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Archival research in Guatemala

Street art in Xela (Quetzaltenango), August 2019. Copyright Molly Avery.

The Guatemalan civil war raged with varying intensity for 36 years between 1960 and 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 dead 40,000 disappeared and over a million displaced. A little over two decades on from the peace accords, my PhD research addresses the involvement of the Chilean and Argentine anticommunist dictatorships, over 3,500 miles to the south, in the conflict during the peak period of violence (1977-1984), and in the civil war in neighbouring El Salvador in the same period.

Images of victims of the Guatemalan genocide displayed on the outside walls of La Casa de la Memoria “Kaji Tulam" in Guatemala City, July 2019. Copyright Molly Avery.

I spent four weeks in Guatemala this summer. Having spent several months of the previous year carrying out research in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and the United States, this trip to Central America formed the last part of the research trips that made up the second year of my PhD. As a historian, the bulk of my research is carried out in archives. In Guatemala, access to state archives is tricky, and fast becoming much harder: I was unable to visit the AHPN (Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional - access to which is under direct threat from the outgoing Jimmy Morales administration) and while I was able to visit the Foreign Ministry archives, access to document was limited and levels of deterioration high. These were, however, issues that I anticipated. CIRMA (the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, a Guatemalan non-profit based in Antigua, Guatemala) remains a beacon for researchers looking to delve into the history of the civil war and wider history. I was able to read and scan numerous documents published by actors on both sides of the civil war divide – from military periodicals to guerrilla publications – and consult the enormous archive of press cuttings and other documentation collected by Guatemala solidarity movements from across the world. In Guatemala City, I visited the Biblioteca Nacional as well as the FLACSO library. I was also able to carry out interviews with individuals high up in government and private business during the later decades of the civil war and in its aftermath. I was also able to travel fairly extensively around Guatemala, taking in its beautiful landscape – mountains, volcanoes and lakes - while gathering material that will make a vital contribution to my dissertation research.

More soberingly, I was in Guatemala at a particularly fraught political moment – during the final round of the presidential elections, which themselves took place hot on the heels of the Morales administration’s decision to sign the ‘Third Safe Country’ agreement with the Trump administration, prompting an outpouring of opposition from both right and left. Everyday discussions with Guatemalans on these topics – combined with the inescapable levels of poverty and deprivation that have led to record levels of emigration – made it abundantly clear that despite almost 23 years passing since the peace accords, very little progress has been made in tackling entrenched inequality and corruption in Guatemala and many thousands of families remain without justice for the crimes committed by the military.

Molly Avery

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