Tech Forensics in Guatemala Results in Groundbreaking Arrest for Decades-old Human Rights Crime

A Guatemalan police officer has been arrested in connection with the abduction and disappearance 25 years ago of a labor activist named Edgar Fernando García, during Guatemala's civil war -- a period in which extrajudicial executions, dissapearances, and torture by government agents were widespread. The arrest on March 5 of former police officer Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos is the result of an investigation of García's case by Guatemala's Human Rights Prosecutor, and all of this was made possible by using records recently discovered among the massive archives of the former National Police.

I reported about the tech forensics process at these archives for NPR a couple of years ago, and you can listen to that report here. We're talking about a giant, dingy, moldy, bat-infested hellhole that was once the site of a clandestine detention center and torture cells. The police dumped records here during the civil war years, and the whole mountain of rotting documents was accidentally discovered years after the war ended.

Using scanners, database systems, and teams of analysts and "digitalizadors," a large team of people working very, very hard in the years since have accomplished something incredible here. More about the recent arrest and what it means:

García was kidnapped by police agents in Guatemala City on February 18, 1984, during a wave of government repression targeting the left. He was never seen again. The policy of terror used by the Guatemalan security forces to intimidate and destroy perceived "subversives" during the country's 36-year civil conflict resulted in the disappearance of an estimated 45,000 civilians and the death of some 200,000, according to the Historical Clarification Commission in 1999.

Reports published today in Guatemala's Prensa Libre and EFE described the arrest of agent Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos, currently chief of police in Quezaltenango with 28 years of service in the former National Police and National Civil Police. Ramírez was charged with "illegal detention, kidnapping, forced disappearance, abuse of authority and failure of duty." According to Human Rights Prosecutor Sergio Morales, Ramírez was identified by human rights investigators from the recently uncovered records of the old Fourth Corps of the ex-National Police, which described how he and other agents secretly captured García and took him to an unknown location.

Kate Doyle, Director of the Archive's Guatemala Project, commented "The arrest of one of the alleged perpetrators of Fernando García's disappearance 25 years later underscores the critical importance of the archives of the Guatemalan police and military in achieving justice for the atrocities committed during the civil conflict. The government of Guatemala must do everything in its power to see that state records are made public for future human rights investigations if it truly supports accountability and justice for these crimes."

(...)Although there has been no information about his capture since he disappeared in 1984, Fernando García's name appeared in the notorious "Military Logbook," an army intelligence document listing dozens of people disappeared by security forces in the mid-1980s and released publicly by the National Security Archive in 2000. The logbook indicated that García and other young students, professors and labor leaders were the subjects of intensive police surveillance in the weeks leading up to their capture and disappearance.

Read more here at the project's website.

Photos in this post were snapshots I took at the Guatemalan police archives in 2007.

(Thank you, Jorge Villagran of PRAHPN - PDH - Guatemala, and all who suggested this).


  1. the christian right in the usa, ie, jimmy swaggart pat robertson etc directly supported this event with political stances and even $.
    i may have proof one day, but the quotes from their own mouths are out there…
    i think they better start praying.

  2. So whose bright idea was it to *document* their own human rights abuses? I mean, I know the Nazis did it (oops, Godwinned) because they genuinely thought they were going to rule the world. But Guatemala?

  3. Curious to have an article dealing with a murder, that doesn’t mention the direct responsibility of the USA – who supplied the weapons, training, and money to finance the specific murder, and a larger countrywide genocide, in the first place.

    Its a bit like having an article on bone forensics at Auschwitz, that forgets to mention the Nazi’s.

    ‘Reagan and Guatemala’s Death Files’
    and ‘Group says files show US knew of Guatemala abuses’

    or just google CIA and Guatemala

  4. @ #3 Robert:
    Perhaps the creation of records allowed the lower level participants to feel they were involved in something “official,” and state-sanctioned, and therefore not completely unconscionable.

  5. #4, they believed they were doing right, or at least they were doing the job they were assigned to. They were on the right side, you know? They weren’t the bad guys.

    #6, don’t be a jerk. This isn’t an “article,” this is a very very brief blog post which points to dozens of reports, some of which I’ve reported myself, which delve into the USA’s blood-stained history in Guatemala. You’re not telling me something I don’t already know, and not *ever* single mention of the conflict will allow space or focus to re-tell the entire history and lineage of the United States’ involvement.

    The immediate story here is about the archivos, and what that process has led to.

  6. This is amazing. VERY nice to see that 25 years later, at least some of those involved can longer hide.

  7. 25 Years ago most of us did not have the luxury of sitting at home and browsing the World. Trying to make a difference often involved putting our bodies in harms way. Holding past perpetrators accountable for the pain and suffering they unleashed may send a message to our new group of criminal cowards that their acts will not be forgotten. I hope.

  8. A friend of mine happened to be traveling in Guatemala 15 years ago and got involved with documenting a dig of a village wiped out by soldiers. He ended up taking photos of the corpses of children exhumed from a well, where they were all thrown while still alive.

    Hopefully theses techniques can be used to catch more of these monsters.

  9. #6 Thanks for the links. The involvement of the US in the endless misery in S.A. for the past 150 years is a subject that deserves endless links all over the place until Americans wake up to the multiple hells they’ve paid for.

    You’re utterly right: no mention of atrocities in any part of the world fueled in any way by US tax dollars should *ever* go without links to that information. One way or the other, Americans will pay until they stop being a primary source of world misery.

  10. Another great example of this sort of thing happened in Argentina.

    Mary Clare-King is a Seattle genetics and breast cancer researcher who also does a good deal of human rights and other public interest work.

    In Argentina, the death squads were torturing and killing off just about everyone in sight. They didn’t seem to need much, if any, excuse.

    After killing someone off, they grabbed any infants still alive and hauled them off to be adopted by ultra right wing activists or officials.

    Many of the kids were brought up thinking that these ultra rightists were their real parents.

    Mary Clare-King went over and did DNA matching to link many of these orphans back up with their real families. She also does things like go out to mass grave sites from massacres all over the world and performs DNA tests to help identify the victims.

  11. Oh yeah, Reagan was all for freedom…to kill and torture children.
    D’ya think the ‘lessons learned” were put to use in Iraq during the Terror in Bagdad in 2005? No?

  12. This is the problem with blogs. You leave out the source where you got the tex:

    Then you give the National Security Archive as the “project.” The National Police Archives in Gautemala (Archivo Historical de la Policia Nacional – AHPN) is very different from the National Security Archive at GWU. It’s important to clear this up.

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