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Rights Investigators Hope Guatemala Police Files Can Document Abuse


Guatemalans have new hope for clearing up state-sponsored human rights violations that occurred during the 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. Human rights authorities have discovered a massive police archive that dates back to 1902. They say it contains valuable clues about the fate of thousands of victims who were killed or disappeared during the war.

The mood was festive outside the rundown police warehouse in Guatemala City. Human rights ombudsman Sergio Morales presents the first results of months of picking through moldy, animal-infested police files housed in the warehouse.

"This archive was condemned to a slow death, and with it, we would have lost an infinity of footprints, clues and keys to understanding the national tragedy that we still have not recovered from," he said.

Last summer, Guatemalan human rights authorities were investigating a munitions depot when they stumbled upon a treasure trove of police documents. Upon closer inspection they discovered what appeared to be the complete archives of the national police. It was an incredible find. Past Guatemalan governments had always denied that such an archive existed.

Gustavo Meoño, the lead investigator in charge of the archive, says information about Guatemala's brutal civil war has so far been based mainly on victims' testimonies. The archive will provide the first major set of official documents from the war's darkest years: from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the war and 50,000 more disappeared. A United Nations truth commission held the Guatemalan military and police forces responsible for most of the violence.

Archive workers are now faced with the daunting task of restoring and analyzing over 50 million documents. The project will take years and require major funding. But human rights authorities hope they can eventually offer information to victims' family members about the fate of the dead and disappeared.

"Unfortunately, we cant know today if were going to find something for everyone who's looking," said Carla Villagrán, an investigator at the ombudsman's office. "But there's hope, and its our obligation to the victims to at least guarantee that hope."