Saturday, 20 December 2008

Pagina/12's coverage of the will-they-won't-they free Astiz story

So now that the word coming out of Argentina is that the government is pulling out all the stops not to have Astiz, Acosta and associates on the streets again, I was struck by leftwing daily Pagina/12's front page today. The newspaper generally has a large photo on its cover each day, and quite often this is some kind of quirky image they have photoshopped to make a point. Today is one of those days:

This is the heads of Astiz (left) and "Tigre" Acosta superimposed on some stripy prison uniforms and behind bars, and below the headline "They're staying inside". You might initially assume that this is just code for "baddies in jail" and nothing more. But in fact, the paper is using the iconic image of Peru's Shining Path leader, Abimael Guzman, who was paraded in a cage (an actual cage, people, this is not some sort of analogy) in front of the world's media in just this uniform in 1992. In case you need more proof that this is no coincidence, Guzman's prison number was 1509*, just as Astiz's is here. Check him out:

They've just erased the word "Peru" at the top of the number label, and for Acosta they've flipped the image (it's the same body, you see, just the other way round...) and changed the '1' into a '6'. Guzman is holding one arm behind his back, apparently to hide his psoriasis - those of us who have seen the film 'The Dancer Upstairs' may recall that the packets of his skin medication in the rubbish were one of the things that gave away his hiding place. He's gesturing defiantly with the other arm; Guzman used the photo op to lecture the watching journalists on his revolutionary struggle, so he wasn't exactly contrite.

I find this interesting on a number of levels. Guzman, aka Comandante Gonzalo, is, it seems, the archetypal prisoner not just for Peru, but for the continent as a whole. Astiz and Acosta are being compared, not with the military heroes they might aspire to, but to a leader of a clandestine guerrilla group from the Andes. If you're just thinking about brutality, the comparison is not inappropriate. Argentina has to look to Peru for a leftist group that was as savage as the agents of its own state. Yes, it had its own militants in the 1970s and they committed some notable crimes, but rarely, if ever, did they slaughter civilians wholesale - that was the military's remit. Moreover, the montoneros and their ilk were decimated early in the dictatorship and ceased to pose any serious threat.

Pagina/12's image today is blunt. You don't need to have the memory of Guzman in his suit to 'get it' - they're criminals, they're where they belong. No nuanced argument from this front page. Perhaps there doesn't need to be. The paper is working on its audience's dim memories of the capture of the Sendero supremo and combining it with Argentina's own icons of horror, of which Astiz very definitely is one.

Guzman is still behind bars. Let's hope the Argentine human rights abusers stay where they are too. The Supreme Court will apparently have the last word, but I expect this story will take more turns in the future.

*Some said that 1509 was a reference to the 15th of September, the anniversary of Peru's National Police; basically the cops giving the army the finger and saying "We got 'im after all" (Bowen & Holligan, 'The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos', Peisa 2003, p. 141).

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