History of Guatemala’s National Police
Guatemala’s National Police (PN) dates to the 1872, when the government of Justo Rufino Barrios created a small guard force dedicated to the vigilance and security of the capital city. Five years later the organization was upgraded to a battalion. In 1881, ten years after the Liberal Revolution, the police began to take on a national importance when it became a contingent part of the modern military arising around the same time. This trend continued throughout the long dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera from 1889-1920. This connection between police and the military solidified even further under the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico in the 1930s and early 1940s. A law promulgated on September 24, 1935, for instance, mandated that since the “National Police forms part of the armed forces, the members who serve in said body will have that service commuted to effective military service.” The PN in these years also began to ensure the enforcement of the country’s laws mandating that peasants work on State construction projects and private plantations.
The toppling of Ubico’s regime by the democratic October Revolution of 1944 restructured the government towards broad civil participation. This reframing included an agreement on November 15, 1944, that changed the name of the National Police to the “Civil Guard” as a part of larger efforts to undo the force’s repressive nature during previous dictatorships. The overthrow in 1954 of the October Revolution’s second government, that of Jacobo Arbenz, ended the nations “ten years of springtime.” It also ended the Civil Guard and the state’s attempts at police moderation.
Befitting a Cold War context, after 1954 the reconstituted National Police quickly became focused on repression, with the line between the police and the military often blurring. In 1961, the police became part of the international network INTERPOL, through which police forces in 67 nations often exchanged information to help track down “communist subversives.” Foreign aid from the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations further modernized the police’s control structures, particularly by strengthened radio communications capabilities. These enhancements laid the foundation for a National Police integrally connected to State-led repression during Guatemala’s thirty-six-year armed internal conflict which, between 1960 and 1996, claimed 200,000 lives and displaced over one million people.
Because of its connection to human rights atrocities during the war, the National Police were disbanded after the country's 1996 Peace Accords and replaced by the present institution, the National Civil Police.
Background of the Archive
The documents of Guatemala’s National Police (PN) that today comprise the National Police Historical Archive of Guatemala (the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional, or AHPN) surfaced quite by accident in July 2005. The government and police had long denied their existence, particularly during truth commission investigations by both the United Nations and the Catholic Church during the final years of the nation’s nearly four decades of armed civil conflict, in the 1990s. Yet, in June 2005 a massive explosion of munitions stored at the Mariscal Zavala military base in Guatemala City heightened fears that other caches of arms from the civil war would similarly ignite and endanger surrounding neighborhoods.
Officials from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos de Guatemala, or PDH) thus set out to inspect the former Guatemalan National Police Headquarters in the capital’s Zone 6. There, inside the dilapidated building surrounded by an automobile junkyard, they found many rooms, piled ceiling to floor with stacks and stacks of police files dating to the first decade of the nation’s police force, in 1882. Hundreds of thousands of identification cards, vehicle license plates, photographs, police logs, but also loose files on kidnappings, murders, and assassinations seemingly filled every nook and cranny of the rat- and cockroach-infested building. The subsequent discovery of about six million PN documents in thirty other regions of the country raised the AHPN’s total documentation to around 80 million pages, or nearly 8,000 linear meters of archival material. The collection represents the largest single repository of documents ever made available to human rights investigators.
After the discovery, the Human Rights Ombudsman office assumed custody of the Archive through an order given by the nation’s Civil Court. On July 1, 2009, the AHPN was transferred to the Ministerioˆde Cultura y Deportes. It is presently under the direction of the Archivo General de Centroamérica (AGCA), Guatemala’s national archive.
Work of the AHPN
The AHPN’s staff have labored since 2005 to preserve, digitize, and catalogue the Archive’s contents. As of May 2011, they have processed 12.5 million documents, predominantly those from the most severe years of the civil conflict, 1975-1985. In addition to this archiving activity, the AHPN is quickly becoming a central actor and catalyst in prosecutions of war-time cases of human rights violations and in facilitating Guatemala’s historical memory. It is currently used by public entities such as the nation’s Public Ministry (Ministerio Público) and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, as well as by other human rights organizations,. The AHPN also actively supports the recovery of information friends and families of the killed or disappeared, by providing them with pertinent documents and professional grief counseling
Collaboration between the AHPN and UT-Austin
The University of Texas at Austin is honored to collaborate with the AHPN and to serve as an on-line and universally-available, digital repository for the AHPN’s entire collection. This UT-created website, which to date contains over 10 million images, serves as a core component of a broader partnership formalized through the January 2011 signing of a letter of understanding between the Archive and UT-Austin. In this agreement, the parties arranged to exchange technical expertise, cooperate in research, engage in capacity-building for legal and academic networks, and to organize an academic conference around the AHPN.
This collaboration is strengthened by the institutions at UT-Austin dedicated to human rights in Latin America. The Teresa Lozano Long Center for Latin American Studies is one of the country’s foremost centers for Latin American studies, and has deep ties to the region. It contains a wealth of faculty and graduate student research expertise on Guatemala. Ten of its faculty specialize in Guatemala, including Charles R. Hale, Virginia Garrard-Burnett, and Arturo Arias, who are key project personnel. All have written extensively on Guatemala, and all have long-standing ties to academic, advocacy, and archival institutions in the country.
The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas’s School of Law has a specialty in legal and academic work at the intersection of scholarship and advocacy on human rights. Its mission turns on a faculty whose careers have prepared them for an enduring collaboration with the AHPN. The Center’s three principal figures have all carried out research on state violence and human rights. Karen Engle has published widely on the jurisprudence of international criminal tribunals; Dan Brinks has written extensively on police violence and justice systems in Latin America; and Ariel Dulitzky is a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection hosts more volumes of Latin American material than any other university library in the United States. The University of Texas’s Libraries System has a strong emerging specialization in human rights archives, especially through its Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI). The System has, for instance, recently partnered with Aegis Trust to create the framework for the Genocide Archive of Rwanda.