Paper Cadavers

The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala

Paper Cadavers

American Encounters/Global Interactions

More about this series

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 27 photographs Published: March 2014

Author: Kirsten Weld

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Central America

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.


“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

"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." — Brian Bethune, Maclean's

“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, Choice

“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. . . .” — Stephen Henighan, 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.” — Peter Canby, The Nation

“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.”

— David Carey Jr., Ethnohistory

"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.” — Heather Home, Archivaria

“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.” — Charles Hale, American Historical Review

"Paper Cadavers presents a fascinating case study of an unknown archives discovered in extraordinary circumstances, the actual processing and organizing of which had very real effects not only on the historical record but on efforts to bring war criminals to justice. The book will be of interest both as a history of archives as well as a history of Guatemala and of the efforts to prosecute human rights violations."  — Alexander Clark Johnston, Archival Issues

Paper Cadavers evidences that we can gain direct insight into the integrity of a national transition to democracy when we know the stories of how politics shape the way a country reckons with its violent past.  . . .  In addition to uncovering the making of memory, Paper Cadavers revises the narrative of counterinsurgency operations in the 1970s and 1980s by highlighting new findings in the documents.” — M. Gabriela Torres, Latin American Politics and Society

“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.” — Stephen Dove, 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, The Americas

“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.” — Molly Geidel, American Quarterly

"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." — Linda Green, American Anthropologist

"...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." — Michelle Carmody, H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews

"A gripping account of the political context and the social and physical restoration of the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional." — Mneesha Gellman, Latin American Research Review

"Kirsten Weld should have a theorem named after her. Call it Weld's Paradox: the more a state engages in surgical, almost microscopic surveillance of its citizens—which, one would think, would limit the amount of actual violence that is needed to maintain control—the more likely it is to perpetuate indiscriminate, scattershot mass terror. By following the team of archivists working through the more than 75,000,000 documents found in Guatemala's recently discovered police archives, Weld, in her methodologically innovative and brilliantly conceived Paper Cadavers, provides an unparalleled look into the paperwork of state repression and the forensics of justice. In so doing, Weld provides crucial historiographical grounding to much of the airy theorizing concerning the relationship of knowledge to power, or, better, ink to blood." — Greg Grandin, author of The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation

"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


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kirsten Weld is Assistant Professor of History at Harvard University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2015 WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award

Winner, 2016 Best Book Prize, Recent History and Memory Section of the Latin American Studies Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5602-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5597-7
Publicity material