The Legacies of Torture in Central America

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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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in El Salvador, El Salvador's Civil War (1980-1992), Guatemala, Guatemala's Civil War, Human Rights Issues, Impunity, Torture, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

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