|"Alejandra Garcia hopes the discovery of the archive of 80 million pages of police records will lead to the successful prosecution of those responsible for the death of her father in 1984, during Guatemala’s civil war." (Reuters)|
By Guy Adams
The Independent, February 10, 2012
"Alejandra Garcia's most treasured memento of her father is a faded, black-and-white photo from 1984. A handsome 27-year-old, in jeans and a check shirt, he grins contentedly while holding his wife, Nineth, who in turn is cradling their newly born first child. Not long after the portrait was taken, Alejandra's father, Fernando, disappeared. On 18 February, he failed to turn up to a celebration at the family home in Guatemala City. Nineth spent days frantically searching the local streets. But he was never seen again. At the time, Guatemala was in the throes of a 36-year civil war which ranks as one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century. More than 200,000 people died, from a population which at the start of hostilities was about four million. Roughly 80 per cent of the casualties were suspected left-wing dissidents. Many were executed, without trial, by soldiers or police officers loyal to the country's ruling military junta. Fernando Garcia, a student activist whose only crime was taking part in several demonstrations against the government, was one such victim. In the days after his disappearance, witnesses came forward to claim he had been snatched off the streets by men who appeared to be out-of-uniform police officers. Then he was bundled into an unmarked pick-up truck and driven away. It has been 28 years since Fernando went missing, and almost 16 years since peace accords which turned Guatemala into a functioning, if somewhat troubled, democracy. But Alejandra and her family are only now on the verge of nailing those responsible.
Hector Bol de la Cruz, the country's former police chief, is about to face a belated trial for ordering his detention and apparent killing. The charges against Bol de la Cruz, now 71, represents a landmark moment in Guatemala's long-running effort to draw a line under its past. In a country which remains hobbled by corruption, with a track record of treating dishonest officials with impunity, he becomes the first police chief to ever be prosecuted for his actions. 'I think about how my dad would feel,' Alejandra said, with regard to Bol de la Cruz's imminent trial. 'He would be happy to finally see a little bit of justice in this country.' The forthcoming prosecution stems from a remarkable detective story which began by accident in 2005, when investigators looking into an explosion at a dilapidated munitions dump near Guatemala City stumbled upon a series of vaults holding a vast collection of official documents and photographs. The paperwork alone ran to about 80 million pages. Much of it had been soaked by rainwater from leaky windows. But it soon became clear that it represented a large portion of the National Police Force's official archives relating to the civil war. This was a surprising and potentially game-changing discovery. During the 1996 peace process, the National Police Force had angrily denied the existence of a formal record of its operations. Since the hidden archive suggested otherwise, human rights groups in 2005 began the laborious process of sifting through the paperwork for clues that might help bring about prosecutions. Seven years on, their work is starting to bear fruit, with records being cross-checked with evidence from the cemetery where security forces often dumped bodies in mass graves, identifying them as 'XX'. So far, families of some 45,000 of the 'disappeared' have asked for information which might relate to their loved ones. Searching for it is gradually becoming easier, thanks to an online database created by the University of Texas at Austin, which currently holds about 12 million of the documents. Although some of the war's victims were guerrillas killed in combat, many were civilians put to death for simply being suspected of harbouring sympathy for the revolutionaries. The exact circumstances of their deaths are now starting to emerge. [...]"