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The Criminal Record

ISSUE:  Winter 2009
Entre las páginas surge el lamento.
(A cry emerges from between the pages.)
Luis Cardoza y Aragón
Worker cleaning and preserving a document
(Xeni Jardin / CC)

The police archive sits in a cemetery of confiscated cars at the edge of Zone 6 in Guatemala City. Behind the high wall of the police-headquarters complex, the cars are piled three, four, even five high, their rusted bodies giving the area around them the feel of a junkyard. For years, in fact, the archive and the buildings near it were referred to by the Guatemalan police as el basurero—the garbage dump—so it is no surprise that the place became a repository for everything the police no longer wanted but couldn’t entirely part with. El basurero accumulated the volatile and cumbersome kind of trash that cannot be made to disappear. Decaying vehicles, unused explosives, and millions of pieces of paper detailing the last century of police activity were all dumped there, placed under the care of employees who were themselves unwanted—policewomen who by some misstep had derailed their careers and found themselves caretakers of a mountain of police refuse.

I’d grown up idealizing the man who, according to family stories, carried a lethal draft of cyanide in his back molar.

Most people in Guatemala didn’t even know that el basurero existed. I read about it in the US in 2005, in a newspaper article that mentioned the name of a family member in relation to the discovered archive, and most of Guatemala learned of the archive that same year. For years the archive had, officially speaking, not really existed. In 1996, with the signing of the peace accords and the formal end to Guatemala’s thirty-six-year armed conflict, both police officials and government authorities declared that no police archive survived. Without exactly concealing it, the police had done their best to neglect the archive into oblivion. It contained, after all, more than one hundred years of paper-work, including identity cards, arrest warrants, secret correspondence, and any number of other records documenting the police force’s participation in the estimated 200,000 deaths and disappearances that occurred during the civil war. The archive was stashed in the ruins of an unfinished hospital that consisted of partial cement walls and dirt floors. As the documents were dumped, they were mixed with food and other trash. Rats built their nests in the piles of paper. Cockroaches, moths, and silverfish infested the building and began slowly eating through the documents. Bats took shelter wherever there was ceiling space, and where there was no ceiling the rain poured in, making the documents into hard, papier-mâché shells. The archive progressed steadily toward decomposition.

And then, in July 2005, there was an explosion. A fire in one of the storerooms of the unfinished hospital drew the attention of residents nearby, and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, concerned about the abandoned explosives, sent a team of people to inspect the building. The team found that the unfinished hospital was being used as a police warehouse, and that explosives were not its only contents. It was a member of this team who, passing by a wing of the hospital that did not contain explosives, spotted a stack of papers through the window. When he asked the policewoman near the entrance what that wing of the hospital was, she answered without hesitation: “This is the police archive.”

When I visited the building in August 2007, it had been in the ombudsman’s care for two years, and the process of putting the archive in order was well underway. I arrived in a cab and had to call Alberto Fuentes, the on-site director of the archive, so that he could guide us along the seemingly interminable wall of the police enclosure to the dirt path leading to the building. Alberto walked up to the cab to meet us, waving his arms in greeting. All around us, behind the police enclosure, stood other enclosures: chain-link fences with coils of barbed wire and fragmentary continuations of the cinder-block wall that framed the main entrance.

Despite our surroundings, Alberto steered me enthusiastically down the dirt path on foot as if welcoming me to his home. Smiling, his gray head nodding, he was already like a friend I’d known for ages. He was singing along to his phone’s ringtone, an old-fashioned song of decidedly local fame which, as it turned out, had been composed by his father. I explained in a rush why I was there, anxious to establish the sincerity of my interest: I was a historian; I worked in Guatemalan archives; in fact, I studied the history of archives in the colonial period, obscure as that no doubt seemed; and apart from my scholarly interest I had the hope that perhaps, possibly—an article in the Prensa Libre had tipped me off—there might be records in the archive about my uncle. I knew the archive wasn’t open to the public for consultation, I said quickly, but could we check, by any chance? My uncle’s name, I told him, was Mario Silva Jonama.

Alberto stopped in his tracks and turned, taking my elbow and looking me in the eye. “Mario Silva Jonama?” he asked, stunned. “You are Mario’s niece?” I nodded. Alberto stared at me in disbelief, seemingly torn between the desire to laugh and the desire to cry. “But I knew him,” he said quietly. “Of course I knew him.”

Man Standing on Bumper
Mario leaning on the bumper of his Jeep (courtesy of the author).

As for so many others with Guatemalan family, I couldn’t think about the police archive without thinking of a name. For me, it was Mario’s. I’d been hearing his name for as long as I could remember. He was my mother’s eldest brother; he’d been a member of the democratic government ousted by a CIA-led coup in 1954; and he’d been one of the Guatemalan Party of Labor (PGT) leaders “disappeared” by plainclothes police in Guatemala in 1972. In our family, his name had taken on the unavoidable weight that comes with holding a place for something so long absent.

I’d grown up idealizing the man who, according to family stories, carried a lethal draft of cyanide in his back molar rather than carry a gun. Even when many of his cohort radicalized, joining what would eventually become the guerrilla armies of Guatemala, Mario remained a pacifist, convinced that the greatest weapon against political repression was education. He devoted his professional life to promoting early schooling in rural areas. After the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, he lived as a refugee in Mexico, visiting his family when he could and staying in safe-houses. Then in the 1970s he regrouped with his Communist-party friends, determined to respond somehow to the increasingly repressive military regimes that ran the country. In September 1972 he left the house for a party meeting and never returned. His family heard from a family friend—a doctor—that he was detained for several months. Then he was most likely thrown from a helicopter into the Pacific.

As I grew older I learned things about him that cast a certain shadow on my idealized image of Mario. He had created families with no fewer than three women and more or less left them all. He had become something of a zealot before his death, dispensing Communist propaganda to his family and promoting the party’s ties to Moscow and Cuba. Still, these tended to make him a more interesting—more flawed—figure. I continued to find him a mysterious, if somewhat troubling, source of inspiration.

Perhaps part of Mario’s allure lay in how elusive and untraceable he was. Disappeared years before I was born, he existed primarily in the memories of others. I had never seen any of his letters, though I once saw a notebook filled with his careful, beautifully handwritten copies of Carlos Gardel lyrics. The photographs I’d seen of him tended to obscure rather than illuminate his personality. Always self-consciously posing for the camera, he gave the impression of an actor in a wide range of roles. In one he leans jauntily on the bumper of an overheated Jeep, wearing a beret and a neck scarf and dangling a cigarette in his fingers. In another he stands in a business suit next to his father, on his face an expression of self-mocking seriousness. And in other photographs—passport photos taken to disguise his appearance—he appears in the role of university professor with dark glasses, or earnest young professional with a thin mustache, or discontented youth with severe eyes. These images did little to help me understand who Mario had been.

The images and secondhand stories were not enough, but they encouraged me to look further. In graduate school I began studying the recent armed conflict in Guatemala, first reading as much as I could of published histories and then researching on my own by visiting archives and conducting oral histories. These pursuits were, of course, also motivated by intellectual curiosity, but their original impetus had come from the desire to understand not only that vanished individual—Mario—but also the vanished world to which he belonged. I had the belief, as I continued my studies, that this is what history and the archival materials that formed its foundation did: they recuperated lost people, lost worlds. I finished my masters and moved on to a doctorate; I began searching even further back, into the colonial period of Guatemalan history. I was becoming comfortable, even contented, with the idea that historical study could be interminable. Then in December 2005 I read a brief Prensa Libre article reporting that a police archive had been uncovered in Guatemala. It mentioned only four people whose records had been found in the archive: “Among the records are those of Mario Silva Jonama, leader of the Guatemalan Party of Labor (PGT), captured and assassinated in 1972.” I had the impression that the article seemed to come at just the right time: now I was a historian and well practiced in negotiating archives. I would bring all my training to bear, and perhaps I would finally come closer to the understanding of Mario that had long eluded me. I started making plans to go to Guatemala.

Series of Portraits
Mario’s official photographs in various disguises.

The archive, Alberto Fuentes told me, as we sat under a wide tent just outside the entrance, was a treasure: a gold mine disguised as a garbage dump. It contained approximately eighty million pages of documentation, or eight kilometers of stacked paper. The oldest document was a register from 1882. The archive contained more than one hundred years of police history following the establishment of the police force in 1871. Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the liberal president made famous by Miguel Angel Asturias’s novel El señor presidente, had relied on the police force and its vast network of informers to create the first Guatemalan police state in the late-nineteenth century. The archive also contained documentation from the period of Jorge Ubico, the early-twentieth-century “mano fuerte” president whose legacy of dictatorship finally ended with the democratic election of Juan José Arévalo in 1944. And, of most interest to Alberto and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the archive also contained documentation on the period after the fall of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954: the decades of growing repression that finally ended with the 1996 peace accords.

In the months following Arbenz’s overthrow, the military dictator installed by the US went about systematically dismantling the land and labor reforms enacted during Arbenz’s presidency. After an initial purge of union organizers and Communist party leaders, it took some time for the opposition to regroup. The first challenge to military rule came not from unions or Communists but from a group of young army officers who remained loyal to Arbenz. Exiled in Mexico after their unsuccessful revolt in 1961, they began establishing ties with the PGT. The PGT had enjoyed close ties to Arbenz during his presidency, and many of its members had left the country in 1954. But in the 1960s and 1970s those members who had returned to Guatemala began redoubling their efforts, remaining committed to their reform-minded principles but simultaneously strengthening their connection with the younger, more radical groups.

Studying the past or even speaking about it in a certain way is a charged political act. The decision to investigate the recent past affects your safety and your family’s safety, and it is not made lightly.

It was during the 1970s that the Guatemalan police force assumed the role that would put it at the center of the armed conflict. Working closely with the Guatemalan armed forces, police in Guatemala City began targeting organizers and student leaders, either disappearing them or leaving their bodies—more often than not showing evidence of torture—scattered around the city. In the late 1970s and early 1980s these attacks grew less selective and more frequent, maximizing on their potential to spread terror. Most of the disappeared were never traced, and those who were found murdered yielded little explanatory evidence. With the uncovering of the archive came the hope that some context for those deaths and disappearances might be found.

“There is no spectacular document in any archive,” Alberto Fuentes said to me. He compared the situation to Germany’s. “You’re not going to find a document penned by Hitler that says, ‘Pipe gas into the chambers to kill the Jews.’” What one could find, he said, were small fragments that would fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and form a whole. By piecing together the fragments, some of the disappeared were already coming to the surface. Using identity cards—cédulas de vecindad—from the police archive, forensic anthropologists had identified more than forty corpses buried anonymously in a nearby cemetery. And slowly more of the fragments would become accessible.

Vacuuming papers
Archive staff clean a batch of cards labelled “Detective Forces.” (Xeni Jardin / CC)

With the help of the Swiss government, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office had hired more than two hundred people to protect, restore, and gradually organize the archive. The first massive task that faced the staff was to ensure the safety of the documents by eliminating vermin, repairing leaks, and providing security. The next step was to clear enough space in the archive for the archivists to begin wading through the documents. Lighting and flooring were installed, rooms were cleared of vermin and trash, and the documents—some of them, anyway—were stored in cardboard boxes. With every task still only partially complete, the archive staff acquired six scanners and began scanning the documents as quickly as possible, working in two shifts from seven in the morning to two in the afternoon and from two to eight thirty. Their urgent pace testified to the project’s uncertain future: the documents were decaying before their eyes. And they worked with the constant knowledge that many in Guatemala would have preferred the archive to remain undiscovered. What if certain documents disappeared or, worse, the tentative government protection for the project vanished? By August 2007 the archive staff had already scanned more than 3.5 million documents. A data-collection project directed by an American nonprofit, Benetech, was simultaneously underway. Gathering about one hundred and fifty samples a week, Benetech planned to create a “map” of the archive’s content. Eventually, the hope was that the archive would be completely organized and accessible to the public.

“But we’re still a long way away from that,” Alberto warned me, as we walked toward the archive. He told me that I would see for myself the poor state of the archive and the mountains—literally—of work that stood in the way. “I can’t promise you we’ll find anything,” Alberto said, pulling out his phone. “But let me just make a call.” The person he was calling answered. “Listen, it’s me,” he said. “Do you happen to know where those papers went—the ones on Mario Silva Jonama?”

Mario’s name, I came to realize as I spent more time with my Guatemalan family, meant something rather different to everyone. To his siblings, who came of age in the Arévalo–Arbenz era and lived through Mario’s disappearance, Mario is a beloved brother; he is also a cherished reminder of the idealism belonging to a lost era. His sister Marina, a woman now in her seventies, discusses politics with all the wisdom that comes from having been a schoolteacher for decades and from possessing the ardent conviction that the world can be put right. But in the current Guatemalan political context, framed by the Central American Free Trade Agreement and drug cartels and government corruption, the principles that found expression in the Arévalo–Arbenz years have come to seem painfully outdated and even quaint. Those who have survived from Mario’s generation have not only lost their leaders, but they have also lost much of their political and cultural currency. Their children, raised during decades of military repression, have found safety and success by making neoliberalism their guiding political principle. To them, Mario’s name is best separated from the gross miscalculation that occasioned his disappearance. He is remembered for his person, not his politics.

I remember vividly a family gathering in Guatemala that took place when I was a teenager. We’d arrived—my mother, my American father, my brother, and I—for one of our occasional visits, and my mother’s family had organized the customary celebration of impressive proportions. Already inspired with curiosity about Mario, I had decided to interrogate his son—my cousin Sergio—about family history. Sergio was much older than I and had three daughters of his own close to my age; he had the tact to draw me aside to show me some photographs and a couple of books. When the dozen or so children in the family crowded around us out of curiosity, Sergio took it in stride and led us all outside for a chat. We sat on a green lawn near the house that had a sharp angle to it, so that we ended up dotted around Sergio on the grass like sheep. Cautious, somber, and a little apologetic, Sergio told us a bit about who his father had been. None of it was new to me, since I’d heard some version of it many times from my mother. But I could see that it was totally new to the others around me. A boy my age—one of Mario’s grandchildren—interrupted Sergio at one point. “Are you saying,” he asked, with an expression of incredulity and faint dislike, “that grandfather was a Communist?

A single question baffles everyone who hears about the archive: Why has it survived?

Members of my Guatemalan family remember Mario’s name differently because they have a different conception of what it means to investigate the recent past. The 1996 peace accords did little to fundamentally alter the climate of fear that became pervasive in the 1970s and 1980s. People will most often not delve into the past at all, believing that the greatest safety lies in silence. There is a cost to such silence: while Mario’s name might still be spoken, the terms by which he was valued cannot be. As those terms remain silent their meaning fades or, worse, becomes reshaped by others. The very word communism has been transformed since Mario’s death; it is no wonder his grandson recoils upon hearing it.

But the costs of speaking can be even higher. Guatemalans who have looked into the disappearances of family or friends have faced all manner of obstacles or dangers, including death threats. Archbishop Juan Gerardi’s murder in 1998, undoubtedly linked to his supervising an expansive historical inquiry into the armed conflict, is only the most famous example of many. In other words, studying the past or even speaking about it in a certain way, as my cousin Sergio made clear, is a charged political act. The decision to investigate the recent past affects your safety and your family’s safety, and it is not made lightly.

In contrast, the worst consequence of studying recent Guatemalan history in the United States is insignificance. Readers who look beyond the borders of the United States are drawn to many histories and many places; Guatemala is only one among them. Considering the trivial costs, it is little wonder that my early curiosity unfolded so casually into a full-fledged research commitment. It’s only a wonder that anyone in Guatemala, where the costs are so high, demonstrates any visible interest in the recent past at all. By the rules of the game established over the last half-century, no one should ask questions about the past, and places like the police archive should not even exist.

A single question baffles everyone who hears about the archive: Why has it survived? Alberto Fuentes hypothesizes that the police couldn’t destroy their archive, believing that someday the archive would offer the best proof that the Guatemalan police had saved the country from Communism. For a historian who studies archives, this theory has great appeal. It suggests that the police force preserved the archive, with its millions of documents detailing disappearances and deaths, because they considered its contents valuable.

The alternative explanation is that the archive survived precisely because the police did not find its contents valuable. Nothing in it was worth taking care of—and nothing in it was worth destroying, either. The archive documents were allowed to accumulate and decompose, much as the piled-up cars beside them were allowed to rust and fall to pieces. Doing anything about them was simply too much of a bother. It seems clear that over the last hundred years, both explanations have been apt at different moments. During periods of intense police activity, archival documents were likely well preserved, continually updated, and literally treasured. During periods of political and institutional transition, archival documents became something less than treasure, and they drifted into neglect.

The only people who bothered with the archive during its recent period of neglect were Ana Corado and the other policewomen consigned to it. They had been demoted from other jobs within the police force, assigned to the archive essentially as punishment. Given no orders or supplies to maintain the archive, the policewomen initially left the mounds of paper untouched. Every so often, people arrived to drop off more paper. The stacks of identity papers and police records grew higher. Though the police force was nominally a new one—the Policía Nacional was formally disbanded in 1997 because of its involvement in the armed conflict—the revamped Policía Nacional Civil necessarily continued many of the prior organization’s practices. Alongside papers from 1910 or 1960, there might be papers from 2000 or 2005. Finally, overwhelmed by the mounting documents, Ana Corado and the other policewomen decided to spend their own money on twine, paper, and pens to contain the disorder. Gathering the papers into bundles by year, they tied and marked each, saving many from ruin.

Stacks of documents fill a room
Sorted documents are stacked to the ceilings. (Robert Guerra / CC)

After the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was given permission to work in the archive, the policewomen remained as caretakers, and Alberto Fuentes led me to meet Ana Corado before taking me anywhere else. Ana wore glasses and a heavy cotton uniform of navy blue. Her manner was almost demure, and she accepted Alberto’s compliments on her work for the archive with a quick, shy look at her desk. By that time, she had been at the archive for twenty years, and her attachment to her work was obvious. With a pained smile, Ana told me that she’d gotten into trouble with her superiors when the ombudsman’s team arrived. She was accused of bringing “friends” to the archive.

She followed us, quietly watchful, as we turned to the rooms full of documents in the building behind her. Alberto’s description of the archive had not entirely prepared me for what I saw, though it had been accurate. We were confronted by a labyrinth of concrete and paper. Bundles of documents were piled ten to fifteen feet high on the dirt floor. The piles were precariously balanced against one another, tipping in places, and packed into the room from the back to the doorway. Some of the windowless rooms were lit with lightbulbs that hung from the cavernous ceilings. Others were entirely dark, and the piles of whitish paper gleamed dully from within them like yellowing hills leading nowhere. The air smelled damp and musty; some of the paper was still rotting. We walked into one tiny cement room after another, each full of tumbling piles of paper, and then we wound our way toward the back of the building. Alberto opened a door and ushered me into a small room. There were more piles of paper, and a large table, and three archivists who sat at the table wearing surgical masks and reading. One by one they glanced up at us, murmured through their masks, and calmly continued turning pages.

Alberto led me upstairs, where the documents were in their second, marginally more organized, incarnation. Boxes labeled by year filled the heavy shelves that stood against every wall. On a broad sheet of paper tacked to one of the support pillars, someone had written an organization scheme in red marker. The boxes of documents that didn’t fit on the shelves were arranged throughout the room in fragmented, shoulder-high barriers. As we turned the corner of one such barrier, and then another, we came across more masked archivists engaged in their silent work. They held their documents up before them, tilting them to best advantage in the faint sunlight.

As we climbed down the steps on our way to the adjoining wing that had once housed explosives, Alberto’s phone rang. “No?” I heard him ask in a low voice. “Where else have you looked? All right—let me know.” He turned to me. “Nothing yet, but they’re still looking.” He smiled, and I suddenly realized that the chances of finding any papers on Mario were slim. The article I’d seen had been published before work on the archive had even begun. In the massive reshuffling of paper that had occurred over the last two years, how likely was it that they’d kept track of one sheet among eighty million? “Come,” Alberto said, ushering me into the doorway of the neighboring building, “you’ll see the scanners.”

Tile flooring had been installed in the long hallway of the former explosives warehouse, and beyond the small reception desk several large scanners were lined up against the wall. Three people were working at each one, feeding the documents into the scanner and capturing their digital images. In a small nook off of the main hallway stood two book-scanners. I spoke to the woman working one of them who was slowly scanning the pages of a record book six inches thick; I asked how long it would take her. She smiled. “I’ve been scanning it for two days,” she said.

To the left of the corridor full of scanners, the archive staff had slowly carved out workspaces: conference rooms, offices, and workrooms with long flat tables for reading and filing documents. In these rooms the archive gave some indication of the busy workplace—with ordinary tasks and coffee breaks and long hours at the computer—that it would someday be. But to the right of the hallway full of scanners, the building gave way to another warren of narrow cement rooms full of boxed paper. “This,” Alberto says, lowering his voice as we walked through it, “is what we call el laberinto”—the labyrinth. When the building was first discovered, the ombudsman’s team found the closed-off cluster of rooms at the heart of it ominously empty. There was only one entryway—a tiny door—which they hastily bricked up. The archive staff felt too uneasy walking through it, and new doors had to be cut into the walls. “What atrocities have been committed here?” Alberto asked me. “There was no lighting here, no floor. It was just an empty maze of cement rooms. And in one of the rooms they found empty shells.”

Worker handling documents
An archive employee examines a stack of documents. (Xeni Jardin / CC).

The rooms of el laberinto were filled with yellow light and stacked high with paper. In one room, which contained the documentation from Guatemala’s most infamous police precinct, Cuerpo 2, the voluminous papers had not yet been entirely transferred to boxes; some lay still untouched in heavy plastic sacks. Alberto related that after the discovery of the archive, the ombudsman’s office had set about collecting archival material from the other police precincts in the city. At the offices of Cuerpo 2, they were told that their entire archive consisted of the two boxes in the bathroom. The ombudsman’s team repeatedly returned to Cuerpo 2 after that first unsatisfactory visit; eventually they noticed the peculiar placement of one of the walls in the precinct’s office. Cuerpo 2 had disposed of its archive by walling it up. Behind the wall lay three hundred record books and seven hundred sacks of paper.

As we stepped out of el laberinto through one of the new doors, Alberto’s phone rang again. “Yes? Well, keep looking,” I heard him say. He didn’t reassure me this time. Instead, he pointed down the damp corridor toward a bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. “Wait until you see this.” As far as I could tell we were in a corridor between the two large buildings that housed the archive. We walked along the packed-dirt floor and around large puddles. When we turned the corner I saw an opening in the wall that looked onto a pile of rusting cars, and I realized that the corridor had wound its way toward the back of the building.

Surely part of coming to terms with the past—the intimate, personal past—involves understanding how little of it can be captured on paper.

“Look,” Alberto said, drawing me away from the sight of the cars. “This is what we found when we came here.” Off of the corridor was another passageway, and a pile of garbage sagged against one of its walls. For a moment I wasn’t sure why Alberto had brought me to see a pile of garbage, and then I realized that the garbage consisted mostly of documents. Mixed in with food wrappers and soda containers were the pale white and yellow records of the Guatemalan police. A name jumped out at me and I looked away, repelled by the sense that I was seeing what I had no right to see; there were probably thousands of such names in the garbage pile.

“There’s a view from the roof,” Alberto said. We returned the way we’d come, through the dirt corridor, and then we turned the corner into a wide, semi-open space between the two archive buildings. A pile of furniture—desks, chairs, file cabinets—lay in the mud near flights of unfinished cement stairs. We ascended, passing a man in a crushed swivel chair who was taking a cigarette break. He smiled and nodded as we climbed past him all the way up to the fourth floor. From there we could see the long black patches of roof repair and the skeletal frame of what would have been the top floor of the hospital. The difference between something cut short before completion and something long ruined seemed imperceptible from the rooftop. Beyond the unfinished walls lay hundreds of disintegrating cars, and beyond the cars a city that was growing larger and more populous by the day. I could see crowded settlements built into the hillsides that teetered uncertainly between expansion and ruin.

We spent some time on the rooftop, talking about the incredible store of documents under our feet, and then we made our way down the stairs. Alberto led me back to the receptionist’s desk, and he asked me to sign a guest book. The member of the archive staff must have given Alberto some sign, because then Alberto reached into the desk drawer and drew out a small stack of large, yellowing note cards. Without smiling, Alberto handed them to me across the desk. “We’ve found Mario’s documents,” he said.

The part of me trained as a historian knows that there are no “spectacular” documents, as Alberto calls them. What would historians do if documents told perfect stories? I suspect that, like me, most historians would end up turning elsewhere in search of those imperfect fragments that give the historian’s work its sense of purpose. But upon seeing Mario’s name on a sheet of yellowing paper, my training as a historian was forgotten. I forgot about the unreliability and opacity of documents and the pleasure of working through them. I was looking for a discovery; I was looking for something true. When the years of renovation and recovery are over and the archive is finally open to the public, hundreds of people will enter it looking for the same things. No matter how cautiously they approach the archive, they will arrive with enormous expectations. I like to think that this will change the way those people view archives—and history. Arriving with tremendous hopes, they will come away having seen two documents, or fifty, or one hundred that outline the cryptic edges of an unknown story. Surely part of coming to terms with the past—the intimate, personal past—involves understanding how little of it can be captured on paper.

It was past two when I left the archive to meet my parents for lunch. We didn’t speak about where I’d been as we rode in the taxi to my aunt Marina’s house. When we arrived Marina promptly rushed us to the table for lunch. We ate energetically—it was nearly three—and as we finished Marina’s daughter-in-law arrived. We sat awhile longer with the empty plates before us. I found myself thinking about my cousin Sergio and the political nature of speaking about the past. Of course he was right; I was on the verge of doing something political and potentially disruptive to the people sitting with me. I realized that my throat was constricting from nervousness, and I decided it would be better to speak before I got so nervous that I wasn’t able to. “I was wondering,” I said, “if you’d like to hear what I found about Mario at the archive.” The four people sitting at the table stopped speaking. My father looked at me with a pained, noncommittal expression, as if to say that it wasn’t up to him. Marina and her daughter-in-law looked worriedly down at their plates. My mother struggled with what I knew was a powerful wave of apprehension, and for a moment she wouldn’t meet my eye. “Yes,” she said, composing her face. “Tell us what you found.”

“It’s not what you might expect,” I said. “There’s no admission of guilt or concrete information about what happened to him. What they found is his police record. I transcribed it.” I looked at them anxiously, still unsure. “Should I read it?”

The decision had already been made. My mother urged me on.

The police record for Mario Alfredo Silva Jonama consists of four note cards with typed entries listing dates and police action taken on those dates:

  • . . . July 24, 1954: The President’s office declares that the above stated has been given orders not to seek asylum in Mexico.
  • January 28, 1955: His capture is ordered. He is not found.
  • October 28, 1955: His home is searched. Nothing is found.
  • November 14, 1955: The Judicial Guard indicates that he reentered the country.
  • April 3, 1956: Minister of Foreign Relations: permission is granted for his wife to reenter the country . . .
  • November 25, 1958: Various branches: a note is made of his address.
  • October 10, 1960: The chief of police reports on activities against the government on the part of the above stated and on the part of others who plan to overthrow the government.
  • March 11, 1961: Minister of the Interior reports that he is not found in this country.
  • April 8, 1961: Various branches—orders by the central committee.
  • October 6, 1961: Various branches—appears listed as Communist.
  • July 12, 1964: Judiciary Department—traveled beyond the Iron Curtain to Cuba, list of 219 Communists.
  • July 12, 1964: Judiciary Department—forms part of the PGT party.
  • March 9, 1967: Judiciary Department—search of premises where the above stated was said to reside, nothing suspicious was found.
  • June 11, 1969: Central Office—anonymous letter accuses the above stated of describing enemies as puppets and traitors. Photographs are attached. . . .
  • November 27, 1970: Minister of Defense—notes the receipt of a copy of anonymous letter sent to this office indicating that he goes by the pseudonym “Samuel.”
  • September 27, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • September 27, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • September 30, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 4, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 5, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 5, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 5, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 5, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 6, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 6, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 6, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 11, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 13, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 17, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 17, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • October 26, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • December 12, 1972: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.
  • September 12, 1975: Information is released that he is not detained by this office, nor has he been captured by any branch of the same.

My mother and Marina interrupted occasionally as I read the log, identifying the dates by what they remembered of each event. “That’s when he returned from Mexico.” “See that proves—the other time they arrested him under a pseudonym they never knew it was him. It’s not on his record.” There was a certain elation that came with connecting the dates to their own recollections. But by the time I finished reading the eighteen entries on inquiries made by family and friends after Mario’s disappearance, the weight of what the note cards contained—or perhaps the weight of what they didn’t contain—seemed to oppress us all. I suddenly felt that I’d done the wrong thing by reading the police record aloud to them. I’d brought them painful memories but no answers. Everything on the police record was something they’d known before.

“I really wish it said something more,” I said.

“It says a lot. It confirms what they were doing,” my mother said.

“That’s true,” I said. “And it’s just his police record. They might find more. The archive has eighty million pages of documents.”

My aunt Marina took this in. “Eighty million pages of documents. Think of that,” she said admiringly, as if marveling at the towering achievement of those diligent police officers who had handwritten or typed page after page over so many decades. Though she couldn’t see the mountainous piles of paper they had produced to fill the cement rooms of the archive, she seemed to easily see the few papers in their midst that bore Mario’s name in one corner. “Of course they’ll find more.”


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