From Silence to Memory: A Celebration of the Report of the Historic Archives of the National Police

Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 347, by Kate Doyle, June 9, 2011, in english and spanish.

… This text is a copy of the speech given by Kate Doyle at the ceremony of the presentation of the report, “From Silence to Memory: Revelations of the Historic Archive of the National Police” at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, Guatemala … //

… In reference to the legal instruments that guarantee the right to information – such as, for example, Article 24 of the Access to Information Law, which prohibits the withholding as confidential or classified any information that could contribute to the clarification of violations against fundamental human rights – the AHPN chose to include “the first and last names of all actors, active and passive, mentioned in the documents, be they government or public employees (in the case of the National Police and other state entities such as the Army), confidential collaborators, individuals such as victims and their family members, those who file criminal complaints, individuals with police files, and petitioners, among others.”  

And read the hundreds of footnotes referring to documents cited in the text – read them and enjoy the links that were incorporated in the digital version of the report so that we can go directly to the scanned image of the document and read it in its entirety, if we want. This is transparency: an obligation for the State authorities, and a valuable tool for civil society.

I am here on behalf of my own archive and NGO, the National Security Archive in Washington, and have visited and worked in several other archives throughout the Americas. Based on that experience, I can say with certainty that there are very few examples of archival institutions that provide indexes, not to mention an investigative report, such as the one we celebrate today. The example of Mexico is sufficient. In 2002, President Vicente Fox took the decision—in the context of the political transition—to order his military, defense, and intelligence institutions to transfer documents related to the so-called “dirty war” (1968-1983) to the Mexican National Archives (Archivo General Nacional – AGN).  I was living in Mexico at that time and it seemed to us a wonderful idea and we congratulated the government. Then we went to the archives to try to actually use the famous documents from the dirty war, and guess what? It was an exercise in complete frustration. Because no one had created an index to the collections, and no one thought to sensitize AGN employees how to manage this special collection, not to mention the researchers – among them family members, sometimes humble, vulnerable or fearful people arriving at the archives for the first time. In the section where the most sensitive documents were stored, records from the Federal Security Directorate (Dirección Federal de Seguridad – DFS)—the Mexican version of the CIA and FBI combined—an official from the very same intelligence agency was placed in charge of providing public access to the intelligence files. Needless to say, after a few months, the public stopped coming to the AGN to consult the “dirty war” documents.

So access to information is much, much more, than announcing the declassification of documents. It means organizing the documents in a way that is clear to ordinary people; it means creating indexes, catalogs and databases – instruments, that is, to render the files readable, comprehensible and searchable. It means preparing and training the staff so they can cater to special users: those same family members, or prosecutors working on criminal cases. In very rare instances does it mean publishing an investigative report such as this one – From Silence to Memory – which offers us indispensable insights into the treasure trove that is the Historical Archive of the National Police. The report will serve as a guide to the collections for researcher for years to come, but also as a history of the security institutions of Guatemala, a deep analysis of the logic of urban counterinsurgency and the instruments of repression, and an assessment of seven specific human rights cases. It is a gift to all of us – to Guatemalan society and to all those interested in history, memory and justice. Thank you. (full long text).

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