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Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (American Encounters/Global Interactions) Paperback – March 21, 2014
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About the Author
Kirsten Weld is Assistant Professor of History at Harvard University.
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Top Customer Reviews
It is an astonishing and utterly compelling book, a history about which too few people know anything--the U.S.-sponsored or organized surveillance, disappearance, torture, murder, and genocide of Guatemalans during the 20th century. Weld tells this story as the framework for the recovery and reconstitution of a terror archive--the Guatemalan National Police archives, discovered in 2007--and that archive's ongoing transformation from a tool of repression to one of recovery and reckoning.
Beautifully written and very wise. Buy it.
For many Guatemalans, these official documents hold the promise of closure: disclosing what happened to their family members. However, as Weld emphasizes archives aren't just there for us to simply "download" or extract information from. They must be organized/mediated, and contain gaps and errors. She provides an in-depth background of how the archive was initially kept in order to surveil and scare individuals into submission (people did not want to be marked or placed in a police file), and she discusses the National Police's role in the disappearances. Weld then moves on to discuss how activists took up the 75 million documents, decades later, taking on the daunting task of ordering them. They also repurposed the documents as a took to seek social justice and democracy; in essence, they turned the archive into a threat for state authorities because they hold incriminating information.
Why it's important: Weld's study is the first of its kind to investigate the archives of the nation that initiated the practice of forced disappearance in Latin America. It is also significant because the disappearances in the city remain relatively understudied compared to the massacres/genocide that occurred in the highlands.
+ Thorough, relevant, exciting study
-> Please keep in mind that this book is written with an academic audience in mind; prior knowledge about theories of the archive helpful, but anyone can get a lot out of this.
OVERALL GREAT BOOK. I will definitely read it over a few times because it is rich with detail.
Weld explores in her book the history of Guatemalan state-sponsored terror, focusing on the organizational structures that were necessary to commit it. What makes her research so chilling is that while the violence was completed by armed soldiers, police, and extra-judiciary volunteers, there were also people who took photographs and wrote out note cards about specific targets - many of the targets being teenaged students - and filed everything perfectly. This is the aspect that Weld dives into and that makes her book so unique and terrifying: it was like reading about the inner workings of the police-state found in "1984". Without such meticulous files kept by the state, an entire generation of Guatemalan activists may not have been tortured, disappeared, and murdered.
Kirsten Weld’s account of the fragile, tedious, and dangerous work reconstituting Guatemala’s national police archives is a story that, at first glance, would seem to appeal to a minute audience. However the stories within will interest anyone who seeks tangible details on Cold War barbarism in South America, the devastating permanent shockwaves of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century, or the deadly vacuum left when democracy fails and a corporate-backed authoritarian government fills that void.
The circumstances surrounding the treasure trove that are the national police archives are fascinating by themselves. But the process of organizing, preserving, rescuing, and defending something so delicate (bundles of paper left to the elements sometimes literally dissolving in the hands of those who touched them) all the while the project seemed to be teetering on the brink of catastrophes from Molotov cocktail attacks to political pressure to making payroll for the archivists involved, creates for an awesome and suspenseful tale.