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Uncovering the Past

14 September 2005

In July this year around 30,000 old police files were discovered in a disused ammunition dump in Guatemala’s capital city. Containing what appears to be a complete record of the old National Police activities the files promise new hope for the victims of human rights abuses during the country’s 36 year long civil war (1960-1996). With files entitled “Disappeared People 1989" and "Kidnapped Children 1993" the discovery could end long searches for historical truth by the relatives of victims and pave the way towards establishing accountability for past crimes.

Nonetheless, the path towards truth and justice is fraught with difficulty, not least in the vast scale of the job now in hand. Activists from dozens of rights organizations have demanded the Guatemalan government carry out a full examination of the archives but they are so extensive that estimates of up to five years have been placed on efforts to sort through all the information. It is unlikely that the Guatemalan government will be able to provide the time and resources needed for such a project and will need to look to outside help. Interventions from the UN or other political bodies are unlikely to be forthcoming on the scale seen for the Guatemalan Truth Commission in 1996 and many within the government are likely to oppose any further investigation of the past.

The first priority for the project has to be physically protecting the files themselves and then granting citizens free access to the information they contain. The matter of historical truth and setting the record straight is crucial to the inclusion of victims and their relatives within the democratic community. However, almost a decade after the end of civil conflict this process will take a sustained effort that many will not be able to afford. The truth may have been discovered but it is a long way from being understood and applied in the name of justice.

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