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Weekend Read: Guatemalan Judge Orders New Trials Based on Death Squad Dossier, Obtained by NSArchive

May 20, 2022

By Claire Harvey 

Exactly 23 years ago on May 20, 1999, the National Security Archive published the “Diario Militar”, a detailed document also known as the “Death Squad Dossier” that was smuggled out of Guatemala. The unique document, whose release the Archive announced jointly with the Washington Office on Latin America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Human Rights Watch,  describes atrocities committed by the Guatemalan military during an 18-month period of the country’s protracted civil war. Two decades later, the document is still making an impact – on May 6, 2022, Guatemalan judge Magistrate Miguel Angel Galvez, using documentation from the “Diario Militar”, ruled that nine former military and police officers will stand trial for civil crimes committed during the war

The individuals who will now stand trial are implicated for civil crimes by the positions they held between 1983-1986. Magistrate Galvez also ordered prosecutors to find the former head of military intelligence, Toribio Acevedo, who was subsequently arrested on May 10, 2022, at Panama City Airport. Since the May 6, 2022, ruling, AP reports that Magistrate Galvez has received multiple death threats. 

The historic act of transitional justice (which addresses massive human rights violations) builds on documentation from the “Diario Militar”, or Death Squad Dossier. The Dossier served as a ledger of sorts for Guatemalan military and intelligence units to record death squad operations between 1982 and 1985. The 54-page document was smuggled from Guatemalan army intelligence files and chronicles the kidnapping and disappearances during the height of the conflict, and includes photos of the victims and coded references to the executions of scores of Guatemalan citizens. The document offers a snapshot of how the Guatemalan military used assassination, torture, and abduction to terrorize the Guatelaman left throughout Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. By the time peace accords were signed in 1996, it is estimated that 160,000 people were killed and another 40,000 were “disappeared” by Guatemalan security forces. 

In the 23 years since the document was published, families of the disappeared have repeatedly called for investigations into the crimes outlined in the document and searches for their loved ones’ remains. Their efforts were aided when further documentation of the Guatemalan security forces crimes was discovered in 2005, when Guatemalan police, following complaints about improperly stored explosives in a long-neglected munitions depot in Guatemala City, found 75 million pages in file cabinets marked “disappearances” “assassinations” and “homicide”. The documents, long abandoned and in an advanced state of decay, are discussed in the Archive’s November 21, 2005, post, “The Guatemalan Police Archives.” 

The Dossier has helped bring justice and accountability multiple times over the years:

  • On April 25, 2012, the Archive’s Kate Doyle provided expert witness testimony before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of the Diario Militar; the testimony is published in the Archive’s  May 3, 2012, posting, “Update: The Guatemalan Death Squad Diary and the Right to Truth.” The court ultimately found the Guatemalan government responsible for the crimes outlined in the document and failure to investigate them. 

Follow upcoming Archive web postings for more details on the new trial. 

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