Stories of the torture, murder and disappearance of political opponents in US-backed South American dictatorships resurfaced again recently, with the declassification of documents revealing, among other issues, US knowledge of the multinational campaign of state terror known as Operation Condor.
Dr Carolina Villella, a lawyer from the organisation Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights organisation, deems the recent declassification extremely important.
“This is the first time that the US government has provided access to documents by the intelligence agencies for the State Department,” she said.
Villella also said the revelations are “a new opportunity to have a better comprehension and knowledge about the facts and events of the last dictatorship in Argentina”.
In March 1976, Jorge Rafael Videla, the commander in chief of the Argentine Army, led a military coup. He deposed President Isabel Peron and proclaimed himself to be president of Argentina two days later. From 1976 to 1981, Videla’s regime was characterised by the torture, murder and disappearance of socialist political opponents. Some 30,000 Argentinians are estimated to have disappeared during Videla’s rule. The period is known as Argentina’s “Dirty War”. It was part of a regionwide state terror and extermination programme known as Operation Condor.
Among the documents is a lengthy testimony that Alfredo Bravo, co-president and co-founder of the Argentine Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, gave to the US Embassy staff in Buenos Aires. Bravo, who was tortured by the Argentine military junta after they abducted him in 1977, includes a brief but direct statement to former US officials at the embassy in Buenos Aires. The testimony, Bravo stated, was given to “show you what you are fighting for,” after officials helped to secure his release.
Standing out from the generalised documentation of torture, Bravo’s testimony outlines specific details corresponding to each torture session he suffered. US knowledge of torture is clearly conveyed, as Bravo’s release was negotiated by F Allen Harris, a political officer at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Excluding detention and transit, Bravo experienced 11 sessions of torture and interrogation. The “rastrillo” was applied – a form of torture in which electric shocks were given using an instrument resembling a four pronged rake – without any preliminaries. Bravo remembers being “so full of electricity” that his jaw and tongue became temporarily paralysed.
One of the most gruesome accounts given by Bravo involved group torture. Prisoners were forced to hold hands and an electric current was applied to the group. During the same torture session a woman was raped by the interrogators in the presence of other male prisoners, while another round of torture involved sodomising a male prisoner with a rifle, killing him in the process.
Bravo recalls: “One of the guards said, ‘Shove your gun up his anus’ and suddenly a muffled shot was heard.”
By the fourth torture session, Bravo was questioned about groups and individuals opposing the Videla dictatorship. This shift in questioning to a wider network, which included human rights organisations and individuals living abroad, corresponds to other released documents which detail the regional and international aims of Operation Condor.
Bravo also recounted how, during transfer from one detention centre to another, the prisoners were pushed out of the vehicle and their captors opened fire on them. Other torture practices included heavy beatings and the “submarine” treatment, during which Bravo was held under water for several minutes to simulate drowning.
The 11th and final torture session was of a more psychological nature. The Buenos Aires Provincial Chief of Police threatened Bravo that “if he talked of what happened to him he would be found to have committed suicide.” That night, Bravo was placed in a cell “with a hangman’s noose hung from a pipe.”
US knowledge, collaboration and complicity
Other documents dated 1978 confirm US knowledge of Argentina’s torture and forced disappearance of political prisoners as part of Operation Condor.
A document from the US Department of State refers to “a human rights source contact in the medical profession whose reporting has been reliable in the past” having informed the US embassy of political prisoners being injected with an anesthetic called “Ketalar”, which causes the individual to lose consciousness. “Source alleges that subjects are then disposed of in rivers or the ocean,” the report concludes.
Death flights, a common practice during the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, were usually carried out at night. Soldiers would “package” the dead bodies, weighed down appropriately to ensure sinking and loaded on helicopters provided by the US.
The document indicates that a number of political prisoners were not murdered before being subjected to the death flights, but rather that the death flights were themselves a form of murder as well as disappearance.
Two months later, a document dated September 4, 1978 affirms how the US, despite knowledge of Argentina’s death flights — a trend also common to Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, opted to provide further support to Argentina by promising helicopters, along with other types of military aid. “As a token of our interest we have taken steps to export licenses for ambulance aircraft, army helicopters, airport radar equipment and other items,” the document states.
US collaboration with dictatorships in South America constituted a substantial part of its Cold War-era imperialist foreign policy. Following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, as well as the country’s commitment to supporting resistance movements regionally and internationally, Chile under Salvador Allende was viewed as a particularly symbolic blow for imperialism. Unlike Cuba, Chile already had an established history of democratic elections and the people chose socialism through the voting system.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had opined: “The example of a successful elected Marxist government in Chile would surely have an impact on – and even precedent value for – other parts of the world, especially in Italy; the imitative spread of similar phenomena elsewhere would in turn significantly affect the world balance and our own position in it.”
The US backed the military coup that annihilated Chile’s socialist government, and put Augusto Pinochet into power. That was followed by extensive support for right-wing dictatorships that mushroomed across South America during those years. After Argentina, Chile had the second highest toll of forced disappearances, with an estimated 3,000 political opponents being taken by the regime.
Chile and Argentina are revealed to have had a close collaboration as regards the assassination of dictatorship opponents. Through Operation Condor, Chile gave permission to Argentina to assassinate any Chilean it claimed was “known to be involved in an Argentine terrorist group.”
Justice and collective memory in Argentina
The documents, particularly those relating to torture and disappearances, are perceived by human rights lawyers to constitute a vital component in furthering Argentinian collective memory a process in which knowledge, testimonies and recollections are gathered and analysed in – order to encourage better public understanding of a particular social period.
Villella noted that testimonies regarding torture and interrogation sessions facilitated the reconstruction of events which in turn aids the legal struggle when bringing perpetrators to face justice.
“The documents aid in preventing impunity and have an important role in the construction of collective memory, which represents the foundations for the guarantee of non-repetition and prevention of human rights violations,” she affirmed.
While remarking about the absence of important information which is necessary for the legal struggle, Villella stated that the analysis is an ongoing process that can lead to other discoveries, not only about the US-Argentine collaboration but also regarding the disappeared. The legal struggle, she insisted, needs “new information about the 30,000 disappeared, as well as the location of the 300 grandchildren which the grandmothers Plaza de Mayo are still seeking.”
Argentine President Mauricio Macri has, since the start of his presidency, exhibited indifference to Argentinian collective memory.
Villella referred to attempts from authorities to question the number of the disappeared which, she said, was “socially rejected by human rights and victims’ organisations which opposed the authorities’ insinuations by organising public manifestations and resistance protests”.
Prior to his electoral victory, Macri opposed a bill which would have enabled the investigation of individuals and businesses known to have had ties to the dictatorship. Additionally, Macri also pledged to shift Argentina’s politics to emulate those of the US, thus consolidating previous ties and, in turn, instigating further difficulties in establishing a structured and fruitful collaboration between state and citizens as regards uncovering the truth regarding Argentina’s disappeared.
Villella noted that Macri has adopted policies which hinder the struggle for justice in cases related to the disappeared. “This happened mainly through some cutbacks in the budgets and unfair dismissal of employees from programmes of public offices in different ministries whose work is related to investigations as well as specialised programmes which advise and assist state terrorism's victims,” she stated.
Despite Macri’s policies, Villella said, coherence and persistence remain the most powerful ways to help truth, memory and justice to prevail.