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On Volkswagen’s Ties to the Brazilian Dictatorship

February 2, 2015 Comments off

I recently received an email about Volkswagen’s ties to the Brazilian military regime, documented in the final report of Brazil’s National Truth Commission  (Comissão Nacional da Verdade – CNV), available for full viewing/download here. Stories of Volkswagen’s ties to the military regime and its repressive apparatuses began to appear last year, as the CNV was in the midst of its hearings on and investigations into the military-led authoritarian regime of 1964-1985, including the violation of human rights and both support for and opposition to the regime.

The first thing that sprung to my mind was the similarities and differences to Ford in Argentina. As Diana Taylor’s excellent Disappearing Acts points out, shortly after the Argentine military took power in 1976, Ford was quick to put out a full-page ad in January 1977 seeking a “New year of faith and hope for all Argentines of good will;” as Taylor points out, this did explicitly meant “Not all Argentines of course, just the ‘good’ ones.”¹ And the Argentine military commonly used the Ford Falcon as its vehicle of choice when it snatched people off the streets to take them to torture centers, often before “disappearing” them, to the point where people associated the Falcon with death, and the sight of one on the street spurred fear in many. Ford actually took advantage of this relationship, advertising the Falcon with language that invoked “feelings of male prowess and supremacy” akin to the military’s own rhetoric and gendered ideology.²

However, while auto companies and regimes were connected in both Argentina and Brazil, the nature of that connection still differed, as the case of Volkswagen makes clear. If Ford publicly supported the regime’s project of launching El Proceso to “reorganize” the country, Volkswagen was directly tied to the military-led regime itself in Brazil throughout the dictatorship. As the CNV found, Volkswagen worked to support the military’s political cause both before and after the coup of 1 April 1964. However, Volkswagen was far from alone. According to the findings of the CNV, just in São Paulo (the industrial center of Brazil), “the final arrangements for the coup counted on the participation of business leaders from the industrial sector, as much foreign as national.”³ These businesses in São Paulo numbered over 50 and, beyond Volkswagen, included transnational corporations like B.F. Goodrich, Firestone, Pfizer, Goodyear, and others, as well as dozens of Brazilian industries. Overall, well over 70 national and international companies collaborated with the regime throughout Brazil. In this regard, Volkswagen’s involvement is tragic, but not unique.

Nor was this support merely moral or material. As the article points out, and as the Truth Commission is quite clear, Volkswagen provided the military security apparatuses with access to its plant for the purpose of intimidating and torturing labor leaders. Such was the case of Lúcio Bellentani who, along with around 20 other metalworkers from Volkswagen, Mercedes, and other industries, were handcuffed at work and immediately tortured.4 This occurred in the midst of the “Years of Lead,” the period that saw the most institutionalized and widespread use of torture, “disappearance,” and violence not only against those who took up arms against the regime, but also those who worked to fight for better rights, mobilized popular movements, expressed an interest in social justice, or embraced other “subversive” causes, even in the flimsiest of cases (such as the infamous death of journalist Vladimir Herzog). It was no secret that the military regime enjoyed the support of many not just among the leaders of businesses in the 1970s, but even among many other Brazilians who felt that the growth of the economic “miracle” from 1969-1973 and Brazil’s status as tricampeão in 1970 swept many up in a nationalist fervor. Nonetheless, the case of Volkswagen demonstrates just how deep that support for the regime went, all the way up to aiding directly in the torture of perceived “opponents” and the violation of basic human rights.

However, there is something of particular interest in Volkswagen’s involvement. The CNV also found that Volkswagen worked closely as a mediator between the regime and other industries in São Paulo in 1983 to create a “Communitarian Security Center” [Centro Comunitário de Segurança, CECOSE] made up of other company heads and representatives from the military itself. CECOSE actually met in a Volkswagen plant, among other locations, working to share “information about the activities of workers, above all, labor leaders” in order “to maintain the political and patrimonial security within factories.”5

This is a major finding for studies on the dictatorship, for a number of reasons. First, most narratives of the regime portray the military as voluntarily and gradually “exiting” power as the regime transitioned to democracy, culminating in indirect elections of 1985 that led to the election of Tancredo Neves and finally, the direct elections of 1989, when Fernando Collor became the first popularly-elected president since 1961 (though Collor’s presidency would end prematurely as well, albeit for very different reasons than a military coup). While the use of repression did indeed decrease by then, the CNV findings on CECOSE and Volkswagen (and others) makes clear that a decline in overt repression and covert torture does not mean a decline in surveillance and the use of intimidation and coercion at the private level of industry. By 1983, when CECOSE formed, labor movements had rapidly spread in Brazil, certainly highly visibly in the metalworkers’ union in São Paulo in 1979 (and beyond), but, as my own work has argued, spreading to white-collar sectors, including doctors, engineers, university professors, public school teachers, and others, as Brazil’s inflation spiraled out of control (it was already 110% by 1981, and continued to worsen after that). That companies sought to collaborate to prevent labor movements from working for better rights is unsurprising; that they took the lead in such a project as the military regime was “retreating” is likewise predictable. But that military officers were also involved in coordinating and participating in CECOSE’s efforts to surveil workers and prevent labor mobilization even as the regime’s own economic policies were creating economic turmoil for both blue- and white-collar workers in the early 1980s is a new wrinkle, providing invaluable insight not only into the ways private industries asserted their own surveilling and coercive powers, but also the ways in which military agents themselves helped in the relocation of coercion through surveillance, ceding some of the authority the state had exercised in its most repressive phases to the private sector as it “stepped aside.”

All of this is to say that, in addition to shedding greater light on the relationship between private industry (national and multinational) and the military during Brazil’s dictatorship, the Truth Commission raises some new insights and questions for what had increasingly become a static and simplistic political narrative of the regime’s end.

¹ Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 111.

² Taylor, Disappearing Acts, p. 110

³ Comissão de Verdade, Volume II – Textos Temáticos, pp. 311-312.

4 Comissão de Verdade, Volume II – Textos Temáticos, p. 70.

5 Comissão de Verdade, Volume II – Textos Temáticos, p. 64.

Brazil’s Truth Commission – A Roundup

December 11, 2014 Comments off

Yesterday, on International Human Rights Day, Brazil’s National Truth Commission (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) concluded and submitted its report after over two years of work across 14 work groups and thousands upon thousands of hours of interviews, fact-finding, document-collecting, and site visits. The report is of remarkable significance, in part because it marks the Brazilian state finally beginning to fully account for the actions, atrocities, and human rights violations that the military regime of 1964-1985 and its supporters committed; in part, because it provides an even greater level of detail and of the systematic use of torture than we previously had; and in part because it has forced the most enduring and most public discussion on a military regime that Brazilians had tended to ignore and leave in the past in an effort to “move forward” without critically looking at the context and legacies of the regime.

There’s a lot to be said on the Commission, but there are a large number of reports in both English and Portuguese that cover the Commission’s findings and its context. There are a lot of different angles to consider: the report’s findings themselves; the question of possibly revoking the 1979 general amnesty that pardoned torturers and perhaps moving toward prosecution; the question of collective memory as survivors relive the events of the past; and even the gendered portrayal of a crying Dilma Rousseff when she received the report. Below is a list of some excellent pieces related to the Report. [Some are in Portuguese, but Google Translate can do a passable job in many instances.]

“Brazil Releases Report on Past Rights Abuses” (New York Times)

“Brazil president weeps as she unveils report on military dictatorship’s abuses -Dilma Rousseff was herself tortured; 191 people killed, 243 ‘disappeared’ – US and UK trained interrogators in torture during 1964-1985 military rule” (The Guardian)

“The Truth Commission: Know the report’s 29 recommendations” (BBC Brasil)

“Report will motivate new actions in the Justice system” (Folha de São Paulo)

“Truth Commission ended any nostalgia for the dictatorship’ says [Commission president] Pedro Dallari” (Carta Capital)

“Truth Commission’s report is ‘illegal,’ ‘partial,’ and ‘revanchist,’ says president of the Naval Club” (BBC Brasil)

“Dilma receives report, cries, and tries to appease military members’ animosity” (BBC Brasil)

“Dilma cries upon receiving the final report of the National Truth Commission” (Carta Capital)

“Brazil truth commission: Abuse ‘rife’ under military rule” (BBC)

“Ex-military try to bar the Truth Commission report in the Justice system” (BBC Brasil)

“Truth Commission report proposes changes in police, laws, and prisons” (BBC Brasil)

“Brazil releases truth commission report” (Memory in Latin America)

“Moment of Truth for Brazil’s military past” (BBC)

“For families of the disappeared, Truth Commission report has to be a ‘starting point'” (BBC Brasil)

“Truth Commission reopens discussion on the punishment of the military” (BBC Brasil)

“Final Report of the Truth Commission asks for partial revocation of the Amnesty Law and holds ex-presidents responsible” (O Globo)

“LGBTs suffered more aggressive tortures, cays Truth Commission” (BBC Brasil)

“Public Note: For the punishment of the torturers of the Military Dictatorship” (Carta Capital)

“Brazil Truth Commission: Victims Revisit Torture Cells” (BBC)

“Ex-militants visit women’s cells in DOPS where they were imprisoned” (BBC Brasil)

“‘Delivering the mortal remains to the family of a desaparecido [“disappeared”] was emotional,’ says Truth Commission chief” (BBC Brasil)

“Truth Commission confirms that Folha [de São Paulo] lent cars to the dictatorship” (Carta Capital)

“Argentina an ally in Brazilian state’s repression” (Buenos Aires Herald)

“In Rio, the ex-headquarters of DOPS has a dark past and doubtful future” (BBC Brasil)

“Truth Commission: What happens after the final report?” (BBC Brasil)

The Ties between the Ayotzinapa Killings and Argentina’s Military Dictatorship

November 8, 2014 Comments off

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.

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

June 12, 2013 Comments off

-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 the wake of an AP report that found that Brazilian car designs facilitate deaths from crashes, Brazil has begun plans to create its first-ever crash test facility.

-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.]

South American Dictatorships in Images

May 17, 2013 1 comment

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.

Genocide, Judicial Power, and Justice in Guatemala

March 19, 2013 Comments off

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.

 

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