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).