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Guatemala’s renowned Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) is in crisis after its director Gustavo Meoño Brenner was abruptly removed in one of a series of recent actions orchestrated by the Guatemalan government and a United Nations office. The actions also placed the AHPN’s remaining staff of more than fifty people on temporary contract, and transferred oversight for the repository from the country’s national archives, where it had functioned since 2009, to the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Meoño learned of his removal on Friday, August 3, when a convoy of government vehicles pulled up in front of the Police Archive, and officials from the Culture Ministry and the Guatemalan office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) entered, demanding that he leave. “The operation was executed with all the characteristics of a commando strike,” one press account reported.
The unexpected move threatens to jeopardize the stability of the AHPN’s enormous collection of fragile National Police documents. Since their discovery in an abandoned and deteriorating state on a Guatemala City police base in 2005, hundreds of volunteers and paid employees have cycled through the AHPN under Meoño’s leadership to clean, organize, scan, and make public over twenty million pages of the estimated 8 linear kilometers of paper records. A UNDP employee with no experience in archival management has been named to replace Meoño as director.
Historically, the UNDP played an important role in the creation of the Police Archive. Its Guatemala office administered millions of dollars in donations granted to the AHPN by foreign governments and the United Nations. The office provided technical assistance, political advice, and administrative support. It was also a frequent ally to the AHPN during several difficult periods in the course of the archive’s growth and development.
Yet in a press release issued on the Sunday after Meoño’s ouster, the UNDP failed to explain its decision to push the long-time director out, beyond stating that his contract had ended and would not be renewed. The release is written in bland, bureaucratic language that provides no detailed plans for the future management of the Police Archive beyond ensuring that it is “strengthened in its institutionality and sustainability.”
For the National Security Archive, Meoño’s abrupt removal, the decision to shift oversight of the AHPN out from under the careful stewardship of Ana Carla Ericastillo – director of the national archives of Guatemala – to the untested Ministry of Culture and Sports, and the UNDP’s refusal to provide dozens of long-time staff members with reasonable working contracts are deeply troubling developments.
The National Security Archive has an association with the Historical Archive of the National Police that goes back to the AHPN’s beginning. The Archive’s Kate Doyle and Carlos Osorio had the privilege of visiting the site of the massive Police Archive just weeks after it was discovered in July 2005. They witnessed firsthand the awesome task that faced Meoño and his colleagues to rescue a treasure trove of historic documentation that was rotting with mold after years of neglect. Doyle went on to advise the AHPN project, bringing professional archivist Dr. Trudy Peterson conduct an initial assessment of the collection, and then worked with the AHPN to develop investigative skills to identify evidence of human rights abuses. Today, Doyle serves on the AHPN’s International Advisory Board.