Guatemala’s Dirty War

Guatemala’s Dirty War

Millions of recently declassified police documents detail a thirty-six-year reign of state terror.


While Guatemala’s thirty-six-year internal armed conflict ended in 1996, “peace” has not meant justice for the survivors of its disappearances, torture, rape and murder, which ultimately took the lives of 200,000–mostly indigenous Mayans–and culminated in what a UN commission called “acts of genocide.” Those responsible remain in positions of power. The genocide cases against them are stalled in national and international courts.

Yet this year, as a result of a decades-long struggle by survivors and human rights activists, justice may be within reach. On March 24 Guatemala released 7 million files from the Historical Archives of the National Civil Police (NCP). They include secret files on suspected “subversives”–indigenous, student, labor and other activists. Other files, released from the Military Archives, detail secret operations, massacres and “scorched earth” tactics, and implicate the military’s high command in their planning and execution.

These declassified documents, together with witness testimonies, represent hard evidence of how state terror became Guatemala’s counterinsurgency strategy. There is new evidence, too, of US complicity in that strategy. On March 17 the US-based National Security Archive published eleven declassified documents from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, confirming that high-level US officials were well aware of the action of the Guatemalan security forces that the United States was arming and training at the time.

“Most of the disappeared have in fact been kidnapped by security forces,” reads one report from 1986. “This tactic,” it continues, “was successful.” The document concludes with one concern: “A few highly publicized disappearances and killings…could easily undermine our efforts in Congress to assist Guatemala economically and militarily.”

These documents are now being used in Guatemalan courts in cases against two police officials, Hector Rios and Abraham Gomez, for the disappearance of a student leader in 1984. They will also be of immeasurable importance in the “genocide cases” against defendants like ex-dictators Oscar Humberto Mejia Víctores and Efrain Rios Montt, who holds a seat in Congress. Meanwhile, the day after the report on the NCP was released, the wife of Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, Gladys Monterroso, was kidnapped and tortured by masked men.

Yet, from the shadow of a history obscured by impunity, Guatemala appears to be joining an international movement toward historical transparency. In Guatemala, however–where justice is the exception to the rule of impunity, and violence remains the norm–many are asking whether the new policies will actually confront the legacy of state terror, or whether the voice of justice will be silenced once again.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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