Tag Archive | "human rights"

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.”

 

 

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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.

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Cuba and Mexico Elected into UN Human Rights Council


Human Rights Council (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Eric Bridiers)

Human Rights Council (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Eric Bridiers)

The UN General Assembly has voted both Mexico and Cuba into the Human Rights Council yesterday to represent the Latin America and Caribbean region at its annual election.

Mexico gained 135 votes and Cuba, 148. The two nations will replace Ecuador and Guatemala, whose three-year terms come to an end in 2014. Uruguay also contended a position, but  received just 93 votes.

According to Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, the result offers “resounding recognition of the hard work carried out by Cuba in this field.”

The US, alongside other countries and human rights organisations, have criticised the governments of Cuba, Russia, and China (which were also elected for the Human Rights Council) for their performance in the area of human rights. It was stated that the election of such countries undermined the council’s credibility.

Human Rights Watch spokesperson Peggy Hicks stated: “With the return of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, human rights defenders will have their work cut out for them at the Human Rights Council next year.”

The Council was created in 2006, with 33 members and it is now comprised of 47 nations.

Representatives from both countries will work in Geneva, the location of the headquarters of the organisation.

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Ambulances and Villas: Beyond the Reach of the Emergency Services


A smear of late morning cloud cover lingered above Villa 21, a shantytown tucked in the southern corner of Buenos Aires. From the corner of her eye, Estefanía Rodríguez noticed a trail of smoke sailing upwards from the corrugated tin roofs towards the winter sky. She called 911 right away, speaking urgently into the receiver. “Please come running because there is a fire in Villa 21 by Av Iriarte, please come as soon as possible.”

When Estefanía hung up and went outside, a man they called ‘Bird’ and his friend were already there. This was a family house, he told her; he had seen the mother and her kids around. She started to yell at them for standing around and gossiping — why hadn’t they pried the doors open already? — but she stopped herself. There were so many locks that it would have been impossible.

***

Avenida Iriarte in Villa 21-24, Barracas (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Villa 21-24, Barracas (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Estefanía’s testimony of what happened on 26th July 2012, along with that of her neighbours Rubén Figueredo and Walter Sinchicay, husband and father of the victims, appears in a formal complaint issued to the courts a year ago this November. They recount how a house fire killed a young pregnant woman, Leonela Berrioz, and her sons, Rodrigo and Román, aged seven and one, respectively. Her four-year-old daughter, Brisa, was rescued by neighbours, but suffered severe burns on 50% of her body.

Co-author of the complaint, former public defender Roberto Gallardo (now a judge) calls what happened that day “paradigmatic” of similar incidents in the southern neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. The suit contains another five cases, which combined demonstrate what Gallardo calls a “systemic issue”.

“All of them are undergoing the same problem,” he summarises, “which is that claiming a lack of safety, the ambulances don’t go in.”

For the residents of these marginalised neighbourhoods, it is a recurring problem with devastating consequences. In another emblematic case in April 2011, two ambulance paramedics – currently on trial – refused to travel 200 metres into Villa 31 to treat Humberto ‘Sapito’ Ruiz, who suffered multiple epileptic seizures awaiting their help, despite police protection and the accompaniment of his family members. And, exactly almost one year after the Villa 21 fire, newspaper Página 12 reported residents of Villa 15 sent two police officers to the hospital with injuries after resident Juan Mercado Camargo died waiting for an ambulance that never came.

For those inclined to read legal documents, Gallardo and public defender Mario Kestelboim’s 34-page complaint, while certainly stiff, isn’t dry. It lays out a bold accusation of “abandonment of persons leading to severe harm to the victim’s body or health or followed by death.” ‘Abandonment of a person’ is a criminal offence under the Argentine Criminal Code, charged of those who put another person’s life or health in danger, either by placing them in a hazardous situation or by failing to care for someone under their charge. “Additionally,” it continues, “as one of the victims was found to be pregnant at the moment of the occurrences, the accused parties should answer to the death of the foetus.”

The complaint takes ‘abandonment of a person’ and ‘death of a foetus’ a step further by outlining a controversial motive: “the existence of a systematic effort aimed towards the segregation of more impoverished sectors of the city of Buenos Aires based on their economic condition and nationality.”

And the accused parties? Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, his former health minister, Jorge Daniel Lemus, and current System of Emergency Medical Attention (SAME) director, Alberto Crescenti.

Mayor Mauricio Macri inagurates a fleet of new ambulances - but how many will enter the villas? (photo courtesy of BA City Government, via flickr)

Mayor Mauricio Macri inaugurates a fleet of new ambulances – but how many will enter the villas? (photo courtesy of BA City Government, via flickr)

***

Rubén, who had arrived at a run, climbed on top of a nearby roof and began to toss water at the fire through an open second story window. He leaned down, waited anxiously for the bucket to fill, carefully shuffled as close as he dared so as not to spill, then launched the water at the flames. They hardly sputtered. With barely enough water pressure to fill his pail, the process was painfully slow. Again and again he wet the growing fire. Suddenly he froze, holding the bucket still for a second, then stumbled toward the others down on the ground. His voice broke wildly. “There are people inside. Kids. I can hear them.”

Estefanía went in search of the prefecture officers who sometimes patrolled the area. No one. She searched for gendarmerie officers; they sometimes made rounds too. No one.

She returned to the house, now wrapped in thick smoke, where she could see ‘Bird’ charging towards it with a club. Estefanía charged in the opposite direction, towards her own house, towards the phone.

“Please hurry, there are kids inside and they’re burning!” The voice on the other end told her to calm down, they already had the address.

***

Whenever the issue on emergency services in the villas rises to the surface of public discourse, stories of attacks on ambulances and their personnel come with it. In December 2010, at the eviction of Parque Indoamericano in Villa Soldati, Crescenti went on the air to say that SAME ambulances were shot at when they went to treat other gunshot victims. “We want to help, but if they kill us, we can’t help anyone,” he bemoaned.

In April 2011, crowds were widely reported in major media outlets to have swarmed around an ambulance in Villa 31 with “sticks and stones”, though police reports could not confirm this. What the mainstream media didn’t make clear at the time is that this happened a few days after Ruiz had died waiting for medical attention, a tragedy that had ignited fury among villa residents.

Transcripts of SAME radio communication between dispatchers and ambulance personnel cited in the complaint quote paramedics radioing in to refuse to respond to the Ruiz call, explaining that it’s “very dangerous” and asking for permission to lend a stretcher to bystanders so they could carry the patient out instead. At one point, an ambulance driver says, “I’m not staying anymore because any second now all the negros [a derogatory term used to describe dark-skinned people] are going to come and create a terrible mess.” He later tells the operator to send Crescenti himself because “all the negros are there waiting for us.”

“The discourse of ‘well, we’re unsafe, we can’t go in,’ comes down from politics and the whole system works under that music,” says Gallardo. “The drivers don’t want to go in and if one does, the paramedic says, ‘no, we’d better not, they’re going to assault us.’ They all wind up in a kind of collective negatory behaviour. And there isn’t political management to impose the rules to tell them, ‘you have to go and if you don’t, we’ll start an indictment and we’ll fire you.’ This doesn’t exist.”

Reality is More Complex

“Padre!” Just a few kilometres west along Av Iriarte, which becomes Av Perito Moreno by the time it reaches Villa 1-11-14, the inflatable pool brimming with small children cheers Father Gustavo’s return to the chapel courtyard. They are the only ones capable of enthusiasm in the suffocating January heat. Inside the villa chapel, the ceiling fans pedal furiously, only stirring the sticky air. Recycled bottles wedged into the stucco as makeshift stained glass shine green, blue, and brown light down on me as I study a beautiful mural behind the altar. It’s a crowd of worshipers serenely gathered around a crucified Jesus with candles and flowers. I wait alone in the chapel for Father Gustavo with an un-labelled blue folder that contains Gallardo’s 34-page complaint.

When chatting with most middle-class porteños or perusing mainstream news coverage, you’ll be told that certain neighbourhoods — including most villas — are dangerous. But as Father Gustavo put it: “it’s always easier to say ‘these things are good and those things are bad.’ The reality is more complex.”

Sitting quietly in the front pew, he describes a “dominant discourse” that compresses the three-dimensionality out of popular belief about the villas — particularly that which allows for positive images. What is left, he says, is an assumption that “the villa is a place of terror; that it’s something bad, that there are bad people there who are all criminals…. The dominant discourse is that it’s like that and only like that.”

Work of art shows a map of Villa 21-24 at the new neighbourhood cultural centre. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Work of art shows a map of Villa 21-24 at the new neighbourhood cultural centre. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Over his shoulder through the window, I can see a queue of people waiting patiently outside with babies and paperwork in their laps. “I sleep here,” he says firmly. “I walk the neighbourhood at certain hours. Without being naïve, that’s not the only thing there is.”

According to Argentina’s 2010 census, many residents of southern Buenos Aires (namely Comunas 1, 8, and 7) are not originally from the capital. Some come from poorer neighbouring countries, such as Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru. Others come from poorer provinces in the ‘interior’ of Argentina. “They have come in search of something that they weren’t finding in their lands. And they’ve come with pain!” Father Gustavo explains. “‘I’m leaving because I don’t have bread to bring to the table everyday.’ ‘I’m leaving because I don’t have health care access.’ ‘I’m leaving because I can’t get schooling for my children.’ No one likes to leave, it’s a kind of self-imposed exile.”

***

After hanging up and returning to the fire, Estefanía found that ‘Bird’ had hacked a hole in the door. Through it stormed a great black cloud and behind it, a face. Rubén and ‘Bird’ hacked frantically at the hole until finally through it came a small figure — like a strange and sad birth — with burns visible on her arms and legs.

Though he said nothing then, afterwards Rubén told them quietly, in the same wild, broken voice, that as he lifted that little body up and towards him, he had seen a woman lying on the bed behind it. She must already have been gone, he mused, the fire was gnawing at her feet. But the other children’s cries were not; he swore he could still hear them.

***

“If something happens to you on Santa Fe and Callao,” Gallardo posits, “the ambulance is going to take between eight and 12 minutes to get there.” In making this calculation about two major traffic arteries in the heart of commercial Buenos Aires, he includes the time it would take for bystanders to react — not just the time it takes for the city’s emergency services to send help. “This doesn’t happen in the poor neighbourhoods. An hour, two hours, three hours, five hours, never! And we’re talking about the same cases: bullet wounds, stabbings, accident victims, burns…” He trails off.

Repeated efforts to reach SAME officials, including Crescenti, for comment in this article, over the course of several months were unsuccessful. The only information available is a series of case records with detailed information about the location, level of urgency, and response time for villa emergency calls. Or, that is, some calls.

SAME’s statistics for villa emergencies actually do fall close Gallardo’s estimates for downtown. In July 2012, for example, the month of the fire, the average response time for red alert calls in villas was 17 minutes. Only 10% of callers in a villa — of any level of urgency — had to wait longer than 40 minutes for attention. Although help can never come too soon, those figures seem reasonable. However, the averages are based on the 60% of cases for which total response time was actually clocked and recorded. A total of 418 cases went untimed during that month alone, leaving the possibility of deadly wait times open.

***

The Naval Prefecture had arrived (how or when Estefanía hadn’t noticed) and surrounded the fire. They ordered ‘Bird’ to lay the girl in his arms down on the ground, to back away, and not to touch her. As though still squeezed by smoke, her chest struggled to inhale clean air. This little one couldn’t do it alone. Estefanía knelt on the ground and pumped her palms against the chest, started to try mouth-to-mouth, but the officer told her not to. The child coughed and let out a little smoke. She told them to do something, to do anything. No, no, no, señora, wait for an ambulance, was the reply. Just as Estefanía started shouting, a woman arrived and explained that she was the child’s aunt. The small form, alone on the ground, was a little girl named Brisa.

Estefanía ran back to her house and called again. “You animals, there are babies in here! I don’t know what you’re waiting for!” It had been 15 minutes, but now time seemed measured in the length of flames that slithered about the house’s roof, reaching triumphantly upwards. Fifteen minutes yawned as wide as the unsurpassable breach between themselves and the officers and the house.

From the corner of her eye, its rooftop glinting in the daylight, Estefanía caught the sight of a van moving slowly down the avenue. No, not a van! An ambulance, a private one, there by coincidence. Just as she had dashed toward the phone once, twice, three times over, she charged into the street. And, as she had asked the officers, she now pleaded with the ambulance driver to take the little girl the kilometre and a half — a five-minute drive, if you didn’t rush — to the hospital. There was no paramedic inside, he said, he couldn’t take her. But there was no paramedic outside either, so finally he agreed and the little niece was lifted up off the ground and taken with her aunt towards Hospital Penna.

***

When I ask Father Gustavo about the possibility of mob violence affecting ambulance staff, he points out that when death looms, the loved ones of hospital and clinic patients frequently react with hostility too, but that medics feel safer there. “It’s difficult to accept that someone’s dying or has died,” he muses, doubtless speaking from experience witnessing the impressionistic — and often extreme — ways we perceive tragedy. “Our chronological clock isn’t the same as an interior clock: you see someone bleeding and ten minutes pass, but it seemed like an hour to you.”

Gallardo posits a sociological alternative to Father Gustavo’s largely psychological analysis: violence originating from the state being cycled back to its source. “If I have a child and he dies because the ambulance doesn’t come, what I suffer from is the violence of a state that defeats me, that doesn’t treat me. It treats others but it doesn’t treat me…. And that violence is reverted, returned to the system. How is it that people are so violent? Well, they are what they receive. If you have a sector of society that you are excluding, condemning, don’t expect Mother Teresa or Gandhi to come out of it! When they say, ‘the kids over there will stab you—they’re 15 years old and they’ll stab you!’, what do they expect from a kid who has been abandoned?”

A Way Forward

Between the possibilities that distressed residents got carried away because they overestimated delay times and that SAME personnel perceived exaggerated threats of violence because they were in unfamiliar territory, the evidence underneath any grounded conclusion begins to erode. On whether ambulance paramedics ever experienced any real danger from mob violence, Father Gustavo stands squarely in uncertainty. “An episode like that could have happened, I don’t deny it, but I’m not saying it did or didn’t.”

Yet this ambiguity doesn’t unsettle Gallardo, nor, he says, compromise the validity of his case. “The state can never pose a matter of insecurity as an excuse because it is the primary custodian of safety,” he explains. “So if I, as the state, do not deliver a service because the area is unsafe, I am failing at the basics. I’m failing at my police power; I’m failing to control my territory. That is, I don’t exist as a state…. As an argument, it seems inadmissible to me.”

Roberto Andrés Gallardo co-wrote the complaint against the city government. (Osvaldo Fanton/Télam/ef)

Roberto Andrés Gallardo co-wrote the complaint against the city government. (Osvaldo Fanton/Télam/ef)

When asked if this wasn’t just an infrastructural matter, an issue of narrow roads or unpaved streets rather than discrimination, Gallardo concedes that many villa passageways are inaccessible. “If [emergency medial responders] changed their decision, made a switch, they wouldn’t go in either because they have infrastructure problems to be able to enter, Gallardo hypothesises. “In the villas, the majority of what are called ‘corridors’ are very narrow places that might be two metres or a metre and a half wide and obviously an ambulance cannot enter.”

Father Gustavo makes a point to explain that in the last ten years, the state has been more present in providing things like proper sewers and streetlights in the villas, but it’s still making up for lost time in long-neglected areas.

But if the roads between doctors and patients are rocky, their relationship does not appear to be any less so. For one thing, Gallardo is adamant that the problem extends beyond villas to other poor neighbourhoods in southern Buenos Aires with proper street routes. Even within the lesser-developed villas, both Gallardo and Father Gustavo explain that many enjoy wider main arteries that would allow ambulances to come close enough to at least reach a patient with a stretcher.

***

As the little girl left, Alejandro arrived. He was Esteganía’s neighbour, in his early twenties and quick. He slipped through the front of officers, jumped the low wall, and lunged toward the house. That’s how they got the mother out, though she was already gone. The same was true for her foetus, once they got to the Penna Hospital’s neonatal unit and doctors preformed a Cesarian: they got it out, but it was already gone too.

“Just when the shouting and the dashing to try to save them had ceased and everything was silence and desolation,” Estefanía’s testimony reads, “at that moment, the firefighters, the ambulances, the police, and more prefecture officers arrived.”

Rubén was the one to lift the roof, drag away the boards of what used to be a wall, and pull the little boy out. Rodrigo was entirely burned from the waist up, his soft skin now brittle, peeling as though trying to escape his body. Rubén shook his limp body, trying to wake up the child inside the skin. The firefighter was there then —then! — telling him there was nothing he could do.

***

Alternatives have been suggested. Could the clinics already operating inside these neighbourhoods be opened 24 hours a day and used to house ambulances? Could the many ambulance drivers who are also locals take those calls? What about a list of medics who would be willing to accept “risky” cases in return for extra pay?

“Not one of the solutions we proposed was possible. All of them had a con,” Gallardo says, explaining that they turned to a complaint after the failures of their other suggestions. “[Public officials] don’t accept negotiated solutions. That’s why we wind up citing them or asking for judicial measures so a judge will order them [to do] such and such things: because there isn’t open-mindedness.

Villa 31 and Recoleta - poverty and wealth (Photo: Shooresh Fezoni)

Villa 31 and Retiro – poverty and wealth (Photo: Shooresh Fezoni)

“I want to make clear that it’s not just about seeking penal punishment. The punishment is for those who died, because it’s over. What we’re seeking is that there be coverage for those who need it now. The two things run parallel. It’s more than a matter of bearing witness.”

Since filing the complaint and accompanying documentation last November, Gallardo and Kestelboim’s allegations haven’t gone anywhere. As the next move belongs to the public prosecutor, those 34 pages are as much as their office can do for now.

Even if the complaint does ever reach the courts, Gallardo isn’t optimistic about an indictment. “In a pretty soft judicial system, it’s difficult to wind up with the politician responsible. Political officials always end up delegating their obligations to others at another level… The string is always cut at a lower spot.” What’s more, class-action lawsuits don’t exist in Argentine law, so any indictment would not automatically hold true for similar cases, only set a precedent for them.

Perhaps greater hope lies in the neighbourhoods themselves. Father Gustavo mentions that the villas’ history starts with immigrants who built cardboard settlements, turning them over the years into cityscapes of tin and cement. Gallardo talks of an “incipient framework” of activism, mostly budding from neighbours’ associations, slowing building “wingspan” despite frequent interruptions. Father Gustavo mentions the nearly 40 NGOs in his villa: “there are soup kitchens that started up feeding people but they didn’t just stick with that. They incorporated the issue of education, they incorporated the issue of protecting and empowering women, they incorporated and responded to other issues. This speaks to a level of organisation with a lot of potential.” Members of villa-based cooperative La Poderosa have even trained in first aid and driving to form their own neighbourhood ambulance service, ‘Ambulancieros Poderosos‘. With this legacy of community-driven urban and social service development, what further political barn-raising could emerge in the future?

Yet while grassroots programmes can supplement public services, when it comes to potential breaches of the law, there is no substitute for the state. Gallardo and Kestelboim’s complaint must be addressed; SAME may or may not be in the wrong in cases like that of the house fire in Villa 21, but until the issue is examined, the Buenos Aires judicial system certainly is.

Lead image by Maximiliano Kolus, via Flickr.

Posted in Analysis, Human Rights, TOP STORY, Urban Life, VillasComments (0)

Guatemala: Possible Amnesty for Ríos Montt after Court Ruling


Former President  Efrain Rios Montt (Photo: Wikiguate)

Former dictator
Efrain Rios Montt (Photo: Wikiguate)

Yesterday Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled to protect former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in his legal battle for amnesty over his role in the killings of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group by state security forces during his rule in the early 1980s.

The judges did not openly declare that amnesty should be granted to Ríos Montt, but upheld the validity of the decree underpinning his amnesty claim, which was issued in 1986 during the Óscar Mejía Víctores regime and provides amnesty to all members of the armed forces, without exception, for crimes that were committed during the internal armed conflict which began in 1960.

The ruling states that the Court recognises “The legal validity of decrees and laws issued by the Government of the Republic from 23rd March 1982, as well as all administrative acts made by the government in accordance with the law after that date.”

The decision suggests that the case against Ríos Montt be dropped because the Court “maintains the position of amnesty for the events of that period”.

Prensa Libre reports that the court ordered trial Judge Carol Patricia Flores to rule on defense lawyers’ motion for a dismissal of the charges against the defendant.

In May, Ríos Montt – who ruled the country from 23rd March 1982 to 8th August 1983 – was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity but the verdict was overturned by the Constitutional Court days later and a retrial was scheduled for April 2014.

In June, the Guatemalan Supreme Court rejected a motion to quash the prosecution, finding that the 1986 amnesty did not extend to genocide and crimes against humanity.

“There are crimes like genocide and crimes against humanity that have no statute of limitations, and for that reason there can be no amnesty decree,” Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez had said.

The latest ruling seems to overturn the June verdict.

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Haiti: UN Sued over Cholera Deaths


Haiti (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Haiti (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Human rights lawyers have filed a lawsuit agains the United Nations to seek compensation for Haitians who died from a cholera outbreak after a sanitation lapse at a UN camp.

The legal complaint comes days before the UN formally renews their mission in Haiti after a decade-long presence.

The outbreak is said to have claimed around 8,500 lives and infected nearly 700,000. The epidemic has been blamed on UN peacekeepers sent to Haiti on duty from Nepal, where cholera is present. The peacekeepers were stationed in a base situated next to a river that is considered a primary water source for towns in Haiti. The bases’ piping system, which caused raw sewage to leak, and the incorrect disposal of contaminated water are believed to be the major factors that caused the infection to spread.

A UN appointed panel of experts and other scientific researches conducted a study which determined that the particular strain of cholera found in Haiti is the same that is endemic in Nepal. A UN report from 2011, however, could not confirm how the cholera was brought to the Caribbean country.

A US group of human rights lawyers, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, have filed the claim along with their Haitian partner Bureaux des Avocats Internationaux and another civil rights law firm based in Florida.

A case against the UN of this scale is unprecedented in the US and the lawyers are facing a potential UN immunity, as the organisation has argued that it has legal immunity from compensation claims. This has meant that prior to the lawsuit, Haitian’s formal requests for compensation to the UN were all rejected.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, voiced support for the Haitians on Tuesday by stating: “I have used my voice both inside the UN and outside to call for… an investigation by the UN, by the country concerned, and I still stand by the call that victims of those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation.”

Addressing the UN at the 68th General Assembly last month, Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe stated that the organisation has a “moral responsibility” for the outbreak and criticised their handling of the contagion. A plan proposed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has revealed a US$2.2 bn project to improve Haiti’s sanitation systems, however, only a margin of the proposed figure has been raised.

Cholera is an infection that can cause severe diarrhoea, dehydration, and potentially death.

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Chile: ‘Luxury’ Military Prison to Close Despite Suicide


Cordillera

Penitenciario Cordillera (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

The Chilean government says it is standing by its decision to close a prison housing dictatorship-era military officials, convicted of crimes against humanity, despite the suicide of an inmate.

Former General Odlanier Mena Salinas – one the 10 inmates due to be moved from Penitenciario Cordillera in Santiago – shot himself at his home on Saturday. The 87-year-old was sentenced to six years in prison in 2008 for his role in the deaths of three opponents to the Pinochet dictatorship.

The former chief spy had been allowed to spend weekends at his home since 2011 and was due to be transferred to a different prison after Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced last Thursday the military prison – built in 2004 – would be closed.

“The decision, despite this tragic death, will not be altered and will be carried out at the opportune moment,” said Piñera in a brief declaration from La Moneda.

He also expressed his condolences to the Mena family, including son Hernán Mena Taboada, Chile’s ambassador to Nicaragua.

The decision to close the facility was sparked by growing public animosity towards the favourable conditions inside the prison. Local media recently reported the prison, located on an army base, has private bathroons, BBQs and tennis courts.

The president said it was a matter of “equality before the law.”

The prisoners will be transferred to Punta Peuco, another prison for human rights offenders 35kms north of Santiago. It currently houses 44 inmates, detained by 66 guards. Piñera has made no mention of the exact time or day the transfer will take place.

Penitenciario Cordillera’s 10 inmates  – including Manuel Contreras, former chief of Pinochet’s notorious secret police, who is serving combined sentences of more than 100 years for kidnappings and murders- had 35 guards.

The decision to close the facility is supported by opposition candidate and former president Michelle Bachelet, who was herself held during the dictatorship.

According to reports from Chilean news site, El Mercurio, Mena left a note saying due to his age he could not “accept the conditions of being detained in another prison.”

His lawyer told press Mena was in a fragile state and killed himself because he was “terribly affected by the relocation.”

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Bolivian Prisons: Self-Government or Anarchy?


In the early morning of 23th August, maximum security prison Palmasola, in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, erupted into chaotic gang violence that left 35 people dead. One of the largest prisons in the country, it is home to up to 5,200 prisoners, who operate by a large degree of self-governance.

The turf war that broke out inside the prison was caused by a competition between two rival gangs for a foothold in the prison hierarchy. The violence, which included machete fights and hand-made flame-bombs, lasted for four hours, as prison personnel struggled to regain control.

It was one of the worst episodes of prison violence recorded in Bolivia’s history, and has flagged up a number of entrenched issues that plague the over-crowded and largely unsupervised prison structure, not just in Palmasola but across the country. Despite the anarchy, the pressure for change from the international community came after the discovery that an 18-month child had been killed in the riot.

Children Under Arrest

Article 26 of Law 2298 on the Enforcement of Sentences and Supervision states that “the children of prisoners up to six years of age may stay in the prison establishments so long as the parent deprived of liberty is the minor’s legal guardian.”

Children living inside San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

Children living inside San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

If there are no other legal guardians to take care of them, and for many families this is often the case, these children grow up inside prison. Many of them will live with their mothers in all-women jails, but when this is not an option, children -girls and boys- are sent to live with their fathers in all-male prisons. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that there are over 2,000 children currently living inside prisons.

Having children in prison is a regular practice in South America, and indeed in the world, with countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, and Argentina having facilities for pregnant women and those with children up to the age of four. The Bolivian law was first introduced based on research suggesting that the presence of children encourages convicts to reform and rehabilitate, making the transition to responsible citizenship easier. Yet this mentality seems to be changing. In Ecuador, for example, since 2007, the programme ‘Ecuador without children in prisons’ has amassed over US$1.6m with the aim to re-house children living in prison into the homes of extended families or orphanages.

However, orphanages in Bolivia tend to be so under-funded that they can often be worse than prisons, and the alternative of leaving young children on the street is even more treacherous. In 2006, the Bolivian Interior minister, Alicia Muñoz, stated that “the absence of a social policy for minors in Bolivia means that when the parents go to prison, the children have no safer place to be than in the prison (…) In all, there are more than 3,000 children in the prisons of Bolivia.”

However, in Bolivia, prisons are notoriously unregulated. Despite keeping the family intact, abuses are rife. When children reach the age of six, in most cases an alternative guardian is still impossible to find. Some may be handed over to the state, but the low levels of regulation mean that some continue to stay on until they are old enough to fend for themselves outside.

Juana Ambrosio Arias, a member of Prison Fellowship Bolivia, estimates there are 400 children living in Palmasola, and in the last three months, there has been a police investigation into reports of sexual abuses.

Children playing in San Pedro prison, La Paz (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Children playing in San Pedro prison, La Paz (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The UN have also sent Bolivia an official warning, amidst previous allegations of child rape in the all-male San Pedro Prison, located in the capital La Paz, housing up to 2,300 inmates and 250 children. The director of the prison, Ramiro Llanos, complained that a 12-year old girl was raped several times by her father, uncle, and a godfather; all convicted murders.

In response, opposition deputy Mirtha Arce has demonstrated that Bolivian prisons breach 42 documents signed with international organisations based on the proper treatment of prisoners and the protection of minors.

Part of the problem seems to be that prison guards not only have a disregard for offenses on the inside, but many have an active investment in them. Corruption and bribery are an important problem, and through this, gangs are able to control sections of the prison.

Corruption

In the most recent riot, police have been accused of failing to intervene in the violence. Minister of Government Carlos Romero noted that only five police officers had been guarding prison block A, when one of the gangs was located, and a total of only 15 officers supervising the two blocks -A and B- together, despite housing more than 500 prisoners.

Maria Ines Galvis, the president of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights for the eastern Santa Cruz region -where Palmasola prison is situated- has claimed at least one police officer directly participated in the attack, opening the door for the rival gang to enter the other block.

These claims are reminiscent of the March 2009 riot in the San Pedro prison, where police were accused on using tear gas to quell trouble, indiscriminately targeting young families living inside.

Over-Population

According to Bolivian NGO Millennium Foundation, the country’s prisons are the second most overcrowded in Latin America, behind El Salvador, reaching up to 233% overcapacity. Its drug trafficking legislation may explain a large part of this overcrowding.

The Law on the Regime Applicable to Coca and Controlled Substances, more commonly known as Law 1,008, was passed in 1988 and was heavily influenced by the US war on drugs. The controversial law indiscriminately offers harsh punishment for any drug-related crimes, and in the majority of cases, only those with low level involvement shoulder most of the blame. Law 1008 redefined the connection between coca cultivation and cocaine, making the coca leaf, a traditional plant grown for centuries, illegal. In addition, the definitions of manufacturing, distribution, and selling of cocaine were increasingly blurred, and those suspected of any drug offenses – regardless of how minor – were imprisoned without pre-trial release.

Coca leaves (photo: Sten Porse on Wikimedia Commons)

Coca leaves (photo: Sten Porse on Wikimedia Commons)

According to a 1995 legal analysis by the Committee on Human Rights of the Chamber of Deputies, Law 1008 “establishes a criminal justice subsystem parallel to the regular criminal justice system, characterised by the tendency towards unreasonably drastic penalties.”

Additionally, the prosecutors are entitled to bonuses which are funded by the local US embassy according to the number of persons incarcerated. Therefore, there is little incentive to be cautious with pre-trial arrests and detainment.

The law has been recognised to be extremely severe, and it was been denounced as being unconstitutional. Reforms of the law began in 1996 with the Law of Judicial Bond and once again in 1999 with the Criminal Procedure Code. These reinstated a clause for conditional releases in pre-trial cases that involved long delays, and introduced more guarantees for prisoners to be granted the right to a state defence. Although this is a step in the right direction, many inmates languish in prison for many years without a conviction.

The last national census in 2004 recorded that 40.70% of the current prison population were incarcerated due to Law 1,008, and that 77.08% of all prisoners were still without convictions. Nine years later, the problem seems to have worsened. In Palmasola, the president announced that up to 84% of prisoners are being held pre-trail.

Self- Governance

According to a report by the General Directorate of Prisons (DGRP), in early 2006 the prison population was at 7,782 inmates, housed in only 54 prison facilities where the national government’s budget contributed just over USD$4m annually. This spending on food, health, and other basic services translated to less than USD$0.80 per day for food for each prisoner.

The severe lack of funding also meant that only 30% of the prisoners’ medical needs were covered. Unusually in Bolivia, prisoners must also rent their cells, with prices running into the thousands. This is usually paid to the local gangs who have established a hierarchy within the power vacuum left by security guards.

Therefore, when family units live inside the prison, parents must take sole responsibility for their welfare. In non-maximum security prisons, families must find their own means of surviving, relying on visits from friends or relatives who will bring them money. Spouses will often work outside the prison to supplement their income while children attend local schools during the day.

San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

San Pedro prison, in La Paz (photo: Danielle Pereira on Flickr)

However, in maximum security prisons, no-one is permitted to leave; even guards have dormitories on site. Confined to the four prison walls, children cannot attend local school or have access to 24-hour medical care. As a result, in prisons such as Palmasole and Miraflores, an active community has developed inside.

Prisoners have set up a vast network of social structures, from make-shift shops and hairdressers to schools and medical centres. However, unregulated and independently run, education and health services in particular are easily overwhelmed and ill-equipped, creating a chaotic and inconsistent system that often leaves the poorest most excluded.

In San Pedro, the largest all-male prison in La Paz, there are roughly 200 children reportedly living inside with their fathers, but there are only two nurseries.

Reform

In reaction to the Palmasola riot, Government Minister Carlos Romero explained: “Speaking self-critically, in the detention centres, in many cases, the inmates are in charge; the penitentiary system does not have enough control from the state and, logically, it is necessary to face up to a structural transformation of the penitentiary system, establishing control by the state with permanent and surprise inspections.”

As President Evo Morales also admitted that the state “has no presence in prisons,” a wide-spread reform of the prison system is likely to follow, which will step up security inside.

With regards to the problem of children living in prisons, Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllón announced on 25th June government plans to rehouse up to 2,000 children living in incarceration.  This gradual shift will first seek extended families to take on guardianship of the children, then state shelters, and finally surrogate families. However, whether children will be allowed to be legally put up for adoption is unclear.

The problem, however, exceeds the penitentiary system. As President Morales said, “the central problem is the Bolivian justice (…) If 84% of inmates are on pre-trial detention, where is the Bolivian justice then? Prisons are going to go explode if we do not resolved this issue.”

Posted in Human Rights, News From Latin America, Social Issues, TOP STORYComments (0)

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