Kirsten Weld is Assistant Professor of History at Harvard University. In 2005, human rights investigators stumbled on the archives of Guatemala's National Police. In her new book, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, Weld tells the story of the astonishing discovery and rescue of 75 million pages of evidence of state-sponsored crimes, and analyzes the repercussions for both the people and the state of Guatemala.
This book centers on the discovery and rescue of a massive police archive produced during Guatemala’s thirty-six years of civil war, from 1960-1996. Tell us how this discovery came about. How did you come to be involved?
The discovery of the archives was, quite literally, explosive. Nobody knew that these files still existed, because the administration that signed the Peace Accords took deliberate steps to keep them secret. But one night in June 2005, a four-hour-long series of blasts rocked Guatemala City: a cache of munitions left over from the civil war, stored in frightful conditions on an urban army base, accidentally ignited, showering shrapnel and spewing toxic smoke into the surrounding neighborhoods. Urban legend had it that there was a similar weapons storage problem at a nearby police base, so local residents demanded preventative action. But when investigators from the human rights ombudsman’s office showed up at the police base, they found something even more incendiary than bombs and guns: rooms upon rooms heaped with old papers. They realized that they had found the lost archives of the infamous National Police.
Initially, though, the archives posed more questions than they answered. Who would take custody of this enormous, 75-million-page body of records documenting over a century’s worth of tense, bloody history? Who would do the work to rescue the archives from the rot and abandon to which they’d been consigned, and who would pay for it? What would be the repercussions of reopening a conversation about postwar justice and memory in a country where those who dared to speak of the past were still routinely threatened or killed? What secrets would emerge from the archives?
Slowly, and against all the odds, the outlines of an ad-hoc project to clean, organize, and analyze the files came into being. About eight months into what was then still a shaky, fledgling initiative, I contacted its leaders and floated the possibility of writing a book chronicling their efforts. Believing, I think, that it might provide some extra measure of security to have a foreign observer on-site making a case for the importance of the work they were doing, they agreed to let me join the project as a volunteer, making me the only foreigner to work as a rank-and-file member of the archival recovery team.
The competing reactions reflected the deep polarization of postwar Guatemalan society. Human rights organizations, advocates of postwar justice, and what remained of the old Left were thrilled, hopeful that this enormous cache of files could be used as evidence in war crimes trials and could help clarify the fates of some of the country’s many desaparecidos, or disappeared people. Conservative sectors studiously ignored the discovery—publicly, at least— but the efforts to rescue the archives faced attacks on multiple fronts, ranging from intimidation to arson attempts. Unknown assailants hurled Molotov cocktails into the archives site on numerous occasions. Workers at the archives project were, in some cases, spied on and harassed. Immense amounts of political pressure were deployed in an attempt to block any revelations that might implicate former police or military officials in crimes against humanity. But because the archival rescue project has managed to achieve major visibility both nationally and internationally, it has thus far survived.
What happened to the people documented in the archive? Did any of them survive? Since its discovery, have any of the victims documented come forward?
Many did survive. These files are, after all, the administrative archives of the police, so they contain traffic tickets, noise citations, personnel registries, and other bureaucratic ephemera documenting the regular churn of urban life. That said, however, many other individuals whose names appear in the files were indeed killed by state security forces, even though the records themselves tend to be circumspect on this front—a police report will state that someone was killed by “unknown individuals” or in a “traffic accident,” even when the forensic and eyewitness evidence strongly indicates otherwise. So analysts need to triangulate the information contained in the files with data from other sources, including newspaper reports, oral testimonies, and US government documents. One of the most important tasks underway right now, in collaboration with forensic anthropologists, is to try and match the new documentary evidence about people who were buried anonymously in the country’s many common graves with the DNA evidence currently being exhumed from those graves. The idea is to return the physical remains of the dead and disappeared to their surviving family members.
Survivors have flocked to the archives in search of information about their lost loved ones, but others, we have to assume, stay away, because they fear reprisals or for other reasons. Importantly, many of the people staffing the archival rescue project have personal connections to the people in the files, whether because of their own past political involvement or just because of how pervasively the civil war impacted daily life. So it’s common for those staff to stumble across references to friends, acquaintances, and family members during the course of a day’s work at the archives. As you can imagine, and as the book discusses in detail, that’s a very powerful and complex emotional experience.
Researchers will be working to make sense of these archives for decades. You can slice this body of records in any number of ways, using methods from any number of disciplines—it just depends on what you’re looking to find. On the quantitative side, statisticians have already conducted random samplings of the records in order to establish, say, what percentage of the documentation produced by the police passed through the Director-General’s office, which is important because a statistic like that can demonstrate command responsibility. On the qualitative side, young Guatemalan academics have used the archives to illuminate social relations in particular historical moments, or to analyze the mechanics of counterinsurgency policing, or for insight into oppositional political movements. These records would, and will, support hundreds of doctoral dissertation topics. So there are clear academic implications here, in addition to the archives’ obvious importance for post-conflict justice and historical memory.
How was the US involved during the Guatemalan civil war? Has the discovery of the archives revealed anything new about U.S. involvement?
It’s well known that the US helped train, outfit, fund, and support the Guatemalan army during its long and murderous counterinsurgency campaign. It’s less well known that the US provided similar support to the Guatemalan police, just as it did for police forces in countries like Vietnam, Brazil, South Korea, and Colombia—places that were seen as potential “dominoes” that might “fall” to Soviet-sponsored Communism during the Cold War. This logic was used to justify any number of truly unsavory US security partnerships throughout the Americas and, indeed, around the world. One fascinating detail of the collaboration between the US Office of Public Safety and Guatemala’s National Police is the emphasis that was placed on record keeping. US trainers were adamant that the Guatemalan police optimize their archival practice, arguing that you couldn’t conduct a “successful” counterinsurgency—i.e. you couldn’t eliminate enemies of the state, whether they were trade unionists or high school students or progressive nuns or opposition politicians—without keeping meticulous files on those people and their activities. So in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US focused on sending the Guatemalans filing cabinets and file cards and training them in how to build a central archival registry, which allowed the Guatemalan police to optimize their crusade against progressive civil society. US trainers knew that knowledge was power, and that the place where knowledge and power met was in the archives.
What role have the archives played in Guatemala’s continued transition toward peace and healing?
We have to be very careful in using the language of “transition,” because it presupposes a teleological, linear path—from war to peace, from violence to non-violence, from darkness to light—that sits at odds with the way history and politics actually work. That kind of language of transition is precisely the language of the neoliberal Guatemalan state: if only we could just put all this unpleasantness behind us, let’s turn the page, why dwell on the past. It tries to convince people that there’s no connection between past and present, and that justice isn’t necessary. Many survivors of state violence, as we saw during the recent attempts to prosecute ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide, have forcefully insisted otherwise: that there cannot be peace without justice.
The archives helped to reopen a national conversation about the war and its legacies. They have brought answers and the possibility of closure to individual families, and they have been put to use by the public prosecutor’s office in a number of criminal prosecutions of ex-police officials. These are all amazing achievements that represent real change. And yet, even the most amazing cache of files in the world would be no match for the challenges Guatemalans face today: narco-violence, corruption, extractivism, the need for land reform. What the archives can do offer is some real insight into how the present state of affairs came to be.
One of the questions you grapple with in the book is how the citizens of a police state proceed after the discovery of an archive documenting state-inflicted violence. What are the wider implications of this question and the book’s story, beyond Guatemala?
It’s a story with near-universal implications. Any society that’s endured civil war, dictatorship, or state violence is going to turn to the files of past repressive regimes in its efforts to make sense of what happened, whether it’s Germany (either post-Holocaust or post-reunification), the former Soviet Union, the post-Dirty War nations of the Southern Cone, South Africa, or U.S. activists grappling with the legacies of COINTELPRO. Think of the role that opening the Stasi archives has played in the building of a new Germany—although the process hasn’t exactly been easy. The archives can shed light on why history unfolded as it did, they can be used as evidence in trials, they can be tremendously important educational tools, they can spark critical and productive debates about the relationship between memory and history.
It’s important to note that the question of public access to state records isn’t only relevant in the places that are usually labeled as “post-authoritarian” or “transitional” settings, which conveniently tend to be in the global South. The recent revelations about how the British government has long concealed millions of files from its colonial past, for example, or the ongoing controversies about disclosures of US government records by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and organizations like Wikileaks, show that struggles over access to state records—and, hence, struggles over the exercise of governance, biopower, and citizenship—are everywhere we look. The book’s fine-grained approach to the Guatemalan case thus offers insights that resonate well beyond Central America.
A theme you explore throughout the book is the notion of “archival thinking.” Can you tell us a bit about what you mean by that?
Archival thinking, as I define it, is a mode of analysis that puts archives—their histories, their silences, their distortions, their politics—at the center of the story. In most historical work, any direct references to the documents and archives in question are relegated to footnotes or endnotes; they’re mentioned in passing only, if at all. But to think archivally means to look past the words on a document’s page to examine the conditions of that document’s production: how it came to exist, what it was used for, what its form reveals, and what sorts of state knowledge and action it both reflected and engendered. Archives aren’t just sources of raw, pure data to be mined by researchers. They’re also instruments of political action, implements of state formation, and sites of social struggle, and scholars need to look not only at what the files say, but at how political actors, whether counterinsurgent police forces or human rights activists, have used those files for their own ends. Looking at the process by which bodies of records are made, managed, deployed, hidden, or rescued—carefully examining the lives of the records—can tell us just as much about history as do the words on those records’ pages.