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Issue Date:  September 23, 2005

Stumbling upon Guatemala's past

In late July, human rights workers in Guatemala stumbled onto an enormous cache of documents believed to contain the details of that country’s brutal 36-year civil war that ended with the signing of peace accords in 1996.

Reuters describes the find as “thousands of bales of files that appear to be a complete record of the notorious National Police.” This discovery holds the possibility of finally affixing names, places, causes, perpetrators and authors of the deeds to the horrendous catalogue of human rights abuses committed during that period. Further significance might lie in any details the reports contain of the long U.S. involvement in propping up some of the most despicable regimes in modern Guatemalan history and in ignoring what the governments did in the name of fighting communism.

In 1999, a U.N. Truth Commission report, confirming an earlier report produced by the Catholic church in Guatemala, said that a vast majority of the abuses were committed by government forces or government-affiliated paramilitary units. Their activities resulted in some 200,000 deaths and 50,000 disappearances. The report termed the abuses “genocide,” particularly in reference to the massacre of Mayans in Indian villages in the Guatemalan countryside.

According to the July 22 Reuters report, the records contained files with such titles as “Disappeared People 1989” and “Kidnapped Children 1993.”

It is chilling to even imagine that governments accused of unspeakable atrocities would keep detailed files on their activities. But if, as appears to be the case in Guatemala, there are detailed records of brutality, then the survivors and those who attempted to call attention to the abuses through more than three decades have a right to the contents of the files.

That 1999 report by the Commission for Historical Clarification, a 3,500-page, nine-volume report mandated by the Guatemalan peace process, held the United States responsible for supporting military dictators, for using the Central Intelligence Agency to aid the Guatemalan military and for training Guatemalan army officials in counterinsurgency tactics that they used to torture and civilians.

Although the United States contributed funding to the Guatemala report, we have never as a country dared to investigate our role in Guatemala or to release what must be the volumes of documents that are held in U.S. storage centers somewhere, documents that would likely bare the details of some of our darkest dealings in this hemisphere. Guatemala confronts us with ourselves, from the training of Guatemalan officers at the School of the Americas to the fascination some of our public religious figures showed with Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, a self-styled evangelical Christian who presided over one of the bloodiest chapters in that long civil war.

In calling attention recently to the report on the files, The New York Times in an editorial urged increased security for the files and argued, “Even if Guatemala manages the files well, their use will be limited if citizens aren’t allowed to see them, which is best done by passing a law guaranteeing freedom of information.”

A noble suggestion, but more than a little ironic coming from the United States. First, there is the matter of our own files and the need, as suggested in the past in this space, for our own truth commission about U.S. dealings in Latin America during the last half of the 20th century. There is, too, the contemporary problem of a greatly increased use by the current Bush administration of the “classified” designation for documents. According to the federal Information Security Oversight Office, 15.6 million documents were classified last year. That was a record number and nearly double the number classified in 2001. According to a number of informed observers, the classified label is being stamped not only on documents that might reveal state secrets but increasingly on ordinary materials containing information that can be found in other public sources.

The more secret government becomes, the more reason for suspicion on the part of the citizenry.

We hope the documents in Guatemala survive intact and are made available to the public. But a more relevant hope is that U.S. officials muster the courage to do the same -- open the Guatemala-era documents for all to see. It’s time the United States had its own truth commission.

National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005

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