UO signs pact with Guatemala's Historical Archive of the National Police

The University of Oregon has agreed to collaborate with Guatemala’s Historical Archive of the National Police, along with other universities and organizations, on a series of projects that may shed light on police actions during the Central American country’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

Dennis Galvan, the UO’s vice provost for international affairs, recently signed a memorandum of understanding to work with the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) on the projects, which were triggered by the 2005 discovery of a trove of police archival collections. 

“This is UO internationalization at its best – our experts and our scholars team up with colleagues in a distant setting to tackle a challenge of both global significance and local resonance,” Galvan said. “ We’re mining newfound historical records to reveal the truth about human rights abuses. We’re posting them to the web so the world can see and no one will forget. And in the process we’re expanding UO’s global reputation for research that makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Members of the Guatemalan government’s ombudsman office discovered piles of papers filling entire rooms, floor to ceiling, during a July 2005 inspection of a police compound in Guatemala City. The papers – about 80 million pages dating from 1882 to 1997, when the police agency was reorganized as part of a peace agreement – comprised the Historical Archive of Guatemala’s National Police.

The archive’s existence had been kept secret from victims, prosecutors, human rights activists and others who were trying to uncover the truth about atrocities that occurred during the country’s long, armed conflict.

Public examination of the archives is expected to yield evidence about alleged actions by Guatemalan police and military forces during the civil war. Documentation from the AHPN is already being used in legal cases against human rights violators and in investigations into the fate of Guatemalans who were "disappeared" and are believed to have been killed by state agents.

The UO will join a group of universities, research centers and non-governmental organizations that are collaborating with the AHPN to process, digitize, preserve and disseminate the contents of its archive.

A group of UO faculty including Carlos Aguirre (professor of history) and Gabriela Martinez (associate professor, journalism and communication) visited Guatemala in March along with Stephanie Wood, director of the university’s Wired Humanities Projects, and videographer Andrew Kirkpatrick of the UO Libraries. The group attended a series of meetings and workshops at AHPN and completed the memorandum of understanding that was later signed by Galvan. Their trip was funded by the UO’s Network Startup Resource Center and supported by the Wired Humanities Projects, Knight Library, Office of International AffairsThe Americas in a Globalized World initiative, School of Journalism and Communicationand Latin American Studies Program.

Under the agreement, various UO departments and programs will work on projects including production of a documentary about AHPN, translation and publication of a report entitled "From Silence to Memory" and the dissemination of digital content from AHPN's collection on the Wired Humanities Projects portal "Human Rights in The Americas."

According to Carlos Aguirre, “The signing of this MOU is a very significant step in fostering the UO’s international agenda and increasing our collaboration with institutions in other parts of the Americas,” Aguirre said. “It also reflects a long-standing concern on the part of UO faculty and students with issues of social justice, human rights and historical memory in the region.”

Guatemala’s civil war raged from 1960 to 1996, causing enormous destruction and leaving a legacy of suffering – especially among the country’s indigenous communities. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed or “disappeared,” and hundreds of indigenous communities were destroyed in what has been described as a genocide.

A United Nations-sponsored "Commission for Historical Clarification" concluded in its 1999 report that state agents were responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations committed during Guatemala’s civil war. There have been various attempts to identify and bring to court alleged perpetrators – including some of Guatemala's top political and military leaders – but those efforts have been met by obstacles that include a lack of documentary evidence.