“Donde lo tienen?” Working in an archive of the disappeared in Guatemala

By Brie Gettleson, Social Science Librarian at Haverford College  

This Speaking Justice to Power installment focuses on the Americas, North and South, to foreground the divergent historical roots of the region’s new authoritarianism, now being enacted through confinement practices in numerous states. A multi-part PoLAR conversation with Karina Biondi (APLA Book Prize winner 2017), Catherine Besteman (President Emeritus, APLA) and Orisanmi Burton, complements this Speaking Justice installment’s focus on authoritarian practices of confinement and cauterization.

Guatemala City street in 2012. Photo supplied by author. 


“Pero señores, la gente no se esfuma,. ¿Será posible que se lo haya tragado la tierra?, o como se rumorea la existencia de cárceles secretas, ¿Estará mi querido hijito en algún lugar particular convertido en prisión, en alguno de los Polos de Desarrollo o destacamento militar?”

“But sirs, people do not vanish, ¿Would it be possible that the Earth had swallowed him?, or as the rumors about secret prisons go ¿Is my dear son in some particular place converted into a prison, in one of the Development Zones or military detachment?”

Farina Sandoval de Girón wrote these words about her son in 1985, in a letter addressed to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission (Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala). Farina wrote letters of appeal to organizations and heads of state, including Ronald Reagan, hoping to find out something about her son, a university student in Guatemala City. Jorge Mario Alberto Girón Sandoval was taken on May 3, 1985, one of the 45,000 disappeared during the 36-year long internal conflict between the Guatemalan state and a small number of guerrilla groups. The history and processes of reckoning with detention, disappearance, and genocide continue to define political possibilities in Guatemala today.

Farina’s letters are a part of Jorge Sandoval’s case file, located in the archivo de los desaparecidos (archive of the disappeared) at the offices of the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Support Group or GAM) in Guatemala City. Tania Ortega, a Haverford College undergraduate studying anthropology, brought the letters to my attention. She and two other students–Mariana Ramirez and Natalia Mora–spent the summer of 2018 transcribing, describing, and studying digitized case files from the GAM archive of forced disappearance under the guidance of the GAM Digital Archive Project team. The project is structured on a post-custodial model, in which ownership of the documents remains in Guatemala, in the GAM’s custody, while the digital archive is hosted and maintained by Haverford College Libraries.

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A section of the archive in the GAM offices (Photo courtesy of Alex Galarza)

The archive of disappearance includes about 4,000 cases, a number that seems large until we consider the estimated 45,000 disappeared and the estimated 200,000 dead during the 1960-1996 armed conflict (CEH 1999). Together, we spent the summer engaged in the technical and intellectual processes of bringing digital life to an archive of the (presumed) dead. While the fates of some of the 4000 in the archive are known—revealed by the work of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation)—many families are left without answers. The faces of the disappeared appear on posters in the GAM offices, accompanied by the words “Donde lo tienen?” or “Where do they have him?” Out in the Guatemala City streets, youth organization H.I.J.O.S. (Sons and Daughters of the Disappeared) have papered popular corridors with the faces of disappeared university students, asking “Donde están?” or “Where are they?” Though they have been missing for over 30 years, organizations and family members politicize the names and faces of the disappeared and keep their memories alive.

While Haverford project lead Alex Galarza and I were in Guatemala this summer, we were honored to be invited to accompany the GAM to the Guatemalan Congress for the Día Nacional contra la Desaparición Forzada (National Day against Forced Disappearance). There, the GAM and other human rights and victims’ organizations presented demands for a state commitment to investigate the 45,000 cases of disappearance, so that families might know what happened to their missing loved ones. Like Farina Sandoval de Girón, they can speculate about secret prisons, but the bodies of many of the missing are likely in clandestine mass graves. The Guatemalan state has yet to fulfill its obligation to investigate these disappearances.

According to the international conventions on enforced disappearance, disappearance is broadly defined as involving actions of state officials, the deprivation of liberty, and the denial of state responsibility for the act of disappearance. Disappearance is a particularly cruel act, leaving family members wondering for years, even decades, about the fate of loved ones, unsure if they were living or dead. During the conflict, disappearances were paired with appearances of the anonymous dead. Bodies were rendered unrecognizable by use of mass graves and severe bodily mutilation.

GAM Offices 2018. Photo supplied by author. 

Working in the GAM archive of disappearances, I noticed another, smaller collection within the archive: a box labeled “niñez desaparecidos” or “disappeared children.” During the conflict, hundreds of children, especially indigenous Maya children, were targeted for kidnapping for the international adoption market by the Guatemalan military. This was done in the name of “rescuing” them from “subversives,” who were often only guilty of being Maya under a genocidal regime. During the 1982-1983 reign of Efraín Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan state committed genocide against the Ixil Maya. Thousands of civilians were brutally massacred by the Guatemalan army. Villages were burned to the ground. Women were raped and the bodies of their children destroyed before their eyes. It is impossible to overstate the horror of this period of Guatemalan history, but justice remains partial.

During the same week in which I was viewing the box of records of disappeared children, news from the United States was flooded with stories of the separations of migrant children from their families. Not only were they physically separated, but the children were also in a sense disappeared by either bureaucratic ineptitude or intent. Those familiar with histories of separating children as a tool of settler colonialism rightly feared that these “lost” children would become available for adoption by white families. In Guatemala, “irregularities” in the legal adoption of Guatemalan children continued beyond the conflict. Thousands of children were adopted by families in the US and Europe under questionable circumstances, until a change to Guatemalan law shut down international adoptions in 2008. Scholars of First Nations and aboriginal communities recognize removal of indigenous children as a form of cultural genocide. The ongoing removal of (often indigenous) children for international adoption in Guatemala can be read a continuation of the genocide during the conflict.

There is not space in this forum to provide a detailed account of the violence that left 200,000 dead in Guatemala, but by the mid-1980s, disappearances, displacements, and genocidal massacres created a nation in which political activity seemed impossible. The united guerrilla forces, now known as the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), had little chance of military victory. Trade unions in the cities and countryside were violently crushed. In 1980, a representative of the Guatemalan NGO Frente Democrático Contra la Represión testified before the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, declaring that, “Guatemala has no political prisoners, only dead people” (WGEID 1981). However, miraculously, Guatemalans, including those most personally affected, continued to organize even when it seemed impossible.

The Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo was formed on June 4, 1984 by a group of women whose loved ones had been taken from them by the Guatemalan security forces. They organized public demonstrations in Guatemala City, carrying the names and photographs of those who had been disappeared. Members of the GAM petitioned the government for answers, gathering denuncias (legal complaints), testimonies, photographs, and news clipping related to disappeared persons, even as their own membership was targeted and killed. In the late 1980s, organizations like the GAM filed thousands of habeas corpus petitions on behalf of families of disappeared persons—like Farina Sandoval de Girón and her son, Jorge—petitions which went unanswered.

Despite continued targeting by the state and clandestine powers, the GAM and organizations like them have continued to hold the Guatemalan government accountable for the atrocities of the conflict and their legacies in the present. Guatemalan politics continue to be dominated by former military men or friends of the traditional oligarchy who back land seizures and campesino evictions for palm oil enterprises or turn a blind eye to the murder of labor organizers. Guatemala is still a dangerous place in which to make demands or speak out. And yet, following the 2015 arrest of President Otto Perez Molina—a former intelligence officer implicated in a wide-reaching corruption ring known as La Linea—anti-corruption and impunity protests in Guatemala have continued to grow to sizes unmatched since the 1954 US-backed coup that ended democracy in Guatemala for decades.

The legal work of the GAM continues, as they use documents to build cases against members of the Guatemalan military and police from the conflict. The whole of the archive of disappearances remains endangered, both by predictable forces of moisture and decay and changing political winds. Once again, analysts are using the word coup to describe a situation in the making in present-day Guatemala, as sitting President Jimmy Morales uses a military show of force to back his illegal attempts to oust the anti-corruption investigative body International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) that is looking into his own illegal campaign financing. However, thousands of Guatemalans have taken to the streets to protest. Given Guatemala’s decades of swift and violent repression, such protests seem impossible, but, yet…



Brie Gettleson has a PhD in Anthropology and is the Social Science Librarian at Haverford College. In addition to working on the GAM Digital Archive Project team, she also researches gender violence law and alternative definitions of justice in Guatemala.



Works Cited:
Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (Guatemala), ed. 1999. Guatemala, Memoria Del Silencio: Informe. 1. ed. Guatemala: CEH.

United Nations. 1981. “Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.” E/CN.4/1435. Geneva: United Nations. Available at: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G81/151/34/PDF/G8115134.pdf

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