Carmody on Weld, 'Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala'

Kirsten Weld
Michelle Carmody

Kirsten Weld. Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. American Encounters/Global Interactions Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. xvi + 335 pp. $26.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-8223-7658-3; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5602-8; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-5597-7.

Reviewed by Michelle Carmody (Leiden University) Published on H-LatAm (March, 2017) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

In critical studies of archives, it has become commonplace to cite Jacques Derrida’s phrase that “there is no political power without control of the archive ... [and] effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation” (p. 16). Kirsten Weld takes this as a departure point but moves on to examine a related question, namely, what the process of (re)constructing an archive tells us about the political context in which this (re)construction is carried out. She does this by examining the creation of the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional (Historical Archives of the National Police, AHPN) in Guatemala, a collection of documents taken from the police archives where they were “discovered” in a state of decay and disorder and subsequently restored, organized, and rehoused in the internationally funded AHPN. If democratization can be measured by access to the archive, Weld shows how this access came about, and how this process of opening the archive shapes the quality of democracy.

The book is organized in four parts. The first examines the immediate context of the (re)discovery of the documents and the commencement of the project to restore them and create the AHPN. The second returns to the period of repression to look at the construction of the document collection itself, as well as the development of the National Police, the institution that created the documents. Part 3 looks at the role of the construction of the AHPN in sociopolitical processes in the postwar period, focusing on the experiences of those involved in the project. And part 4 concludes the book by evaluating the impact of the completed archival recovery project on the postwar sociopolitical horizon in Guatemala and on other human rights and transitional justice initiatives locally

This is a work of ethnographic history, mixing ethnography of the project to reconstruct an archive in the years 2005-9 with archival work on the creation of the original document collection in the 1960s and 70s. The book illustrates the shifts in values and beliefs on the part of various groups involved in the reconstruction of the archive, from ex-revolutionaries to a younger generation of human rights activists and even police archivists themselves. It charts the way these actors reevaluate their memories and understandings of the revolutionary struggle and the period of state repression, at the same time as they reevaluate their understanding of relations between different groups in society in the post-authoritarian period.

This is the major contribution of Weld’s work: she shows that the synthetic process of creating the archives, reorganizing the documents from a logic of counterinsurgency to a logic of “agency and aperture” (p. 31), can be seen as a parallel for the transformation of society in the postwar period. Part 3, “Archives and Social Reconstruction in Guatemala,” explores this process. In this section, we see how the older generation of project workers struggled to work alongside the police and how the younger generation of activists within the project were confronted with things like working under a professional management structure and accepting foreign funding. Working together on a common goal—the reconstruction of the archives—allowed each of these groups to develop an understanding of each other. This is the synthesis that is produced when Cold War archives were transformed into postwar archives, a process that, she argues, is an example of bottom-up democratization and social reconstruction. Through an ethnographic account of a grassroots project, Weld shows us that transitions are created from the bottom-up, rather than top-down.

An associated argument that Weld makes is that archives and archival surveillance should be integrated into the study of the Cold War. Part 2, “Archives and Counterinsurgency in Guatemala,” looks specifically at the Cold War period and supports this argument by recounting the assistance offered by US development agencies to help the Guatemalan National Police address their poor organizational infrastructure, including their lack of attention to record keeping. In this section, she draws on the archives of the International Cooperation Administration (ICA, the predecessor of USAID) to show that the US saw record keeping as directly contributing to their ability to control subversion. She demonstrates a clear link between this goal, which necessitated a strengthening of the capacity of the security forces and the technical assistance the ICA provided in the realm of record keeping. This is a clearly substantiated and illustrated argument which calls for further consideration of the types of everyday, mundane technical development assistance that was used to wage the Cold War in Latin America and beyond. She shows us that technical assistance, including that of record keeping, functioned as an extremely effective conduit for the transfer of ideas and the reshaping of ideology through the reshaping of practice.

Weld’s purpose in conducting this ethnography was, as she eloquently puts it, “to document the process, not process the documents” (p. 23). This marks her contribution as distinct from the other studies that have emerged in recent years of recovered counterinsurgency and police archives across Latin America. These studies draw on declassified and (re)discovered materials to write new histories of the Cold War and state repression in the region. Her work goes beyond this and sits comfortably alongside Duke’s other critical and reflexive monographs on archives.[1] While most critical work on archives looks at colonial archives, Weld extends these insights into both Cold War archives and postwar archives.

With this book Weld seeks to examine the process by which Guatemalans make sense of both the physical records of the past and of their memories of that past, analyzing this process for traces of articulations about the future. Her ethnography deftly achieves this, while at the same time it demonstrates the applicability of theoretical reflections on archives to new contexts, and expands our critical understanding of the Cold War and of the postwar in Guatemala. This book is therefore recommended for researchers interested in expanding their understanding of either of these two periods—the Cold War or the postwar period—with theoretical insights that can and should be tested in other contexts.


[1]. Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Antoinette Burton, ed., Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

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Citation: Michelle Carmody. Review of Weld, Kirsten, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL:

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