NPR Xeni Tech – Guatemala: digital archives may help find "disappeared."

PRAHPN - vacuuming "Detective Files"

Today on NPR "Day to Day," the third of a 5-part report I brought back from Central America: "Guatemala: Unearthing the Future." In the series, we learn more about the role technology plays in addressing historic problems in Guatemala.

Link to today's episode, "Guatemalan Archives May Help Locate Missing," with streaming audio (Real/Win), and some short video clips. Link to series home page.

Link to narrated slideshow. Here are more photos: Link.

"Xeni Tech" home, and podcast feed.

Historic Area: archive entrance

In rural areas of Guatemala, work is under way to recover and identify remains from mass graves dug during the country's civil war. But in the country's capital city, thousands of people also disappeared. The answers to their fates may lie buried in a massive police archive — one that wasn't supposed to exist.

At a police compound in Guatemala City, each dark room overflows with documents, some as old as 100 years. These archives may shed light on early US involvement in Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA backed a military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected president, and a long series of military dictatorships followed.

The national police were believed to be responsible for so many atrocities during the civil war that their organization was dissolved and replaced by a new institution when the conflict ended.

Buried in this enormous, dingy compound are answers that the Guatemalan people have waited for for decades. The archive was discovered by accident, during an investigation of a munitions dump. For years, authorities denied these archives existed. The space and all it contained were left for the rodents and the bats.

The Project for the Recuperation of the National Police Historic Archives (PRAHPN) works under the Guatemalan government's human rights ombudsman, trying to build a digital library so that the information on these crumbling pages will last. Patrick Ball and the US-based nonprofit Benetech are helping the police archive project — Benetech produces free, open-source software specifically designed to record and store data about human rights abuses.

PRAHPN: 1931 book

IMAGES: 2007, Xeni Jardin.


  • NPR Xeni Tech: Guatemala series, Part 2: Storm Victims' Remains Exhumed in Guatemala
  • NPR "Xeni Tech" – Guatemala: Unearthing the Future. Part 1, ""A Database for the Dead."

    PRAHPN: Digitalizador