A Review of Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala

by | Mar 17, 2014

Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala By Kirsten Weld Duke University Press, 2014, 368 pages

In July 2005, Edeliberto Cifuentes, a noted historian at that time employed by the office of Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) as a hands-on researcher, went to investigate reports of improperly stored explosives on grounds owned by the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC). Once there, he spotted another kind of poorly stored explosive material. Seeing bundles of old papers stuffed up against the interior windows of a building, he inquired within and was told by the PNC official who opened the door that these stacks were documents, and that Cifuentes was standing at the entrance to the National Police Archive.

Cifuentes was stunned: the official story was that such an archive did not exist. Taking a quick look around that same day, Cifuentes walked through several rooms and saw heaps of papers in piled-high cardboard boxes, or simply spread about on the floor in poorly wrapped bundles. He quickly alerted the Ombudsman. Practiced and audacious, the Ombudsman immediately assumed custody over what was a complex of buildings. Politically savvy, he also sent staff to guard them. The revelation of this Archive unfolded in a country torn by, and immersed in, dangerous arguments about what are truths and what are lies about the role of state agencies in violent repression. In retrospect, it seems a miracle that the Archive could have been appropriated and turned into the Project for the Recovery of the National Police Historical Archives (PRAHPN), known for short as the Project, a site where people could mine what the PNC had stored away there.

One year later another historian, Kirsten Weld, entered the Archive to research her dissertation. She got a first-hand look at what initially seemed the Project’s endless task of going through an unknown quantity of disarrayed papers to learn what secrets they revealed. When later counted, the materials in the archive added up to approximately 80 million pieces of paper. Over time it became clear that alongside driver’s license applications, personnel files, traffic tickets, reports of complaints, criminal reports, invoices and registries of arrests were over one hundred thousand documents that detailed human rights violations and the surveillance and the fate of thousands of the approximately 35,000 Guatemalans “disappeared” during the years of internal warfare between 1961 and 1996. In boxes, corners and metal file cabinets crudely marked with words such as “Assassinations” and “Disappeared,” were identity cards, snapshots of unidentified bodies and of persons illegally confined, fingerprint files, rolls of film, interrogation records and transcripts, and ledgers filled with photographs, names and fates; a secret arsenal in the service of the state terrorism that enabled it. The information needed to prove that police— in some idealist fantasy presumably dedicated to fighting crime—were, as long suspected, committing the terror, was there; now it was necessary to somehow organize it into something that could approach being a comprehensible whole that would be, as Weld puts it, the “self documentation” of police activities.

The book Weld has written, entitled Paper Cadavers: Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, is brilliant and engrossing, told with the passion the topic deserves. Its title is horribly perfect: paper, and not only bullets, kills. At the same time, part of the strength and draw of Paper Cadavers is that it points us in the opposite direction: the power of paper to give life. It approximates being an optimistic text by demonstrating how in the right hands and with the appropriate skills, the very documents that made state violence possible can empower relatives and friends of those victims of violence to protect historical memory, expose the administrators of state terrorism, and help, one hopes, to bring them to justice. In her introduction, Weld opens up a discussion of how paper guns can be turned around, a theme that continues to be elaborated upon throughout the book. I use Weld’s terms to best explicate her ideas: the Archive is a “unit of analysis” that needs “archival thinking” to get at its archival logic as a Cold War mechanism of secret surveillance, control and punishment. As Weld puts it, her intention is to “document the process, not to process the documents.” This approach is compelling: state violence is not the fundamental subject of her book. The processors, an intriguing and brave group that included ex-guerrillas as well as children of the disappeared, are this history’s heroes, and how they make coherent and react to what is in the Archive is the centerpiece of Paper Cadavers.

Weld has done an impressive job of bringing together material on post-1954 Guatemala. Paper Cadavers covers much ground. Nine chapters compose its four parts. The first of these parts, “Explosions at the Archives” consists of chapters 1-3; the next, “Archives and Cold War Counterinsurgency in Guatemala,” is made up of 4 and 5; the third, “Archives and Social Reconstruction in Post-War Guatemala” consists of 6 and 7; and 8 and 9 constitute the last, “Pasts Present and Future Imperfects.” This complex structure allows Weld to flesh out what has surrounded, and what runs through, her well-told story of process.

One part of the landscape is the Guatemalan state’s legendary hostility to public knowledge. It underfunded—and today does so even more virulently—the largest regional scholarly archive, the Archivo General de CentroAmérica. A far more serious politics of inaccessibility that protected the post -1954 counter-insurgency state was the peril faced by scores of relatives, activists and lawyers who knocked on the door, so to speak, of the National Police seeking information about the disappeared. It is after the doors get pushed down in the final chapter of Part 1, “How the Guerrillero Became an Archivist,” that Paper Cadavers kicks into full gear as a history of process.

Originally, the women and men working in the Project eagerly piled papers in chronological order, and unwittingly disrupted the PNC’s system of filing, and of connecting different sub-departments to one another. Their passionate hunt for friends and family members at first seemed to be marginalized when Guatemalan and international professional archivists quickly intervened to teach the basic two concepts of archival science —original order and provenance—and to organize work around this. With warmth, Weld describes the emotional progression through which Project members came to realize that they could not achieve their goals without archival thinking. In addition, and with rich detail, she writes how they slowly turned the dank building into a strange home of sorts with pictures and a garden; and how they met new challenges with new solutions. For example, informed that they could not use glue to bind papers because it attracted insects, and without staples and staplers, they sewed the pieces together.

The context of the United States government’s key support in keeping the Archive modern, running, and on time by sending its own professional archivists is the subject of Part 2. With state of the art materials and a bottomless pit of money, these Cold War experts focused on special investigations units, including that of the Judicial Police, which was in charge of the death squads. They honed in on centralization, management and political knowledge to fine-tune a long-term bank of information that could go into action as needed, and it did. One example out of many Weld gives is that of the well-known ex-mayor of Guatemala City, Manuel Argueta Colom. The Archive charted the movements of this progressive leader from his first participation in a political rally as a young student in 1957 to his assassination in 1979, one week after he formed a reformist political party. Weld underscores that while many studies emphasize U.S. military aid to and intervention in countries such as Guatemala, the U.S. role in the accumulation and systematization of knowledge necessary to repression needs to be known.

Part 3 returns the reader to the topic of process to discuss the Project members’ own emotional and political transformations as they worked. They followed the lives and the faces of the known and unknown tracked by the national police. To stay with Colom Argueta’s case, the documents are a repository of 22 years of his life, not only of a plan for his assassination.

Knowing about such lives became a political coming of age, even for the old. For the Project’s older generation who had lived through the war, doing what Weld calls “labors of memory” constituted the painful experience of recalling fine moments of struggle, and of reflecting on the failures of the very left movements in which they participated. For the younger generation, new questions of why the dead became militants in the first place have led to self-reflections about who they are as carriers of memory with responsibilities in the present, and in a country where most youth are apolitical and or pro-capitalist.

This point segues into Paper Cadavers’ final section, an inquiry into the Project’s prospects and into its relationship with the country in its own fragile future. Weld gives careful consideration to fundamental questions—will the Project be sunk by a political shift even more to the right? Will it help bring social justice? Will it lose its political punch? Answers can only be approximations based on many contingencies. But one certainty, Weld argues, is that the Project has placed transparency at the center of the national conversations about the compatibility of democracy and secrecy; this is a conversation for us all. And one possibility that her book suggests is that the young people who have dug up the past, and others like them whose subjectivities have been changed in part by understanding that past, are the future’s best bet. Perhaps that applies here in the United States as well. A study of surveillance and secrecy and of the courageous few that expose that power, Paper Cadavers is a book for us all.

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Deborah T. Levenson is an Associate Professor of History at Boston College. Her most recent book is Adiós Niño: the Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death (Duke University Press, 2013).

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