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Imminent Threat to Guatemala’s Historical Archive of the
National Police (AHPN)
 

Published:
May 30, 2019


Update for Guatemala Police Archive under Threat posting


Edited by Kate Doyle


For more information, contact:

202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu


Morales Government Tightens Grip on
Massive Human Rights Records Trove 


Washington,
D.C., May 30, 2019
– The National Security Archive joins our
international and Guatemalan colleagues in calling for the protection of the
Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) of Guatemala, which faces new
threats to its independence and to public access to its holdings.


In a
press conference on Monday, May 27, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart
signaled his intent to assert his agency’s control of the AHPN including the
prospect of new restrictions on access to the archived police records and
possible legal action against “foreign institutions” holding digitized copies
of the documents. Degenhart made his statements as a crucial deadline
approached to renew an agreement that for a decade has kept the archive
under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The agreement now
appears to be in jeopardy.


The
hollowing out of the AHPN is taking place at a time when justice and human
rights initiatives are broadly under siege in Guatemala and follows months of
uncertainty for the celebrated human rights archive, which has been
institutionally adrift since its long-time director, Gustavo Meoño
Brenner, was abruptly dismissed in August 2018.


Since
its discovery in 2005, the AHPN has played a central role in Guatemala’s
attempts to reckon with its bloody past. Its records of more than a century of
the history of the former National Police have been relied upon by families of
the disappeared, scholars, and prosecutors.  The institution has become a
model across Latin America and around the world for the rescue and preservation
of vital historical records.


*  *  *  *  *  


Historical
Background and Current Threat to the AHPN


by
Kate Doyle


In
a press conference Monday, May 27,
Interior Minister of Guatemala Enrique
Degenhart signaled his intent to assert his agency’s control of the country’s Historical Archive of the National Police
(AHPN)
. He claimed that existing law required new restrictions on access to
the archived police records and warned “foreign institutions” holding digitized
copies of the documents that the government was considering legal action
against them. Degenhart made his statements as
a crucial deadline approached
to renew an agreement that for a decade has
kept the archive under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The
agreement now appears to be in jeopardy.


The
comments follow months of uncertainty for the celebrated human rights archive,
which has been institutionally adrift since its
long-time director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, was abruptly dismissed in August
2018
. In the wake of Meoño’s departure, the Culture Ministry and the
Guatemalan office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) –
responsible for administering international donations to the AHPN – instituted
drastic cuts to the archive’s budget and personnel. The two agencies agreed to
eliminate the position of director in favor of a “technical liaison” and hired
a trained archivist with no human rights experience to fill it. They dismissed
all but one member of the investigative staff dedicated to locating and
analyzing police records containing information about illegal State terror
campaigns during the 1970s and 80s.


The
hollowing out of the Historical Archive of the National Police is taking place
at a time when justice and human rights initiatives are broadly under siege in
Guatemala. The attacks come from every branch of government. In January 2019, President
Jimmy Morales ordered the closing of CICIG
, the UN-sponsored commission
that for over a decade helped prosecute cases of corruption and organized
crime. Congress has offered several
versions of an amnesty bill
aimed at releasing from prison scores of former
Army, police, and paramilitary members found guilty of grave human rights
crimes and crimes against humanity. Although none of the bills has passed yet,
they hang like Damocles’ sword over victims of human rights crimes and their families.
And in March a judge
issued an arrest warrant for former Attorney General Thelma Aldana
– known
during her term in office for major anti-corruption and human rights
prosecutions – accusing her of embezzlement and other crimes. Aldana has
categorically denied the charges but the move quashed her hopes to compete as a
candidate in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for June 16.


Since
its discovery in 2005, the Historical Archive of the National Police has played
a key role in Guatemala’s attempts to reckon with its bloody past. It holds the
files of more than a century of the institutional history of the former
National Police, including millions of pages that chronicle the State’s
repressive policies against Guatemalan citizens during the 36-year armed
internal conflict (1960-96). Its records have been used by families of the
disappeared to research the fate of their loved ones, scholars have drawn on
the collection to examine the history of guerrilla warfare and brutal
counterinsurgency policies, and prosecutors have incorporated records as
evidence into some
of the most important criminal human rights cases tried by Guatemalan courts
.


The
AHPN also offers a wealth of documentation on the country’s social history, the
history of public order, and the role of the police. Over the years, it has
become a model across Latin America and around the world for the extraordinary
achievement of its staff and management in rescuing the enormous, abandoned
collection, and for its professional work since then in preserving the records,
guaranteeing public access, and undertaking research of vital, contemporary
relevance.


But
for all its achievements, the Police Archive has existed in a precarious legal
and fiscal status since its discovery almost 14 years ago. As a repository for
the historical records of a former government security force, it functioned by
definition under the authority of the State; yet except for the office of the Human
Rights Prosecutor (Procuradoría
de Derechos Humanos
—PDH) – which found the neglected archive in
2005 and managed it until 2009 – the State never took leadership in overseeing
the AHPN nor any financial responsibility for its operations. Instead, funding
for the archive came from foreign governments – including millions of dollars
from the United States – and international organizations, and flowed
primarily through the UNDP. That funding dropped precipitously in recent years,
as the attention of many governments drifted on to other countries and other
priorities.


More
complicated still, when the archive was discovered, the State entity with
direct authority over it was the Interior Ministry, which controls the
country’s security forces, their properties and their records. Recognizing the
potential danger of that position, the PDH and the AHPN – under former director
Meoño – worked with the government of then-President Álvaro Colom to negotiate
the archive’s transfer from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Culture
and Sports, already the institutional home for the country’s General Archives
of Central America (national archives). The transfer was effected by way of a
signed agreement in 2009, conveying to Culture the physical records and the
land on which the AHPN sat, a small territory inside a huge police base in Zone
6 of Guatemala City. The agreement terminates on June 30 of this year and must
be renegotiated and re-signed to continue.


Even
with the agreement in force, the problem remained that the AHPN as an
institution was never formally accredited through any instrument under
Guatemalan law, rendering it permanently vulnerable. Now the government is
moving in on that vulnerability. Current Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart is
one of Jimmy Morales’s closest advisers. He has aided
the president’s campaign to shutter CICIG
and aggressively backed efforts to arrest former Attorney General Aldana. His
remarks on Monday concerning the Police Archive are the strongest indication
yet that the government intends to intervene forcefully in AHPN operations and
functions.


Degenhart
referred to the collection as the “Historical
Archive of the National Civil Police
” – incorrectly imposing the
name of the security force he heads for the National
Police
, which was abolished in 1997 by the peace accords for its
role in assassinating, disappearing and torturing Guatemalan citizens during the
conflict. He bristled at questions from journalists about his authority over
the AHPN, saying, “The fact that the Interior Ministry through the National
Civil Police does not participate in the management of its own archives is
totally inconceivable.”


Degenhart
repeatedly invoked Guatemala’s access to information law during his remarks (Ley de Acceso
a la Información Pública
, the Guatemalan version of the Freedom
of Information Act) – not to promote open access to the police records but
rather to insist that the records of the AHPN contain “restricted information”
defined by the law and must be “protected” (in other words, withheld). Included
in his concept of information restricted under the law was the “identification
of persons,” which merited “special treatment.” Degenhart made no reference to
Article 24 of the access to information law, which states that “In no instance can information related
to the investigation of the violation of fundamental human rights or crimes
against humanity be classified as confidential or reserved.


The
Interior Minister also made a point of lambasting the AHPN’s decision to
provide the Swiss government and the
University of Texas at Austin
with complete digitized copies of the police
records. Former director Meoño and other senior staff made the move years ago
both to ensure that a back-up copy existed in the event of an attack on the
archive and to make access to the collection possible from outside Guatemala.
Although Degenhart was vague about the Police Archive’s immediate future, he
was abundantly clear about the government’s intention to alter the sharing
arrangements.


“What
I can tell you for sure is that we will not permit the massive exit of those
archives outside the country,” he stated. When a journalist asked why, he
answered: “Because it is sensitive information concerning national security,
protected by the Law  on Access to Public Information. There cannot be
foreign institutions that hold a complete set of the archives.” He warned that
the government was preparing legal action to challenge the agreements.


The
AHPN is not the only archive serving human rights purposes under attack in
Guatemala. Guatemalan
media outlets reported
in late March that both the chief of the General
Archive of the Supreme Court – Rossana Aracely Alvarado Cortez – and the head
of the Court’s Information System – Daniel Girón – were pressured to resign by
Justice Department (Organismo
Judicial
) officials. Among the documents under Alvarado’s care were
records gathered by Guatemalan tribunals in preparing cases for trial,
including expert reports, witness statements and evidentiary material. Since
the tribunals include the special, “high risk” courts that take on corruption
and human rights cases, the lack of a director could make the archive
vulnerable to interference.


A
senior employee of the Justice Department reached for comment on the forced
resignations called them “the destruction of justice” and a direct attack on
the institution.


Another
archive under stress is the collection of records of the former “Presidential
General Staff” (Estado Mayor
Presidencial
—EMP), located inside the General Archive of Central
America, Guatemala’s national archives. During the armed conflict, the EMP was
a military intelligence unit serving the Chief of State, which became a
notorious instrument of repression and violence. Some of its files were rescued
and copied by human rights groups after President Alfonso Portillo dissolved
the EMP in 2003, and the collection moved to the national archives in 2012.
According to a
recent column in El
Periódico
, the staff managing the EMP files was laid off in
March. “As a result,” wrote author Manolo Vela Castañeda, “beginning in April,
the cataloguing work has stopped and there is no one to attend to information
requests…”


In
response to the government’s actions, a broad collective of AHPN supporters
have come forward to defend the Police Archive. Following Meoño’s dismissal in
2018, a civil society advisory group of Guatemalan human rights leaders,
scholars, lawyers, and justice reform experts mobilized and have been a
constant presence in discussions about the archive’s future. Hundreds of
international allies of the AHPN – including historians, human rights groups,
and archivists from around the world – signed
a letter calling for the archive’s protection
last summer. The National
Security Archive sent this analyst for two weeks of meetings and talks with key
stakeholders last October. And the widely respected Spanish archivist, Dr.
Antonio González Quintana, wrote a comprehensive report on the Police Archive
that assesses its current status and outlines a detailed strategy to strengthen
the AHPN in the future. The report was delivered to the UNDP in February.


More
recently, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the
Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Archives Without Borders, the
Guatemalan Association of Friends of UNESCO, and the Myrna Mack Foundation
among many other organizations have issued statements protesting the
government’s interference in the AHPN. On May 16, Human Rights
Prosecutor Jordan Rodas Andrade submitted a legal complaint
to the courts
against the Ministries of Culture and Interior to force them to renew the
agreement guaranteeing a continuation of its occupation of the police base in
Zone 6 and the preservation of its documents.


The
National Security Archive joins our international and Guatemalan colleagues in
calling for the protection of the Historical Archive of the National Police of
Guatemala. Specifically, the National Security Archive demands with our
colleagues:


  • Protection
    of the archive’s irreplaceable trove of records from physical damage and
    political interference
  •  Preservation
    of secure, digitized copies with the Swiss government and University of
    Texas at Austin
  • Renewal
    of the lease that permits the archive to remain in its original space
  • Improvement
    in the information system that hosts the 23 million document images
    scanned to date
  • Guarantees
    of the public’s ability to consult the records without restriction through
    its Access to Information Unit
  • And
    continuation of the archive’s support for human rights justice through investigations
    and analysis.

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