In Paper Cadavers
, an inside account of the astonishing discovery and rescue of Guatemala's secret police archives, Kirsten Weld probes the politics of memory, the wages of the Cold War, and the stakes of historical knowledge production. After Guatemala's bloody thirty-six years of civil war (1960–1996), silence and impunity reigned. That is, until 2005, when human rights investigators stumbled on the archives of the country's National Police, which, at 75 million pages, proved to be the largest trove of secret state records ever found in Latin America.
The unearthing of the archives renewed fierce debates about history, memory, and justice. In Paper Cadavers, Weld explores Guatemala's struggles to manage this avalanche of evidence of past war crimes, providing a firsthand look at how postwar justice activists worked to reconfigure terror archives into implements of social change. Tracing the history of the police files as they were transformed from weapons of counterinsurgency into tools for post-conflict reckoning, Weld sheds light on the country's fraught transition from war to an uneasy peace, reflecting on how societies forget and remember political violence.
"Kirsten Weld's book is a tremendous achievement, chronicling the improbable, stunning, and heroic recovery of a lost archive of repression in Guatemala while recounting the story of a society trying to save itself. If the police files are the cold, bureaucratic residue of the counterinsurgent state, Weld's tale glows with the lives, loss, hopes, and fierce political commitment of the archivist-activists who dared to defy their country’s history of terror and dream of justice. Brilliant."
Kate Doyle, director of the Guatemala Documentation Project, The National Security Archive
“The book Weld has written, entitled Paper Cadavers: Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, is brilliant and engrossing, told with the passion the topic deserves…. A study of surveillance and secrecy and of the courageous few that expose that power, Paper Cadavers is a book for us all.”
Deborah T. Levenson
Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America
"Weld’s chronicle of their efforts is extraordinary, less about an archive as a historical information source and far more about an archive as a subject, a history-maker in its own right."
“One of the most compelling sections of the volume is Weld’s interviews with volunteers who worked in the archives and their motivations for doing so, including coming to terms with the experiences of disappeared relatives and friends. A thoughtful addition to the emerging discussion on understanding archives in the wake of human rights violations of repressive regimes. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.”
E. A. Novara
“What Weld offers is an updated, much more compelling and theoretically sophisticated case study of why popular historical knowledge and struggles over archives matter so much and the role a politically engaged scholar might play in the process.”
Julie A. Gibbings
Canadian Journal of History
“Paper Cadavers is not a compilation of the archives' contents but rather a meditation on the relationship between archives and national history, accompanied by an account of the transformation of a rotting warehouse into the scene for writing history, and an exploration of the perceptions of the people who carried out this work. . . . [B]rilliant and essential. . . .”
Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
"'Essential reading' is an apt way to sum up Paper Cadavers. The book weaves together issues of transitional justice, human rights, historical memory, and state terror. Rich in original insight, it is of equal use to scholars and students and promises to be much cited and assigned."
J. T. Way
Hispanic American Historical Review
“In a sense, Weld’s book isn’t really about history at all. It’s a book about a country that’s been run badly off the rails, where every day is characterized by appalling violence, impunity, and by state institutions that are either, as she puts it, “totally ineffectual or deeply enmeshed in organized crime.” But what you can’t help but wonder, thanks to Weld’s insightful and engrossing work, is how much better Guatemala’s situation might now be if it hadn’t lost generations of student leaders, trade unionists, intellectuals and idealists, the very kinds of people it needs to face its intractable problems.”
David Carey Jr.
“Future historians who consult the PN archives will benefit immensely from this fine-grained anatomy of it; more broadly, scholars of Latin America and other regions, too, will learn much from Paper Cadavers, particularly as they ponder how the production and organization of their sources affects their scholarship.”
"Weld’s publication is a serious contribution to archival literature. Weld places front and centre the activities carried out within the archival walls in human rights struggles. While this is about the police archives of Guatemala, it is also about archives in general and the sometimes strained and tenuous positions in which they find themselves in relation to the powers that fund, operate, and sanction them. Even for archivists who have visited the country or who live there, not only is it reaffirming to examine archival practice and theories in a very real world setting, seeing the challenges and benefits of our professional process through this particular lens, but it is also revelatory of our own subjectivity in what we do.”
“Weld's skillfully deployed ‘dialectical’ method makes a compelling case that historical research on such questions cannot take the constitution of the archive itself for granted. She has inspired us to explore the historical processes underlying the creation of the data we collect, while reflecting critically on the relationship between this data (including that which might have existed) and the core values that drive our research.”
American Historical Review
“Weld’s combination of academic rigor and inside access to the human-rights activism that propelled the project is an important subtheme woven throughout the text. The tension between these two roles also informs her central argument that the process of reconstructing the National Police Archive provides a lens through which scholars can better understand not only Guatemala’s armed conflict, but also the struggle to make sense of that conflict after it ended in 1996. . . . Paper Cadavers is a valuable contribution to the study of state-sponsored violence and historical memory, because Weld’s innovative questions focus not on the documents themselves but, rather, on the archive. In this sense, Paper Cadavers carves out its own space in a well-developed literature on Cold War violence in Latin America. . . . [T]he book’s clear writing makes it an option for advanced undergraduate courses that provide the necessary context for students to interpret her argument.”
History: Reviews of New Books
“Paper Cadavers is a creatively crafted combination of ethnography and historiography that demonstrates the complex process through which academic, national, and personal histories are produced in tandem. Kristen Weld fulfills the promise of interdisciplinarity by expertly combining the engaged anthropology of participants with the historian’s concentration on reconstructing narrative. . . . Paper Cadavers is a most welcome historical narrative, and not only because of the inherent excitement of its subject or even because it is accessible and readable to lay and expert audiences alike.”
M. Gabriela Torres
“Weld’s Paper Cadavers is a beautifully written, utterly absorbing history of the Guatemalan police archives. . . . Paper Cadavers is a model for rigorous, engaged scholarship: Weld herself worked as a volunteer on the project for six months, helping reconstruct the archives of counterinsurgency, and continues to be committed to the project. Her book is also highly readable.”
"Kirsten Weld’s Paper Cadavers is an extraordinary book. It is a multistranded tale of intrigue, of power, and of struggle skillfully woven together by the author.... Paper Cadavers is a first-rate work of history and historical production that importantly demonstrates the power of a rapprochement between anthropology and history."