Wednesday 31 December 2008

Peru: Assessing the Year

Susana Villaran has a good review of the year in Peru on her blog. Spanish speakers can read the whole thing here.

Here is my translation of her 'human rights' section, with some relevant links to my posts added:

- A year of the trial of Alberto Fujimori Fujimori for the crimes of Barrios Altos, La Cantuta and the abductions of the businessman Dyer and the journalist Gorriti
- A year in which the President and the Vice President, the Peruvian Agency of International Cooperation and Congress persecuted human rights activists and human rights organisations.
- A year in which Military Jurisdiction continued not to recognise the verdicts of the Constitutional Court and the President named military judges in an unconstitutional manner.
- A year in which the Constitutional Court did not recognise the verdict of the Interamerican Court of Human Rights in the case of El Fronton.
- A year in which the plans for reparations to the victims of political violence made some progress in some regions and in the National Register of Victims, but without financial backing and enough political will.
- Another year with the National Plan for Human Rights forgotten.

It's not really a particularly bright picture for the last post of the year is it? Again, the full post is available here, in Spanish.

Peru: Majority Value Democracy

According to the results of a survey mentioned by El Comercio, the majority of Peruvians consider a democracy the best form of government. It's not a huge majority though.

The article reports that 56% of Peruvians prefer democracy to any other form of government, 22% don't prefer any particular type of government, 19% think that an authoritarian government or a dictatorship is sometimes preferable to a democratic government, and 3% aren't sure.

One of the academics involved in the survey, Carmen Rosa Balbi from the Catholic University (PUCP), believes that "this poll shows that we are living in a time where the majority values democracy, but there is also a good percentage of Peruvians who hope that democracy will bring them quality of life, and not just freedom of expression and the right to vote". She adds, "If there is no quality of life, people will ask themselves what democracy is doing for them." (All trans mine).

Pese a todo, los peruanos valoran y prefieren vivir en democracia (El Comercio)

Chile: Exploiting Cases of 'False Disappeared' for Political Gain

"There are thousands of accredited cases of people killed, tortured and ‘disappeared’ (during the regime). If four errors were made, that’s nothing," retired judge Juan Guzmán, who is now director of the Human Rights Centre at the private Central University, told IPS.

In his view, the news of the mistakes is being blown out of proportion with the objective of "politically smearing" everyone who has taken part in the search for the truth about what happened to the victims of forced disappearance, and in the effort to bring their torturers and killers to justice.

... Congress will continue to debate a controversial bill that would create the Human Rights Institute, which would consider the reopening of the truth commissions for a six-month period to review cases of victims of forced disappearance and political prisoners who were not taken into account by the two commissions.

However, the commissions would not review cases that have already been accredited, said Vidal.

Mireyra Garcia from the Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared stressed,
"It is good to have transparency with respect to errors, we have no problems with that," she said. "But we believe these isolated cases are being magnified to the detriment of the hundreds of cases that have not yet been certified.

"What is truly scandalous is that 35 years after the military coup, we still have not found the detained-disappeared. That is a source of constant concern for us," said the activist.

Murmurings from the right:
"The governments of the Coalition, and in particular the left wing of the Coalition, have always tried to use human rights issues in some kind of biased manner during election campaigns to generate division in our country," said Independent Democratic Union (UDI) legislator Felipe Salaberry.

National Renewal lawmaker Lily Pérez said the truth commissions "gave official recognition to the human rights violations committed in our country" and "provided reparations to victims or their families," which means that "reopening the two commissions would imply questioning the way they operated and would undermine their importance to our peaceful national coexistence."

This last comment may appear innocuous and supportive of the human rights processes, but it's actually a version of the "move on, it's all over, let's just forget about it" school of thought.

Full article:
False Disappearances Trigger Debate on Truth Commissions (IPS)

Tuesday 30 December 2008

Peru: Sendero Leader's Girlfriend Captured

La Republica is reporting that the lover of the top Shining Path leader still at large, 'Comrade Artemio', has been arrested. Anita Lino Abad is 21 and has apparently been indoctrinated in Sendero ideology since childhood. She has, according to the newspaper's sources, admitted to being the partner of 55 year old 'Artemio', whose identity is unclear.

There doesn't seem to be a huge number of other stories on this - El Comercio openly admits to relying solely on the La Republica story in their article (the graphic below is taken from La Republica).

Pareja de 21 años de 'Artemio' es clave para desarticular a SL en la Huallaga

Chile: More on the 'false disappeared'

The BBC has picked up on the story of those counted among the disappeared who, in turns out, were not killed by the State after all. Note that it numbers these cases as three, but in fact there are three recent cases, and one from a few months back which makes four, and I was reading something this morning that quoted Bachelet as saying that there were five. Three, four, five... a few.
"Speaking as a woman who herself suffered this pain and as president of the nation, I am not going to accept that the suffering of families who are still awaiting truth and justice be taken advantage of nor much less played with," said President Bachelet.

Let's hope not.

Pinochet-era 'disappeared' found

Meanwhile, AFP is reporting that Chile will sue families who made false claims for benefits:

Chile to sue over false reports of Pinochet-era missing

Monday 29 December 2008

Chile: Casting Doubt on the Disappeared

My heart sank a bit just from seeing the headline "In Chile, 3 more false dirty-war victims found" pop up in my reader. "Great", I thought, "now the right will have another reason to say that the disappearances were just faked". At least the article does bring up this crucial point itself.
Three more people listed as missing victims of the nation's dictatorship have either been located or died under unrelated circumstances.
Activists on Sunday said the cases — now four in all — threaten to tarnish efforts to faithfully document abuses under dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 regime.

That's four, people. Four from about 3,000. Obviously among such a large number, bearing in mind the confusion and lack of documentary evidence at the time, it's likely that a few were falsely recorded. It's even MORE likely, and widely acknowledged, that there are more victims who were not included in the official investigations.
Opposition congresswoman Karla Rubilar, president of the congressional human rights commission, said the reappearances could plant unwarranted doubts in the public mind about human rights abuses under Pinochet.

Well, yes. People have a natural tendency to select the evidence that supports the view they already hold. I don't think there's much chance that any human rights activist will suddenly start thinking that the disappeared just moved to Europe without letting their families know, as some Pinochet supporters sometimes claim. Naturally, the latter will latch onto the story as confirmation of their point of view and may be more vocal as a result. And the people in the middle, without any particular affiliation? Perhaps this is the main issue. I would speculate - and it is pure speculation, I have no evidence - that it must be difficult to be a Chilean without a particular opinion on the matter of the disappeared (even if your opinion is "won't those relatives just shut up and get over it already"), and I would guess that these views won't be particularly swayed by one story. Nevertheless, a flurry of such articles gaining momentum would be a concern.

In Chile, 3 more false dirty-war victims (AP)

Here's an article, which I missed the first time around, about the first 're-appeared':

Chile probes Pinochet disappeared back from the dead (Reuters)

So, I looked at two Chilean newspapers from different sides of the political spectrum this morning. Both have stories about one of the 'false disappeared', Carlos Patricio Rojas Campos, on the main page of the website. La tercera's main headline claims that a local human rights organisation was aware as early as 2005 that Rojas Campos had not died during the dictatorship, but was living in Argentina. Obviously, such a headline does not make the organisation look good. In the article, the former President of the group, Victoria Saavedra, relates that the wife of the disappeared man came to her in 2005 and said that she had found out that he was still alive. Saavedra claims that she informed the Ministory of the Interior of this fact but that they were already aware of it.

El mercurio focuses on the financial aspect; namely that the victim's family was receiving a special pension for the relatives of the disappeared. The government is saying that this payment has now been suspended. According to the newspaper, however, Rojas Campos' 'widow'/wife says that she is still being paid.

Agrupacion de DD. HH. de Calama sabia que falso notificado estaba vivo desde 2005 (la tercera)

Esposa de falso desaparecido revela que nunca dejaron de pagarle pension (el mercurio)

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes a bit at this story and trust to people's common sense that it wouldn't affect general views of the disappearances. But in fact, taking into consideration the persistent attempts to discredit human rights organisations that go on in many Latin American countries, often with the participation of government, it is a real concern when such stories arise. If mistakes are made in the listing of the victims of state terrorism, they should obviously be clarified - for the sake of the families if nothing else. And as I said, with this kind of situation a few mistakes are pretty much inevitable. But to cast doubt, yet again, on the essential truth of torture, illegal detention, disappearance, and extrajudicial execution in Chile during the Pinochet regime is worrying indeed.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Book Review: Belching out the Devil

I've just finished reading Mark Thomas' Belching out the Devil, which is a book about Coca Cola.

More specifically, it's a book about how the world's top brand [Belching, p.4] is complicit in intimidation, union breaking, poor working practices, environmental destruction, oh yes - and murder. And it has jokes, rather incredibly. Thomas is a British comedian and political activist, and he doesn't hesitate to mix the two to get your attention. The book is written in a jolly, witty tone which occasionally cracks open to reveal Thomas' deep sense of anger at the injustice of Coke's behaviour. It is also decently researched, however, with a wodge of endnotes and an appendix which contains - hilariously - Coke's response to the questions Thomas sent them, with their lawyer's notes and strike-throughs included; someone sent him the wrong version. Well done that man!

Thomas visits the US, India and Turkey, but also Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia, so it's a Latin-American-relevant read. In Mexico, he visits communities where Coca Cola has become incorporated into traditional indigenous religious ceremonies (hence the title of the book). In El Salvador, a little wandering around is enough to come across child labourers in the sugarcane fields; so how many are there really?

It is Colombia, though, where the story gets really hot. Isidro Gil was shot by paramilitaries inside the Coca Cola bottling plant in Carepa. He was the fourth union leader to be killed in the area. The bottling company was, naturally, devastated by this unfortunate turn of events which led to the collapse of the union within the plant - and as a sign of mourning, promptly cut wages from around $400 a month, to just $130. Remaining union activists continue to receive death threats.

The thing is that The Coca Cola Company denies any and all responsibility for such events because, it claims, they just supply the concentrate. The work of independent bottlers and distributors in developing countries is nothing to do with them and they cannot be held responsible for it. Which is a point, except that 1) they hold decisive amounts of shares in many of these 'independent companies' 2) if Coke asks them to sack people, the people are sacked. If Coke says 'jump', the companies say 'how high?', so clearly Coke has a huge influence on the behaviour of these enterprises, and 3) it's Coca Cola on the label. Thomas argues that just as Nike, the Gap and the like should be held to account for sweat shops that make their clothes as part of the supply chain, so should Coca Cola be responsible for everything that goes into making one of their little bottles of brown caramel-sugar-water. You might choose to agree with him.

This book keeps the facts clear, carries you along nicely and is, in general, a good read. My only quibble: was it even proofread at all? The typos are everywhere, including, embarrassingly, in proper names. I hope they sort this out for future editions. I'm not generally hugely into boycotts, but I can tell you I haven't bought a Coke since I started reading it and I don't have plans to either. I mean, if you are really looking for a book about injustice in Latin America and you haven't already read it, then you can't beat Tina Rosenberg's Children of Cain, and you should run and order that instead. But, assuming that classic is already on your shelf, and you feel like another book along the same lines as Amaranta Wright's Levi's, Latin America and the Blue Jean Dream (which I also enjoyed), then by all means give Belching out the Devil a try. Just be warned: the next oversweetened 'sparkling beverage' you drink might leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

More info: - the company's own 'straight-talking' site on labour and environmental issues. Thomas calls into question many of these 'facts' in his book. - has the details on the campaign against Coke in Colombia.

Friday 26 December 2008

Peru News Round-Up

Peruvians who lost their identity documents in the civil conflict will be able to get them replaced, according to a new law.
According to a report by the ombudsman’s office, 251 civil registry offices in seven provinces of Peru were completely destroyed in the armed conflict, which resulted in the disappearance of the birth, death and marriage certificates of entire villages, especially in the impoverished southern highlands provinces of Ayacucho, Apurimac and Huancavelica, where the population is mainly indigenous.
IPS discovered that the authorities required people to present documents that had been destroyed in local civil registry offices, even though the state had copies of the lost documents.
"The widespread lack of documents among people in a country with economic growth rates like those of Peru reflect the inequality suffered by a broad swath of citizens who do not exist in the eyes of the state," said Oxfam’s Vargas. "It is impossible to reduce poverty or bolster development if the identities of these half a million Peruvians who suffer exclusion are not restored."

What a surprise, another negative issue that disproportionately affects indigenous Peruvians.
If you haven't personally experienced Peruvian bureaucracy, count yourself lucky - the word 'kafkaesque' is made for it.Hopefully, in the future such people will be able to prove their identity, which is the only way to access rights like voting, education, the legal systems, etc.

Undocumented War Survivors to Regain Identity Cards

Updates from the Fujimori trial (sessions took place before Christmas):

Audio tapes were played to the court:
1. In the first audio, [director of Army Intelligence Office] Rivero Lazo is heard requesting the imprisoned military officials to have patience and talks to them of a possible amnesty law which the government would pass for their benefit. Sosa, as well as Julio Chuqui Aguirre and Nelson Carbajal García all complain to Rivero Lazo and Oliveros Pérez, saying they had not been given houses, medical attention and money for their families as they had been promised. They further requested better prison conditions and a more flexible visitor schedule.

Military officials confirm audios' authenticity (Fujimori on Trial)

Fujimori also stated that he never approved of a dirty war strategy: “I will repeat once again, I did not make a mistake, with the exception of these unfortunate crimes [Barrios Altos and La Cantuta].”

Fujimori says his only mistake was Barrios Altos and La Cantuta (Fujimori on Trial)

A column of Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas operating in the northeastern coca-growing valleys of the Upper Huallaga river in Peru appears to be carrying out attacks in pursuit of a peace agreement, to include an amnesty and the restoration of the rights of those who took up arms in 1980.

Attacking for 'peace': sounds like the Shining Path.

Guerrillas on the Warpath for Peace Talks (IPS)

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Guatemala: Reparations

This article about Guatemala reminded me of discussions I had with people in Peru regarding the possibility of reparations from the State for atrocities committed during the conflict. I mentioned that some Argentine human rights activists tend to see financial reparations as a form of blackmail, paid in return for silence (e.g. not continuing with legal proceedings), and therefore as something to be rejected out of hand. The Fundacion Madres de Plaza de Mayo is one example of this point of view. The Peruvians with whom I had this discussion did not see this at all; if the people are desperately in need, they said, why shouldn't the government do something to make good for all the suffering it caused?

In Guatemala, a steep, rutted road to peace

Merry Christmas and Felices Fiestas to All

Merry Christmas everyone!

I will be around over the next couple of weeks, but sporadically, so don't expect posting to be too regular. Thanks to all readers and commenters this year - this blog was a cautious experiment when I started in April, and for a while it looked like no one was ever going to read it, but then the stat counter started creeping up and it's become very rewarding. I'd like to wish everyone all the best for 2009.

Peru: El Fronton Case Isn't Over

In Peru, the case regarding the prison massacre of El Fronton is set to return to the Inter-American Court. There are complicated legal issues going on here, but basically, the case is now resting on the issue of whether a statute of limitations has been reached. There is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity.

In August 2000, the Inter-American Court ruled that no statute of limitations applied to the crimes committed in El Frontón, and declared that the state had violated the American Convention on Human Rights.
In January and February 2007, in compliance with that ruling, the Attorney General’s Office accused 34 members of the Navy of summarily executing 118 prisoners, in jail on charges of belonging to the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist guerrillas.
When the legal charges were brought, one of the former members of the Navy who was prosecuted, Teodorico Bernabé, filed a writ of habeas corpus arguing that the crime of which he was accused was a common crime, and that the statute of limitations expired in June 2006.

A Lima court accepted the argument that the statute of limitations had expired in his case.

Obviously, there is a contradiction here. Peru's justice system has accepted in previous cases that a statute of limitations did not apply - hence the fact that Fujimori's is even happening - but now a court has decided that in this case it did, in defiance of the ruling of the Inter-American Court.

The Legal Defense Institute (IDL) will therefore go back to the Inter-American Court and seek to have this recent ruling, that limitations had expired, overturned.

Oh yes, and do we remember who was President at the time of the El Fronton massacre? Yes, it was indeed current Peruvian President Alan Garcia, during his first period at the top. The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted that in all probability, the decision to execute large numbers of rioting prisoners at the prisons of El Fronton and Lurigancho was taken at a very high level. Two military witnesses claimed that the order came from Garcia himself (see CVR Informe Final, p. 756); a charge which he denies. All the same, I can't imagine that this is a case which he wants bringing back to life. And equally obviously, this is one reason why it is even more urgent that the case does not fall victim to impunity.

El Fronton Massacre Case Heads Back to Inter-American Court

Monday 22 December 2008

Brazil: Legacy of Chico Mendes

On the twentieth anniversary of the death of Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes, the Guardian offers a timely reminder that progress for activists in Brazil has been mixed. In spite of the relative safety of some of the Amazon reserves, sticking up for the forest and its traditional people is still a dangerous business: least 260 people, among them a Catholic bishop, live under the threat of murder because of their fight against a coalition of loggers, farmers and cattle ranchers.

The list names Frei Henri des Rosiers, a French priest based in the Amazon town of Xinguara, as a particular target. Police are investigating claims he has a £14,000 price on his head because of his fight against slave labour. Also named are Maria José Dias da Costa, a union leader in the remote town of Rondon do Pará, and an Austrian bishop, Dom Erwin Krautler, who has been under 24-hour police guard for two years because of his battle against developers and child prostitution in his Amazonian diocese.

In February this year, Francisco da Silva, a 51-year-old leader of the landless movement in the Amazon, was killed with a single shot to the head. He had been named in a previous CPT report about rural leaders receiving death threats.

Hundreds of Brazil's eco-warriors at risk of assassination, according to new report (Guardian)

More on Mendes:

Brazil remembers slain activist (BBC)

The life and legacy of Chico Mendes (BBC)

Torture Study

I tried to comment directly on this post about this article at Dirty Wars and Democracy, but my comment seemed to vanish without a trace... maybe it's waiting for moderation but I don't think so.

Replicating one of the most controversial behavioral experiments in history, a Santa Clara University psychologist has found that people will follow orders from an authority figure to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks.
More than two-thirds of volunteers in the research study had to be stopped from administering 150 volt shocks of electricity, despite hearing a person’s cries of pain, professor Jerry M. Burger concluded in a study published in the January issue of the journal American Psychologist.
“In a dramatic way, it illustrates that under certain circumstances people will act in very surprising and disturbing ways,” said Burger.
The study, using paid volunteers from the South Bay, is similar to the famous 1974 “obedience study” by the late Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the wake of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Milgram was troubled by the willingness of people to obey authorities — even if it conflicted with their own conscience.

I'm not sure why we should be so surprised to see the famous experiment repeated. There have been so many instances of (mass) torture since the end of the Second World War. I wonder if we are sometimes distracted the by the use of hyperbolic language like "monsters", "fiends", and "animals" in the context of Argentine state terrorism and other such periods, and forget that we are talking about people. People who commit crimes at the far end of the scale of brutality, yes - but then, don't we put kids in more danger by assuming that child molesters are all creepy, skulking people as well? When are we going to face up to the fact that real people, and the institutions that they are part of, do these things?

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).

Friday 19 December 2008

Also reading today...

... posts by people who know more than me about the military in Brazil, 'armed groups' in El Salvador, and political murders in Colombia.

Will Astiz Be Freed After All?

The story of the Argentine human rights abusers who are to be set free has taken another turn, with the announcement that Astiz's release will be suspended pending an 'extraordinary appeal' before the Supreme Court.
"I don't think I'm breaking the law when I say that the justice system will revoke (the release order) for the sake of Argentina's dignity," Kirchner said at the Memory Museum dedicated to the victims of the dictatorship, located inside the premises of the former Navy Mechanics School.

Argentina suspends release of 'Blond Angel of Death' (AFP)

Evidently the government is reacting to the widespread disgust at the initial ruling. The problem, of course, is that this - and the whole, long, twisted tale of legal proceedings against Astiz since the return to democracy - is all politically motivated. Argentina needs a clear, firm, legal system which processes cases promptly and is unaffected by the whims and pressures of party politics. OK, this is a utopia for all countries, but in Argentina the lack of it has allowed people who committed crimes against humanity to go free for most of the last twenty-five years.

Here's a bit of a news round-up:
Christina Kirchner had strong words for the judges at a memorial act at the ESMA, calling the incident shaming for Argentines and humanity:
Christina: "Hoy es un dia de verguenza para los argentinos y la humanidad" (Clarin)

And on the apparent U-turn:
Argentina Suspends Astiz Release (BBC)
La Camara de Casacion suspendio la liberacion de los represores (Pagina/12)
Dieron marcha atras en la liberacion de Acosta, Astiz y otros represores (Critica)

Thursday 18 December 2008

Argentina: Astiz, Acosta to Be Freed

Some of Argentina's most notorious human rights abusers are to be freed, according to a ruling today. The ['alleged'] perpetrators have spent more than two years in jail without being convicted of a crime.

Those among the dozen or so military members to be liberated are Alfredo Astiz, who befriended the original Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo under cover before betraying them to the junta authorities, and Jorge "El Tigre" Acosta, an ESMA torturer.

I can understand the justification for this, seeing as holding unconvicted people for inordinately long amounts of time is not really acceptable - but the bigger question is clearly why they were allowed to enjoy their liberty for so long already, and why the trials drag on for such periods. If these people had been efficiently processed at the end of the dictatorship, they would now be nearing the end of 25 year prison terms. As it is, they have yet to fully pay for their crimes.

Astiz y "El Tigre" Acosta podran queder en libertad
Ordenan la liberacion de Astiz, el Tigre Acosta y otros represores de la ESMA (Clarin)
Varios represores de la ESMA podran recuperar libartad bajo caucion (Critica)

Colombia: Murder of Edwin Legarda

Here's more on yesterday's story:

Killing of Native Leader's Husband "Was a Planned Operation" (IPS)

Brazil: Memory Performances

In Brazil, activities have been taking place
in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Institutional Act #5 (AI-5). Its decree, on December 13, 1968- four years into the Brazilian military dictatorship -is considered to have been the coup within the coup d'etat. AI-5 suspended guarantees in the 1967 Constitution, increased dictatorial powers of the President, and led to the closure of the Brazilian congress and the suspension of habeas corpus in the name of national security.

It essentially legalized torture and the death penalty, and by the end of the Brazilian dictatorship in the mid 80s, more than 40,000 people had been tortured and hundreds disappeared and murdered.

One witness recalled the time,

"I was a high school student and university student during that time, and it was a terrible. Then I studied at the Federal University and they said that we used guns - and that was one of the lies they told - and we had to run, and then when we came near the military barracks and they would throw bombs and say that we had thrown them. They had a system of picking you up where they would lift you from behind with your arms twisted, beating you, and I can't say I don't have back problems, from the countless beatings I got."

Events Commemorate 40th Anniversary of Brazil's 'Coup within the Coup d'Etat' (Upside Down World)

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Argentina: March against Hunger

Finally for today, Upside Down World has a piece on the recent social mobilisation against hunger in Argentina. Relatives of the disappeared were among those protesting increasing poverty in the country.
“What we have seen since ‘democracy’ in Argentina is a continuation of the pillaging of our wealth. The neoliberal economic policies imposed by the Military Generals have continued up until today. These policies introduced poverty, hunger and exclusion into Argentina,” says founder of the MCP Alberto Morlachetti, “Democracy works only when there is equality and inclusion - if there isn’t equality then what use is democracy? If there is hunger, then there isn’t freedom. If I’m hungry, then I can’t think - I am surviving but I am not thinking; I am not functioning. How can it be that in Argentina – a country which is rich and fertile – the majority of its young people go hungry?”

I'm not sure I agree completely with the point, which the article repeats, that the military junta started the policies which led to extreme poverty and social divisions in Argentina. They certainly didn't help much, but I think the roots of exclusion and need go further back than that. The main point stands however; people can't be expected to concentrate on 'niceties' like voting, organising and learning the lessons of the past if they are consumed with worry about what will fill their children's stomachs that night.

50,000 March against Hunger
(Upside Down World)

Colombia: Indigenous Activist's Husband Killed

I'd really love to stop doing these posts on Colombia. Colombia isn't my specialism, you know. I'd really like to just concentrate on all the anniversaries and memorials and books and other things that deal with the legacy of state terrorism in Latin America, just like the title of the blog says. But these stories keep coming, and because it's obvious that there is no dividing line between 'past' and 'present' violence, and because, well, people dying today is urgent in a sense that a monument - however important - cannot be, they're impossible to ignore.

So here we are again.
Soldiers at a rural roadblock on Tuesday shot and killed the husband of an indigenous leader who has organized anti-government marches.
Edwin Legarda, 34, was driving a Toyota SUV at about 4 a.m. near an indigenous reserve in western Colombia when the soldiers opened fire.

Soldiers Kill Husband of Colombian Indian Leader (AP)

Otto has a good report on the subject.

But now, according to IPS, there was no checkpoint at all.
The commander of the army Third Division, General Eliseo Peña, admitted that soldiers had opened fire on the truck, and said the incident would be investigated.

He said the CRIC vehicle failed to follow orders to stop at a military checkpoint, although he added that this did not justify the shooting, and much less, the number of shots fired.

But according to Hilario Sánchez, the indigenous mayor of the town of Totoró, where the injured Legarda was first taken, "there is no indication of the existence of a military checkpoint in that area," and the pickup truck "was shot at from all sides."

"There was no checkpoint there," José Domingo Caldón, head of the CRIC’s Indigenous University, which holds mobile classes in Cauca, told IPS by cell-phone from the area where the killing took place.

"When there is a checkpoint, the military always put up red traffic cones and a sign that says ‘Military Checkpoint’. When we drove by there, at 6:00 AM (11:00 GMT) there was no sign of a checkpoint. There was no checkpoint there. There were no signs. We believe it was an ambush," he said.

"There was no checkpoint" where army shooting took place

Blog Round-Up

The Mex Files is on top form today, here on the LatAm summit and here on the infamous shoe-throwing incident.

Dirty Wars and Democracy has a note on an ex-guerrilla running for president in Uruguay.

There's more background on the drawn-out Fujimori case from Fujimori on Trial. It also seems that one of the prosecutors has been receiving strange phone calls (Peruvian Times).

Monday 15 December 2008

Argentina: Two New Installations in Memory Park

Two new pieces have been added to the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires, in honour of the disappeared. They are 30,000 by Nicolas Guagnini, whose father was disappeared, and Carteles de la memoria (Memory Signs) by the Grupo Arte Callejero (Street Art Group). Guagnini's sculpture is a series of vertical poles on which are formed a large reproduction of a photo of his father, while the art cooperative have produced 58 symbolic road signs in memory of the victims of state terrorism.

I like this work and I think the Memory Park idea is great; when I was there, however, I was the only one, and I made the trek out there specifically because... well, I'm just into that kind of thing. It's pretty far from the city centre (it's location is also symbolic, as it's next to the estuary where the tortured, drugged detainees were dumped from planes to drown... but all that doesn't help much if people aren't going to visit a place intended for that very purpose). I really hope that the park has a bit more life to it these days.

Inauguran dos nuevas esculturas en la Parque de la Memoria

Sunday 14 December 2008

Brazil: Coconut Protest in Rio

Alterdestiny drew my attention to a memorial/protest act in Rio de Janeiro, in which coconuts were used to represent the number of people murdered during the last two years. I found the photos quite striking.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Colombia: Do the Numbers Add Up?

Colombian government figures on the number of guerrillas killed, captured or surrendered are vastly exaggerated, a human rights group says.

Codhes, a respected Colombian NGO, analysed the statistics of recent successes claimed by the armed forces in the 44-year civil conflict.

[...] Even allowing for recruiting to replenish depleted ranks, the government figures suggest that eight members of the warring factions are killed every single day in Colombia, something not substantiated by any other sources.
Hmm, if I was a worker for this NGO in Colombia, I would be watching my back right now, because I guarantee the government won't be too pleased with reports like this.

Colombia war data 'unbelievable' (BBC)

Peru Round-Up

A good Reuters piece on Shining Path [h/t Otto] and their move from "political struggle" into the organised crime business.
Antenor Rosas, director of Peru's counterterrorism police, said the Shining Path was moving increasingly into more profitable parts of the drug trade in the world's No. 2 coca grower, including cultivation and production. In an interview with Reuters, Rosas said the Shining Path's growing involvement in the cocaine trade had allowed it to stockpile weapons and hire recruits. [...] "They've stopped believing in their ideology. They've left it aside and are more motivated by economics," Rosas said.

Shining Path expands role in coca trade

There seems to be some confusion about whether a new law allowing foreigners convicted of crimes in Peru to serve their sentences back home will apply to jailed US citizen Lori Berenson. The American, found guilty of being a MRTA guerrilla, has recently married in prison and is said to be pregnant. Peru's justice minister is firm that she will not benefit from the new law:
“The law is neither retroactive, nor does it apply to terrorists,” [...]

But, according to the president of Congress’ Justice Commission, Juan Carlos Eguren, Berenson stands to benefit from the law, just like any other foreigner, no matter what the crime committed.

“We didn’t think about the Berenson case,” said Eguren. “But, in principle, yes, she could benefit from the law… there are no particular dispositions because laws are generic. You can’t have a law for Mrs. Berenson, or a law that excludes Mrs. Berenson.”

She is not the focus of the law, added Eguren. Whether a person is serving out a year or life, the time can be served in Peru or in the country of origin. “We will not be pardoning anything, only changing the place of imprisonment,”

New law allowing jailed foreigners to serve sentences at home country doesn't apply to U.S. citizen Lori Berenson (Peruvian Times)

Colombia Round-Up

By all accounts, Colombia is the human rights disaster zone of Latin America. A string of international speakers at the UN Human Rights Council made this more than clear this week:

Denmark's delegate also mentioned the widespread use of torture by the Colombian security forces, and called on Bogotá to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Canada stressed the gravity of the violations committed in Colombia, highlighting the problem of extrajudicial executions. Ireland referred to the same abuses and expressed concern that the murders are attributed to the Colombian armed forces.

Australia, in turn, reported that members of the armed forces maintain links with paramilitary groups or condone their actions.

Belgium expressed concern over Colombian government statements that cast doubt on the independence of the Supreme Court.

Spain, which had recently backed some of rightwing President Alvaro Uribe's human rights policies, distanced itself and showed concern about the turn of events in that area.

The Spanish delegation recommended that the Colombian government engage in dialogue with major sectors of civil society, with "both sides dropping stigmatising talk and unfounded accusations."

The Uruguayan representative recommended that the Colombian government give strict orders to the security forces to avoid designating as "terrorists" human rights activists and members of non-governmental organisations.

Harsh Language for Colombia at UN Review (IPS)

Colombian human rights workers are pleased at the international attention:

Activists Celebrate Being Heard at UN

Meanwhile, Upside Down World has a wide-ranging article on Colombia's shifting rights situation:

Social Conflict Replaces Warfare

Oh, and to end on a bizarre note, Pablo Escobar's brother has announced he's found the cure for AIDs. He's not alone in this belief, as it happens: President Jammeh of Gambia thinks he can too. And he's running a country.

Chile: Would be funny...

...if it wasn't so damned offensive as well.

Others have picked up on this before me, but I could hardly neglect mentioning that the charming Cardinal Medina, who remembers Pinochet so fondly, has a problem with Madonna. Well, you can see his point can't you? I mean taking over a country in defiance of its democratically elected government, wholesale torture and murder is nothing in comparison with causing impure thoughts is it?

And if that wasn't bad enough, there is a new museum about Pinochet in Santiago. Run by his fans*, for god's sake.

"I am happy because this is a way of doing some justice to what he represented and what he did," said Lucia Hiriart, his widow, flanked by family and some former ministers and retired military. The event was low-key.

Oh dear, oh dear.

Chile museum aims to boost image of Pinochet

Museum to Chile Pinochet sickens victims (Reuters)

*The Pinochet Foundation; their Spanish-language only website has not been recently updated, but a second's glance at the pictures of a smiling Pinochet cuddling small children, with the Pope, etc. tells you all you need to know.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Paraguay: Human Rights Improvements

A report has praised Paraguay's recognition of its past human rights violations and identified areas where strong democratic structures are still lacking:

Paraguay: Strides in Human Rights (IPS)

Wednesday 10 December 2008

60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

And in honour of the occasion, here's a selection of the rights which we might like to keep in mind:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 16. (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.

Chile: 2nd Anniversary of Pinochet's Death

On the second anniversary of the demise of Chile's former dictator, El blog de la republica points out an article which epitomises some of the problems remaining in twenty-first century Chile (and Argentina, for that matter).

La tercera's headline is:
Cardinal Medina on Pinochet's death: Those who seek justice are often hiding their desire for revenge
In the military cathedral, a mass was celebrated to commemorate two years since the General's death

The service was presided over by cardinal Jorge Medina, who had profound words for those present. "Our country needs forgiveness... the only way to reach peace. Instead of forgiveness, many people call for justice which is a word which is hiding another, much uglier word which we don't dare to speak - and that is revenge."
[my trans]

I'm not so sure that it would be so wrong if relatives did desire vengeance, but clearly the intention is to discredit those who call for justice, and as a matter of principle, justice is generally seen to override revenge-seeking in contemporary legal systems. Calls for 'forgiveness' very often attempt to obscure the fact that injustice is ongoing when facts have not been established and perpetrators enjoy impunity. Moreover we all know that old saying 'forgive and forget' - one is very quickly followed by the other. And when the disappeared are forgotten, unmourned in their unmarked graves, while the institutions that caused their deaths continue to flourish, well then the world is really in (even more) trouble.

Cardenal Medina por muerte de Pinochet: Los que piden justicia muchas veces ocultan venganza

Argentina: 25 Years of Democracy

[Wow, today is just full of anniversaries... got quite a few posts to fit in]

Yes, 25 years ago today Alfonsin took charge of a democratic government in Argentina. Congratulations to them - with six military coups in the twentieth century, a quarter of a century of uninterrupted democracy is truly something to cherish. That's not to say that it's been plain sailing: amnesty laws, rumblings from the armed forces, economic difficulties and corruption scandals have all threatened the democratisation process. The struggle goes on.

Clarin has a video slide show of the inauguration of Alfonsin, and tells of the commemorative act in the Plaza de Mayo.

Pagina/12 notes that
It won't all be commemoration and homage: there is also a mobilisation organised by Relatives and friends of the victims of violence and institutional impunity, who are protesting that "during all the constitutional governments of the last 25 years, the State security forces have systemically violated human rights."

Argentina: More on the Finds at Arana

"Bones don't lie or forget," explained anthropologist Clyde Snow in 1984, when he arrived in the country at the request of the Conadep [truth commission] to exhume bodies buried as NN ['no name']. Yesterday, almost a quarter of a century later, his disciples at the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) confirmed the discovery of around ten thousand tiny fragments of bone, product of the incineration to which they were submitted, buried in the patio of the ex-clandestine detention centre which functioned during the dictatorship in the military post of Arana under the authority of the police of the province of Buenos Aires. The EAAF also confirmed the existence of a section of wall ten metres long with two hundred bullet holes, although it stressed that it could not associated them directly with the remains found. Just as the bodies of the Madres kidnapped in the church of Santa Cruz confirmed what the survivors of the ESMA had said about the death flights, the discovery in Arana confirms the testimonies of the victims of Etchecolatz, Von Wernich and so on about burning with tyres and petrol to make people disappear. [trans mine]

Buenos Aires Human Rights Secretary Sara Derotier de Cobacho said that this was the first time bodies had been found inside a detention centre and anticipated that the site would be turned into a memorial.

Un hallazgo que confirma el horror

Argentina: Human Remains Found

Quick hit: a pit full of bone fragments has been discovered inside one of the Argentine former clandestine detention centres, Arana in La Plata. It's another piece of unconvertible proof about the fate of the 'disappeared'. You wouldn't think that after thirty years of testimonies and legal evidence, and a truth commission, that anyone could need any more, but the lies and denials of the pro-military faction are truly impressive to this day.

But the evidence already shows that bodies were thrown into the pit, covered with fuel and burned along with tires, to mask the smell of burning flesh. More than 200 bullet marks were found along an adjacent wall.

The bones were not completely reduced to ash, allowing for genetic analysis to identify the dead. But Mr. Fondebrider cautioned that it would not be possible to identify many of the victims, because prolonged exposure to fire destroys most DNA.

If I get a chance I'll do a round-up on the Argentine reactions to this later.

Thousands of Human Bone Pieces Found in Argentine Jail (NY Times)

Monday 8 December 2008

Peru: Garcia Criticises NGOs

More worrying stuff from Peru as President Garcia insinuates again that charitable organisations are somehow anti-Peruvian:
"...these (local business leaders) are the real anonymous heroes. This is the true civic society that doesn't have salaries in dollars, nor is it a NGO that gets money from foreign embassies."

Otto's post here (cheer for the trans Otto...) and El Comercio's article here.

Argentina: Memory Culture

Three stories from Argentina:

A film based on the life of guerrilla Norma Arrostita, "Gaby, la montonera", has shown in the MALBA museum in Buenos Aires. "Gaby", the subject of the docu-drama, spent time in the ESMA. An interview with director César D’Angiolillo can be found here:
"Fue la guerrillera mas notoria de la Argentina" (Pagina/12)

I think it's fair to say it's not to everyone's taste:
If you want to see a film that - the off screen testimony of one ESMA survivor notwithstanding - endorses obedience to authority and resisting the most bestial torture to the death, yet repackages the life of a cool and dedicated revolutionary, who died in a failed attempt to achieve her vision of socialism in Argentina by force of arms, into a warm and cuddly package fit to be embraced by the flower of Barrio Norte progressive opinion, then you should go to see Luis César D’Angiolillo’s film about the life and death of Norma Arrostito.

Meanwhile, Estela Carlotto is interviewed on the occasion of the miniseries about the Abuelas, "Television para la identidad", winning an International Emmy. Carlotto points out that "There's no better prize than finding a grandchild", and this year has been a very successful one for the Grandmothers, with seven grandchildren found.

"Se logro romper un cerco" (Pagina/12)

Finally, artist Andrea Fasani has an exhibition called 30 (Treinta), in honour of the thirtieth anniversary of the relatives of the disappeared who were betrayed by naval officer Alfredo Astiz, the so-called "Angel of Death". Working undercover, the handsome sailor befriended some of the first Madres and then reported on their meetings to the military. Several of the women were then captured and killed. The exhibition is showing in the church of Santa Cruz, where the relatives met and were abducted.

Cuadernos para reforzar la memoria (Pagina/12)

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Argentina/Chile: Memories of a War and an Almost War

Clarin has a photo gallery from its photographer, Pepe Mateos, to commemorate thirty years since the time that the Beagle conflict nearly exploded into war between Chile and Argentina.

La guerra que no fue

Meanwhile, a Chilean has found a message in a bottle thrown into the sea in memory of an Argentine killed during the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands/Malvinas war.
“My dearest brother Javier: I’m writing these lines knowing you’ll never get to read them. I imagine you in a beautiful vessel with your friends. But what is most painful is seeing you sail along the channel and not coming back. Your grave is the Argentine Sea, and your name is in many monuments”, says one of the excerpts from the message published in the media.

Bottle with message to dead officer of Falklands' conflict (Mercopress)

Colombia: Background

Plan Colombia and Beyond has just published a series of translations which may be of interest to those like me - not Colombian specialists.

(1) Emerging Paramilitary Groups

(2) The FARC

(3) The ELN

Colombia: Persecution of LGBT Community

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Colombia faces state and social discrimination, as is common nearly everywhere in the world. But in their case it is aggravated by the conflicts between several armed groups which are all homophobic.
The armed conflict in Colombia "did not originate prejudice, but it exacerbates it and brings about more serious consequences," the lawyer said.

In the areas under their control, illegal armed groups like the far-right paramilitaries or the left-wing guerrillas impose "normal" behaviour according to their beliefs, driving out prostitutes, drug addicts and homosexuals with threats that include murder if they resist, he said.

Yet again, IPS chooses the angles that other news sources ignore: a horrifying and thought-provoking article on the double experience of violence for LGBT people in Colombia:

Colombia: Where Homophobia Totes a Gun (IPS)

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Check out the Pro-SL grafitti down my street

I spend most of my time here writing about places a long way away; I have spent time in South America but I'm not there now (sadly). But occasionally my subject comes home to me. I took these photos a while back just a couple of blocks from my house in Germany. I was pretty shocked the first time I saw this wall, I can tell you:

"Victory to the people's war in Peru"

"Long live Presidente Gonzalo! Long live the PCP!"

Yep, that's pro-Shining Path grafitti in the middle of Europe. To judge from the other grafitti in the area, I suspect that this is more likely to be the work of sympathisers of the Turkish communists who feel that Sendero has something in common with their aims, than actual Peruvian activists - but that's just my guess. Anyone else seen anything like this?

Monday 1 December 2008

Peru: Experiences of the Argentine Junta Trial

I found the above poster while I was researching my last post. If I had a bit of time and I was in Lima tomorrow (which I don't, and I'm not), I'd be going to this, without a doubt.

Peru: Law Threatens HROs

Otto at Inca Kola News has rightfully picked up on this very worrying news from Peru; and he's also correct when he points out that it's not making the English-language media. Here's the proposed law, translated by Otto and in its original:
Article 96: Dissolution for attacks against public order and other causes. The Public Ministry may seek via the judiciary the dissolution of any association whose activities or ends are or result in being contrary to the public order, to its good custom, to national sovereignty, to state security or to the international principle of non-interference in internal affairs. ...At any time during the process the judge may dictate cautionary measures that totally or partially suspend the activities of the association, or may designate an intervenor for the same.

"Artículo 96º.- Disolución por atentar contra el orden público y otras causales. El Ministerio Público puede solicitar judicialmente la disolución de la asociación cuyas actividades o fines sean o resulten contrarios al orden público, a las buenas costumbres, a la soberanía nacional, a la seguridad del Estado, o al principio internacional de no intromisión en asuntos internos. (…). En cualquier estado del proceso puede el Juez dictar medidas cautelares suspendiendo total o parcialmente las actividades de la asociación, o designando un interventor de las mismas".

I do not like the way things are going in Peru recently (and not just Peru - some of the laws passed in my own home country regarding surveillance in the name of "security" and "anti-terrorism" are deeply worrying too.... but we're talking about Peru right now), and this is a huge threat to the freedom of human rights organisations to carry out their work. First there was the pressure put upon APRODEH for making a simple factual statement; then there were the stories of HROs being harassed when they are too troublesome for the state. If this law is passed, there will be no need to issue veiled threats or overwhelm with bureaucracy... the group can simply be closed.

Peru's human rights organisations are understandably alarmed. The Instituto de Defensa Legal classified the move as "immoral", while a spokesperson for APRODEH called Prime Minister Simon Yehude a traitor.

Simon traiciona a ONGs con mordaza (La Primera)

Yehude, for his part, states that:
"I am a friend of the NGOs. I'm a defender of the NGOs and of transparency. What we are doing is... if there is something here that people don't understand, it will be rectified. What we are doing is protecting the State from any kind of external interference."

Le llueven criticas a proyecto mordaza (La Primera)