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.
-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.
-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.
-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.
-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.
-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.
-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.
-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”
-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.
-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]
Greg Weeks points to this incredible, if harrowing, collection of photos from Operation Condor. The photos were found in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror,” which documented the deaths of tens of thousands of South Americans at the hands of military regimes and the collaboration between dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. We can and do talk about the horrors of human rights violations, the injustices of regimes that extrajudicially murdered their own citizens, and the sheer numbers of those who died under such regimes, but there is something about the photographs like those from Operation Condor that convey in a unique way exactly what that violence looked like on a daily basis for many.
Today, the genocide trial for former Guatemalan leader Efraín Ríos Montt begins (in spite of his failed attempts to have charges dismissed based on an earlier amnesty law). The trial marks the first time a former Latin American leader has been tried not only for human rights violations, but for genocide, as outlined in the findings of Guatemala’s Truth Commission. The charges against Ríos Montt for genocide are thus based on the military’s targeting of indigenous communities between March 1982 and August 1983, when he was in power. Survivors who witnessed the atrocities are set to testify in the case. For those interested, you can follow the trial live here.
The New York Times ran a piece (accompanied by incredible photos) on what the trial says about judicial power in Guatemala.
Guatemala’s justice system has begun a transformation. In a show of political will, prosecutors are taking long-dormant human rights cases to court, armed with evidence that victims and their advocates have painstakingly compiled over more than a decade — as much to bear witness as to bring judgment.
“It’s sending the most important message of the rule of law — that nobody is above the law,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general, who many here say has been one of the most important forces behind the change.
Certainly, it’s good to see the courts acting, and the fact that the military obeyed a court order to turn over documents in 2009 is an important step in respecting institutional authority. However, this only comes after nearly three years of judicial inaction. Ríos Montt did not just remain free for 30 years because of his own personal power or even his ability to count on political immunity as a congressman. For far too long, too many people in positions of power were willing to look the other way on his crimes. This option of inaction was not even limited to the court system; it also counted on “elite complicity, and political immunity,” as Kate Doyle put it.
In that context, it’s understandable why so many civilians also remained silent for years. This isn’t a case of blaming the victims for the slowness of Ríos Montt’s trial; it’s a damning reminder of the long-term impacts of military regimes that violate human rights with impunity (and often with the support, tacit or explicit, of the US). As scholarship on military repression and human rights violations in Latin America and beyond has demonstrated, the scars of military regimes long outlast the governments themselves. The arbitrary use of violence and torture, the disappearing of victims, the ongoing power of post-dictatorship militaries behind the scenes, and the physical markers of death on the landscape all create conditions in which many people fear speaking out, even in times of peace. Daniel Wilkinson’s Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala cuts right to the heart of this imposed silence. And while hundreds of thousands of victims will never be able to speak out, now that the Guatemalan judiciary, the legal system, and the military itself have moved beyond forgetting and begun to address the past, those who for so many years feared and remained silent will now finally have their chance to speak directly to the justice system.
In that regard, the story is simultaneously a story of historical institutional failures and justice through institutional transformation and autonomy. And yet, it’s only occurring 30 years later, reminding us that fear of the brutal and senseless violence of military regimes does not die quickly.
-While many in the Americas celebrated the announcement of the first American pope last year, not all citizens (including Catholic clergy) in Francis I’s home country are pleased with Bergoglio or the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina.
-It appears the long national mourning of Hugo Chávez may have hindered plans to embalm the late Venezuelan president.
- José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, the first economics minister of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, has died at 87. In a pattern that was not uncommon throughout the region, Martínez de Hoz garnered praise in the international community at the time for his imposition of neoliberal policies (policies that ultimately led to deindustrialization and privatization in Argentina), but whose imposition of such policies was accompanied by crackdowns on labor, repression, and human rights violations.
-In Brazil, former soccer player and current politician Romário is calling on Brazil’s Truth Commission to investigate Brazilian Football Confederation official Jose Maria Marin for his possible role in the murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1977 during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Meanwhile, in another reminder of how broken Brazil’s legislative branch is, evangelical minister and congressman Marco Feliciano, who has openly made racist and homophobic comments in the past, was chosen to head Congress’s Human Rights Commission.
-Several Nobel Peace Prize winners recently wrote in support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization that had been under criticism from member countries recently.
-It’s been more than 40 years since the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years, and activists, scholars, and others are calling on the Dominican government to form a truth commission to fully investigate and officially address the regime’s brutality (including the murder of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 alone).
-The US military has acknowledged that prisoners at Guantanmo are on a hunger strike, though it denied that the strike was “widespread.”
-The trial of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier for human rights abuses continues, and the defense seems to be struggling a bit. Duvalier’s attorneys asked one witness if she may have been arrested by mistake, her reply? “If I was arrested by mistake, I was imprisoned by mistake and forced into exile by mistake.”
-Activists in Argentina are pushing for judicial reform to make the system more transparent and “democratic.”-Guyana’s Parliament rejected a law that would have made it illegal to carry disassembled gun parts into the country, a law designed to reduce gun smuggling and gun violence in the country.
-Great Britain’s plan to require Brazilian tourists to acquire travel visas on hold for now.
-Finally, IPS had a fascinating story on how indigenous women in Chile are helping bring solar energy and clean energy into communities in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet.
Israel may have legitimate reasons to dislike the agreement between Iran and Argentina to establish a Truth Commission to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association. However, this is ridiculous:
Israel has strongly criticised Argentina for its decision to work with Iran to investigate a 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires. [...] an Israeli spokesman said the move was tantamount to “inviting a murderer to investigate his own killings”.
This kind of hyperbole is useless to the point of being offensive. The bombers themselves are not being appointed to investigate the bombing – five independent judges are. And does Israel really think the investigation will hinder the investigation? On what basis? Has the lack of a Truth Commission helped to lead to the arrest and prosecution of those tied to the murders in the last nineteen years? The answer is patently “no.” Creating a Truth Commission that can finally have access to and question possible suspects seems far more likely to lead to concrete conclusions on the bombing than anything that has taken place in the last nineteen years.
Again, Israel may have legitimate concerns over the agreement to form a Truth Commission, but these aren’t those objections. Instead, rather than supporting an effort to end impunity for people who murdered Jewish people in other parts of the world, Israel has apparently opted to express anger over a country signing any type of agreement with Iran, even one that seeks to address past injustices.
Last November, Iran and Argentina initiated talks that included discussions on investigating the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’ Associación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) that left 85 dead and over 300 wounded. Those talks were apparently serious, as yesterday, the two countries signed an agreement to create a truth commission to fully investigate the bombing, with five independent (non-Argentine, non-Iranian) judges investigating the attack. While Argentine courts have found Iran responsible for the bombing no convictions have resulted, thanks in no small part to investigative incompetence and ex-president (and current senator) Carlos Menem has been charged with obstructing the case while president.
As important as the agreement is, it does not automatically ensure justice. First, legislatures in both countries have to ratify the agreement. Additionally, while the commission (should it be approved) will question suspects in Iran, there’s no indicator if such questioning will be under oath or whether the suspects will be willing to talk. Complicating matters is the fact that the current Iranian Defense Minister has been tied to the bombing in previous accusations, an allegation that could affect Iran’s full participation.
More curious is the use of a truth commission here. Traditionally, such commissions have been internal committees to investigate human rights violations committed during previous governments, such as Argentina’s truth commission after the military regime of 1976-1983; Brazil’s current truth commission investigating its own dictatorship from 1964-1985; South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission that investigated (but did not prosecute) Apartheid-era human rights violations; or even Canada’s truth commission that investigated violations of indigenous rights in the country. That is not to say that truth commissions can only apply to historical situations of civil war or repression; at the same time, though, Argentina’s and Iran’s use of a bilateral truth commission between two countries to investigate just one event committed (possibly) by non-state actors seems to be a unique application of the idea truth commissions. That Argentina is involved is perhaps unsurprising; although South Africa is regularly held up as the example of a truth commission, Argentina’s truth commission into its military regime was among the first in the world, setting the stage for future investigations.
Nonetheless, this is a new arena for a truth commission. Should it go through, it could provide an interesting model on the deployment of truth commissions and investigations beyond domestic politics, expanding the utility, applicability, and even our understanding of truth commissions as institutions. Only time will tell whether this particular Argentine-Iranian truth commission will be able to exercise its authority, provide definitive conclusions (and possibly prosecution), and lead to some sense of closure for the victims’ families nearly 20 years later.
Brazil’s Truth Commission continues to conduct hearings and accept testimony from a variety of witnesses as it investigates human rights violations during the military regime of 1964-1985. Much of this testimony has been helpful in further fleshing out details that were previously assumed or generally known, helping to further enrich our understanding of the regime’s repressive measures and their impacts on those who were tortured or suffered political persecution in both the short- and long-terms. However, some of the testimony has been a bit surprising, perhaps most notably the testimony of Jair Krischke, who claimed that Brazil’s military regime was the “mastermind” behind Operation Condor.
Suffice to say, this is a somewhat surprising claim. Thanks to John Dinges’s excellent work, in which he worked in the (at the time) relatively-underutilized “Archives of Terror” in Paraguay, we know a good deal about Operation Condor. At its most basic level, the intelligence services from right-wing military regimes in Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru collaborated in political repression, torture, and “disappearing” alleged “subversives” from the region in an attempt to stamp out what they viewed as the communist threat. Through Operation Condor, which formally (albeit secretly) began in 1975, these countries would trace exiles’ movement throughout the region, and assist one another either by arresting and extraditing political targets to their home countries, or by torturing, murdering, and disappearing exiles from other countries (e.g., Argentina’s repressive forces would arrest and torture a Chilean exile). Operation Condor took the repressive violence of these regimes into the international arena, including not just the torture and disappearances of political opponents in the region, but even the attempted assassination on Chilean Bernardo Leighton in Rome in 1976 or the successful assassination of Orlando Letelier in a car bomb in Washington D.C. in 1976. Though the military regimes of South America collaborated, scholarship suggests that Augusto Pinochet’s government played the central role in Operation Condor’s operation, from its creation in 1975 onward, something Dinges’s work compellingly argues.
Which is why Krischke’s recent claims about Brazil’s role as a “mastermind” in Operation Condor are intriguing. Krischke points to Brazil’s use of torture and political repression in the immediate aftermath of the 1964 coup and in the increasing repression of the “years of lead” under Artur Costa e Silva (1967-1969) and Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969-1974) as setting the stage for broader international collaboration between the new right-wing dictatorships in Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973), Argentina (1976), and Peru (which joined Condor in 1980). Admittedly, Brazil did set the stage for many of the military regimes that followed (only Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship, begun in 1954, preceded Brazil’s), something that scholarship tends to overlook (too often, one sees phrases along the line of “the South American dictatorships of the 1970s”). Likewise, Brazil (and Paraguay) were among the first to use the types of repression and terror that would come to define the right-wing dictatorships throughout the region, albeit to varying degrees. But Krischke’s claim that Brazil “created” Operation Condor seems to stretch Brazil’s role to somewhat incredible degree. The mechanisms of repression and torture may have appeared in Brazil before in Chile and elsewhere, but Dinges’s work again does a very good job of showing just how involved Pinochet was, and how much the establishment of Operation Condor was a Chilean initiative. Indeed, by 1975, when these countries formed the secretive pact, Brazilian president Ernesto Geisel had already begun the process of “distensão,” or a gradual move away from the most repressive phase of the Brazilian dictatorship. Though Brazil was involved with Operation Condor, it was not nearly as dominant as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay. That’s not to deny culpability or responsibility to Brazil’s regime, but it is to contextualize what we know about Operation Condor, and different member countries’ involvement in it. Either Krischke’s claims are overstated, or we will be forced to completely reevaluate Condor’s origins and history; given the detailed research from people like Dinges and Peter Kornbluh and the political context of Brazilian military politics at the time of Operation Condor, it seems likely that Krischke’s claims, while perhaps not-incorrect in some regards, are an overstatement of Brazil’s involvement in Condor.
Last week, Argentina began trying 68 people from the infamous Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics, ESMA) who are charged with torture, murder, and “disappearances” (including via the so-called “death flights”) during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. It turns out, without some key evidence in Florida, the trial may not have taken place:
A plane discovered in 2009 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, allegedly used by Argentina’s military dictatorship to drop suspected leftists to their death into the Rio de la Plata, is now providing key evidence in the country’s biggest human rights case ever.
The trial – which began last week – is the third involving the Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA, the era’s largest clandestine prison. Former officials are being charged in hundreds of instances of kidnapping, torture, and murder, and proceedings are expected to last two years, with as many as 900 witnesses testifying.
Along with the plane, crucial documents revealing the airplane’s whereabouts during Argentina’s bloody Dirty War, which took place from 1976 to 1983, were also recovered. Two other planes used by the military of the same model – a boxy Irish-built aircraft called a Skyvan – were found in Luxembourg and Great Britain.
An investigation by Argentine journalist Miriam Lewin led to the discovery of the plane, which is currently being used to transport goods from south Florida to the Bahamas, the current owner said in a report broadcast on Argentine television. It is unclear whether the owner was aware of the plane’s history prior to being interviewed by Ms. Lewin.
“[The investigation] allowed us to find not only the planes but documents that identify the pilots that participated in those flights,” Lewin said in radio comments.
The path to trials for those who committed human rights violations during military dictatorships have often been winding and unique, but this particular case stands out. Scholars and rights organizations often embark upon methodical and time-consuming efforts to detail and report the methods of torture and repression used against people; sites of torture often become the scenes of important social debates over the importance of commemorating or forgetting the past; yet we rarely consider the fate of the actual instruments of torture themselves. Yet as this case reminds us, those mechanisms of repression, be they airplanes, weapons, or other instruments, also have a life that lasts beyond the military regimes that employ them, and in this case at least, those instruments of repression have found not only a second, post-military life, but a third life as powerful tools to help pursue prosecutions of human rights violators.