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Archives for a Recent and Violent Past: Argentina, Chile, Peru

The articles by Federico Guillermo Lorenz, “Archives on Repression and Memory in Argentina” (Spanish version); Jennifer Herbst with Patricia Huenuqueo, “Archives to Study the Recent Past in Chile” (Spanish version); and Ruth Elena Borja Santa Cruz, “Archives on Human Rights in Peru” (Spanish version) convey a sense of the substantial documentary resources available for research on the present day. They belie what is often believed – that the lack of archives forces one to rely heavily on the actors and their a posteriori testimonies, rather than on documental proof of what they did and thought at the time of the events.

Several common characteristics run through these three national situations. First, there is a dynamic movement for recent archives, beginning in Peru, which has produced visible results. It originated in recognition that such archives contain memories and proof of what happened in countries that suffered political violence in recent times. In each country special efforts were made to protect and classify what are usually called “human rights archives” – carried out by organizations of victims and their families, such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Argentina) and the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (Chile), and by organizations that defend human rights such as the Vicaría de la Solidaridad in Chile, and several members of the Peruvian Network of human rights organizations or Coordinadora. Finally, we can observe the recent creation of what might be called “memory and archive centers” to gather and protect archives and carry out public education about the recent past. Examples are Memoria Abierta (www.memoriaabierta.org.ar) and the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (La Plata) in Argentina (www.comisionporlamemoria.org).

Together these articles illustrate the scope of sources available today. In Chile they range from state administrative archives and human rights archives to private collections (documents held by politicians, archives of clandestine movements, etc.). We are dealing with records which are still in their active “administrative lives” but which already have historic value (according to the distinction made by professional archivists). They are still used by victims, judges, and attorneys (as they were by truth commissions) but, while observing normal restrictions to protect privacy, these archives are open to researchers.

The archives directly related to the violent past (human rights violations, victims and perpetrators) fall into four categories: those of 1) state agencies of repression, 2) organizations of victims and their families and bodies for the defense of human rights, 3) official research commissions (“to establish the truth”) and the courts, with documentation assembled after the period of violence, and 4) private collections dealing with people or issues built up as the events occurred or afterwards. Except for the judicial archives, these four categories of documents are quite well represented in the works by Lorenz, Herbst with Huenuqueo and Borja. Specific mention should be made of the archives of secret political police, such as the Dirección de Inteligencia de la Policía de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (DIPBA), the conservation of which was placed in the hands of the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria.

Chance has played a major role in State control over material originating in agencies responsible for repression – shaken primarily by the tenacity of investigative journalists, judges, and human rights activists. Political police and military intelligence frequently ordered such files destroyed when these services were dissolved. Nevertheless, persistence effort (and luck) have unearthed important archives such as those of the Brazilian Political Police of Río de Janeiro or DOPS and of the police in Alfredo Stroessner’s long Paraguayan dictatorship (1954 – 1989) (see: Ludmila da Silva Catela and Elizabeth Jelin, eds. Los archivos de la represión [The Archives of Repression], Madrid: Siglo XXI, 2002). To these we can add the recently-discovered (2005) archives of the Guatemalan National Police, which are being classified by a team of archivists.

Historical knowledge and understanding of this recent period in all three countries and more broadly in the region is in part dependent on the opening of more archives. In the case of the Brazilian military government (1964 – 1985), the availability of state agency archives on repression since the 1990s has led to significant new findings and the revision of previous conclusions (as shown by Kenneth Serbin in “Anatomy of Death”, Spanish version).

The archives of police or military services raise particular questions about State responsibility. In the three countries studied (but in other places in South America as well), the State has progressively defined policies reflecting the international efforts of archivists to protect all archives of “repression” and of “human rights,” and to making them available to the public. The Comisión Provincial por la Memoria and the Museo de la Memoria in Rosario, Argentina, are examples. Also relevant is the technical assistance of the Chilean state office for Libraries, Archives and Museums (DIBAM) to human rights organizations to record their archives in the UNESCO Memory of the World registry for later classification. Finally, it is noteworthy that Argentine federal government has ordered the Human Rights Secretariat to prevent destruction of state archives of the violent period and charged it with creating a National Archive of Memory (www.derhuman.jus.gov.ar) to hold the archives of the CONADEP (the truth commission that compiled the report Nunca más).

In Peru the Center of Information for Collective Memory and Human Rights established within the Ombudsman’s office (2004) (www.defensoria.gob.pe) to conserve the archives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) is an another important example of these efforts. Its history begins in the human rights organizations of the Coordinadora, whose materials had been classified. Fifteen of these organizations opened their collections to the CVR, which used them for its work. Once the CVR had concluded its work, its own records were transferred to the new Center of Information for Collective Memory, where they were made available to the victims and researchers six months after the publications of the commission’s report.

Finally, conservation efforts have received support from specialized organizations, such as the Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) (www.ictj.org/es) and the International Council of Archivists (ICA) (www.ica-sae.org), which made archives related to political violence a priority.

Translation by Lea Fletcher

Centro de Derechos Humanos, Universidad Alberto Hurtado
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