Over a month ago, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, went “missing” after mobilizing and protesting for improvements in Mexico’s educational policy and social system. Within days, authorities had uncovered mass graves; yet the bodies were not of the students, making a bad situation even worse in revealing the depth of murder and “disappearance” of bodies in one of Mexico’s most violent states, where drug gangs have infiltrated not just the police force but the very mayoralty of Iguala itself. (Vice News, of all sites, has a useful timeline here.) As I wrote then, if ” it turns out that the graves aren’t even the students’ remains, then not only are students still missing, but apparently other people have been murdered and dumped unceremoniously in hidden graves in an attempt to “erase” evidence of them, which is even worse.” Yesterday, state authorities announced that the students were indeed dead, cremated (some while still alive, apparently), and their ashes dumped, according to a gang confession.
Alma Guillermoprieto wrote a piece this week that covered not so much the events as their significance, especially with regards to the relationship between the state and society, as a group and class of citizens whose voices the state all too often ignores and whose rights it disregards finally made themselves heard.
Emiliano Navarrete, a slight man in a baseball cap who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was the last relative to speak.
“I am the father of a boy who, for me, is not disappeared,” he began. “For me, he was kidnapped by men in uniform who are municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero.” His face was stretched taut against his skull from tension and the stress of speaking in public, and his stumbling Spanish revealed his Indian origins. “Why does this government act like this?” he went on, searching for words. “We are not sheep to be killed whenever they feel like it.”
Even the cameramen, normally so noisy and cynical, were listening closely. “I haven’t come here to ask for any favor,” Navarrete shouted now, in his rage. “I’ve come to demand [that our children be found], because I am a citizen of Mexico, and I have rights.”
The following day government security forces were deployed by the thousands in and around the towns of Iguala and Chilpancingo. They mobilized in tanks, helicopters, vans, and motorboats.
The Mexican state’s response to the events in Iguala is indeed belated, as Guillermoprieto notes; yet as she also notes, it is in some ways remarkable that the state has mobilized at all, in light of how many times people have been murdered, their rights as citizens disregarded as the state failed to act to investigate or prevent such deaths, something the dozens of bodies who weren’t the students but who were uncovered in the wake of their disappearance reinforces.
Yet of all the parts of Guillermoprieto’s piece that stuck out to me, it is perhaps the last sentence, almost tossed out as an aside, that struck me. She writes,
[T]he spokesman for the families, Felipe de Jesús de la Cruz, has reiterated their position: they will only accept proof that their sons are dead in the form of positive DNA test results analyzed by a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists, who have been acting as independent investigators throughout the search.
The reliance on Argentine forensic anthropologists is notable here. As many are aware, the wake of the military dictatorship that governed Argentina from 1976-1983 murdered and “disappeared” tens of thousands of Argentines, dumping some into the Atlantic Ocean but dumping many more into unidentified mass graves. In the wake of the dictatorship, a unique and previously-underdeveloped branch of anthropology developed, one that sought to be able to identify the bodies the families of the disappeared who sought to resolve the fate of their loved ones. As Rita Arditti has shown, organizations like the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo drew on their plight and on their international connections to help spur the scientific community into new areas of genetic testing to identify remains of victims, providing not only closure for some but also helping to identify the “lost children” whom the regime and its allies had kidnapped and adopted after murdering their parents. To the present, Argentine forensic anthropologists are among the best in the world when it comes to trying to identify the bodies of the missing. While Guillermoprieto does not say as much, it seems highly likely that those forensic anthropologists who have worked in uncovering and identifying the disappeared in Argentina have been brought in to aid in Mexico. Their presence serves as a haunting and powerful reminder both of the tragedies of the disappeared in the past and the present, and of the importance of the ongoing quest for justice, be it in the history of Argentina or in the more recent events of Mexico.
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.
-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.
Erik Loomis points to this fascinating map allegedly marking “every protest on the planet since 1979.” The piece explaining the map itself, however, acknowledges the limits of taking such data too far:
The map also shows some of the limits of Big Data — and trying to reduce major global events to coded variables. Take, for example, the protests across the United States in late 2011: Some are Occupy protests, others are Tea Party protests, but the difference in the political identity of those demonstrations isn’t reflected in the map. There are some strange things that happen when the data are mapped, as well. A cursory glance at the map would suggest that Kansas is the most restive state in the union, but really the frequent protests popping up somewhere near Wichita are every media mention of a protest in the United States that doesn’t specify a city (the same goes for that flickering dot north of Mongolia in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia).
Another issue is that the results are only as good as the data. While the scale of GDELT’s database is impressive, it’s influenced by its source: international news reporting. Kalev Leetaru, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University working on the GDELT project, told FP by email that the apparent uptick in protests around the world starting in the mid-1990s may be misleading. “In some other work we are doing right now, preliminary results suggest that as a percentage of all events captured in GDELT, protests have not become more common overall,” he explained. “So, the majority of that increase in protest events over time stems from the increase in available digital media,” especially news.
However, there seem to be some other very real issues, perhaps most notably in exactly what constitutes a “protest.” In looking at this map, one might think that South America has historically been remarkably “inactive,” especially through much of the 1980s and 1990s. Certainly, the presence of repressive dictatorships in Chile (until 1990) or Argentina (until 1983) helps explain some of this “inactivity.” However, no state is so strong as to completely quell or silence protest; notably, in the case of Argentina, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo gathered regularly to protest the disappearance of their children as early as 1977, and with increasing frequency (and increasing participation from other sectors of Argentine society) throughout the early-1980s. Yet the map seems to ignore all of these protests, with just the occasional “blip” in Argentina in the 1980s; thus, while the map marks an occasional protest in Argentina, it appears to disregard and exclude the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo regularly. This cannot be attributed just to press silence – international news sources were increasingly covering the Madres as the dictatorship wound down. It is not clear what a “protest” is in the map-data, but apparently, the Madres de la Plaza and their supporters are not included.
Nor are they alone. Brazil is inexplicably “invisible” both in 1984 and in 1991-1992, yet these two moments marked two of the most massive and profound series of protests and rallies in Brazilian history. In 1984, as the Brazilian dictatorship was winding down, millions of people throughout Brazil took to the streets in the Diretas Já movement, demanding direct elections and protesting the regime’s exit through the indirect selection of a president. Ultimately, the movement culminated in over one million people gathering in São Paulo alone. Yet on the map, there is not a single “blip” in Brazil in all of 1984, in spite of the numbers of rallies and protests. It is possible that the Diretas Já movement was excluded, given that it was as much in favor of legislation that would create direct elections (a bill that Congress ultimately rejected); such exclusion seems a bit silly, given that those who rallied in favor of the bill were from opposition parties and organizations that opposed the dictatorship, but perhaps the definitions of “protest” used excluded Diretas Já.
That does note explain the absence of regular and significant “blips” in Brazil in 1991-1992, however. In those two years, the issue of rampant corruption in President Fernando Collor’s administration (ironically, the first directly-elected president after the military dictatorship of 1964-1985) led to growing outrage in Brazil. Led by university students who painted their faces (thus leading to their being labeled the Caras Pintadas, or “Painted Faces”), Brazilians took to the streets, demanding Collor’s impeachment and frequently protesting in front of Congress in Brasília, as well as in major urban centers throughout the country. These were unquestionably protests by any definition, and they were not small-scale; as the depth and sheer scale of corruption in the Collor administration became increasingly apparent, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people were in the streets, demanding Collor’s removal. He ultimately resigned in 1992, due in no small part to the visible moments of anger and public protest against his administration. Yet on the map, Brazil is completely inactive, lacking even one single “blip” to mark any of these protest in this period. And it’s not like press censorship or a lack of awareness can explain away this gap – this was the top story in Brazilian media for months, and international media outlets also likewise paid it significant attention, especially as the protests continued and Collor’s corruption was further revealed. There is simply no explanation as to why the map completely fails to register these protests other than the fact that, in spite of its claims otherwise, it does not cover “every protest on the planet since 1979.” And if the gaps are that obvious in Argentina and Brazil, what other parts of Latin America, or of the world, are completely and erroneously neglected in the data-gathering that led to the map in the first place?
To be clear, this is not to toss out the map altogether – it does indeed provide a fascinating glimpse into mobilization on a global scale. But the absence of any marker of protests in Latin America at times where protests were common and massive indicates that the map has some very real limits as well, not only in terms of quantitative limits, but in the very qualitative nature of what constitutes a “protest” and why some groups that were clearly leading large protest movements are not included in the data.
-Two former executives from Ford in Argentina have been charged (among other things) with having ties to the abduction of 24 workers for Ford during the military regime of 1976-1983.
-El Salvador’s presidential election is shaping up to be a close three-way race, according to new polls.
-Mexico’s government says it will release a report that finds the number of disappeared in Mexico is “much lower” than an initial report that claimed that tens of thousands have been disappeared as part of the violence that has defined part of the drug trade in Mexico. Nonetheless, Mexico’s government has created a special unit to investigate and try to track down the fates of the tens of thousands of “disappeared” caught up in the drug trade and violence in Mexico.
-In what is perhaps curious timing, even while Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction for genocide has been annulled, former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo was extradited to the US, where he will face charges of corruption and money laundering. As Mike Allison points out, the trial in the US provides another reminder that, although Guatemala’s courts are not as corrupt as they once were, they still have a long way to go, a fact that the recent decision on Ríos Montt all too tragically demonstrated.
-Speaking of institutional failures and undoing justice, a Brazilian court has overturned the 2010 conviction of landowner Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura for his role in the murder of land activist Dorothy Stang in 2005. It is the second time a conviction of Bastos de Moura has been overturned, though he will remain in jail while a third trial takes place. Meanwhile, three other, poorer men hired to murder Stang remain in prison without having access to multiple trials and a court system favorable to their cause the way it is to the wealthier and more powerful Bastos de Moura.
-Chile has fined Canadian mining company Barrick Gold and suspended all operations at the Pascua-Lama mine after environmental degradation, water contamination, and other environmental issues. Though seemingly large, the fine represents only %0.1 of the cost of operating the mine.
-Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes is facing criticism for his inability to deal with criticisms after he punched a man in the face while out to dinner last Saturday.
-Ten years since the rise of “Kirchnerism” in Argentina, poverty has declined, though to what degree and by what metrics are apparently up for debate.
-Efforts to reforest and aid the environment in Latin America have slowed to a crawl, caught in bureaucratic red tape, political fear of social movements, and a slowness (or unwillingness) of governments to help environmental causes in the region.
-Digital currency business owner Arthur Budovsky, whose company, Liberty Reserve, operates in Costa Rica, was arrested in Spain this week on charges of money laundering.
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.