The Operation Condor trial in Buenos Aires has implications for justice and accountability in Argentina but also for the rest of South America.
“Could you please tell us your date and place of birth?” the president of Federal Criminal Court 1 in Buenos Aires asked the young woman testifying at the court hearing. Macarena Gelman replied that she was probably born on 1st November, 1976, in Montevideo, Uruguay, after her mother had been illegally transferred there from Argentina weeks earlier. Mystified by how her mother, María Claudia Garcia de Gelman, originally detained in Buenos Aires had ended up in Uruguay, Macarena suggested that Operation Condor (Plan Cóndor) offered the “only explanation” for what had happened.
Macarena’s testimony before the tribunal in November 2013 exposes some of the challenges and difficulties that victims of human rights violations have had to face since the return of democracy. Numerous South American countries experiencing similar violations share this legacy. The question of date and place of birth is one that many of us answer frequently and we do so without the blink of an eye. In the case of Macarena, as well as other victims of identity theft and illegal adoption, answering that question is anything but easy.
For Macarena, it required solving a puzzle; rejoining all the component pieces scattered across Argentina and Uruguay, but also within the entire South America region. Reconstructing her life story took over 30 years and included a grandfather who incessantly looked for her. It was also the journey of two countries in the aftermath of the shadow of dictatorship, struggling to come to terms with the brutality of the crimes that had been perpetrated.
Macarena’s identification in Montevideo in 2000 proved even further the existence of the transnational coordination of terror known as Operation Condor. Over ten years later, on March 5, 2013, in a packed Buenos Aires courthouse, two former Argentine military dictators, together with other 19 defendants, were finally put on trial for their alleged role in Operation Condor, including the atrocities committed against Macarena’s parents.
Operation Condor was a continent-wide operation set up during the Cold War by the military dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to hunt down political opponents across borders, murdering and disappearing hundreds of left-wing activists outside their home countries’ borders in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America.
Responding to Human Rights Violations
The rapidly growing field of transitional justice studies “strategies employed by states and international institutions to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses and to effect social reconstruction in the wake of widespread violence.” In the past 30 years, countries have developed innovative ways to confront atrocities committed during political violence or conflict. Latin America has pioneered many tools such as truth commissions, trials and reparations that have been adopted subsequently throughout the world. Yet, up until recently, the main focus has been on offences perpetrated by national actors within individual states, thus neglecting consideration of how to respond to transnational crimes such as those of Operation Condor.
Nonetheless, since the late 1990s and early 2000s, investigations into Operation Condor crimes have gradually come to play a crucial role in the struggle for accountability in South America. The strategic litigation of instances of transnational crimes, together with a parallel strategy focusing on the illegal appropriation of children born to women held in clandestine detention, turned into key tools in the struggle against impunity and in questioning the validity of broad amnesty laws that were approved soon after the dictatorships.
These ground-breaking strategies and legal tools developed by human rights activists and lawyers purposefully circumvented amnesty laws and began chipping away at the wall of impunity: the first judgment issued in March 2009 against military and police officers in Uruguay related for instance to the murder of 28 Uruguayan citizens in Buenos Aires in 1976. Likewise, in Chile, after decades of absolute impunity, Augusto Pinochet was eventually indicted by Judge Juan Guzmán for crimes relating to “Operation Condor” in December 2004.
The current trial in Buenos Aires is the first prosecution to tackle the whole terror network and its operations to persecute opponents across borders in all its six member states. This prosecution is exceptional internationally and even in Argentina. Kathryn Sikkink labelled Argentina a “global protagonist” in the struggle for international human rights, where 121 criminal trials for dictatorship crimes have already been completed in recent years. Yet the ongoing Operation Condor trial is still a seminal moment. Even the landmark investigations by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón in the late 1990s only focused on atrocities perpetrated inside state borders of Argentina and Chile.
Opportunities for Justice
The criminal investigation into the case of Operation Condor began in the late 1990s when the relatives of five victims from Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay presented their case to the judiciary in Buenos Aires. The amnesties that existed at the time could be circumvented because the defendants were either foreign individuals or Argentine military commanders. In the early 2000s, the federal judge charged former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and also requested the extradition of several other former dictators, including Augusto Pinochet and the former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner. There were delays in the judicial and investigative process in Argentina, due to the context of impunity until the amnesty laws were overturned in 2005. Then the deferrals, due to the large numbers of trials for dictatorship crimes that resumed in 2006, and the trial only began in 2013.
The trial advances justice in new respects by tackling national and transnational human rights violations against 106 victims. The judges are investigating atrocities and perpetrators across multiple and overlapping jurisdictions: crimes perpetrated in Argentina by foreign operatives and Argentine agents, atrocities committed abroad by Argentine forces and their local counterparts as well as the transnational conspiracy of terror by South America’s dictatorships to perpetrate human rights violations. While other criminal prosecutions have established criminal responsibility for specific crimes, this trial, by examining illegal kidnappings and the circumstances surrounding them, aims to prove the actual existence of the Operation Condor network.
The trial is innovative in four respects vis-à-vis previous prosecutions in Argentina: it is the only one to have amongst its 21 defendants a foreigner, retired Uruguayan military officer Manuel Cordero. It addresses atrocities committed in the six countries that composed the Operation Condor network. It has a large number of foreign victims, including 48 Uruguayans and 22 Chileans. It uses the criminal charge of asociación ilicita (the establishment of a joint criminal conspiracy) to prosecute the transnational enterprise created to perpetrate crimes against humanity across borders. This specific charge is commonly utilised by domestic courts investigating cases relating to local criminal gangs or mafia groups; it has never been used for crimes committed during the dictatorship.
The Road Ahead
In less than a year’s time, the sentence in the trial will be known. It is too early to speculate on a sentence yet to come, but some preliminary evaluations can be attempted. Whatever the final verdict, the strategic importance of this trial cannot be underestimated.
This prosecution has played a key role in undermining the structure of impunity that existed in Argentina. The trial is truly unprecedented in its attempt to capture the complexity of repression in South America. It tackles domestic human rights violations but also transnational ones: it includes both Argentine and foreign victims, and there are Argentine perpetrators and foreign counterparts. It is the first time that a criminal court is probing the whole transnational terror network that existed in the region to enable cross-border repression of exiles and activists. The 106 cases are representative of the coordination of terror. Defendants are being prosecuted according to the criminal code not for establishing a domestic criminal conspiracy but an international one.
Activists and lawyers remain hopeful that the trial will have an impact on other countries in the region, especially those that lag behind in accountability for dictatorship crimes, such as Brazil and Uruguay. It is noteworthy that the Operation Condor trial began in Argentina just a few days after the Supreme Court of Justice in Uruguay released a very controversial and internationally criticised sentence regarding past human rights violations. In this context, a condemnatory verdict in the Operation Condor trial, where the majority of victims are Uruguayan citizens, may become a tool for local activists to mobilise on this issue and put pressure on the judiciary and the government to respond to myriad past crimes.
Dr Francesca Lessa is a specialist in issues of justice and human rights in Argentina and Uruguay based at the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford.