Guatemala: Access to Archives Sheds Light on Case of Forced Disappearance

Where are the disappeared?

By Rudy Girón – under a Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA version 3.0 unported

Access to information plays an important role in societies in transition and in the aftermath of a war. In fact, records and official archives are becoming tools to fight impunity, providing the evidence to prosecute perpetrators. Access to archives and databases helped shed light on a landmark case of forced disappearance in Guatemala.

Edgar Fernando García was 26 years old, an engineering student, labor activist and member of the clandestine Guatemalan Workers’ Party (PGT) when he was seized by police agents off a street in Guatemala City and taken away forever. His disappearance left his young wife, Nineth Montenegro de García, and an 18-month-old daughter behind. It was February 18, 1984

That is how the narrative of the National Security Archive starts when describing the experience by expert Kate Doyle on a trial to prosecute those responsible for Garcia's disappearance.

She delivered a testimony before Guatemalan Criminal Courts based on U.S. declassified records produced at the time of García’s disappearance by the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Guatemala. They describe a planned campaign on the part of the Guatemalan government to kidnap and kill trade union activists and student leaders linked to the opposition.

This discovery was possible because of the Freedom of Information Act that permitted the release of classified notes by the government, but it also required extensive work by document analysts connecting the puzzle pieces to reconstruct all the government's strategy. Certainly, as the title of a post on the The Witness Blog about the case indicates, “Archivist can be at the heart of accountability and justice.”  Police archives actually led to the arrest of the perpetrators, who were found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The Witness Blog highlights the increasing use of archival records as criminal human rights evidence; there is a dawning realization of the absolute obligation of state governments to be open and transparent:

Kate’s work with the García case clearly illustrates her point that archivists can play an active role in creating change.  Not only was a serious human rights violation committed when policemen forcibly abducted García, but there was the grave violation to his wife’s right to information.  For years, she begged for information, going to the morgues, the cemeteries, the head of state.  Kate stated, “that silence of the state is one of the great crimes.”

Databases played an important role too, thanks to the support from Benetech, as they describe in their blog:

The Benetech Human Rights Program uses cutting edge computing methods and statistical analysis to provide objective evidence of human rights violations. The scientifically defensible data in our findings serve as a powerful tool to combat impunity and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Daniel Guzmán presented expert legal testimony. Guzmán’s expert testimony helped the judges in the case remove doubt about the authenticity and reliability of the documents. He showed that the records are consistent in structure and overall content with many other documents in the archive and were not chosen deliberately or selectively. He described the patterns of data found in the documents and the probability that police officials knew about the 667 documents related to García. Guzmán’s statistical estimates about which police units had access to which documents showed evidence of communications between the army and police.

Relatives of Fernando, who have been fighting got justice for 26 years, opened to share with the world, in English and Spanish, all the developments of the trial. There you can read the Statement from Alejandra Garcia at the close of her father's trial. This is an abstract:

I do not seek revenge, neither would my dad have, but I do seek the truth, I want to know where he was taken, I want to know why he wasn’t formally charged, I want to know who gave the order, I want to know where he was taken and who he was handed over to, I want to know what happened to him. My heart cannot rest and be at peace without the truth, as harsh as it may be, the truth always heals the soul.

Under international humanitarian law, families have the right to be informed on the fate of missing relatives, and parties in a conflict have a responsibility to search for the missing and facilitate inquiries made by families of the missing. Now new technologies and new tools, such as access to information laws, can help fulfill these obligations and help families remind other generations about the lessons learned from a violent past, by keeping the story alive and open to anyone.

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