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.