The Archivo Historico de la Policia Nacional de Guatemala at the University of Texas

On April 13, 2011, the University of Texas Libraries took delivery of 12 million documents from the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional de Guatemala (AHPN), the Guatemalan National Police Archives. The delivery was not, as one would imagine, a truckload of paper files, but was in the form of six pounds of computer hard drives. These documents are digital copies of the original archive materials, which remain in Guatemala.

In 2005, a chance investigation in an abandoned Guatemala City barracks led to the discovery of millions of documents, dating from 1882 to 1996, that chronicled the activities of Guatemala’s National Police. The National Police were the enforcers of the oppressive military dictatorship in Guatemala during 36 years of internal armed conflict. The documents include such items as personnel lists for the major police units in the capital and other major cities across Guatemala, instructions to police forces on how to properly conduct interrogations, surveillance photographs of student leaders later assassinated by the National Police, and fingerprints and other records of thousands of executed activists.

In the 1990s, the final years of the country’s nearly four decades of armed civil conflict, the Guatemalan government and police had denied the existence of the National Police records during investigations by both the United Nations and the Catholic Church. Once discovered, the archive became the focus of an intensive international conservation effort, funded by the Swedish, Swiss, Spanish governments and others. Years of neglect had taken its toll on the paper files, many of which had become brittle and suffered serious mold and insect damage.

In all, the Archivo consists of approximately 80 million documents, about 12 million of which have been digitized and will soon be available from the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) website. More documents are being digitized every year and will be added to UTA’s digital collection.

The Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional has to date digitized about 12 million of the 80 million documents from the Archive. The digitized documents will soon be available on the University of Texas website. Courtesy of Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

The Archivo Histórico is an extremely important body of human rights evidence. It provides an extraordinarily comprehensive record of a tragic but pivotal moment in the recent history of the Guatemalan people. The Archivo has become a crucial body of evidence for attempts to prosecute members of the security forces involved in human rights violations during the internal armed conflict. It has provided valuable information on atrocities committed against the citizens of Guatemala, and on the fate of victims of those atrocities.

This exceptionally challenging body of material demands a high degree of curatorial and technological sophistication to manage. The enormous digital collection requires sizable computer storage and security requirements. It includes a wide variety of document types: photographs, printed and bound materials, and handwritten texts. Although these materials have all been digitized, the descriptive metadata for the digital files is quite thin, with little indexing. The multitude of stakeholders in the future of the archives—including the Guatemalan courts, human rights groups, victims of violence and their survivors, advocacy groups, and historians—will require a variety of well-designed protocols for permitting and controlling access to sensitive materials in the archive.

The University of Texas at Austin is uniquely qualified to deal with the challenges of this important project. The archive was the result of a partnership between the AHPN and three institutions at UTA: the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, and University of Texas Libraries. The partnership involves not only the placement of the digital archive at the University of Texas, but also the exchange of technical expertise, cooperation in research, and capacity-building for legal and academic networks. The Law School’s Rapoport Center specializes in “work on human rights at the intersection of scholarship and advocacy.” The Teresa Lozano Long Institute houses a wealth of faculty and graduate student research expertise on Guatemala, and has deep ties to the region. The University also has access to the Texas Advanced Computing Center and its robust capabilities for digital content analysis, indexing, and mining. These capabilities will be indispensable for dealing with a body of digital material as large as the Archivo Histórico.

The University of Texas Libraries and the Rapoport Center have established a credible record of collaboration on human rights archive projects. In its recent innovative work with the archive of the UN Tribunal for Rwanda, the University pioneered the adoption of a noncustodial model in preserving records and documents. This approach departed from the traditional “collecting” approach taken by many libraries and archives, in favor of working to create local preservation capabilities. This UTA approach is conducive to strengthening the capacities of “memory” institutions and civil society in the country of origin.

Fred Heath, Vice Provost, University of Texas–Austin, and former chair of the CRL Board of Directors, recently reflected on the transfer of the digital archive to the University, “Thus, the cultural heritage of the [Guatemalan] nation will remain in country—a reversal of a century or more of ‘tail lights going north’ with national patrimony and a total volte-face in the way U.S. research universities are viewed by nations to our south. Now we just have to prove ourselves worthy of their trust.”