Outing Torturers in Post-Dictatorship Argentina

September 25, 2007

Dozens of mostly young people enter a middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires. The air is tense with anticipation, drums are sounding and whistles are blowing. But this is not carnival. The marchers break out in unison, "Attention, attention, attention neighbors! There's an assassin living next door!"

These are "escraches"—from "escrachar," Argentine slang for "to uncover"—a new form of protest developed by Daughters and Sons for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence (HIJOS), an organization of the children of the disappeared, and children of political activists and people forced into exile during the dictatorship. Escraches aim to expose the identities of hundreds of torturers and assassins who benefited by the amnesty laws of the 1980s. Marchers invade their neighborhoods and inform the community about the atrocities they committed, handing out fliers with the name, address, and a photograph of the person being "escrachado," as well as information about the human rights violations in which he is implicated. The demonstrations end outside the torturers' homes with a brief "ceremony" of speeches, street theater, music and the "marking" of the torturers' homes by painting slogans on sidewalks and walls. Red paint—symbolizing blood—is often thrown on the doorstep.

Amnesty laws and pardons have allowed the criminals responsible for the disappearance of some 30,000 people to walk freely. But impunity is not only a legal matter; it permeates all layers of society, creating a culture of impunity that manifests itself in a certain apathy and reduced capacity for outrage and indignation. This amazing degree of tolerance for crimes known to have been committed is an adaptation to the reality that hundreds of kidnappers, torturers, murderers, and "disappearers" of people have a place in society, not in jail but in the streets, restaurants, TV screens, magazines, official ceremonies, and even major public offices. Some Argentines are even willing to allow these criminals to keep the children they kidnapped after torturing and disappearing their biological parents. These attitudes reveal a distortion of public values, a legacy of terror left behind by the dictatorship.

Escraches use ostracism, public exposure and humiliation to eliminate or limit the social space that human rights abusers have gained. They are a symbolic repossession of the streets by freeing them from the presence of torturers and other perpetrators of human rights crimes. The strategy is to tear off the public shield of anonymity that torturers hide behind. To "escrachar" is to reveal, making public the face of a person who wants to go unnoticed in the new, "peaceful impunity." HIJOS wants these peoples' co-workers to know what their role was in the dictatorship and their neighbors to know that a criminal and a torturer lives next door—someone who will be recognized as such in the bakery, the bar, or the grocery store. Many neighbors enthusiastically join the demonstrations and thank HIJOS for revealing the identity of their unsavory neighbors. Others close their shades, turn off the lights and stay inside, but no one defends the torturers.

Escraches are part of Argentina's current battle over memory. The military wants to be honored for winning the "war" against subversion, while the human rights movement persists with its demands for truth and justice. Some recognize the dictatorship's crimes, but advocate reconciliation through "forgive and forget" policies. HIJOS seeks to ensure that these people and these policies are not successful in instituting amnesia by being a visible reminder of the 30,000 disappeared by the dictatorship. At a march in June 1996, for example, commemorating 1,000 Thursdays of weekly marches by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a contingent of HIJOS marched well behind the mothers, suggesting that the disappeared were marching in- between, preceded by their mothers and followed by their children. The missing generation was metaphorically and powerfully present. This potent scene is reenacted every time Mothers and HIJOS march together.

Escraches, which are often violently suppressed, are well covered by the media. As such, they are encouraging people to discuss their points of view during legislative debates, TV talk shows and at street demonstrations. In these realms, truth and accountability are debated, and different historical explanations compete for hegemony. The escraches act as alternative history textbooks, overcoming the legacy of silence and fear that has resulted in a fragmented, decontextualized knowledge of the dictatorship era.

Many Argentines used to say they did not know what went on during the dictatorship. By revealing the human rights violators' identity and whereabouts, escraches force people to publicly define their position on human rights violations and current struggles for truth and accountability. They also challenge civilian governments' efforts to obstruct justice. They remind society that the book on the past is still open and the future cannot be built without truth and justice. Before the escraches, perpetrators of human rights crimes were free to go anywhere. Now, HIJOS is disturbing this peaceful impunity. Violators are now trapped in the metaphorical jails that escraches are "building" in neighborhoods throughout Argentina.

Susana Kaiser recently completed her Ph.D. in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin. She currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley.

Tags: Argentina, human rights, escraches, impunity, publicity

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