Archival Science

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 27–54 | Cite as

On or off the record? Detecting patterns of silence about death in Guatemala’s National Police Archive

  • Tamy Guberek
  • Margaret Hedstrom
Original Paper


This paper investigates how the production of police records was linked to the policies of repression and violence during Guatemala’s civil war. We provide empirical evidence from the Historical Archive of the Guatemalan National Police that the police used language, terminology and codes to record deaths in ways that produced silences about the level of violence during the height of repressive military rule. Using a dataset derived from a statistically valid sample of police records together with qualitative archival analysis, we find evidence of profound changes in the terminology used to record and report on deaths—changes that follow a pattern consistent with the policies of information control and concealment of the three different military regimes that ruled Guatemala between 1978 and 1985. We argue that researchers will need to consider the silences created through the selective use of terminology in documents when using archives to produce historical knowledge. Detecting and intercepting silence will be especially important as state records are increasingly sought in service of ongoing pursuits for truth and justice about past atrocities.


Guatemala Sampling in archives Silences Police archives Violence Human rights 



The authors wish to acknowledge the hard work by the leadership and staff at the AHPN over the past decade. They also wish to recognize the Human Rights Data Analysis Group for their leadership in the archival sampling project and their efforts in preparing the AHPN quantitative dataset. A special thanks to David Wallace, Tanya Harmer, Daniel Guzmán, Patrick Ball, Kirsten Weld, Ciaran Trace, John Ciorciari, Claudia Carolina López and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

National Science Foundation (US), Open Data IGERT (Grant No. 0903629).

Authors' contribution

TG conducted the research and the analysis in this paper. With colleagues at HRDAG, she co-led the design, collection and preparation of the probabilistically sampled data from the AHPN. MH provided the comparative framework on sampling in archives and assisted with writing in this version of the paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of InformationUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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