Radical acts of organization: Veronica Arreola

by Veronica Arreola, activist blogger, University of Illinois at Chicago

Guatemala is a country struggling to deal with its bloody past in order to move into the future. The internal conflict of the 1980s resulted in the extinction of over 300 Mayan villages. Former President Efraín Ríos Montt was recently ordered to stand trial on charges of genocide based on his command of the Guatemalan military that carried out a scorched earth strategy.  Despite the overwhelming evidence, most based on a truth commission begun after the 1996 peace accord, many in Guatemala deny any genocide occurred.

The evidence is laid out in a 2012 documentary, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, which was directed by a fellow delegate Pamela Yates. In Granito, Yates discusses how bits of her filming of the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980s was used as evidence in the Rios Montt trial, including a damning clip of him boasting about having total control of the military. Also in Granito is a scene about the discovery of a secret archive, now called the Historic Archives of the National Police (Archivos Históricos de la Policia Nacional, also know as the AHPN), containing mountains of paperwork detailing the atrocities committed by the police. I immediately thought of a public administration classmate of mine. One of Andy’s interests is “administrative evil” and how it could be predicted. I heard him talk about it last year and the more he talked, the more it intrigued me.

Within days I found myself at the Historic Archives of the National Police standing next to a pile of papers taller than I am. Our tour guide started us in a room where papers are still in bundles. It was like a scene from “Indiana Jones.” Creepy and exhilarating. “So much information is here…at my feet,” I thought.

Then he told me what would become the factoid for the entire trip.

The women who worked at the archive were sent there as punishment for refusing sexual harassment and advances. While at the archive, the women did an excellent job at sorting the massive piles of paperwork that came in. Sure they just piled them onto each other, but it could had been worse. Thus, instead of finding a treasure trove of paper stacked upon paper, investigators found neatly bundled papers, some labeled by month and year, stacked upon each other. Can you imagine the time saved by archivists by this one radical act of organization? I love that the women sent there as punishment made it easier for forensic archivists to do their work. Their work may result in criminal convictions, but perhaps more importantly it will certainly resolve the whereabouts of thousands of disappeared Guatemalans.

I get a lot of chuckles and weird looks when I tell people that I am studying public administration or how the bureaucracy works or doesn’t work. I am curious about what happens after policy and laws are written. I am curious about that grey area between what the words say in a law and the reality people operate in. The question of how much discretion one has as a public administrator is hotly debated in our classes. What do you do when the law says one thing, but you see a bit of wiggle room to do what you think is “the right thing?” The trip to the Historic Archives of the National Police gave me a tangible example of bureaucracy in action. For thirty years the horror of war and genocide were documented neatly on pieces of paper. Twenty years later those same bits of red tape are being used to build a case against a dictator. And that’s nothing to laugh about.

View photos of the delegation’s visit to the Archivos Históricos de la Policia Nacional of Guatemala.