Skip to main content

Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

How Archives in Argentina Shed Light on Human Rights Abuses in El Salvador

Photo credit/Gai-Hoai Nguyen

June 20, 2024

Written by Nicole Grabiel

 

Nicole Grabiel

Nicole Grabiel joined UWCHR in fall 2022 as a student researcher and works with the Unfinished Sentences project to document human rights violations stemming from El Salvador’s armed conflict (1980–1992). Nicole is the recipient of both the 2024 UW Library Research Award for Undergraduates and the UW Department of History’s Thomas M. Power Endowed Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Essay for her thesis, “Nadie Ganaba / Nobody Won: El Salvador, Argentina, and the Transnational Roots of State Terror.”

Buenos Aires is hot in December. I knew this, theoretically at least, before UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) director Angelina Godoy, associate director Gai-Hoai Nguyen, and I boarded our flights to the Argentine capital. I had packed linen pants, my lightest tops, sunscreen, a water bottle, and my trusty pair of wayfarer sunglasses, but nothing could prepare me for the climatic shock that is hopscotching from Seattle’s cold and gloomy winters to spending all day in a small, sweltering reading room, windows shut to keep papers from flying away and the sun beating in. For all that I had read about and wrestled with history during my undergraduate career, I had never actually set foot in an archive. This one was smaller, dustier, and hotter than I had imagined, but as I stood there in the summer heat and stared down at the pages laid out before me, my only thought was “I’m here! I’m really here!”

We had traveled to Buenos Aires to consult a set of diplomatic cables relevant to Unfinished Sentences, the UW Center for Human Rights project that documents human rights abuses stemming from El Salvador’s armed conflict (1980-1992). Argentina, much like the United States, supported the government of El Salvador during the war, and we knew, thanks to an online database called Colección Forti, that Argentine cables from that period contain potentially useful information about Central America. After exchanging emails with archivists at the Historical Archive of the Chancellery (Archivo Histórico de la Cancillería) and confirming that there were indeed more cables available in Buenos Aires, we decided the only thing for us to do was to go down there and see them ourselves.

For all that I had read about and wrestled with history during my undergraduate career, I had never actually set foot in an archive. This one was smaller, dustier, and hotter than I had imagined, but as I stood there in the summer heat and stared down at the pages laid out before me, my only thought was “I’m here! I’m really here!”

During the week that we were in Argentina, we settled into a kind of surreal research routine. Every morning at 9:30 am, the archive’s passenger van, or kombi, whisked us from the city center to a tired industrial building in the heart of Buenos Aires’ little-traveled port zone. Between then and the kombi’s reappearance at 3:30pm, we stood around a large central table in the reading room and read and read and read. As we worked, flipping through cables that were so thin as to be see-through and torn along the edges where they passed through rusty binder rings, we called out our more interesting finds. “Have you ever seen a document with a burn notice?” Hoai might ask, holding up a cable that instructs the reader to burn it if at risk of discovery. Whenever we got too excited and started to work in the same space or pass around a document, archivists Laura and Juan chastised us from behind their desks. I would like to think that they tacitly admired our enthusiasm, as they also readily lent their energy and expertise to our search. They often took the kombi back with us, and after waving goodbye, Angelina, Hoai, and I would stroll back to our hotel and chatter about all that we had seen and all that we had to dig into when we got back to Seattle.

“Have you ever seen a document with a burn notice?” Hoai might ask, holding up a cable that instructs the reader to burn it if at risk of discovery.

A cable found in the Archivo Histórico de la Cancillería in Buenos Aires, Argentina saying Rafael Flores Lima, El Salvador’s wartime Deputy Minister of Defense, traveled to Buenos Aires at the height of Argentina’s “dirty war” to learn about “the fight against subversion, especially intelligence and psychological action.” Photo credit/Nicole Grabiel.

In total, we brought home images of more than 1,000 documents about Argentina’s relationship with El Salvador during the late 1970s and early 1980s. As I write this I am still in the middle of processing them all, but already we have made several important discoveries. There is, for example, a cable that says Rafael Flores Lima, El Salvador’s wartime Deputy Minister of Defense, traveled to Buenos Aires at the height of Argentina’s “dirty war” to learn about “the fight against subversion, especially intelligence and psychological action.”[1] Other cables reference Arcatao, a village in El Salvador where UWCHR researchers have documented several massacres, and in at least one case, a cable names dozens of alleged Salvadoran “subversives” who later became victims of state violence. Based on these documents, we have been able to share new information with a family from El Salvador about their loved one’s disappearance, and I have written an award-winning undergraduate thesis about Argentina’s influence on El Salvador from 1978 to 1980. The bottom line is that whenever money, arms, and training are coordinated across international borders, it creates a paper trail. UWCHR has long taken advantage of the paper trail between El Salvador and the United States to document human rights abuses, and we are finding that expanding our search to include countries like Argentina gives us more opportunities to pinpoint the information that human rights workers need.

What we all understood, however, Marcos perhaps better than any of us, is that we had traveled all the way to Argentina because historical memory is precious.

UWCHR researchers wear gloves to protect documents they are reviewing at the Archivo Histórico de la Cancillería. Photo credit/Gai-Hoai Nguyen.

For me, these documents will always be colored by the memory of my first big international research trip; by the thrill of traveling farther from home than ever before, the smell of jacaranda trees in the summer, the thrum of the kombi, the weight of our visit to a former torture-sight-turned-memorial-space, and the kindness of several Argentine researchers and archivists who shared their visions of historical memory and human rights with us. On our last day in the archive, one of those archivists, Marcos, gave us a hard time for having traveled all the way to Argentina only to spend most of our time cooped up in the reading room. “You should be sightseeing,” he joked as we scrambled to photograph the last few cables. What we all understood, however, Marcos perhaps better than any of us, is that we had traveled all the way to Argentina because historical memory is precious. To get to see these cables, to hold them, and, if we are doing our job correctly, to put them at the service of human rights is something that most students can only imagine, and yet there I was, sweating through my shirt in that tiny, sun-drenched room, loving every minute of it.

Nicole looks at an exhibit at the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, a former Argentine Navy torture site during the civil-military dictatorship of 1976-1983.

Notes

[1] Embajada Argentina en El Salvador, “Cable Secreto 345,” September 21, 1979, Dirección de Comunicaciones, Caja 982, El Salvador Recibidos 1 al 606 y expedidos 1 al 363, Archivo Histórico de Cancillería – Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Comercio Internacional y Culto.