State terror and historical memory in Guatemala

Felix Driver has alerted me to a seminar in London next week by George Lovell, ‘The archive that never was: state terror and historical memory in Guatemala’, on Tuesday 19 March 2013 at 5.15pm in Room 104, South Block, Senate House, University of London.  

Interior room with bulb; Daniel Hernández-SalazarBetween 1961 and 1996, according to the findings of a United Nations Truth Commission, over 200,000 people in Guatemala lost their lives as a result of state-orchestrated acts of terror still denied by members of the security forces accused of perpetrating them. While conducting its investigations, the Truth Commission was repeatedly obstructed by army and police personnel from gaining access to official records, being told that no documentation of the type requested ever existed. Bureaucracies simply don’t work that way, even ones with good reason to destroy or conceal evidence of a self-incriminating nature. It was nonetheless of startling import when, on July 5, 2005, an attorney working for Guatemala’s Human Rights Office stumbled upon an archive recording the deeds of the National Police. Now known to contain an estimated 80 million documents, mainly covering the 1980s but dating back to earlier times, the archive revealed conspiracy and complicity on the part of police officers engaged in a ghoulish network of surveillance, intimidation, abduction, torture and murder, a veritable paper trail of death. A visit to the police archive, arranged so as to afford some first-hand familiarity with how its contents are being safeguarded and drawn upon for criminal proceedings as well as academic research, forms the basis of the seminar.

A preliminary account of the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) is here (scroll down to the images) [and even more on related issues from the vaults of the National Security Archive at GWU here].  More than 10 million records have since been digitised in a collaborative project involving the University of Texas’ Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, and Benson Latin American Collection, with the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional de Guatemala.


The records have been available online since December 2011; more on the project and its significance here and here:

In July 2005, the Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos – the office of Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman – found the abandoned documents by accident in an abandoned munitions depot on the north side of Guatemala City. The messy bundles of records were stacked floor to ceiling in dozens of rooms infested by rats, bats and cockroaches, and many of the files were in an advanced state of decay. The administrative police records, which date from 1882 to 1997, document the repressive role played by the police during the 36-year armed conflict between leftist insurgents and government forces, which left a death toll of 250,000. That total included at least 45,000 people who were seized by the [US-backed] security forces and forcibly disappeared, their bodies buried in unmarked graves in cemeteries or in secret graves, often in military bases, according to the Historical Clarification CommissionThe U.N.-mandated truth commission found that the army was responsible for more than 90 percent of the killings in the civil war, most of whose victims were rural Maya Indians. The records that came to light in 2005 document the role played by the National Police during – and before – the conflict. The AHPN began to salvage and digitise the archives in 2006. The documents are held under tight security. The archive includes arrest warrants, surveillance reports, identification documents, interrogation records, snapshots of detainees and informants, and of unidentified bodies, fingerprint files, transcripts of radio communications, ledgers full of photographs and names, as well as more mundane documents like traffic tickets, drivers’ licence applications, invoices for new uniforms and personnel files.

There’s also a compelling report from the Historical Clarification Commission, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, here, which confirms that the National Police worked for military intelligence, ‘serving as the facade of the G-2 intelligence agency, and acted on its orders in the majority of cases.’  (I’ve posted about the blurring of military/policing before: in Mexico here and more generally here).

Incidentally, the photograph of the original archive (top of the page) is taken from the work of Daniel Hernández-Salazar, a former photojournalist for AP, Reuters and Agence-France Presse, who ‘has devoted much of his work to document the complex and painful recent history of his native Guatemala.’  More, including a portfolio of his images of the Guatemalan genocide, from the New York Times, ‘Angels Watch Over Memories Of War’, here.

LOVELL A Beauty that Hurts

For those who don’t know him, George is Professor of Geography at Queen’s University, and the author of the brilliant (and, as it happens, beautiful) book, A Beauty that Hurts: Life and death in Guatemala.

George gave me a copy soon after it was first published (1995 – it’s now in its third edition), and I’ve read it several times: apart from its substantive importance, it’s also a wonderful demonstration that first-class scholarship and graceful writing are not incompatible.

This seminar is part of a series run by the ever-inventive London Group of Historical Geographers: details here.

NOTE: The physical archive is in desperate need of financial support to continue its work: contact at  It and its staff also face other, acutely physical dangers as the Molina administration remilitarizes civil society and, ever since assuming office in January 2012, works to establish ‘an institutional culture disturbingly similar to the counter-insurgency model that dominated during the internal armed conflict.’  More on the vexed military/police nexus in Guatemala in a July 2012 report from International Crisis Group here.

6 thoughts on “State terror and historical memory in Guatemala

  1. Pingback: Guatemala in the news, and the blog post that led me to assign Lovell | Latin American Geographies at OWU

  2. Thanks Sara – I know Teo’s work (and blog); it would be good to know him other than virtually, though, but sadly I won’t be in LA….

  3. Good to know – thanks so much. Looking at UNBC’s website there’s clearly a tradition of close, critical engagement with Guatemala.

  4. Reblogged this on rhulgeopolitics and commented:
    Derek Gregory on a talk by George Lovell in the London Group of Historical Geographers seminar series at Senate House. I’m certainly going to make this it sounds fantastic. PA

  5. Thank you for highlighting the work of George Lovell and the work of the AHPN. If folks are interested, the University of Northern British Columbia has an Agreement of Understanding with the AHPN for the exchange of AHPN staff and UNBC faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Erica Henderson, a graduate student in Interdisciplinary Studies, was the first UNBC graduate student to work with the AHPN archive staff in the summer of 2012 in collaboration with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation where she held an internship position.

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