By Mike McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The secrets from a vault of moldy documents long covered in bat and rat droppings could soon help to put former top Guatemalan officials behind bars, years after the country's brutal civil war ended in 1996.
Clues found in the millions of police documents have lifted a lid on government repression during the 36-year war, and provided enough evidence to start sending cases to trial.
For the first time in Guatemala's history, a former police chief now faces trial based on evidence collected from the national police archives, a labyrinth of dark rooms found by chance in 2005 when an explosion tore through a dilapidated building being used as a munitions dump.
Hector Bol de la Cruz, former director of the national police, is charged in the case of Fernando Garcia, a 27-year old student activist who disappeared on February 18, 1984 and was never seen again by his family.
The first hearing is on hold pending an appeal by a defense lawyer to remove one of the judges in the case.
Garcia's relatives say the trial offers them the hope of finally finding out what happened to him.
"I think about how my dad would feel," said Alejandra Garcia, Fernando's daughter, who was a baby when her father disappeared. "He would be happy to finally see a little bit of justice in this country."
The chaotic jumble of archive papers and handwritten log books are being dusted off, digitally scanned and backed up on secure servers outside the country by rights groups so that prosecutors can sift them to solve crimes from the civil war.
The process could take years, and the cumbersome work means that only three cases are now being processed using material from the archive, which houses 80 million pages of documents that stretch back to the 1800s and include portraits and profile information on suspected leftists, even down to their daily walking routes. Hundreds of other prosecutions could follow.
Families of roughly 45,000 missing leftists have contacted local rights groups to help them find information about their relatives in the archives. Prosecutors have projected images of the documents on courtroom walls to build their cases and win support from judges.
Guatemala made the documents accessible to the public in 2009, and some 12 million digitalized copies from the archives have been published online by the University of Texas at Austin.
Relatives of some of the civil war victims see the trials as ending decades of impunity for those who ordered the abduction, torture and murder of thousands of suspected leftists.
However, building strong cases is difficult and convictions of former security officials have been few and far between.
Human rights lawyers say success in the cases would bring Guatemala into the ranks of countries like Rwanda and Germany, which held former government officials and military officers responsible for atrocities.
A U.N.-backed "Truth Commission" set up under 1996 peace accords concluded that the military was responsible for more than 85 percent of human rights violations during the war, which claimed the lives of around 250,000 people.
But the army still has a powerful presence in Guatemala. Otto Perez, a retired general and former head of military intelligence, was elected president late last year and took office in January. Some fear he will be wary of letting war crime trials move forward, although he insists he won't impede justice.
"The president cannot interfere with judicial proceedings," Perez said. "We have no reason to remove those in the judicial branch who are doing their job well."
During the conflict, police worked closely with the army to stamp out an armed guerrilla movement. The police archives could unearth evidence of those links, investigators say.
"These documents have been fundamental," said Alejandra Garcia, now a 29-year-old attorney. "They have shown that my dad was captured by state forces, what happened and where and who was involved."
When Fernando Garcia failed to show up for a family party, Alejandra's mother scooped her up and carried her round the capital in a frantic hunt, hearing from witnesses that her husband was snatched by men in an unmarked white pick-up truck.
Thousands of political dissidents and intellectuals were being targeted by the police and the army's counterinsurgency units at the time, and the Garcias feared the worst.
At police headquarters, then chief Bol de la Cruz said he knew nothing of the incident. The family took their complaint all the way to President Oscar Mejia, who also denied having any information on Fernando's whereabouts.
But investigators from the human rights ombudsman and attorney general's office say they found enough evidence in the archives to charge Bol de la Cruz with ordering Garcia's detention and subsequent disappearance. The 71-year-old former police chief denies participating in abductions and says he is innocent.
Among the police documents presented by prosecutors is a record officially praising officer Jorge Gomez and at least two others for participating in the arrest of "subversive criminals" on February 18, 1984 in the same location as Garcia's disappearance.
Gomez ordered a patrol car with four officers to monitor the street where Garcia vanished. Two of those policemen were sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2010 based on evidence from the police archive for forced disappearances and the other two have been declared fugitives.
Bol de la Cruz is waiting for a decision on an appeal in which his lawyers argued that the same judge who sentenced two of his policemen in 2010 should not be allowed to hear his case.
The records are being cross-checked with forensic evidence from excavations at Guatemala City's public cemetery, where security forces dumped bodies in mass graves identifying them only as "XX".
"Without the archives, it wouldn't have been possible to arrest anyone," said Mario Polanco, who leads a victims' rights group. "In some of these cases, 90 percent of the information we have comes from the archives."
The maze of dusty, gray cinderblock walls inside the old police station that contain the cache of documents held another secret: investigators found entrances to what was likely a clandestine prison, with tiny, barely-inhabitable spaces, some with old mattresses or discarded medicine bottles.
Archive researchers suspect that some of the people whose fate they are trying to uncover might have been tortured and killed right there.
Most attribute the recent successes of long-cobwebbed human rights cases to Guatemala's new attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz. She worked as a human rights activist before being appointed in December 2010 after her predecessors were disgraced in corruption scandals.
With her backing, Guatemala's most notorious dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled during the bloodiest period of the civil war in 1982 and 1983, is set to be tried for genocide, a milestone for those who spent years pushing for his prosecution.
Rios Montt's lawyers argue that he cannot be held accountable for the actions of military leaders in wartime. "Each commander is responsible for making decisions at his own post and this decentralizes the chain of command," said his attorney, Danilo Rodriguez.
(Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Kieran Murray)