Bones and Paper
Oregon Law's Michelle McKinley assists in prosecuting Guatemalan war crimes
Photos courtesy of Greg Krupa
In 2010, Michelle McKinley, an international law professor at Oregon Law, responded to a call from the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) to go on a war crimes observation mission in Guatemala. The objective of the mission was to support prosecution of the perpetrators of mass violence during the 30-year Guatemalan civil war, which formally ended in 1996.
It is estimated that during the civil war more than 200,000 people were killed and between 40,000 and 50,000 people were victims of forced disappearances. Government and military forces are suspected of killing tens of thousands of Guatemalans, but their whereabouts are unknown. The majority of these atrocities were allegedly state-ordered terror tactics carried out by government military forces.
“There was a sense that if international observers were coming and high-profile attention was being paid to the topic, the government couldn’t suppress prosecution,” said McKinley.
While in Guatemala, McKinley spent time working with the families of victims and meeting with people in the prosecutorial office in an effort to ensure successful prosecution of the war crimes. McKinley was particularly interested in observing how the Guatemalan judiciary incorporated international criminal law domestically. As a professor of international criminal law, she was optimistic and intrigued that people were brought to trial for genocide using Guatemalan law instead of international criminal law.
McKinley visited Guatemala again in December 2011 and expanded her focus from prosecution work to also include extensive examination of the Historical Archive of Guatemala’s National Police.
Back in July 2005, human rights activists and prosecutors hit a mother lode of evidence against the Guatemalan civil war perpetrators of mass violence when piles of paper filling entire rooms were discovered during an inspection of a police compound in Guatemala City. The documents comprised the Historical Archive of Guatemala’s National Police.
Assessment of the 80 million pages of archived material dating from 1882 to 1997, produced evidence of the alleged actions of the Guatemalan police and military forces during the war. The archives had been kept secret from victims, prosecutors and activists trying to discover the truth regarding the Guatemalan civil war atrocities.
“The national police left a lot of evidence of their daily surveillance routines, so now for the trials there are good paper trails that can be useful to the prosecutor and to the families of the disappeared, who are desperate to know where their loved ones are buried,” said McKinley.
“In the Mayan culture, and in popular Catholicism, families believe that a victim’s soul cannot rest until there has been a proper burial,” McKinley added. “The most powerful experience that I had during this trip was going to mass grave sites at La Verbena cemetery, and attending funerals of those who had been identified by their surviving siblings and children. The funerals were reminiscent of burials in the anti-apartheid struggle: public spaces where survivors of the dictatorship could make their grievances heard, voice their political discontent and express their pain, in full view of the international and national press, defying military surveillance and censorship.”
Officials in charge of the National Police Archives took great care and a significant amount of time to preserve and digitize the massive amounts of materials. “Imagine the daunting task of archiving tens of millions of aged, warped, and decaying documents that lay inside dank and dark rooms where torture once took place,” said UO graduate, Greg Krupa. In addition, the archives were digitally stored in secure locations in Switzerland and backed-up on servers in UNESCO, in case the government decides to close down the research and prosecution projects.
McKinley worked in collaboration with many University of Oregon individuals, including historian, Carlos Aguirre; journalist, Gabriela Martinez; videographer, Andrew Kirkpatrick; researcher, Greg Krupa; and the director of the UO’s Wired Humanities Project, Stephanie Wood. The UO team assisted with the research into the circumstances surrounding missing and killed Guatemalans, using the National Police Archives. Unfortunately, exposing the truth, often, also meant attending funerals and visiting mass-graves.
“I think about my most recent trip as bones and paper,” said McKinley. “By that I mean, careful consideration of the forensic evidence that we need to prosecute, in addition to examining the documents in the archive.”
A by-product of war crime prosecution is an increased risk of danger and personal injury, due to perpetrators who will go to great lengths to avoid implication during the trials. This has resulted in many high-profile murders of individuals involved in the prosecution process. Despite the risk, it is also extremely gratifying, according to McKinley. There have been important convictions of civil war generals, who will be put under house arrest.
“It’s important that victims families know that the perpetrators of the crimes against their loved ones have gone to trial,” said McKinley.
McKinley strongly encourages students in a variety of academic programs – international law, humanities, international studies and journalism – to be intrepid and get involved in human rights projects such as the prosecutions in Guatemala.
Krupa took initiative as a recent graduate and spent seven months in Guatemala researching the National Police Archives. Krupa was key in assisting the UO research team move around the city in a safe manner, securing interviews with the families of victims and researching prosecution material.
There are opportunities for other students to get involved in capacities similar to Krupa’s, however McKinley reminds hopeful activists, “what we hope is an opportunity for people to get involved, we also hope will not come to pass – situations such as these are nothing to hope for.”