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
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
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.
Reporter, September 23, 2005