Exhuming the stories of Guatemala’s lost

Photographs of missing persons on a wall.

By Héctor Morales Delgado

After 36 years of internal armed conflict in Guatemala, thousands of confidential facts about the actions of the State have been registered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They include serious violations of human rights and attacks directed at the civilian population. All of this information is on record but has resulted in few legal proceedings.

Highlights

  • After 36 years of internal armed conflict in Guatemala, thousands of confidential facts about the actions of the State have been registered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • Thanks to UNDP’s technical and expert support, Guatemala has been able to digitize 13 million pieces of data on human rights abuses out of 20 million available.
  • This archive provides a detailed account of numerous violations against the human rights of more than 2,000 Guatemalans.

Rebecca Morales, 80, maintains hope that three decades after the disappearance of her son, clues can be found to show where, how and why Marco Arnoldo never appeared later that morning when, half a block from his home, the justice police carried him away with a basket of bread still in his hand.

Despite signing the Peace Accords in 1996, this Central American country has not been able to comply with certain international requirements related to transitional justice, a set of measures put in place to address a legacy of human rights abuses.

In 2010, UNDP initiated the Transitional Justice Programme (PAJUST for its initials in Spanish), to help bring about closure for families, dignity for victims and reparations for survivors of the internal armed conflict. A number of partners provided support, including the Government, civil society groups, the Governments of Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, and Spain’s Basque regional government.  

“We were all very anxious to see the results and that the initiative would actually lead the country toward an authentic consolidation of peace. Fortunately, today we are beginning to see the first fruits,” said Xavier Michon, UNDP’s Country Director in Guatemala.

The programme has also been successful at providing official records of police and military operations during the conflict after tapping institutions responsible for the files.  

“The archives of the national police have been critical and are now accessible to any interested person,” said the Network’s director Gustavo Meoño. Some years ago it was unthinkable that a person like him should be at the head of this institution because he himself was persecuted during the armed confrontation.

The main strength of Guatemala’s transitional justice programme is the support it receives from the combined wills of PAJUST’s partners. With UNDP’s technical and expert support, for example, PAJUST has been able to investigate human rights violations through archival, forensic, anthropological and criminal means. This improves the prospects of success for the programme and is producing visible progress in achieving justice and national reconciliation.

For her part, Ana Carla Ericastilla, Director of the General Archive of Central America, says that nearly 13 million pieces of data out of 20 million available have been digitized to date, with technical support coming from the Government of Switzerland. This archive now includes systematized information from various national and departmental security forces, and essentially provides a detailed account of numerous violations against the human rights of more than 2,000 Guatemalans.  

“We opened a room with electronic service for public access to declassified documents,” says Ericastilla. These documents have attracted hundreds of people per day who peruse them for information about friends and loved ones.

Rebecca Morales believes that the data obtained from the archives and exhumation processes offer hope for knowing how her son Marco Arnoldo died. Her son lived with her when he was abducted just a mile from where the majority of exhumations have taken place.

“Simply the news of knowing what could have happened to my son already changes life for us,” Morales says.

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The Development Advocate showcases the winning entries of UNDP’s annual storytelling competition in newspaper-style format.

 

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