THE POWER OF ARCHIVAL THINKING
n the dark a restless night during the late 1970s, a young Guatemalan
named Raúl Perera shot into wakefulness from a dream so unusual that he
it vividly thirty- ﬁve years later. He cannot quite recall the date.
He knows that it was after he joined the Guatemalan Workers’ Party (pgt), the
outlawed communist party, and became a vocal leader of his Guatemala City
trade union, but before the two attempts on his life that left a bullet scar along
his forearm, a close friend dead, and no option for him but to begin a long
exile in Mexico. Amid years of activism and war, that one night has haunted
Raúl ever since because it brought him a vision so fantastical that it verged on
the absurd. That night, his subconscious granted him entrance to a forbidden
space: the archives kept by his country’s feared National Police.1
Once inside, Raúl crept along the archives’ labyrinthine corridors in the
crepuscular light. He yanked open drawers and thumbed through ﬁle folders
thick with surveillance photographs of loved ones and reports detailing in-
formants’ inﬁltration of leftist groups. He mined the ﬁles, learning how the
police organized its death squads, what sorts of information they collected on
citizens, and what could be gleaned about the fates of disappeared comrades.
In Raúl’s waking life—which he spent dodging, not courting, the attention
of state security forces—such acts would have been inconceivable transgres-
sions, sure to be met with lethal retribution. Generations of dictators and
elites had long directed the National Police (pn) to suppress not only orga-
nized resistance but any and all forms of oppositional thinking, eventually
using it to help execute the Cold War counterinsurgency campaign for which
Guatemala will always be notorious. During that campaign, police adminis-
tered spy networks; they crushed demonstrations; they did the dirty work of
generals and political leaders; they followed, abducted, tortured, and killed.
With a terrifying blend of clumsiness and zeal, they targeted schoolteachers,
students, progressive priests, peasant farmers, social democratic politicians,
street children, and Marxist revolutionaries alike. Raúl was hardly the only
Guatemalan whose reveries the police tormented.