Tag Archive | "human rights"

Operation Condor: Justice for Transnational Crimes in South America


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 Gelman (Still from TV Publica)

Macarena Gelman (Still from TV Publica)

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.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (left) and his Argentine counterpart Jorge Videla, in 1976. Both were active members of Operation Condor.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his Argentine counterpart Jorge Videla, in 1976.

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.

Automotores Orletti, the garage used as a clandestine detention centre during the dictatorship is closely connected to the Operation Condor trial (Photo via wikipedia)

Automotores Orletti, the garage used as a clandestine detention centre during the dictatorship is closely connected to the Operation Condor trial (Photo via wikipedia)

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.

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Mexico: Soldiers Arrested over Tlatlaya ‘Massacre’


Flag_of_MexicoMexican authorities have arrested seven soldiers and their commander over the killing of 22 suspect gang members amid claims they were summarily executed. A further 17 soldiers are potentially facing arrest.

The deaths, which took place on 30th June, occurred in a warehouse in Tlatlaya, a rural community located about 100km south-west of Mexico City.

The army says the killings were a result of an armed confrontation between the military and a group of kidnappers. But witnesses say the victims were rounded up by the soldiers and killed in cold blood in the community.

The defence department issued a press release after the incident, saying that suspected drug cartel members in a warehouse had opened fire on soldiers patrolling the area. It said a fierce gunfight ensued in which all 22 civilians were killed, after which the soldiers found 38 firearms, a grenade and ammunition in the warehouse, along with three women who said they had been kidnapped.

But this account was disputed after it emerged that only one soldier was wounded and AP reporters visited the site, unveiling some inconsistencies.

The journalists said there were no signs of a prolonged battle, while blood and bullet marks inside the warehouse suggested at least five people had been shot in the chest from a close range while standing against a wall. Later a woman said she saw the soldiers shooting her 15-year-old daughter more than half a dozen times as she lay on the ground injured.

She said that only one gang member was killed and several wounded during the initial shootout. The remaining 21 people were shot dead after surrendering.

Human Right Watch called for a thorough and independent investigation to be carried out saying that the incident could prove to be one of the “most serious massacres in Mexico”.

The Ministry of Defense has said that the men, who are now being held in a military prison in Mexico City, were arrested under military charges for disobedience and dereliction of duty.

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UN World Conference on Indigenous People Closes


Evo Morales (Photo by Sebastian Baryli)

Evo Morales (Photo by Sebastian Baryli)

The first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples drew to a close in New York yesterday, with Latin American nations taking a leading role.

Bolivian president Evo Morales inaugurated the two-day summit on Monday, calling himself living proof that indigenous people “can govern and not just vote”.

The central issues addressed in the forum, considered a special meeting as part of the 69th UN General Assembly, were land and territory, food sovereignty, and environment.

The summit culminated in the unanimous agreement of governments to draw up national plans to protect the rights of indigenous groups in their countries, including a clause that governments must obtain “free, prior and informed consent” from indigenous peoples on matters that affected them, including legislative measures and development projects.

During the conference, strategies were also discussed to ensure the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Bolivian president said the conference must be the start of something bigger.

“This conference must be a starting point in determining the collective actions that must be taken in the defence of life in order to initiate a process of transformation and change through the sovereignty and science of our indigenous peoples,” he said.

In his opening remarks, President Morales warned that capitalism and unbridled development of land are the greatest threat to indigenous movements around the world.

“The fundamental principles of the indigenous movement are life, mother earth, and peace, and these principles of the worldwide indigenous movement are permanently threatened by a system and model, the capitalist system, a model which extinguishes human life and the mother earth,” he said.

The conference was launched after a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC) praised his government and that of Ecuador for the progress made in guaranteeing basic rights to indigenous communities. The study recognised efforts made by La Paz and Quito to improve indigenous communities’ access to healthcare and education but highlighted that a lot remains to be done in Latin America to fully guarantee the rights of the 45-million strong indigenous population that inhabits the Southern Cone.

President Morales, noted a number of advances made in Bolivia under his leadership that he says have directly benefited indigenous peoples. Most notable, said Morales, has been Bolivia’s efforts in reducing extreme poverty. A recent UN Development Program report found that Bolivia experienced the greatest relative drop in extreme poverty in Latin America between 2000 and 2012.

In his speech, President Morales also mentioned that Bolivia is the first and only country to have fully incorporated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into its constitution. Bolivia’s new constitution was approved by popular referendum in 2009.

Following the inauguration, President Morales met with UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon for talks, who praised the president as a “symbol of the developing world”.

Up to 2,200 indigenous representatives from roughly 100 countries around the world attended the conference.

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Doctors Tried for Role in Kidnapping of Children during Last Dictatorship


Estela de Carlotto showing picture of recovered grandchild 109 (photo: Télam)

Human rights organisation Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, has been at the forefront of the fight to find those born in captivity. Here the organisation’s president, Estela de Carlotto, shows the picture of a recovered grandchild (photo: Télam)

The trial of two doctors and a midwife, accused of kidnapping babies during the last military dictatorship, has began in Buenos Aires. It is the first time medical workers have been prosecuted for their role in falsifying the birth certificates of the babies born to those held in detention during the military regime.

The group are accused of being involved in the theft nine women’s babies, five of whom have since recovered their identities. All nine women were subsequently killed.

Prosecutors accuse doctors Norberto Bianco and Raúl Martín, and the midwife Luisa Yolanda Arroche, of “providing essential assistance” to hide the identities of the babies born in Campo de Mayo clandestine detention centre and hand them over to sympathisers of the military government to raise them as if they were their own.

Martín was the head of clinical services at the military hospital and has been accused of relaying information about the kidnapped women. Bianco, head of the hospital’s traumatology service, has been called a “key figure” in the theft of the children, and Arroche is accused of having falsified the birth certificate of one of the stolen babies, Francisco Madariaga Quintela.

It is estimated that around 500 children born in captivity and then stolen from their mothers during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. The human rights organisation Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo has since recovered 115 children, including the grandson of the president of the organisation, Estela de Carlotto.

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Mexico: Reports of Torture up 600% in Ten Years


The majority of torture victims say their abusers were police or the armed forces (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The majority of torture victims say their abusers were police or the armed forces (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

According to a new study released by Amnesty International, in the last ten years reports of torture in Mexico have risen 600%.

Between 2010 and 2013, the National Human Rights Council received more than 7,000 reports of torture and abuses, mostly at the hands of the police and armed forces.

The investigation, entitled ‘Out of Control: Torture and other Abuse in Mexico‘, was released yesterday and indicates that as well as the worrying figures of torture, a climate of impunity and tolerance towards these practices reigns.

Victims from different parts of the country told Amnesty International that they had been the subjects of beatings, death threats, sexual violence, electric shocks, and suffocation semi-asphyxiation at the hands of the police or the armed forces, often with the aim of getting “confessions” or incriminating other people in serious crimes.

Erika Guevara Rosas, Director of Amnesty International Americas, highlighted that despite the alarming figures, in recent years only seven people had been found guilty of torture.

“Authorities cannot keep looking the other way. The fact that the safeguards are barely applied to prevent torture or other abuses, and that investigations into such reports often play down the seriousness of the abuse and are biased against the victim, are a clear indication that the government does not protect human rights.”

It is the third time this year that the country has come under fire for its record on torture, after reports released by the UN and a previous investigation by Amnesty International.

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Estela de Carlotto’s Grandson Found


Estela de Carlotto showing picture of recovered grandchild 109 (photo: Télam)

Estela de Carlotto showing picture of recovered grandchild 109 (photo: Télam)

The grandson of Estela de Carlotto, founder and head of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, has been found, after a search for more than 35 years.

Guido Carlotto, now 36, is the son of Estela’s daughter Laura, who was kidnapped by the military, along with her partner, when she was two and a half months pregnant, at age 23.

According to local press, he currently lives as Ignacio Hurban in Olavarría, province of Buenos Aires, and is a musician.

“I’ve found what I was looking for,” declared Estela in a press conference today. “Now I have all 14 of my grandchildren with me – he will sit in the empty chair, his image will fill the empty photo frames.

“I didn’t want to die without having hugged him, and now I will be able to hug him very soon,” added Estela, smiling broadly.

It was revealed that Guido went in to have a DNA test voluntarily, as he had doubts regarding his true identity.

Federal Judge María Servini de Cubría, who broke the news to Estela, indicated that the accuracy of the DNA test is of 99.9%. “I gave Estela de Carlotto the news, she was very moved,” said the judge.

Earlier today Guido’s uncle, also called Guido Carlotto, said that “we told him that the test results were positive and he’s deciding what to do. We gave him all the time in the world to think about it and to meet with us.

“We’re very happy with the news. For legal reasons, all I can say is that he’s a musician and he did the DNA test voluntarily,” said Estela de Carlotto.

Remo Carlotto, Estela’s other son, said that the family is “thinking about Laura, my sister, and the struggle of the Abuelas,” adding that “today we got to live this moment of happiness which we shared so many times from the Abuelas’ house.”

“We want each step to be taken, we’re profoundly happy and anxious to meet him so he can reunite with the history that belongs to him,” said Guido’s uncle.

Guido was born in the Military Hospital of Buenos Aires on 26th June 1978 and, according to witnesses’ accounts, only spent five hours with his mother before she was taken away to a clandestine detention centre in La Plata. Two months later she was murdered and her body given back to the family.

According to the Abuelas, Guido Carlotto is the 114th recovered grandchild. An estimated 500 babies were taken from their parents while they were held in clandestine detention centres during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Some, including Guido Carlotto, were born in captivity, while others were infants when their parents were kidnapped.

The Abuelas have gained plaudits worldwide for their efforts to recover the identity of the missing grandchildren, including five nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Abuelas were also influential in the discovery of new scientific techniques and DNA tests to confirm a person’s identity with 99.9% accuracy even in the absence of biological parents.

“Today we found my grandson, Guido, but I’m not going to stop now, just as the other grandmothers have not stopped,” said Estela. “This is a triumph for all of Argentina.”

Lead image: José Romero/Télam

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Operation ‘Para Ti': Spinning the Dictatorship


This is an exclusive English translation of an article that originally appeared in Periódico Mu No.74.

Her son disappeared when he was 17 years old. And she was reborn as a mother, activist, and founder of the organisation ‘Familiares’. She was kidnapped and tortured at ESMA and forced to pose for a fake article published by women’s magazine ‘Para Ti’ as part of the dictatorship’s media campaign, designed by a multinational that today works for Monsanto.

Thelma Jara de Cabezas today, at 90, with a picture of her disappeared son (photo: Lina M. Etchesuri, courtesy of Mu)

Thelma Jara de Cabezas today, at 90, with a picture of her disappeared son (photo: Lina M. Etchesuri, courtesy of Mu)

The most degrading moment for Argentine journalism has a date: September 1979. That was when the dictatorship spread to the media, using the services of multinational agency Burson Marsteller. It paid US$1m for the agency to design a campaign to neutralise the first visit of an international commission prepared to investigate reports of human rights violations.

We know now that Burson Marsteller was behind the unforgettable slogan “Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos” (Argentines are upright and humane) that then interior minister, Albano Harguidenguy, ordered be printed on 250,000 stickers. What we don’t know is whether the story of Thelma Jara de Cabezas should be read as part of this campaign, as one of its most successful and long-lasting lies.

A Mother

I’m sat in the kitchen of Thelma’s modest home and timidly place the recorder on the table. It is no coincidence that in this moment she shows me the mobile phone given to her by the witness monitoring programme in the trials for crimes against humanity. “At 2.30pm they will call me as a control check,” she warns. I note the paradox: the phone and the recorder are the same size. And on this table, they become a weapon.

The story of every survivor [of the dictatorship] is like a gun loaded with memories. Thelma fires them off chaotically. There is no full account, only fragments – shards of such intensity that they shoot across the table. “My head is not that clear. There are some things I can’t remember, and some that I can’t forget. For those, I pray.”

Thelma is a Guaraní princess. Born in Corrientes, she married in Ushuaia, gave birth to two children in Buenos Aires, and returned to the end of the world until deciding that was enough moving. After that she stayed in Carapachay, where she raised her two boys alone. She worked as a dental assistant; she was active, modern, determined. In the ’70s she had little time for politics, but encouraged her children to pursue their dreams. The oldest, Daniel, went to Mexico to study cinema. Gustavo, the youngest, became involved with the Montoneros group. On the 10th May 1976 he was kidnapped in a street operative. He had been active for just six months. And he was 17.

Gustavo’s disappearance turned Thelma into one of the founders of Familiares, the first human rights organisation to be born during the dictatorship. “Familiares was just a desk in the apartment of the Argentine League of Human Rights, at Callao and Corrientes, just above the Odeón café,” remembers Thelma. “At that time I did not understand why they didn’t want me to go to Plaza de Mayo. I went anyway and stayed there a while, to speak to the other mothers. They had a lot of ideas, they were always thinking about what to do. In time, I realised that my colleagues didn’t want me to go for security reasons. But I only understood that much later, the danger.”

The Guaraní princess converted, anyway, into a Montonero cadre. In the middle of the dictatorship, her courage took her to the Mexican town of Puebla, where in February 1979 she met with the Latin American diocese and was able to personally hand Pope John Paul II the reports of disappearances in Argentina. From there, she travelled to Spain to interview the leadership of the Montoneros. She was escorted during the whole trip – they had followed her.

Daniel Jara, Thelma's other son, testified in the ESMA trial (photo: Lina M. Etchesuri)

Daniel Jara, Thelma’s other son, testified in the ESMA trial (photo: Lina M. Etchesuri)

The Kidnapping

Thelma was kidnapped on 30th April 1979 at the entrance of the Spanish Hospital, in the heart of the capital. She was there to look after her ex-husband. “They brought him in an air ambulance from Ushuaia. Terminal cancer, moribund. It’s 7am – I know because just then a doctor came in and was angry that I was there outside of visiting hours. I go out and see a row of cars, one after another. I feel someone behind me, walking quickly. There is something strange in the car lights. What do I do? I decide to head to the corner because there is a bus stop and see people waiting. That’s when the person behind me grabs me by the hair, puts his hand over my mouth, and pushes me into a car. They take me somewhere – the ESMA – where the torture begins.”

Daniel, Thelma’s oldest son, adds some context to this memory. “At that time, Familiares had gathered a group of strong, determined women. There was Cata Guagnini (Trotskyist leader, two disappeared children: Diego and the journalist Luis Guagini), Lita Boitano (mother of Miguel and Adriana, both disappeared), Graciela Lois (her husband, Ricardo, was 24 when he was kidnapped), and Lilia Orfanó (who also has two disappeared children: Daniel and Guillermo), all women who worked hard and with a lot of character. Someone told me, I don’t remember who, that the idea was to kidnap one of them and they chose my mother. We found out why later: Julia Sarmiento, who was a member of Familiares, had been kidnapped and started to collaborate with the military in the ESMA. She went [with Thelma] to Puebla, and probably knew that Thelma was the only one of the group that answered to the Montoneros leadership.”

Thelma shoots: “During the first three weeks they tortured me, one day a week. I don’t remember if I cried, if I screamed, if I felt pain. Nothing, nothing: I don’t remember now. I remember that they took off my clothes. And the shouting: “Talk you old bitch!”. How long did it last? It wasn’t a short time, I can tell you.”

Did you pray?
“No, not there.”
There is no God there…
“No, there is nobody and nothing. Just them, five or six of them. There is Marcelo: I see his face when he lifts up my blindfold and says ‘look’, and puts the electric prod on my hand. ‘It’s burnt out from using it on you so much, and you do nothing,’ he would complain, and I would be tortured for it. Afterwards, some other survivors told me that when I was in the torture chamber, they were in a room nearby and the lights would flicker, because when they turned up the machine it would lower the tension. They also told me that they saw Marcelo come out sweating, soaked through, complaining about how I was making him work so hard. Marcelo kidnapped me and tortured me. I later found out he was the one who followed me to Puebla and Spain. He was also the one who accompanied me to Uruguay to give an interview to a newspaper while he sat across the table – in the bar where I gave the interview to the magazine, Para Ti.”

Marcelo is Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, sentenced to life in prison on 26th October 2011, in the first trial for crimes committed at the ESMA. Another of Thelma’s torturers was the naval doctor Carlos Octavio Capdevilla and nurse Juan Barrionuevo, who at the time of his arrest was a provincial deputy in charge of the Health Commission in the Tierra del Fuego legislature.

Thelma shoots again: “After torturing me they would throw me down on a blanket on the floor. They would say ‘no food or water for this one for 72 hours’. My eyes are blindfolded. I hear the sound of a sweet wrapper. I remember that one of the guards, the youngest, eats sugary sweets called Media Hora. He doesn’t say anything. There is just the noise of the wrapper – close, as though he made the sound right next to my ear.”

Thelma Jara in her kitchen with a list of names she prays for every day. (photo: Lina M. Etchesuri)

Thelma Jara in her kitchen with a list of names she prays for every day. (photo: Lina M. Etchesuri)

The Agency

It was the unmentionable José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz who recommended the military junta hire international agency Burson Marsteller to counteract the reports that the Mothers [of Plaza de Mayo] and families of disappeared managed to publish in forums and the international media. His right-hand man, Walter Klein, then head of economic coordination and planning, travelled to New York to meet Victor Emmanuel, responsible for the Argentine ‘account’. Emmanuel admitted his role in the design of the campaign for the Argentine dictatorship in an interview with Marguerite Feitlowitz that was published in 1998 in her book ‘A Lexicon of Terror’, which cites Thelma’s case extensively. In the interview, Emmanuel justifies his actions: “The violence was necessary to open up the protectionist, statist economy. Nobody invests in a country embroiled in a civil war,” he says, also admitting that “many innocent people were probably murdered” and adding that “given the situation, it required a lot of effort.”

From that era, only the octogenarian founder, Harold Burson, remains at Burson Marsteller. In a recent interview, he explained his company’s area of expertise: “A PR agency buys spaces in the media to send a direct message. We are dedicated to creating areas of influence, be it through people or media. Our goal is to narrate our client’s story so as to rise above their critics and make them see things from our point of view.”

Burson Marsteller’s specialty is crime. Some examples:

1. The Nigerian government hired the firm in the late 1960s to refute accusations of genocide in Biafra.
2. During the rule of dictator Nicolae Causcescu, the company successfully assisted Romania’s efforts to become the preferred trade partner of the US. The campaign included a visit to Romania by television’s NBC Today, for a show that lasted a full week.
3. It represented Union Carbide Corporation, which makes Eveready batteries, as it faced its responsibility for the 1994 disaster in Bhopal, India, which caused the death of at least 2,000 employees and people living near the factory.
4. In the ’90s it specialised in training executives and managers of multinational oil companies in methods of communicating to the public after spills and explosions.

Harold Burson says he has a limit: his firm does not accept campaigns that favour the decriminalisation of abortion. When his interviewer reminds him of his past with Argentina’s dictatorship, Burson responds: “That’s correct, but we did not interfere in internal politics.”

The objective of the work Burson Marsteller did for the dictatorship was something else: to design a campaign to discredit the report that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the OAS was going to release to the world after its visit to Argentina.

The IACHR was in Buenos Aires from 7th to 10th September 1979, in Córdoba for 10th-14th, in Tucuman for 14th-15th, and then passed through Rosario on its way back to the capital. It visited the clandestine detention centres that had already been dismantled – La Rivera and La Perla in Córdoba and El Atlético and El Olimpo, in Buenos Aires. The Commission also visited the ESMA, and for that reason the kidnapped prisoners were transferred.

Thelma fires: “They take us to Tigre. There is a large group of us in a bunker, underground. There, I find the husband of a niece of mine. I know because I cook for everybody – other girls also cook – but the second or third time I cook I hear a voice shouting from the bunker: ‘Thelma made this one as it has the smooth taste of her cooking’. It’s Eduardo, my niece’s husband.”

They were in El Silencio, the island in Tigre that Monseñor Emilio Graselli sold to the ESMA ‘gang’, according to the investigation published by Horacio Vertbitsky. “In that book,” says Daniel, Thelma’s son, “Vertbitsky writes three times that my mother gave an interview to ‘Para Ti’ magazine. She didn’t give it, they forced her to – that’s very different. I called him several times to clarify this, but he never answered me.”

Thelma was one of the last to arrive on the island. Cavallo and the ESMA gang had taken her with false documents to Uruguay to pose for a fake interview that was published on 22nd August 1979 in the false newspaper News World, part of the Unification Church cult. The article included the phrase: “I’ve been kidnapped by the Montoneros”.

The article was reproduced by the official state new agency, Télam, and several local newspapers that published it as fact. In this way, the dictatorship preempted the reports of Thelma’s disappearance that would be filed a few days later by Familiares in a meeting it had with the IACHR. Carlos Muñoz, another ESMA survivor transferred to the island, testified in the trial: “Orlando González, alias ‘Hormiga’, who was photographer for the Navy Club, took the photos of Thelma in Uruguay, which I developed, where she was shown in typical places in Montevideo, as though in some kind of exile.”

Thelma in the 'fake' article in Para Ti magazine in 1979 (photo courtesy of Mu)

Thelma in the ‘fake’ article in Para Ti magazine in 1979 (photo courtesy of Mu)

The Operation

The same day that the IACHR arrived in Buenos Aires, Para Ti magazine published on its cover a fake report with the headline ‘The Mother of a Dead Subversive Talks’. Five pages, several photos, and one argument: a mother discredits the accusations of the Mothers.

When Thelma gave an extensive testimony in the trial of the ex-commanders of the dictatorship, on 24th July 1985, she detailed that before that interview she was taken to a hairdresser on Av. Cabildo. Then they bought her clothes in Once. The interview was held in Cafe Selquet, in the Belgrano neighbourhood. The byline of the article belongs to Eduardo Scola and Tito La Penna was the photographer. Both testified as witnesses in the investigation into the crime committed with this fake report.

Thelma shoots: “They don’t give me any explanation. They tell me that Para Ti wants to know some things. They tidy me up a bit. The journalist puts a recorder on the table and asks me two or three questions that have nothing to do with anything. All very dry. The photographer is standing; he moves around, and looks nervous. It’s all very quick. Afterwards I see that in ESMA everyone has the magazine. They pass it around – ‘look’, they say. They don’t show me. But something happens after the article. They take me to an office where every day I have to copy out something – clips from newspapers, with some paragraphs highlighted. I have to copy out these paragraphs by hand. It’s crazy. I think it’s just a way to keep us there, obeying, like slaves. This goes on for a long time, quite a few months. In that office, with the door closed. One day the door flies opens suddenly and a young officer shouts at me: ‘You must hate us for what we have done to you’. I tell him: ‘I don’t think that. I don’t hate. I just feel a great pain, for you and for us.”

What did they do to you with that report?
“I didn’t know while I was kidnapped nor for a long time after coming out, because I had never read Para Ti.”

Wounds

Thelma realised what they had done months after being released, on 7th December 1979. Her son, Daniel, who had returned to Argentina to form part of the so-called ‘counter offensive’ [by the Montoneros] was detained. Thelma heard the news from Cavallo, who travelled especially to Corrientes to tell her personally. Outside the jail, as she waited to see her son, she was rebuked by the relative of another political prisoner, who shouted “Traitor!”. He had read – and believed – the article in Para Ti.

This time, Thelma closes her eyes and shoots: “Sometimes they hold dances. The guards, they like to dance. They put the radio or some records on – tango and anything modern. The guards start to dance. The kidnapped girls – they are so young – are forced to dance. And the bosses come, the ones that give the orders, and dance too. Like in the hall of a club or living room, they dance. And we watch, without saying anything. We never know how anything will end. Never. So we look at each other, silent, like watching a dream, a bad dream.

“Seeing those faces, so evil and repugnant, making sure they don’t do anything bad to us, that we don’t hit the bottom. Those faces, right out of a horror film. Terrible, so terrible. The effort to guard even your expression, because it seems like any gesture we make could serve as an excuse to harm us further. It’s so strange what happened to us. Not to speak, to observe. Not do anything that might give them a reason to make things worse. Hold it in, so that they don’t kill or torture anyone. Holding on, and holding on… To think now that my sister-in-law is going to ESMA to dance. She is retired – they pick her up at 9am, take her to ESMA, they have breakfast, talks, conferences, lunch, everything. And they dance.”

You never went back?
Never again.

Daniel, Thelma’s son, asks me if I think it’s possible that a torturer, a monster like Cavallo, could have come up with a media strategy like the one they forced on his mother. He connects the dates, the coincidence of the campaign designed by Burson Marsteller and that article in Para Ti, in the context of all the support that [the magazine’s publisher] Editorial Atlántida gave to the dictatorship. He is aiming at the heart of press operations that are now prestigious: Burson Marsteller has just been named Latin American Agency of the Year 2013 by the specialist marketing publication, The Holmes Report. In Argentina, its brand new client is Monsanto.

Thelma has an altar in her room with images of Christ, Sai Baba, the pyramid of Plaza de Mayo, and the photo of her son Gustavo. Every afternoon she recites a long list of prayers that she writes herself for an infinite list of names that she chooses herself. She has a bundle of little papers where she writes the prayers and names.

I ask her to write my name, and the photographer does too. Thelma writes them by hand, for her infinite list. And she fires: “My son Daniel asks me what I find in this spirituality. Peace, I tell him. That’s what I need. That’s what we all need.”

I understand: Thelma’s eternal prayer is against impunity. And for the truth.

Translated by Marc Rogers.
lavaca logolavaca.org is a communications co-operative founded in 2001, and produces a web page, monthly magazine MU, and radio programmes that can be reproduced freely. Our home is the cultural centre ‘MU Punto de Encuentro’, at Hipólito Yrigoyen 1440, Congreso, Buenos Aires.

 

 

 

 

 

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Army Chief Denies ‘Irregularities’ in Kidnapping Investigation


César Milani after being promoted by the president (Photo: Tito La Penna/Télam/dsl)

César Milani after being promoted by the president (Photo: Tito La Penna/Télam/dsl)

Army Chief César Milani has denied receiving any special treatment or immunity in the investigation into his alleged role in the kidnapping and torture of Ramón Olivera and his father, Alfredo, in 1977.

In an official press release issued yesterday, Milani rejected claims made by the Centre of Legal and Social Studies (CELS) that his testimony and defence was given more weight than those of the victims. “It is false that, for being the current army chief, I am afforded impunity or the possibility to be tried under a different standard of proof,” said Milani.

On Saturday, CELS reported that there were “serious irregularities” in the Milani case in La Rioja after the prosecutor Michel Horacio Salman called for the investigation into the army chief to be closed because the acts of which he is being accused are not considered crimes.

Milani, who in 1977 was a sub-lieutenant based in La Rioja, has been named by Ramón Olivera on several occasions as being the person that transferred him from a clandestine detention centre to the courts in La Rioja. In July 2013, Olivera also declared that he recognised Milani as leading the operation to kidnap his father, Alfredo.

However, Salman determined that the accusations of Milani’s involvement in the detention of Olivera were “unfounded”, and that participating in the transfer of prisoners as ordered by a federal judge was not a crime. In response, CELS said that this gave validity to anti-subversive legislation approved in the 1970s that has since been repealed.

“Salman is the third prosecutors to be involved in the case. He has not pushed the investigation forward, and only three months after taking the case he asks judge Daniel Herrera Piedrabuena to close it,” read the statement from CELS, which also published a detailed and critical analysis of Salman’s actions.

The organisation concluded that if the request to close the investigation was upheld by the judge, it would mark “the biggest setback since the reopening of trials for crimes against humanity in 2001.”

 

 

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (0)

Argentina News Roundup: 9th May 2014


Domestic Trade Secretary Augusto Costa and Economy Minister Axel Kicillof report on Precios Cuidados (photo: Paula Ribas/Télam/lz)

Domestic Trade Secretary Augusto Costa and Economy Minister Axel Kicillof report on Precios Cuidados (photo: Paula Ribas/Télam/lz)

Government Fines Supermarkets: Economy Minister Axel Kicillof announced today that several supermarket chains have received fines for a total of over $31m for not complying with the ‘Precios Cuidados’ price agreement. In a press conference this morning, Kicillof informed that “the level of compliance [with Precios Cuidados] of all the chains was of 73%” for the first quarter of the year. Coto was the chain with the highest rate of compliance, at 82%, followed by Carrefour (77%), Cencosud (Disco, Vea, and Jumbo; 73%), Día (70%), and Wal-Mart and Chango Más (58%). The minister highlighted the people’s role in reporting episodes of non-compliance, saying that they received over 30,000 calls from consumers. Despite the first quarter being “complicated and tortuous in getting the programme started,” Kicillof said that “we have noticed a marked decline [in food prices] which is heavily linked to the success” of Precios Cuidados. The economic team expects that fewer fines will have to be applied in the second quarter of the year.

Fire That Killed Eight People Could Have Been Intentional: A fire that destroyed a house killing a man, a woman, and her six children aged between four and 13, could have been caused by the woman’s ex-partner, authorities said. The incident occurred on Thursday at around 1am at a poor neighbourhood in Moreno, Buenos Aires province, when the house was set on fire and the family, who was sleeping in it, died as a result of smoke inhalation. The judge in charge of the case has issued an arrest warrant against the woman’s ex-partner and father of her youngest child, Cristian Méndez, who is being investigated for aggravated murder and gender violence. The family of the woman, Karina Flamenco, said that she had reported her ex-partner to the authorities seven times, the last one being on 7th March. “They caught him, he was hospitalised, and then he ran away,” said Flamenco’s father. “She lived in fear. The children couldn’t sleep out of fear.” Over 60 police officers have been deployed to find Méndez.

Legislators vote on yesterday's session (photo courtesy of Buenos Aires City Legislature)

Legislators vote in yesterday’s session (photo courtesy of Buenos Aires City Legislature)

New Law Allows Cafés to be Set Up in Parks: The Buenos Aires City legislature passed a bill yesterday which allows bars to be set up in public parks. The law will permit private “service areas” to be set up in parks of more than 50,000m2, such as Parque Centenario, Parque Saavedra, Parque Sarmiento, and others. These areas will “serve food and/or bottled beverages” but will not be allowed to sell alcoholic drinks or cigarettes, and should not affect the park’s “common use or their public space nature”. Permanent permits will be conditional to the cafés providing services such as restrooms, free wi-fi connection, bicycle parking, and book loans. The bill was passed by 36 votes from PRO and UNEN against 19 votes from Kirchnerist and left-wing legislators. Social organisations and neighbourhood assemblies, joined under the common name of Red Interparques y Bares, protested the vote and denounced being intimidated and attacked upon exiting the legislature. Protesters claimed the bill will result in “a reduction in green spaces” in the city, and that because of this, it is unconstitutional.

In the same session, the legislature passed a bill transferring ownership of properties that functioned as clandestine detention centres during the last military dictatorship —such as the ex-ESMA, amongst others— from the city of Buenos Aires to the national state, and dissolving the Space for Memory Institute (IEM), a self-governed and autonomous institution which brings together human rights organisations. The bill, supported by PRO and Frente para la Victoria (FPV), was criticised by some human rights organisations, such as Madres de Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora, whose president Nora Cortiñas stated: “[The IEM] was the only autonomous and independent space left. It’s a shame that this turned into a big business.” The transfer is yet to be ratified by the national Chamber of Deputies.

 

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Latin America News Roundup: 21st February 2014


Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, in 1975.

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, in 1975.

Haiti – Ex Dictator Could Face Human Rights Trial: An appeals court in Haiti has ruled that the former dictator Jean Claude Duvalier can face trial for alleged human rights abuses between 1971 and 1986. The court overruled the decision in 2012 by first instance judge Jean Carves that the time in which Duvalier could be prosecuted for human rights crimes had expired, and ordered an investigation to determine whether a new trial should be called. The verdict ruled that under international law, crimes against humanity are excluded from statute of limitations. Duvalier, nicknamed ‘Baby Doc’, also faces charges of corruption, theft and embezzlement; he has denied all charges brought against him. During Duvalier’s 15-year rule, thousands of Haitian civilians were murdered, tortured, or disappeared. He was forced into exile for 25 years after a popular revolt in 1986, but returned to Haiti in 2011.

Brazil Calls In Army To Beef Up World Cup Security: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced that the army will be called on “if necessary” to control street protests during the 2014 World Cup. “Brazil is ready to guarantee the safety of its citizens and visitors,” declared Rousseff as she unveiled a R$1.9bn (reais) security programme for the tournament. Civil, Federal, and Military Police forces will also coordinate security programmes in the 12 host cities. The announcement comes soon after the death of a Brazilian cameraman who was hit by a flare during violent protests in Rio de Janeiro, the latest in a series of demonstrations that began in July 2013.

Venezuela – Government Revokes Credentials for CNN Journalists: CNN International and CNN en Español confirmed today that the Venezuelan authorities had revoked the press credentials of seven journalists working in the country. The notification came hours after President Nicolas Maduro criticised the media channel for its coverage of recent protests. “They want to show the world that there is a civil war in Venezuela,” said Maduro yesterday evening. “Enough war propaganda! If you do not rectify things, get out of Venezuela, CNN!” The decision came during another day of protests in cities around the country by opposition group Voluntad Popular, led by Leopoldo López, who was arrested on Tuesday. Last night, prosecutors dropped charges of murder and terrorism against López, though he will remain in custody while other charges – including arson, inciting violence, and damage to public property – are investigated.

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin AmericaComments (1)

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On the 4th anniversary of the death of former president Néstor Kirchner, we revisit Marc Rogers' 2011 article analysing his legacy.

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