Thursday 27 February 2014

Uruguay's army chief wants to "turn the page"

Uruguay has a new army chief, Juan Villagrán, replacing Pedro Aguerre. Villagrán has already stirred up controversy with his remarks about the disappeared.

On taking up his role, he said there was "no further information" about those disappeared by the State during the dictatorship. He added that "96% of those in the army joined after 1985, so they are not likely to know much about it". He denied that there was an internal order not to reveal any such information.

Subsequently, in an interview with Uruguayan paper El País, Villagrán said that "as a private individual", he believes it is time to "turn the page" on the events of the past. He said that the dictatorship is now a matter for historians; as far as the institution of the army is concerned, it has been dealt with.

Not surprisingly, the families of the disappeared were not so pleased by these statements. One relative, Oscar Urtasún, said that to turn the page, "it was first necessary to read the book". "We are the victims and he is part of the victimizers," he summed up.

It's disappointing, but not surprising, to hear such statements from a high-ranking military officer in Latin America. How about leaving it to the victims to decide if they are ready to move on for a change?

Jefe del Ejército: "no debe quedar información" sobre desaparecidos (
"Creo que hay que dar vuelta la página y mirar hacia el futuro" (
Hijos de desaparecidos respondieron a jefe de Ejército (

Sebastião Salgado as migrant

The Lens blog of the New York Times has an interesting piece about Sebastião Salgado's early work. It notes that he led dictatorship-era Brazil in 1969 for France, where he came into contact with other Latin American exiles.
“We were migrants and we settled in a world of migrants,” he recalled. “We worked a lot at that time with Brazilians who arrived in France after having been tortured. Today we don’t talk very much about this period, but it was brutal. All those people who in 1973 left Chile and came here after the overthrow of Salvador Allende. And Paraguay, Uruguay. …” 
The photography that came out of this period - immigrants at work and at home with their families in the high-rises of the Parisian outskirts - seem a far cry from the work of Genesis, but I think you can see the echos in the landscape shots of the tower blocks.

See more:
Sebastião Salgado: Migrant in a World of Migrants (NY Times)

Saturday 22 February 2014

Argentina: Remains of vice-governor of Tucumán discovered

It has been confirmed that the remains discovered in the Pozo de Vargas, Tucumán, include those of the former vice-governor of the province, Dardo Francisco Molina, who was murdered during the dictatorship. The identification was carried out by the Argentine forensic anthropology team EAAF.  He was found in a common grave from which a futher 12 victims have also been identified so far.

Molina, senator and vice-governor of Tucumán under Amado Juri, was relieved of his post following the 1976 coup. He was abducted on 15 December that year by an armed group identifying themselves as members of the federal police. The task force is said to have been under the control of the late Antonio Domingo Bussi. 

His daughter, Josefina Molina, said "He didn't go to Spain like they said, they tried to make him disappear but they couldn't. Dad is here". She also reiterated her commitment to finding out the details of what happened to him and pursuing justice.

Memoria y verdad en Tucumán (Pagina/12)

Thursday 20 February 2014

Argentina: Trial of the judges

A high-profile human rights trial opened this week in Mendoza, Argentina. It is the "trial of the judges" (juicio a los jueces) of the last dictatorship and interesting because it focuses on complicity from outside the armed forces.

The around 40 defendants* include former judge Otilio Roque Romano, who was extradited from Chile last September, Luis Miret, Guillermo Petra, Rolando Carrizo and Gabriel Guzzo. They are accused of not having investigated reports of illegal detentions, disappearances and murders relating to over 200 people.

The images of the courtroom are quite striking (see both La Nación and Diario Uno, linked below), with the men in their 70s and 80s surrounding by uniformed guards. As the trial is forecast to last around two years, it seems likely that some of the accused will not survive to hear the sentence. The case is still symbolically important, but of course, like all the current human rights trials, it comes late and progress is slow.

At the initial hearing on Monday, Romano raised his handcuffed wrists as he left the courtroom, to competing cries of "hero" and "murderer" from his supporters and opponents in the visitors' section. Luis Miret was reprimanded by the presiding judges for photographing the public prosecutor.

Jueces de la última dictadura, en el banquillo en Mendoza (La Nación)
Al grito de "asesinos, asesinos" terminó la primera jornada del juicio histórico a los jueces (Diario Uno)

*Media reports vary from 39 to 41.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Argentina: Devoto prison deaths to be reinvestigated?

Nearly a year ago, I blogged about the so-called "mattress riot" - motín de los colchones - which occurred at the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires in 1978 and led to the deaths of around 60 prisoners. Renewed interest in the case seems to have been provoked by a book written by lawyer Claudia Cesaroni.

Yesterday, federal prosecutor Federico Delgado called for the case, which has been shelved twice in the past, to be reopened. In recent months, he has heard 17 testimonies on the case, four of them from survivors. He points to the contrast between the "official history" of the prisoners' riot and the accounts of survivors. He also complains that previous investigations were biased. He also believes that some of the prisoners were shot, rather than having burnt to death as had been previously stated.

Delgado does not believe that any intervention of the State in a crime necessarily turns it into a crime against humanity, and in this case he does not see a clear link with the systematic repression of the State during the dictatorship. He will pass on the baton to federal judge Daniel Rafecas, who will have to provide the definitions. Cesaroni believes the incident did constitute a crime against humanity and she has been trying to demonstrate how the situation of "common" prisoners under the dictatorship mirrored the sufferings of the "political" prisoners.

Piden investigar lo que ocurrió en Devoto (Pagina/12)

Sunday 9 February 2014

Argentina: More on museum project for ESMA

Pagina/12 provides more information on the memory museum project for the ESMA site in Buenos Aires.

The curators of the place of memory will be Alejandra Naftal - herself a former detained-disappeared person - and Hernán Bisman. Naftal was one of the founders of the Memoria Abierta archive. She explains that the museum project will draw on documentary evidence as well as legal, academic, artistic, journalistic and audiovisual sources, plus testimoney from the victims and relatives. The members of the navy "never talked and never told the truth", she said.

For Naftal, sites of memory are different to articles, books or films, because they are places of "authorised" truth. "You can argue, what is the truth, right? But we are determined enough to back up what we know with documentary sources. We use the testimonies from the courts, the trial of the Juntas in 1985 and the various trials of the ESMA from recent years".

In reply to the question of who the museum is for, Naftal replies "For many people. For millions. For those outside. For young people, old people, children, Argentinians, foreigners."

Daniel Tarnopolsky, of the Instituto Espacio de la Memoria who lost numerous relatives during the dictatorship, explains that the intention is not to "reconstruct" a detention centre in the ESMA. There will be no recreating torture equipment, for example. However it may be that, for example, the photos of Víctor Basterra can be shown in the places where they were taken.
Naftal says:The ESMA is the symbolic centre for Latin America and needs to have international exhibition standards.

Tarnopolsky says:
The ESMA is the Auschwitz of the [Argentine] dictatorship.

More detail in the full article:
“El museo será para millones” (Pagina/12)

Saturday 8 February 2014

Guatemala: New memory museum opens

A new museum called La Casa de la Memoria Kaji Tulam has opened in Guatemala. Kaji Tulam means "so as not to forget" in the Quiché language, apparently. It deals with the country's history from the arrival of the Spanish, but with a particular emphasis on the civil war of 1960-1996 and its aftermath.

AP notes that there are two other museums dealing with the period in the country already, but they are very small and poorly funded.

The design of this one sounds interesting, with spaces for reflection and visitor response, use of images, furniture, and a wall with names of the disappeared. It also includes military plans, victims' testimonies and information from reports from the Catholic Church and UN.

Museo en Guatemala honra a víctimas de la guerra civil (
Inauguran museo de la memoria (

Read more here:

Buenos Aires detention centres transferred to nation

The government of Buenos Aires and the Argentine federal government came to an agreement, announced this week, to transfer the former detention centres in the capital city to national control. These include the former ESMA site, where a new museum project is planned.

The aim is for the sites to be visited by many more people than before, and for them to become a tool to be used by schools to a greater extent than previously, Argentina's human rights secretary, Martín Fresneda, told Pagina/12. 

Also affected are the centres known as Virrey Cevallos, Atlético, Olimpo and Automotores Orletti. All of them were previously administrated by the Instituto Espacio para la Memoria (IEM) under the Buenos Aires government.

According to the paper, many of the buildings have not been adequately preserved thus far. It also reports that the plans are supported by the Madres, Abuelas and HIJ@S groups. However, the IEM is opposed. Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel has expressed his concern about the "politicisation" of memory sites and the "forcing" of a museum on the ESMA in an op-ed for Perfil.

The idea is to fully open the ESMA site, which is currently only available for guided tours and events and is not fully accessible to the disabled.

There does not seem to have been much reporting on this besides the two articles linked below. I do not pretend to have a clear overview of the actual consequences for the memory sites in the Argentine capital, but my initial reaction is to note that the major relatives' organisations do not seem to be objecting to the plans and that the idea of a permanent museum on the ESMA site is a good one. Of course, it would need to be sensitively done, but ten years after the ESMA was semi-opened to the public, it seems strange that you need to book a guided tour in advance to get in. That is just not the way to maximise the number of people who visit. Moreover, Argentina could do with an emblematic museum along the lines of the Chilean memory museum, I would argue, and what better site than the country's biggest detention centre?

Cambio de órbita para los sitios de la memoria (Pagina/12)
Negocios que afectan la memoria histórica (

Los Pericos - Sin Cadenas

UPDATED TO ADD: See also this great article from the BBC featuring Los Pericos and others.

Here's the Argentine band Los Pericos with a video featuring the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Argentina: Welcome, grandchild #110

It's about six months since the last post of this nature I wrote, and I'm happy to do it again.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have announced the recovery of identity of another grandchild - the 110th. She is the daughter of Oscar Rómulo Gutiérrez and Liliana Isabel Acuña, who were disappeared on 26 August 1976, while Liliana was five months pregnant. Their families were told by an agent from the police that Liliana gave birth in December 1976 or January 1977. The parents remain disappeared.

The woman went to the Grandmothers last autumn with doubts about her parentage and subsequently underwent a DNA test.

Her grandmother, Vilma Delinda Sesarego de Gutiérrez, was one of the founders of the Abuelas group, but sadly did not live to see her own grandchild found. Nor did her other grandmother, Rosa González. But she does now have two uncles to connect her to her birth family.

Official press release from the Abuelas
Abuelas anunció la restitución de la nieta 110 (Pagina/12)

Sunday 2 February 2014

Paraguay marks 25 years of partial democracy

On 3 February, Paraguay will commemorate a quarter of a century of "incomplete" democracy. Alfredo Stroessner, head of Latin America's longest-running dictatorship, was finally forced out by a further coup in 1989. Shortly afterwards, he fled to Brazil, where he died 17 years later.

The overthrow led to a certain political opening up, the recovery of some political freedoms, the progressive reintegration of Paraguay into the international community and slow steps towards democracy, at least nominally. But in elections in May 1989, the Partido Colorado - the party of the dictatorship - won with 74% of the votes. The historic transfer of power away from the party did not come until 2008, and it returned to government in 2013.

The crimes which took place during the dictatorship remain largely unpunished. These are thought to include 425 deaths or disappearances and 20,000 politicial prisoners.

A recent survey illustrates how far the process of democratisation has to go in Paraguay: 32% of the population today would prefer an authoritarian government. This is the highest proportion in Latin America, according to Latinobarómetro.

Fernando Masi of the Paraguayan economic research institute Cadep judges the country to be "a low-quality democracy". He also explains that 1989 was not the moment when Paraguay "regained" its democracy but rather when it started building it - and this without a clean break, since the Partido Colorado remained in power.

Paraguay is still the country with the second-greatest concentration of land ownership in the world, according to the UN. 2.6% of landlords own 85.5% of agricultural land. Nepotism remains a major issue, although some protests highlighted the problem in the last year.

Paraguay: A 25 años del golpe que terminó con la dictadura mas larga de Sudamérica (Telam)

Peru shelves forced sterilisation case

Peru has cleared the government of former president Alberto Fujimori of running a campaign of forced sterilisation in the 1990s. The prosecution service concluded there was not enough evidence to suggest that the policy was systematic.

Human rights groups have condemned the decision as an example of impunity and vowed to fight on. It certainly surprises me, as everything I've read suggests that indigenous women were persuaded, tricked, bribed, intimidated or forced into sterilisation during the Fujimori government. In one specific case, the woman died, and complaints against five health workers involved in her treatment were upheld. An article in El País suggests that around 17 other deaths occurred following the procedures.

Forced sterilisation of a particular ethnic group is potentially genocide, but the prosecution service claims that there was no crime against humanity - despite acknowledgements of "pressure" and evidence that Fujimori was aware of the sterilisation programme.

Peru closes forced sterilisation probe and clears ex-President Alberto Fujimori (BBC)
Perú cierra el caso de las esterilizaciones forzadas de Fujimori (El País)
Peru: Victims of forced sterilizations push for further investigation against Fujimori (Peru this week)
Government documents show that Fujimori knew about forced sterilizations (Peru this week) Colectivo de mujeres apelará dictamen de esterilizaciones (La Republica)