In June 2005, near the center of Guatemala City, a munitions depot on a military base caught fire and began to explode. For four deafening hours, projectiles left over from the country’s long internal wars detonated at the rate of thirty shells per minute. Surrounding neighborhoods were left covered in debris and shrouded in dense, toxic smoke. Their residents, accustomed to a military that routinely looked the other way, complained to Guatemala’s Office of Human Rights and asked that explosives at a nearby arms storage facility in the sprawling headquarters of the National Civil Police also be inspected and removed. The office sent over its chief investigator, Edeliberto Cifuentes, the former head of the department of history at San Carlos, Guatemala’s leading university.

The police referred to the headquarters as el basurero, or “the dump,” and considered an assignment there a form of punishment. Once inside el basurero, Cifuentes made a discovery—one more startling, in its way, than if it had been munitions. He found piles of documents, “huge volcanoes of documents,” overflowing from file cabinets and wooden shelves. The papers were covered with bat guano and mouse shit; some were stored in unfinished buildings, open to the sky, where the weather and the upper layer of documents had formed a papier-mâché crust that served to protect the other documents underneath. Cifuentes asked the ranking police official on the site what sort of papers they were. “These are the archives of the National Police,” she responded.

Cifuentes was stunned. The trove of files he’d inadvertently stumbled upon was found to consist of 80 million pages, stretching back a hundred years, and comprised the largest collection of secret state documents in Latin American history. “When one finds a document,” he observes, “a piece of information that is key in the construction of a case or a story…that’s one thing. But to find all of this documentation there—you say to yourself, this is a treasure that will help us to construct enormous histories.”

In Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, Kirsten Weld tells the story not only of the discovery of these archives but also of the ways in which they have begun to fulfill Cifuentes’s prophecy and reframe the political narrative inside Guatemala. In 1996, peace accords ended thirty-four years of violent conflict between the left and the right; Weld, an assistant professor of history at Harvard, argues that the accords were lopsided in favor of the right and failed to address the underlying economic imbalance between rich and poor that was the cause of much of the violence. As a result, Guatemala’s citizens have been forced to eke out a living in a state characterized by corruption and dominated by “oligarchs, business elites, agro-export and mineral extraction interests, and the military.”

The weakness of the accords, Weld says, partly reflects the “near total destruction” of the armed left, which was “militarily outmatched” and “unprepared for the wholesale slaughter the state was willing to unleash on the civilian population.” But Weld is less interested in the armed left than in the broader nonviolent opposition that was equally brutalized, and whose absence from the contemporary political scene is, more than anything, what has doomed Guatemala to its current state of corruption.

This broad opposition was based in Guatemala City, and Weld characterizes its members as “trade unionists, students, professors, the urban intelligentsia, the press, and a growing chorus of human rights activists pushed to risky speech by the tortured bodies turning up in the city’s gutters and ravines.” Finding a way to write its history is what Paper Cadavers is about. To Weld, the main institutional perpetrator of violence against the civilian left was the National Police—“a wartime actor so understudied that it barely even appears in most accounts.” The reasons for the absence of the police in contemporary accounts of the violence are twofold: the first is the degree to which the police worked through shadowy death squads, and the second is that, until the discovery of the archives, there was a complete lack of evidence of police involvement.

* * *

The roots of Guatemalan violence lie in the Cold War. In 1954, the United States, alarmed by the drift of the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz, stage-managed a coup that deposed the government. Árbenz had proposed a reform that would have distributed fallow property on large estates to the landless poor, a move that angered the country’s rich landowners. Although the Árbenz government is best described as populist, it included communists, and, in the paranoid aftermath of the 1954 coup, the United States was desperate to eliminate what it saw as a source of future unrest. A counterinsurgency campaign followed. Weld refers to it as the “most brutal” in the hemisphere. Over the next forty-two years, 200,000 civilians were killed—mostly by the military, and the police, but also by death squads. Some 45,000 of the country’s victims were extrajudicially assassinated, and Guatemala is widely credited with having originated the use of death squads.

This long nightmare clearly took a toll—and not just on the victims. By 1996, war weariness, the weakness of the guerrillas, and international pressure all contributed to bringing about the peace accords. The negotiations included a wide spectrum of interested parties inside the country and were brokered by the United Nations. At the insistence of human-rights groups—both Guatemalan and international—the treaty included a truth commission. Neither the government nor the guerrillas were enthusiastic about it, however, and its powers were severely constrained. It had no subpoena power, for example, and so even though it could request government documents, it could not force their release. In order to avoid prosecutions, the truth commission was prohibited from naming names. The Congress later passed a general amnesty, just to be certain. The dangers of exceeding these limits were made clear when, in 1998, the Catholic Church sponsored its own truth commission, which did name names. Two days after its release, the bishop of Guatemala, who had sponsored the report, was bludgeoned to death in his parish house [see Nathaniel Popper, “The Novelist and the Murderers,” July 7, 2008].

After the accords were signed, the newly created truth commission embarked on its mission. It requested information on five “paradigmatic” massacres committed by the police between the mid-’60s and late ’80s. The five massacres alone had resulted in the deaths of some ninety student and union leaders. The truth commission’s requests for information were met, according to Weld, with “buck-passing and obfuscation.” The head commissioner characterized the degree of cooperation from the government as “next to nothing.” The stonewalling was so complete that it effectively ended these inquiries. The government essentially told the truth commission that the police files had been lost. It was thus a revelation when Cifuentes discovered them in el basurero.

To protect the police archives, the human-rights ombudsman cobbled together what Weld refers to as a “bold” strategy that involved claiming access to the entire 80 million pages in the name of preserving evidence for the case of a single 1981 abduction in which there had been “obvious state responsibility.” The request was granted, and, even though the archives were in a still-active police base, the human-rights office immediately sent unarmed guards to secure the site. The judge who granted access was then offered a bribe to reverse her decision. She refused, and received death threats. When she still wouldn’t change her ruling, her office was ransacked and her home raked by machine-gun fire. The judge wouldn’t relent.

Once the human-rights office established the authorization to oversee the police archives, it applied to the Guatemalan Congress for funds to begin the organization of the files. The Congress, not surprisingly, failed to comply. Instead, international organizations quickly agreed to contribute: Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands all donated money to cover the costs—much of it through the United Nations, which had been heavily involved both in brokering the peace accords and in rebuilding Guatemala’s justice system. Human-rights prosecutions were glamorous, Weld remarks. In Germany, teams of workers had literally pieced together shredded Stasi documents. In Spain, Franco’s records were painstakingly organized and transferred to the national archives. In Argentina, police files were eventually turned over to a Memory Commission and then made public.

But Guatemala had problems unlike any of these other countries. Weld estimates that at the inception of the archive project, there were fewer than ten trained archivists in the entire country. The restoration workers recruited by the project not only had to be trained from scratch, but also had to contend with a level of hostility that was very likely beyond that experienced by any other archive workers. Even though the files were in an active police station, the parts of the station that housed the archives project were the target of at least five Molotov cocktail attacks, a drive-by shooting, and threatening visits from delegations of high-ranking army officers. Its workers were constantly surveilled and followed.

To protect itself in this treacherous atmosphere, the project hired a former guerrilla commander, Gustavo Meoño, as its director. Meoño, in turn, hired for his staff gente de confianza—former leftists and opposition figures—in other words, people with whom the project directors were familiar and whom they trusted. One advantage, Weld points out, was that the project’s recruits were not easily intimidated. They were amply familiar with surveillance and intimidation. Many had experienced worse.

* * *

The discovery of the police archives was big news in Guatemala. But, despite the archives’ notoriety, their discovery has been overshadowed by another event linked to Guatemala’s wartime violence: the sensational 2013 trial on genocide charges of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. He seized power in a March 1982 coup and ruled for the next seventeen months before being deposed in another coup. Those seventeen months were the most violent in Guatemalan history, with 3,300 extrajudicial killings in April 1982 alone. In his genocide trial, Ríos Montt was specifically accused of killing 1,771 civilians in three remote mountainous municipalities inhabited by Ixil Maya Indians. The Ixil have a long history of rebelliousness and, prior to Ríos Montt’s attack, had been heavily infiltrated by one of the left-wing guerrilla groups, the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres. After extensive testimony from Ixil survivors, prosecutors were able to demonstrate both that Ríos Montt had boasted of his command responsibility and that his army had specifically targeted the collective community of Ixiles. Ríos Montt was found guilty.

The verdict was overturned in May 2013, an outcome that had little to do with the merits of the case and everything to do with the ways in which the powerful in Guatemala can influence the justice system. Weld nevertheless makes the point that the focus on Rios Montt’s genocidal attacks on the Maya has within it an aspect that distorts a more complex version of Guatemala’s violence. Weld interestingly uses an argument advanced by the American anthropologist David Stoll (although she doesn’t name him) that the emphasis on the Maya reduces the full complexity of the war into “a single type of victim (Maya), a single perpetrator (the military), and a single theater (the countryside).” She refers to this as a “sound-bite” version of the war in which there are only a few essential points: “genocidal military, apolitical Maya, rural massacres.”

In fact, she argues, the violence was more complicated. It was not until 1981—the year before Ríos Montt’s coup—that the police and associated death squads finally prevailed in their long war against the Guatemala City opposition—both violent and nonviolent. Only then did the worst of the conflict move to the countryside. During the savage attacks on the Maya, more than 400 villages were completely destroyed and thousands of Indians killed. Amid the international outrage over this massacre, the protracted and equally ugly urban violence vanished from the story.

* * *

The history of both violent repression in Guatemala and the keeping of archival records of that violence is deeply tied to the policies of the United States. In the aftermath of the 1954 coup, the United States worked, as Weld puts it, to transform the “ramshackle assortment of rival security services” into a modern counterinsurgency force. This included creating “a surveillance archive, streamlining political investigations, encouraging tactical collaboration and intelligence sharing between the PN [National Police] and the military, and constructing a regional telecommunications network.” But beyond this professionalizing rhetoric, the United States secretly went much further. After the coup, the CIA raided the deposed president’s files and compiled a blacklist of more than 70,000 of his allies, which it then turned over to the security forces of the new right-wing regime. When the US government discovered that one or another person on the blacklist was, say, trying to slip back into the country, it would tip off local security forces. Many on the CIA-compiled list were subsequently assassinated. Guatemalan security forces used the blacklist as late as the 1980s.

Despite their training, moreover, Guatemalan security forces continued with their disturbing habit of showing up at peaceful opposition rallies and opening fire. In one such incident, in 1962, Jorge Córdova Molina, the head of the Judicial Police—who as a sideline ran a death squad named “Mano Blanca”—appeared at a peaceful anticorruption rally and, using bullets supplied by USAID, began firing his submachine gun into the crowd. The rest of the Judicial Police squad then followed his lead. Such behavior did not encourage peaceful opposition. Not surprisingly, the first of the armed guerrilla groups appeared that same year.

Undeterred, the United States continued its program to attempt—at least for public consumption—to modernize the security services. But there’s a question of how much of this modernization was merely window dressing. In 1965, for instance, a US adviser named John Longan arrived to establish a rapid-response unit inside the police. The following year, in Guatemala City, this specially trained unit got wind of a series of opposition gatherings, raided them, and kidnapped more than thirty peasant and labor activists, including the top wanted fugitive, Victor Manuel Gutiérrez, a schoolteacher, a communist, and the head of the Guatemalan General Confederation of Workers. Gutiérrez had been on the CIA-compiled blacklist from the start; Longan’s squad covered his head with a hood, and—as Weld puts it—“ran electric currents through his slim body until his heart stopped.”

The other activists were also tortured, and their bodies dumped out of helicopters into the sea. Some of the bodies, tied up in burlap bags, later washed up on the shore. Weld notes that this mass disappearance, known as Operación Limpieza (Operation Cleanup), distinguished Guatemala as the first Latin American country to engage in the soon-to-become-widespread practice of “forced disappearances.” Weld reports that John Gordon Mein, who was US ambassador at the time, pronounced the operation “a considerable success.” Mein was later assassinated by guerrillas.

In the aftermath of Operación Limpieza, disappearances became common—some individual, some mass. Most of the victims were civilians, not armed combatants. In 1978, Oliverio Castañeda de León, the 23-year-old head of the Association of University Students, was shot during a march near the National Palace in downtown Guatemala City, as the chief of police allegedly looked on. In 1979, Alberto Fuentes Mohr, a progressive economist, former vice presidential candidate and head of the Social Democratic Party, was shot to death in front of the Politechnic, also in Guatemala City. Later that same year, Manuel Colom Argueta, former mayor of Guatemala City and leader of the legal opposition party, the United Revolutionary Front, was kidnapped and shot to death by the occupants of a car whose license plate numbers showed up in the police archive files thirty years later. By the late 1970s, Weld reports, Guatemala’s streets were “littered with corpses, their faces smashed, hands amputated, backs pierced by bullets.” In February 1979 alone, 600 Guatemalans were murdered. So many members of the only two legal opposition parties were assassinated that those parties ceased to exist. In 1980, twenty-seven union leaders from the National Workers Central were kidnapped and killed, and seventeen members of a labor-oriented school met the same fate.

Increasingly, these murders were carried out by death squads. In the aftermath of Operación Limpieza, the culture of death squads exploded in Guatemala. Early examples were named Ojo por Ojo (Eye for Eye), Commando Six, Secret Anti-Communist Army, and Buitre Justiciero (Avenging Vulture). The pamphlets circulated by these squads are lurid enough to have been written by adolescent boys. In the late ’60s, for example, the Anti-Communist Council of Guatemala circulated this mission statement: “[We] must search until we find the Castro-communist traitors who must pay with their lives for the crimes against their country that they have committed by returning [from Cuba], and without any pity they must die like rabid dogs and their filthy corpses should not be given shelter by the blessed earth of Guatemala, but instead they must serve to stuff vultures’ bellies.” By the late ’70s, so common had death squad murders become that the Guatemalan press generated the neologism escuadronados, or “squadded,” to describe the fate of a victim.

* * *

Death squads present a problem for the historian. If an army unit commits a massacre, that unit is likely to be in uniform and identifiable. In the case of death squads, however, perpetrators are typically dressed in civilian clothing, and it becomes difficult to assign clear responsibility. The 45,000 Guatemalans who died by death squad, Weld points out, include trade unionists, antipoverty campaigners, labor lawyers, radical students, Communist Party members, reformist politicians, liberation-theology-influenced clergy, organizers and fundraisers for the insurgency, “and, yes, in not a few cases, armed insurgents themselves.” And while urban insurgents “blew up police stations and supply convoys, assassinated police and military officials, and carried out high-profile kidnappings,” too often the victim of death squad violence was a person whose only crime was to be a popular-movement activist who “called openly for regime change.”

Weld points out a paradox concerning these victims. Although the war’s urban stages and the police role in the counterinsurgency were well-known at the time, this knowledge has “largely disappeared from subsequent accounts.” The result has been that the degree to which Guatemala’s counterinsurgency was actually directed at the unarmed civilian opposition has been significantly underplayed.

By January 2013, 15 million of the archive’s 80 million pages had been cleaned and restored. Most of these pages pertained to the years between 1975 and 1985, when the worst of the violence took place. To the exasperation of members of the staff and families of the victims—many of whom were anxious to name names—the directors of the project moved slowly and meticulously, taking great care to establish chains of custody, provenance and origin of order. This was done in accord with the wishes of the project’s international supporters, with the unadvertised intent of future prosecution.

In 2010, almost entirely on the basis of archival evidence, two police agents were convicted of the 1984 forced disappearance of a young father and union activist, Edgar Fernando García. The police agents were sentenced to forty years each. In 2013, several of the commanding officers in the same incident were also found guilty and sentenced. In 2011, Pedro García Arredondo, the head of the police detective corps and its Commando Six death squad, was arrested in connection with another disappearance and also for command responsibility during the infamous Spanish Embassy fire, in which the police torched the embassy, which had been occupied by protesters, and then blocked the exits so that both protesters and diplomats alike were incinerated. Arredondo was recently convicted and sentenced to ninety years in prison.

These prosecutions are encouraging in the sense that anything that sheds light on the atrocities of Guatemala’s past is necessary for the country to move forward. But they’re discouraging not just because the numbers of prosecutions are so tiny relative to the numbers of political murders, but also because the outcome of the Ríos Montt trial indicates that there could be limits to how far Guatemala’s rulers will allow justice to proceed.

Part of the reason for the slow development of prosecutions is that the archives themselves have not turned out to be the gold mine that the human-rights community hoped for. According to Weld, researchers found that many records were amateurish and undecipherable. Much of what they found consisted of unsigned scraps of paper scribbled on by semiliterate police agents. There were relatively few “smoking guns.” The cases that have moved to prosecution had to be patched together through “complex processes of triangulation among multiple sources,” Weld writes.

Beyond the difficult march to justice, however, the archives have served another purpose. In the post-peace state, the “master narrative of the nation” has been created by the military: the left consisted of deluded and ineffectual guerrillas, while the leaders of the right were great men who had “heroically defended the fatherland from the evils of Soviet-sponsored communism.” So pervasive has this account been inside Guatemala that survivors have begun to succumb to the dismissal of their own cause. Weld refers to this as “home-grown holocaust denial,” and observes that “efforts by the state, business elites, and some journalists to discredit and attack war victims had always drawn their strength from the idea that nobody could ‘prove’ the truth-value of the events in question, and therefore the victims were making it all up.”

Inside the archives, however, Weld describes many instances in which archive workers have come across information regarding murdered friends or relatives. These have been deeply emotional moments, not because they necessarily revealed anything new, but because, as one of the archive staffers put it, “What we didn’t know was the details of what had happened…. Now we have all the details and better, we have confirmation. If I go and claim the police killed X person, nobody will listen to me; but if one day, all of this is documented, people won’t want to believe it, but they will have to. That’s the difference.”

Many staffers believe in what Weld describes as reivindicación, or “redemption.” It happens when the workers demonstrate—if only to themselves—that those killed were not terrorists or felons but rather idealists who’d been radicalized by impossible circumstances. Weld refers to the identity cards of police victims found in the archives as “paper cadavers” and observes that “to exhume a paper cadaver or rescue a document is to stave off oblivion, to look backward, to prevent stories and lives and traumas from being forgotten, and to accord dignity to the dead.”

In a sense, Weld’s book isn’t really about history at all. It’s a book about a country that’s been run badly off the rails, where every day is characterized by appalling violence, impunity, and by state institutions that are either, as she puts it, “totally ineffectual or deeply enmeshed in organized crime.” But what you can’t help but wonder, thanks to Weld’s insightful and engrossing work, is how much better Guatemala’s situation might now be if it hadn’t lost generations of student leaders, trade unionists, intellectuals and idealists, the very kinds of people it needs to face its intractable problems.