Paper Cadavers, by Kirsten Weld


Although I did work in the State of Louisiana’s Vital Records Department (or whatever its official name was) for a few months way back when, I’ve given very little thought to archives or what might be interesting or important about them. Government archives are central to Paper Cadavers however, as is the profession of archivist (a job that requires a college degree, and often a graduate degree).

In 2005, Guatemalan human rights officials conducting an unrelated inspection of a police facility happened upon a huge quantity of old, abandoned documents—police files that went back decades or farther.

Guatemala had had a particularly horrible time of it in the 20th century, suffering under a series of right wing dictators allied with a military that specialized in keeping the poor and powerless poor and powerless, routinely through torture and murder.

As bad as many of the countries demonized by the American government, media, and educational system over the years undoubtedly were (the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, post-revolutionary Iran, Qaddafi’s Libya, etc.), you can make a good case that several Latin American countries—with Guatemala being at or near the bottom—were even worse in terms of brutalizing their own populations. But their atrocities have routinely been ignored or minimized, if not justified, due to their being U.S. allies, or at least allies of the multinational corporations and such that the U.S. government largely represents.

Much of the at times genocidal-level fury directed at Guatemala’s poor and Indians over the years was encouraged and funded, if not directly ordered, by the U.S. government, and often carried out by individuals trained in torture and murder by U.S. officials, for instance at the rightfully notorious School of the Americas in Georgia.

The oppression was largely successful. Any forces fighting for any kind of social justice that would inconvenience Guatemala’s elite and their corporate and American supporters—from the most violent of revolutionaries to the most peaceful of religious, student, and labor activists—were largely obliterated.

Eventually peace of a sort came to Guatemala, and its governmental system became somewhat more democratic in form, but it was about 15% a compromise between the oppressors and their opponents, and 85% a surrender by the opponents, or at least what was left of them. So there was a bit of an opening, and the bad guys were not quite as thoroughly in control of the country as they had been, but it wasn’t as if some sort of revolution—violent or peaceful—had flipped things and put the oppressors on the run. The thugs who had long terrorized the population may no longer have been as untouchable as they were used to being, but they almost were.

Paper Cadavers is the story of the fight to preserve those newly discovered police archives, to reveal their contents, and to use them in any way possible to further the cause of justice in Guatemala.

Those working with the documents certainly had many difficult hurdles to overcome. Some had to do with the very physical deterioration of the records. These were pretty much all paper records—not computerized—and by the time they were discovered the elements and bugs and such had rendered them anywhere from mildly damaged to thoroughly destroyed. It took a heroic—not to mention tedious—effort of months and years to salvage what could be salvaged.

At least as important were the impediments arising from the very political situation I’ve just described. The work of the archivists and their staff was not taking place under a regime that had defeated the oppressors and was seeking to bring them to justice, but a regime that overlapped significantly with the more oppressive ones that came before. There were many in the Guatemalan government, media, and other institutions who either were uneasy about what could come of these documents, or who blatantly, and in some cases violently, opposed this attempt to dig into the country’s sordid past to reveal who had done just what awful things to whom. Indeed the facility where the researchers were painstakingly going over the records and trying to save them was attacked with Molotov cocktails multiple times.

The government gave lukewarm or weaker support to the project. In order for it to survive and continue, the project had to receive much of its funding from various human rights groups and NGOs from outside Guatemala, and it had to publicize as effectively as it could what it was doing so as to raise the political cost of shutting it down.

These papers that had been instrumental in facilitating the worst oppression now had the potential to turn the tables and make some of those oppressors pay for what they had done, but it was potential that was far, far from being guaranteed to be fulfilled.

The police weren’t even the most notorious institution in Guatemala—most of the “disappearances” and other atrocities over the years were the work of the military and their allied private “death squads.” But the police, as evidenced by these archives, had plenty of blood on their hands as well.

The recovered files were not remotely close to complete, but they documented a great deal as far as what kind of surveillance was done, on whom, what information was gathered, who was taken into custody and for what reason, and in many cases who was killed and how they were first tortured, though that more incriminating material was typically worded in more incomplete or cryptic ways.

Interpreting the records was an art in itself. It was often necessary to read between the lines, to piece together information by looking at multiple documents in conjunction, etc.

Much of Paper Cadavers is about the day-to-day process of rescuing these documents, including the clashes between the (very, very few) professional archivists involved in the project and those working under them, who were disproportionately former opponents of the regimes that committed the worst human rights abuses, i.e., the very people who were the targets of the oppression and who in many cases lost spouses or other family members to the state terror. The professionals tried to impress upon the others the importance of using established archival best practices (for one thing, doing so could make the difference as far as whether a given document would be admissible in a court of law), whereas the human rights activists and former rebels and such were often impatient with that, wanting to find and expose the truth as quickly as possible.

It could be emotionally draining, at times traumatic work. It could be endless hours of going through the most mundane bureaucratic minutiae, punctuated by reading about horrible torture and such. Occasionally one came upon a file revealing what had happened to a disappeared loved one or other acquaintance whose fate had hitherto been unknown, which could provide some closure I suppose, but could obviously be excruciating at the same time.

You might wonder why these files, at least those most incriminating in terms of human rights atrocities, weren’t simply destroyed. Part of the reason no doubt is that the police were so used to their impunity that they’d never needed to think about countermeasures to avoid suffering untoward consequences for their actions. Another part is probably just routine bureaucratic laziness and ineptness, i.e., no one was all that closely keeping track of what records were where and what all they contained.

Then there’s also perhaps the psychological factor that—even if in theory it could get you in trouble one day—you want there to be some record of what you did in life, some indication of how you made a difference. Even if what you did was appalling, maybe being ignored or forgotten or leaving no mark on the world can seem worse than having your crimes exposed.

Reading this material also provides a reminder that as much as conflicts like Guatemala’s are often depicted, especially by the left, as being some elite (a dictatorial government, the military, the richest of the rich, meddling Americans, etc.) versus “the people,” really the villains at the top are invariably so few that they must recruit or create large numbers of allies from amongst the non-elite, through intimidation, propaganda, or whatever, in order to remain in power.

It’s no different from in the United States or any place else. After all, it’s not like it’s exclusively millionaires and such who get all riled up by Fox “News,” go to Trump rallies, etc.; it’s largely victims of the 1% passionately insisting that their victimization continue, and lashing out with hatred if not violence toward anyone who would seek to end it.

It’s not the haves versus the have-nots; it’s some have-nots versus other have-nots, with the haves reaping the benefits.

So there was never a shortage of more or less ordinary Guatemalans—workers, small business owners, those who wrote news articles and editorials, and so on—who were convinced that anyone who opposed the government was an atheist, communist traitor determined to impose some kind of Stalinist slave state on the nation.

Indeed, the very police terrorizing the poor—kidnapping them, cutting their extremities off, gouging their eyes out, cutting their tongues out, raping them, burning them alive, etc.—were typically dirt poor folks living at no better a level than their victims. It was a job with minimal remuneration, not to mention one that required torturing and killing folks, but it was a job that at least enabled them to survive.

I would probably have been satisfied with Paper Cadavers as a long magazine article. I admit my mind wandered at times, and I simply didn’t experience it as a consistently interesting read with all the minutiae about proper archiving and the recounting of all the personality clashes amongst the folks working with the discovered documents and such.

But that’s not to deny that it’s an important, albeit depressing, topic, and that those working so diligently to use the new documentary evidence to expose the truth about Guatemala’s past are engaged in very valuable work. As author Kirsten Weld explains what the documents tell us:

What we now know, however, is that the [Guatemalan police], under orders from the generals and colonels who commanded them, tortured political prisoners; they rounded up street children, addicts, and other undesirables in social cleansing sweeps; they dumped bodies like refuse in clandestine mass graves, in the city’s ravines, or at the entrance to the University of San Carlos; they were ambushed, blown up, shot, and hunted by urban insurgents; and they abducted young idealists from grocery stores, hospital beds, public buses, and high schools. They were, too often, the plainclothes hombres desconocidos who, with a few moments’ scuffle and a plateless Ford Bronco, set parents, lovers, siblings, and children on long and desperate searches for, to borrow Carlos Figueroa Ibarra’s phrase, “los que siempre estarán en ninguna parte” (those who will always be nowhere). For this, the National Police must be remembered and its records painstakingly combed, for what remains to be learned page by disintegrating page, by the hopeful.


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