I met a friend’s new husband many years ago, as they were selling their belongings to leave for his native South American country. He had fled to the United States after witnessing his fellow politically active university roommate being thrown out the window by government thugs. After earning a degree in economics he returned with his American bride for a position in the government. I wonder how long it took him to avenge his roommate’s murder.
Time is running out for justice for the victims of decades-old repressive military dictatorships in Latin America. Those violent eras comprised chapter one. Now we have chapters two and three: individuals seek reparations, and some of the new governments pursue political accountings in trials. There will never be enough space for all the grief and political backdrop. What I can write here is merely a sampling of the arduous climbs taken by some. The identity of most victims is probably lost forever.
Chapter Two: Reparations.
Monetary compensation may be the easiest to win, but what survivors and families want more are public apologies, system changes, and the location of remains. They look to the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Human Rights Court (IAHRC) [Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos], which decides cases of reparations under the OAS treaty, the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons (Convencion Interamericana Sobre Desaparacion Forzada de Personas). Evidence is hard to assemble decades after disappearances. Countries attempt to thwart jurisdiction. So, most families never even get into the elevator.
Even for the successful, though, trial orders are meaningless without effective enforcement.
- EL SALVADOR which had a 12-year civil war, still has not complied with the court’s order to create a system to search for children who were kidnapped by the military and to identify the perpetrators of human rights violations. Many disappeared children were sold into adoption and are thought to be alive today.
- HONDURAS was ordered to pay reparations to some families, but did not admit culpability or punish any wrong-doers. Aided by the Center for Justice and Accountability which brings civil lawsuits in the U.S. and in Spain against human rights violators, six people sued Juan López Grijalba, the former head of the notorious intelligence police force DNI (Direción Nacional de Investigaciones) and boss of death squad “Battalion 3-16.”
Because of his human rights violations he was deported in 2004. In 2006 a federal judge in Florida ordered him to pay $47 Million to torture survivors and relatives.
- BOLIVIA admitted liability in 2000 and was ordered to pay reparations to the mother of a college student unaccountably imprisoned in 1972. He disappeared the day his mother came to visit, accompanied by a Red Cross official. Three years after the court’s order Bolivia had paid the mother $5400 and still owed her $4,000; it was in non-compliance otherwise, not having (1) criminalized forced disappearances, (2) investigated to identify the perpetrators, (3) located the student’s remains, and (4) named an educational center in Santa Cruz for him.
- PERU has been ordered to apologize and pay $20 Million to the families of 41 suspected and convicted members of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso, shot in the head execution-style when a 1992 prison riot was quelled in a semblance of a three-day mini-war (planes, heavy artillery, grenades, machine guns). Peru’s current president, Alan Garcia, vowed a legal challenge to the decision.
Ironically, Peru has established a reparations council for the estimated 10,000 victims of the Sendero war begun in 1980. Most were indigenous to the impoverished Andean highlands. After the Senderistas had murdered local authorities and suspected military collaborators, the Peruvian Army came through killing Senderista supporters and kidnapping children in vengeance, in counterinsurgency operations. Despite photographs and graves, however, reparations will be out of reach of families unable to legally prove a victim’s existence: the Senderistas had targeted any sign of the presence of the state, destroying even the civil registers which contained birth and death certificates. Death certificates require a long journey to fill out a form in castellano.
Chapter Three: Trials
The new wave of political accounting is taking so long that it comes too late for many survivors and relatives. Perpetrators may die, like Chile’s Pinochet, without being convicted. Amnesty laws are partly to blame. Two examples:
An estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed in the 1970’s and 1980’s, including Isabel Peron’s two-year presidential tenure and the following Dirty War against leftists under military dictatorship. Delays are frustrating activists and lawyers. Some cases have dragged on over ten years, including that of the systematic theft of young children of political prisoners, and of the torture camp at the Navy School of Mechanics. In certain provinces, legal proceedings have halted or never even begun. After the 2005 overturning of an amnesty law protecting junta-allied police and military agents, finally, hundreds of military officers are being prosecuted.
Spain, which has already convicted a naval officer for throwing political dissidents out of planes, has sought extradition for trial there of 40 more Argentines. It is extraditing an Argentine police officer accused of murdering a prominent writer in 1977. Also likely to be extradited from her exile in Madrid: Isabel Peron.
Witnesses in “dirty war” trials in Argentina still risk their lives. One, whose description of being jolted with electric prods by a former police chief in a secret prison helped convict the defendant for life for six disappearances, vanished after testifying. A 51-year-old construction worker who accused a retired police officer of torturing him in 1972 disappeared for several hours before being thrown from a car, alive but beaten and burned with cigarettes.
The left-wing government of Uruguay has made a priority of investigations into human rights abuses during the 1973 – 1985 military dictatorship. After thirty years trials began of several army officers and ex-policemen. Former president Bordaberry, now 78, who had dissolved the Congress and given the army full powers to re-establish order against the resistance of Tupamaros guerrillas, now faces imprisonment, along with his minister of foreign affairs, for the assassination of two politicians and two Tupamaros militants in 1976, as well as for ten murders of leftists who disappeared after being arbitrarily detained.
Today, Latin America has the priorities of what makes up life — soccer, politics, scratching out a living, music, novelas, and fantasies. Disappearances are closeted off: reminiscence requires happier memories.
Unaccounted history is part of history, nevertheless, part of a collective psyche. Everyone who disappeared or was tossed out a dormitory window had a mother or daughter or godparent or roommate, someone still alive who remembers. To them, a salute. If their pain buys anything in reparations and trials, in some measure they will have avenged los desaparecidos.