Digital archive of Guatemala’s police force launched at conference

Sylvia Butanda

A digital archive featuring millions of images and documents from the National Police of Guatemala could help people searching for family and friends who have disappeared, said Karen Engle, law professor and co-director and founder of the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice.

The Rapoport Center, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and UT Libraries hosted a conference where panelists discussed a wide-range of topics, such as how the use of the archive has helped with the progress of human rights cases and research in Guatemala.

Engle said the information in the archive became public in 2009 when Guatemala passed a freedom of information law, and on Friday the UT Libraries made much of the archive available online.

The archive’s coordinator, Gustavo Meoño, created the archive from a warehouse of decomposing documents at the national police headquarters that was found more than six years ago in Guatemala City. The warehouse’s existence had been denied by the country’s government and police force, according to UT’s website.

Now, Meoño and his team have transformed these documents into a world-class archive that chronicles the history of the national police for the past 100 years.

He said this archive has helped and will continue to help uncover the history of Guatemala, specifically the time period of 1975-1985, when the majority of human rights violations were committed during the country’s civil war.

“The archive is fundamental for criminal investigations and persecutions in Guatemala,” Meoño said. “Historical, cultural and sociological investigations can all be stemmed to the archive and can advance the transition of justice.”

The archive is currently comprised of approximately 80 million images and documents, and about 13 million are already digitized and available on the archive’s website.

Christian Kelleher, archivist for the Benson Latin American Collection and project manager for the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, led the presentation of the website.

Kelleher navigated the audience through the website’s structure and discussed how to go about searching for documents and viewing them.

“We tried to make the experience of using this online archive as close to the experience of someone using the original archive itself.” Kelleher said. “There’s very limited indexing that can lead to direct access to the document, so identifying any material or looking for any document takes a lot of work to find.”

Charles Hale, director of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and Benson Latin American Collection, said students could find the archive valuable for many purposes.

“Students can learn how to navigate large data sets, explore the complexities of Guatemalan history — deeply intertwined with that of our country — and work in support of initiatives in Guatemala to protect human rights, bring perpetrators to justice and build a more just and democratic society,” Hale said.

Printed on Monday, December 5, 2011 as: Archive features Guatemalan documents