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Digital Window Into Guatemala’s Past to Launch at Conference on the Politics of Memory

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posted: Tuesday November 22, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — The University of Texas at Austin will launch a digital archive that consists of some 12 million pages of records from the Guatemalan Historical National Police Archive (known as Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional or AHPN), making online resources publicly accessible to researchers, human rights activists, prosecutors and ordinary citizens.

University of Texas Libraries will make the materials accessible online at the close of the conference, “Politics of Memory: Guatemala’s National Police Archive,” which will be held on Dec. 2. The conference is sponsored by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. The conference will be held at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

The website will provide access to the archive’s materials to people across the globe — those searching for disappeared family and friends, those studying institutions of surveillance and state repression, those exploring the legacy of U.S. involvement in Guatemala or any other aspect of Guatemala’s recent history.

Despite United Nations and Catholic Church investigations in the 1990s, the Guatemalan government denied the existence of records relating to state repression until a chance investigation in Guatemala City in 2005 led to the discovery of the AHPN and its nearly 80 million pages of police records dating from 1882 to 1996.

Since its discovery, the AHPN has become a crucial source in the investigation of human rights violations that took place during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, which killed or forcibly disappeared 200,000 and displaced 1 million people. For families and friends of those killed and disappeared, it offers the hope of finding answers to the circumstances surrounding those deaths and disappearances.

The archive also contains documentation relating to decades of United States involvement in Guatemala, including human experimentation on Guatemalan citizens in connection with syphilis research in the 1940s.

Given the importance of ensuring uninterrupted access to this archive, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances both expressed concern that any changes in government not affect the preservation and security of the archive. The Commission expressed its aspiration that the archive would “become a State project that transcends the will of the current government authorities and guarantees the right of access to information.”

AHPN Coordinator Gustavo Meoño noted, “This alliance secures the perpetual public availability of the archive, which is so important for Guatemala. The University of Texas at Austin’s prestige and commitment to academic inquiry gives us an opportunity to guarantee the right to information in the most democratic and permanent manner possible.”

At the day-long conference “Politics of Memory: Guatemala’s National Police Archive,” scholars of varying disciplines, activists and Guatemalan government officials will consider how use of the archive can deepen understanding of Guatemala’s history of conflict and advance human rights — crucial elements to strengthening that nation’s embattled democracy.

Panels will discuss the impact of foreign interventions in Guatemala as well as on technology and access to information. Steve Stern, professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Anna Carla Ericastillia, director of the General Archive of Central America, will deliver the conference keynote addresses.

The conference is free and open to the public. There is no registration fee, but space is limited and registration is requested. Registration and further information are available on the Politics of Memory conference website.

The conference is the beginning of a larger collaboration addressed in a 2011 letter of understanding between the AHPN and the institutions at The University of Texas at Austin hosting the conference.

In addition to making the AHPN available online, this collaboration plans for the exchange of technical expertise, cooperation in research and engagement in capacity-building for legal and academic networks in Guatemala.

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