GUATEMALA CITY — A man in a mask opens a door. The smell of rot hovers in the air and everywhere there are piles of paper — pink, yellow, white, all a bit aged and possibly very important. When searching through the 80 million documents dumped in the archives of the Guatemalan National Police, it’s never clear what will turn up. What is contained here, however, in a sprawling building somehow hidden until 2005, reveals how the government of Guatemala committed grave human rights abuses from the 1970s through the 1990s in a war that left more than 200,000 dead and 100,000 women raped. Records of operations, identification cards, and communiqués between departments are just some of the files that compose the near-bottomless archive the regime kept of its own murderous campaign.
In addition to these stacks of papers are a small handful of documents from the military’s still-classified archives, one young documentary filmmaker, a bulldog of a forensic anthropologist, two whip-smart female lawyers, and a meticulous American archivist. Altogether, these files and crusaders have led the way to the first indictment of a former Latin American president on genocide charges. General Efraín Ríos Montt, a now-85-year-old mustachioed, seersucker-clad, banana republic dictator, was placed under house arrest on January 26, nearly 30 years after he allegedly ordered the annihilation of Guatemala’s indigenous population and other “subversive” elements.
Latin America-watchers agree that the trial could be a complete paradigm shift for Guatemala, and a potentially history-setting precedent for the region. While there are no statutes of limitations on genocide crimes in most national and international courts, political will has been lacking when it comes to prosecuting grand-scale human rights abuses in Latin America. Many involved in the abuses are still in power. Laura Carlsen, the Mexico City-based director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, explains that there is a running debate about historical memory in the southern cone. Is it healthier to bring crimes to justice, to face them head on as a nation, or instead move forward, not reopening wounds? The region might be settling on a direction.
“In the last couple of years, there’s really been major movement throughout Latin America to come to terms with history, as in Argentina,” Carlsen said.