. "They put my head in a bucket of water and gave me electric shocks. I remember one of the policemen laughing and saying to my mother, 'Look what we are doing to your baby.'"
That time - the late 70s and early 80s - was the most violent period of a civil war that went on for more than three decades in Guatemala between leftist guerrillas and rightwing, military-backed governments. It is a war that in many ways is still going on, despite the formal peace signed in 1996; extrajudicial executions continue, and no one has been brought to book for the atrocities that according to the country's official postwar truth commission left more than 200,000 dead or "disappeared". This lack of accountability has meant that hundreds of thousands of people like Wendy have never been able to find out what happened to their relatives and friends. But that is about to change.
In Guatemala City today murder is commonplace and a sense of lawlessness exists, more than 10 years on from the cessation of war -so much so that after visiting the country last year the United Nations' special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, declared,"There are now more killings per day than there were during the dark days of the civil conflict. The killing of women, the execution of selected individuals by elements within the police and military, gang and crime-related killings, 'social cleansing' [by vigilante groups], and other acts of random violence have created a widespread sense of insecurity. Official estimates of 5,000 or more extrajudicial executions per year certainly understate the real death toll."
Despite the barbarity of the war - particularly during the early 1980s, when Guatemala's Mayans were killed in their tens of thousands by the government forces of General José Efraín Ríos Montt and allied paramilitaries - a culture of impunity has remained almost impenetrable. Now this barrier is going to be broken open: the country's human rights officials have set a date for publishing the first batch of documents from a secret police archive whose existence was for years denied by the security forces.
The files, which run to millions of pages, include classified information relating not only to the disappeared, but to spies, informers, government officials and clandestine death squads. The material belonged to the National Police, second only to the army as the core of the security forces during the war, an entity so inextricably linked with violence that the December 1996 peace accord ending the fighting specified that it be disbanded. Human rights investigators say the importance of these files, whose release is planned for July 5, cannot be overstated for a nation still struggling to overcome the legacy of internal conflict.
Mendez is now hoping that the files will reveal what happened to her mother, and will start a wide process of justice. Their publication "could finally put some people in prison and give us closure", she says. "My mother had a life. The people that did this are still free on the streets".
Meanwhile, a judge of Spain's national court, Santiago Pedraz, has filed arrest warrants with Interpol against Ríos Montt, head of state from 1982 to 1983, and seven other Guatemalan figures prominent at that time. Genocide and torture are among the charges. The accused include former presidents Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores and Romeo Lucas García; retired generals Benedicto Lucas García and Angel Aníbal Guevara Rodriguez; a former minister of the interior, Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz; and ex-police chiefs German Chupina Barahona and Pedro García Arredondo were also named.
Mejía Victores and Chupina Barahona are in jail on other charges in Guatemala, and Lucas García died in Venezuela in May last year. The former interior minister, Alvarez Ruiz, is believed to be living in exile in one of the neighbouring states. But García Arredondo and Lucas García still live in Guatemala, according to human rights workers. As for the ex-dictator, Ríos Montt, he recently confirmed that he plans to run for congress this September.
If elected he could be immune to prosecution for war crimes.
The archive sits in a former police base and munitions depot in Guatemala City, ringed by razor wire and under 24-hour armed guard. We were allowed access on condition we did not identify any of the 100 investigators working here. There are an estimated 75m documents and the oldest found so far dates back to 1880. Every page must be cleaned, read, classified and scanned on to computer - a task that could take 25 years.
It was investigators for the office of Guatemala's procurator for human rights (Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos) who accidentally stumbled on the files in 2005 while searching for a munitions cache. It took months to get a court order allowing an investigation and ensuring protection of the documents, and more months to recruit and train a team of investigators. Gustavo Meono, in overall charge of the procurator's inquiry, says there is psychological pressure on these workers, who know their lives may be at risk due to the political sensitivity of the work. He has received numerous death threats; there are some extremely "unhappy people" in the higher echelons of government and the army and he says, "People still go missing in Guatemala." Human rights workers also worry about whether the project will go on after Sergio Morales Alvarado, head of the procurator's office, leaves his post this September.
"This could all be scrapped," Meono says.
Touring the corridors of the two-storey building we see hundreds upon hundreds of sacks of documents piled in musty rooms, and dozens of small rooms where investigators wearing white protective masks sit painstakingly working through dusty bundles of papers, prioritising the information before computerising it.
In one room a poster shows a lone shadow in a desert and reads: "The Missing - and the Silence. The Right to Know."
Some of the finds so far have included confidential messages from the police to senior Guatemalan leaders. Hundreds of rolls of still photographs are being developed. Some show pictures of bodies and of detainees. Meono refuses to be drawn on the legal implications of the information, but he will say that investigators have given priority to the early 1980s when most of the killings took place. It seems a safe bet that this will be the focus of the first batch of documents released.
Later we meet the director of the Guatemalan Forensic Foundation, Freddy Peccerelli, in offices also protected by armed guards. A veteran of forensics work after the Bosnian war, he has the job of finding and exhuming bodies from the hundreds of mass graves hidden across Guatemala. "They say 40,000 to 45,000 people disappeared during the war, but I believe the figure is much more," he says.
According to the official truth commission, the "Commission for Historical Clarification" - set up, with United Nations support, in an agreement between the government and rebels of the Guatemalan Revolutionary National Unity - there were more than 620 massacres during the war. Government forces and paramilitaries were responsible for more than 90% of the atrocities, according to the commission's 1999 report. An unofficial human rights commission run by the Roman Catholic church came up with similar findings. After 12 years of work Peccerelli's team at the Forensic Foundation - a non-government organisation funded partly by UN donors and partly by foreign charities - has recovered the remains of about 5,000 people. He says it will take a lifetime to find "one-quarter of the known dead", but believes that the archive will prove crucial in identifying victims. "At the age of 18 everyone in Guatemala is issued with an ID card with their fingerprints. We know the archive has thousands of personal identification files so we hope to be able to match bodies to cards."
Peccerrelli, too, says threats have been made on his life, and letters have been sent to members of his family, including his brother, who was also threatened with a gun. "I got a note saying 'We will kidnap your sister - we will cut her up and rape her'. People tipping us off about mass graves have ended up dead. It got so bad that I took a year out and moved to Bournemouth in England with my wife and two daughters." The main figure behind the Catholic truth commission, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered two days after publishing his group's report in 1998.
In the Forensic Foundation building, there are currently the remains of 850 people. On one table a skeleton is laid out. "This was a man 35 to 40 years old found in a mass grave at Pavit, in southern Guatemala. He suffered five traumas to the back of his neck - I think he was killed with a knife," the forensic examiner says, on condition of anonymity.
Memories are still painful for Mendez, whose crime was to be a child of parents who supported the rebels. Her mother worked at San Carlos State University and produced anti-government leaflets. Despite repeated requests, Mendez has never been given any information by the state about her, but in 1998 a military diary stolen by a soldier was made public in the US. It contained 182 names and included a photograph of Luz. "The diary says that on May 2 1984, my mother was transferred to U4," says Mendez. " We haven't been able to decode U4 yet but it tells us my mother was kept alive for two months.
The archive might tell us more. Just to know what happened to her would be enough . . . and maybe we could even find my mother's body." The diary also contained information on another relative, Farfun Ruben. The code beside his name was 300 - which means he was executed.
(Copyright Billy Briggs, 2007. No reproduction without permission)