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On This Date in Latin America – September 16, 1976: Argentina’s “Night of the Pencils”

September 16, 2014 Comments off

Given the recent discussion of memory and military dictatorships, it seems worthwhile to recall one of the many horrific events of Argentina’s military dictatorship: La Noche de los Lápices, or “Night of the Pencils.”

The Night of the Pencils had its roots in the military junta that had taken power six months earlier. Citing political instability, the new regime launched the “Process for National Reorganization,” commonly referred to simply as El Processo. Asserting a centralization of power in the hands of the (military-led) executive branch, through El Proceso the junta (led by Gen. Jorge Videla) gave the military executive, judicial, and legislative powers, launching widespread censorship, undermining habeas corpus, and setting up the mechanisms through which the regime would use torture and “disappear” anybody who it deemed a “subversive.” However, such a term was intentionally loose, and the result ended up being the military arbitrarily arresting, torturing, and usually murdering anybody who deviated in the slightest from the military’s own political, economic, social, cultural, or ideological vision of the nation. In the subsequent months, the military forces arrested and disappeared anybody who was associated with diverse movements ranging from labor unions to student groups, from liberation theologians to peasant activists, to those who professed even mild sympathies with leftist (or left-ish) worldviews.

It was in this context that the Night of the Pencils happened. Dissatisfied with mounting educational and living expenses, a number of high school students began to mobilize for lower bus fares, part of the quotidian struggles that were part of broader social issues for the Unión de Estudiantes Secundarios (Union of High School Students; UES). On September 16, 1976, military forces moved, committing the first of what would ultimately be sixteen kidnappings of high school students between the ages of 16 and 18, as the first salvo in trying to dismantle the UES. However, some of those kidnapped had had no affiliation with the UES; yet the mere suspicion, on the part of the military, led to their arrest and  Across the next several nights, the military brutally tortured and disappeared many of those kidnapped; only a few would survive to confirm the fate of their colleagues.

The military did not act alone in the Night of the Pencils (named because the targets were high school students), however. Military authorities acted after receiving a tip from Catholic priest Christian von Wernich. The students had admitted to their involvement with UES to the priest in Confession; Wernich, violating the secrecy of the confessional, revealed to the military the students’ political activism. His participation was not surprising; many in the Catholic hierarchy agreed with the military over the perceived “threat” of “subversion” to the Argentine nation, and were more than happy to collaborate with the regime. Wernich also was present in the prison where the students were tortured to death, according to the few survivors.

Though some of those survivors remained imprisoned until 1978, ultimately it was through them, and their memories of torture, that the fate of their colleagues became known. Likewise, their accounts played a vital role in the eventual arrest, indictment, and conviction in 2007 of Wernich, who was found guilty of complicity in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the students from the Night of the Pencils, along with dozens of other cases of torture and disappearance; a court sentenced Wernich to life imprisonment.  Meanwhile, the tortured and murdered students stand out as one of the early cases of state repression under the military’s (problematically-named) “Dirty War,” and their names have become a part of the broader historical record of torture and repression that is remembered annually on March 24, Argentina’s Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.

The Night of the Pencils was not exceptional, but that fact alone makes it worth remembering. From the targeting of unarmed citizens, to the use of torture, to the disappearance of the regime’s victims in order to “silence” the historical record, to members of the Church actively collaborating with the repressive regime, the Night of the Pencils is all too representative of the actions and legacies of Argentina’s authoritarian regime. But it is this representativeness that makes the Night of the Pencils all the more important to remember: not only does it undo the regime’s efforts to silence and erase from the historical record those who disagreed with or merely challenged it by bringing those victims and their stories back into the broader historical narrative of life under military rule in Argentina; it also reminds us that, far from unique, thousands upon thousands of Argentines suffered similar experiences, and that those experiences, and the memories of them, are vital to understanding broader historical narratives and processes not just of Argentine history, but of Latin American history more generally.

The Brazilian Truth Commission after One Year

December 3, 2013 Comments off

The truth commission investigating repression and state-sponsored violence during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985 has recently completed a full year of work, and issued a report of some of its major findings after one year:

Part 1. Hiding of Documentation from the Brazilian State. The Brazilian Navy deliberately concealed information from President Itamar Franco in 1993, when he requested information from the Brazilian Navy, Army and Air Force regarding political disappearances during the dictatorship. By cross-checking a 1972 report of deaths from the CENIMAR with its 1993 response to President Itamar Franco, Truth Commission analysts concluded that in 1972, the CENIMAR already recorded the deaths of many political prisoners, whereas in 1993 they reported that these same individuals were variously exiled, disappeared or imprisoned. The released documents on the 11 individuals presented by Heloísa Starling was the only disclosed information  from the CENIMAR, whereas 12,071 pages of similar documentation remained undisclosed to President Itamar Franco.

Part. 2: Chain of command within the DOI-Codi. “Ultra-secret” documents detailing the structure of the DOI-Codi (Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations), the organ of political repression responsible for the disappearances, tortures and deaths of individuals arrested for opposition to the military regime, reveal that its chain of command reached and included the Brazilian Ministers of Defense, thus implicating the Brazilian State in crimes against humanity. The documents included a chart illustrating how local Secretaries of Defense, the Federal Police and other arms of government intel had three direct lines of communication to the Ministers of Defense—revealing two more in addition to the one of which was known. According to other documents, the DOI-Codi of Rio de Janeiro perpetrated 735 cases of torture between 1970 and 1973.

Part. 3 CENIMAR recognizes violence against its own agents Documents reveal that soldiers were trained by the CENIMAR to become infiltrators of leftist and revolutionary groups, notably to participate in the Student Movement. In a letter to the Minister of the Marines, the Commander of the CENIMAR recognizes that violence was done to one such double agent and that his actions were “full of merit.” This document shows that violence done to double agents was perpetrated to the same degree as normal revolutionaries, and it did not deter further violence, but rather it was seen as an occupational hazard.

Part. 4 The Use of Torture: 1964-1968

The Truth Commission’s research shows that torture had been used as a means of interrogation as early as 1964. It had been originally accepted that the use of torture had began with the Institutional Act Number 5 (“AI-5″), whose suspension of habeas corpus made torture de jure legal. Whereas torture as a means of repression did skyrocket after the imposition of the AI-5, the Truth Commission found that torture has always formed the base of  repression since the installment of the military regime in 1964. Moreover, in 1964, all of the forms of torture which would be used throughout the entire period of the dictatorship had already been taught, used and established as early as 1964.

These are important findings, but not for their newness. Indeed, almost all of these matters have been well-known, and even documented, among historians, activists, human rights workers, political scientists, sociologists, and others. Indeed, taking the issue of the military hiding documents (points #1 above) as an example, this has long been a source of frustration to human rights activists and historians alike: the former because it has prevented the full knowledge of the experiences of the tortured and disappeared and those who perpetrated these acts, the latter because it has made archival work on the period more difficult. However, it has not made such work impossible. Indeed, the numerous branches of secret police and state security apparatuses that operated during the dictatorship resulted in an alphabet soup of organizations like DOI-CODI, DOPS, SNI, DSI, CENIMAR, etc. that were a part of the state’s broad repressive apparatus. Thus, while documents like CENIMAR reports are harder to come by, one can find them annexed or cited in the DOPS archives in the State Archive of Rio de Janeiro or the DSI archives at the National Archive. Indeed, documents that military officials insisted never existed are cited with regularity in other security apparatus reports, suggesting that they not only existed, but have been concealed for decades.

So if we’ve known all of this before, why does any of it matter? Well, in no small part, because it is finally the state doing the investigating. For example, regarding the state’s use of torture from 1964 to 1968, this was no secret – numerous victims have provided oral accounts of torture in that period, and sometimes it was publicly visible. Likewise, the military government itself had to issue a decree against torture in the first months of its regime, particularly after journalist Márcio Moreira Alves published thorough accounts of military torture. So the fact that the military tortured between 1964 and 1968 was not new to anybody who has studied the dictatorship. However, the state itself had never taken responsibility for it; rather, the more general officialist narrative insisted torture only came after AI-5. Again, there were numerous historical, activist, and sociological accounts that revealed how false that narrative is, but it had persisted nonetheless. With the Truth Commission’s official recognition of the state’s use of torture from the very first days of the military regime, the Brazilian state is finally acknowledging the systematic use of torture from its inception, rather than just in the “years of lead” from 1969 to 1974 (and beyond). Indeed, the point stands for all four of the conclusions mentioned above. Even if they were known, the fact that the state is acknowledging these facts at long last is more than symbolic, as it provides any number of psychological, historical, and legal points of closure and helps to build for future understanding the military regime in Brazil (and hopefully preventing future repressive regimes).

That is the biggest benefit of the truth commission’s findings thus far, but it’s far from the only reward. Particularly regarding the chain of command in DOI-CODI and in the military’s use of repression against its own agents, the commission has shed new light on processes scholars only previously had incomplete understandings of. Certainly, works like Ken Serbin’s have revealed the use of military repression against its own members, but the fact that it committed “acts of violence” even against its own double agents, and justified such violence. Likewise, while scholars long had a general sense of the chain of command in DOI-CODI, an infamously violent security apparatus, the truth commission’s findings have brought that sense into sharper focus, more concretely demonstrating a direct correspondence between the security apparatuses and the highest levels of government during military rule, a correspondence that was long suspected through the fragmentary archival records available but never in such detail.

Overall, the truth commission’s report after one year has to be considered a success, albeit a qualified one. After all, the truth commission still lacks the authority for any prosecutorial actions against those members of the regime who conducted torture, murder, and other forms of state violence. Additionally, the fact that the commission is operating more than 25 years after military rule actually came to an end means that many of the highest-ranking officials who ordered, oversaw, or were aware of such state-sponsored violence have long since passed away, meaning they could never face either prosecution or the public scorn that such findings might create. And some have even complained that its investigation only into the state violence, and not oppositional violence, is problematic (an assessment I understand but do not fully agree with). Nonetheless, the fact remains that the truth commission has finally provided state acknowledgement of repressive actions it had long ignored or denied, even while shedding new light on processes scholars often had glimpses of but lacked the archival resources and materials available to the commission itself. It will definitely be worth watching what paths the commission takes in the coming months, what its final report says, and how those findings are received by the public writ large.

Around Latin America

September 11, 2013 Comments off

-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).

-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.

-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).

-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.

-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.

-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.

-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.

Chiquita Trying to Shirk Responsibility for Aiding Terrorist Organizations

August 26, 2013 2 comments

Banana companies have long had a horrible history in Latin America, based upon political corruption, economic exploitation, and even the overthrow of democratically-elected regimes. Yet the horrible practices of multinational fruit companies in the region is not a relic of the past, limited to the twentieth century. Just in the last decade, Chiquita Brands International (which was originally the United Fruit Company, which in turn played no small part in the 1954 Guatemalan coup that led to 36 years of civil war and violence that left 250,000 people dead or missing) was found to have given money to Colombia’s Autodefesas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-defense Forces of Colombia; AUC). Given that the US government declared the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary organization,  to be a terrorist organization in 2001, Chiquita’s funding of the AUC was a criminal act.

Yet today, Chiquita is fighting to prevent further knowledge, details, and understanding of its ties to the AUC to become public, filing a lawsuit to prevent the release of thousands of pages of documents. While such an act already smells like more than a little bit of a coverup, the fact that Chiquita is framing the issue as one of victimhood is even worse:

Despite the clear and existing evidence that Chiquita had engaged in criminal activity, Chiquita is arguing that under Exception 7(B) of the Freedom of Information Act, mandatory disclosure provisions do not apply to “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”

In an effort to portray the multinational corporation as the real victim in this case Chiquita’s lawyer, James Garland, argued that the disclosure of the documents “will make them available to the general public, including members of the press and individuals and organizations that seek to distort the facts surrounding the payments that Banadex (a subsidiary of Chiquita) made to the AUC under threat of force.  Past experience with release of Chiquita’s documents has demonstrated that media campaigns based on gross mischaracterizations of released documents are certain to occur in an effort to entrench misconceptions of relevant facts in the minds of fact finders integral to the fairness of the proceedings.”

Furthermore, Garland has engaged in a campaign alleging that the National Security Archive is not an independent research organization, but instead is seeking to assist lawyers involved in a class action lawsuit against Chiquita in Colombia, on behalf of the victims of paramilitaries, in addition to an ongoing criminal investigation of former Chiquita employees in Colombia.  The fact that the National Security Archive would not have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing if it had never happened in the first place seems lost on Garland.

This is not just a case of some benign, consequence-free series of financial transactions, either. In 2007, the families of over 400 murdered and tortured individuals sued Chiquita, pointing to the company’s support for the AUC and the AUC’s subsequent violence as leading to the fruit company’s responsibility, and the AUC has long been known for targeting civilian populations and worsening the violence in Colombia’s nearly 50-year civil turmoil. That it is doing so while trying to prevent further understanding of the nature of Colombia’s civil war, and the ways multinationals affect and are affected by it, is disturbing; that Chiquita is framing itself as the victim, while disregarding the actual dead and their loved ones who suffered at the hands of the right-wing paramilitary forces Chiquita itself was giving money to is simply vulgar.

What Force-Feeding Looks Like

July 8, 2013 Comments off

Though reports on the story have been relatively slight in comparison to far more trivial matters that gobble up more TV time, for at least the past four months, detainees at Guantanamo have been on a hunger strike, protesting the conditions in which they are kept, the lack of charges or trials, and regulations that are outraging even the defense attorneys that the Pentagon itself appointed. In response to the strike, US forces at Guantanamo have begun force-feeding the detainees. Though earlier reports already indicated the violence and horrors of forced feeding, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) volunteered to go through force-feeding to illustrate what it is like. The results are difficult to watch (and that is putting it mildly), and the video is graphic, so be forewarned. That said, it is quite effective at conveying just what forced-feeding looks like, and it’s hard to see how it could not be considered torture by many definitions of human rights, not just in Guantanamo, but wherever force-feeding prisoners is used.

When Public Anger & Political Frustration Ignore History

June 22, 2013 4 comments

As readers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about the Brazilian military dictatorship from a variety of angles, including how the military came to power amidst civilian calls for the military to remove constitutional president João Goulart. The idea of military intervention was not new, as the military had previously interjected itself into presidential politics with various levels of success or failure in 1889, 1930, 1937, 1945, 1954, 1955, and 1961. However, the military intervention of 1964 led to a dictatorship that employed torture, killed “subversives,” and repressed those who questioned it. In short, the last time Brazil turned to the military to “solve” its problems, the military ended up ruling through dictatorship, relying on the institutional use of repression to murder hundreds, torture thousands, and exile tens of thousands more, even while implementing economic policies that caused very real long-term harm to much of Brazilian society.

Which is why it is still baffling to see something like this in 2013. Yes, they claim that “We do not support dictatorship. We do not support any type of violence. We don’t defend torturers.” So presumably, they think a military intervention in 2014 would be different than the one fifty years earlier (and even if it’s coincidental, the symbolism of calling for a military coup fifty years after the last one is not exactly encouraging). Yet this is either naive, willfully ignorant, or trolling, plain and simple. Once military officials take office, there’s little ability to force them to leave, as Brazilians learned in the 1960s; the middle classes and conservative elites who’d called for military intervention expected the military to leave power quickly, once things had “stabilized.” When it became clear that military leaders like Artur Costa e Silva had no intention of doing so, the public had little to force the military out.

And if one is tired of the violence in the streets, turning to a military institution of any color is not exactly the means to peace. Indeed, though a small number of vandals have marred the demonstrations, an overwhelming majority of the demonstrators have been peaceful, while it has been the military police [a militarized police force] that have been behind an overwhelming and disproportionate use of violence against civilians in the streets. It is hard to see why further relying on militarization will suddenly bring an end to that violence.

And perhaps somewhat ironically, the facebook page itself says that comments from people who don’t like the page will be deleted. You know…censorship. Like the kinds that military governments have used not just during Brazil’s military dictatorship, but in military interventions like the creation of the Estado Novo in 1937, or in military interventions regimes throughout the region throughout the 20th century.

The hypocrisy, ignorance, and disregard for Brazilian history makes me think this page really is just trolling. But even if it is, the worst part is that it is still contributing a dangerous discourse that views the military as salvationary, and some people will take that idea seriously, even if the page’s creators don’t (and there’s nothing to indicate they don’t). Either way, as Brazil in particular and Latin America more generally in the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated, turning to the military for political intervention was repeatedly damaging to political stability, democracy (in various forms), and human rights. That such ideas are still floating around in the 21st century is just shameful.

The Legacies of Torture in Central America

April 11, 2013 1 comment

As scholarship and human rights reports have repeatedly demonstrate, the effects of torture on the human mind and body have long-term ramifications, and many of those victims continue suffer from both the psychological and the physical effects of torture decades after the regimes that committed such torture have left power. Two reports from Central America add to the demonstrated effects of torture and of the brutality of past regimes.

In El Salvador, a report on torture composed 27 years ago finally saw publication, making the stories of those who suffered torture at the hands of the state during the civil war of 1980-1992 public.

More than 40 torture techniques are described in detail and depicted in drawings in the report.

One of the most commonly used techniques was the “avioncito” (airplane), in which the victim’s hands were tied behind his or her back and the victim was suspended in the air from the wrists, often causing dislocation of the shoulders.

In the “capucha” (hood), a plastic bag was placed over the prisoner’s head, to partially suffocate them, while the “submarino” (submarine) involved simulated drowning.

Other methods were electric shock, cutting off the tongue, or destroying the eyes with chemicals. [...]

The book also provides profiles of torture victims who were forcibly disappeared.

And of course, this was not a human rights crisis that involved only Salvadorans. As a journalistic investigation uncovered, the US sent officer James Steele, a Vietnam veteran, to work with forces responsible for torture in El Salvador. Later, none other than Donald Rumsfeld sent Steele to work in Iraq.

Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency [...]

A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding.

Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.

The US’s ties to repressive regimes and torturers in Central America in the 1980s is generally well-known among those who study the region or US foreign policy; that the US then redeployed to Iraq people tied to torture in Central America is a new, if semi-unsurprising, twist. And of course, a culture of impunity prevents those in El Salvador (and those in the US who aided them) from facing trial for their actions.

While a culture of impunity continues to reign in El Salvador, the same cannot be said for Guatemala, as the trial of former general Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide continues (a trial in which current president Otto Perez Molina’s name has been tied to past atrocities, charges he unsurprisingly has rejected outright). Last week, indigenous women who suffered systematic rape in the early-1980s while Ríos Montt was in power took the stand to testify about the terror and brutality they suffered at the hands of the state under Ríos Montt’s government. As powerful as the story is, the accompanying picture is perhaps even more so – 30 years after Ríos Montt was in power, she covered her face before testifying, revealing the ways in which the crimes of the past continue to haunt her present. Nor was she the only one:

[A] second woman to take the stand wept as she told the court that she had been raped by a series of men over three days in a military post in the Quiche department in the country’s heavily indigenous highlands region in 1982.

“They tied my hands and feet,” and raped me, she said, “Not just me but my mother, too.”

Her testimony is as sadly powerful as it is sadly familiar, as military regimes from Argentina to Guatemala and numerous countries in between used rape and torture to intimidate and terrorize their populations. That , after 30 years of impunity, Ríos Montt finally has to confront these crimes in a courtroom is no small step towards justice. At the same time, it’s another remarkably sad, if all-too-familiar, reminder of the long-term legacies of the regimes that operated throughout South and Central America (often with US support) from the 1960s through the 1980s.

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