Remembering in the Land that Memory Forgot

Impunity rides the coattails of amnesia and oblivion. Without memory to link the present with the past, current wrongs seem like historical aberrations, rather than the consequence of accumulated injustice. Authoritarian regimes and their allies know this well and are keen to snuff out those who reflect too thoughtfully on the past. By continually wiping the historical slate clean, they are free to do as they please and cover their tracks in the process.

Teo Ballvé

Impunity rides the coattails of amnesia and oblivion. Without memory to link the present with the past, current wrongs seem like historical aberrations, rather than the consequence of accumulated injustice. Authoritarian regimes and their allies know this well and are keen to snuff out those who reflect too thoughtfully on the past. By continually wiping the historical slate clean, they are free to do as they please and cover their tracks in the process.

Nowhere do these dynamics seem more clearly at work than in Latin America.

Guatemala: The Born-Again Killer

Some Latin American leaders have the nasty habit of being perfectly homicidal. General Efraín Ríos Montt of Guatemala, who dropped Catholicism to become an evangelical minister, was Born Again just in time to seize power in a 1982 CIA-backed coup. His brief eighteen months in office were the bloodiest of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Mayan campesinos, were slaughtered or disappeared. Some would prefer to leave such details tucked quietly in the past, but graffiti on a Guatemala City street corner clamors: “We will not forget! Gerardi Lives!”

Bishop Juan Gerardi was the head of the Catholic Church in Guatemala and led the Historical Memory Recovery Project (REMHI). The REMHI was an unprecedented grassroots effort by and for Guatemalans to document the atrocities of the civil war. Gerardi began the project a year before the war finally ended in 1996.

For three years, Gerardi and his colleagues crisscrossed the country, tirelessly collecting evidence and testimony. On April 28, 1998, Gerardi presented the REMHI’s final landmark document, a text titled, Guatemala: Nunca Más (Never Again). It revealed some painful statistics: 150,000 murdered, 50,000 disappeared, 1,000,000 displaced, 200,000 orphans, 40,000 widows. The report accused the Guatemalan security forces and their death squad proxies for eight out of every ten of those atrocities.

The report proved unpalatable to those it implicated. Two days after its presentation, Bishop Gerardi was found lying in a pool of blood in his home, his face bludgeoned by a chunk of concrete.

Suspicion immediately fell on retired Colonel Byron Lima Estrada and his son, a captain. Their arrest would have to wait until 2000, when a new government was elected. Lima had been specially trained by the U.S. military in the 1960s, taking courses in Panama and at the infamous School of the Americas (SOA) — a U.S. Army training facility for Latin American soldiers in Fort Benning, Georgia.

After brushing-up his “counterinsurgency” skills in the United States, Lima headed the notoriously brutal D-2 Military Intelligence agency that did much of the government’s dirty work during the civil war. Gerardi had even named one of the Nunca Más chapters: “D-2: The Very Name of Fear.” The ever-pious Ríos Montt disagreed. “The Holy Spirit runs our intelligence service,” he said.

Despite warrants for torture and genocide hanging over his head, Ríos Montt, another illustrious graduate of the SOA, is not rotting in a jail cell, nor even sipping a cocktail on a beach in exile. The former dictator came in third in Guatemala’s 2003 presidential elections. Undiscouraged by his electoral defeat, Ríos Montt recently launched a bid for congress. If he wins, he’ll enjoy the immunity from prosecution afforded to all Guatemalan congressmen, unless stripped of the privilege by the courts, which are of course stacked with his war buddies.

Argentina: 30,001

Argentina has its own Nunca Más. Its authors sifted through more than 50,000 pages of documents to painstakingly compile an authoritative account of the murders, kidnappings, torture, rapes, and the abduction and sale of babies conducted by Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983). Military officials coldly referred to this state terror as “el proceso” (the process). Human rights organizations estimate that 30,000 were killed or disappeared.

Despite the return of elections in 1983, the crimes went unpunished. Three years into the country’s fragile democratic opening, the perpetrators were exonerated in the name of stability and “reconciliation.” The fledgling congress and president were cowed into approving the amnesty by a restless military, which was inconvenienced by the barrage of human rights trials.

It took more than twenty years for Argentina’s congress and Supreme Court to definitively crush the amnesty. In 2006, Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, a former police commissioner and torture center supervisor, became the first person to be tried since the repeal. Like Ríos Montt, Etchecolatz is a religious man who found divine inspiration for his monstrous acts: “I never had, or thought to have, or was haunted by, any sense of blame. For having killed? I was the executor of a law made by man. I was the keeper of divine precepts. And I would do it again.”

A key witness in the trial was Jorge Julio López, a 77-year-old retired construction worker. López had been abducted in 1976 and spent nearly three years in several prisons where he was repeatedly tortured (he showed the scars during the trial). Unlike several of his friends, López was not thrown alive out of an airplane over the South Atlantic — a favorite sport of the Argentine Navy in the 1970s. López survived one of the camps directed by Etchecolatz, and his testimony proved pivotal in the trial.

On September 17, 2006, one day before he was to give his final testimony, Jorge Julio López again disappeared without a trace. Human rights organizations soon received a flier with an old photo of López with the caption: “Julio López, terrorist #30,001. Who will be #30,002?”

Buenos Aires state governor, Felipe Solá called López “the first disappeared since the years of state terrorism” and publicly blamed police officers with ties to the dictatorship for the disappearance. López’s family members and human rights groups believe his abduction was meant to sow fear among witnesses, activists, lawyers, and judges seeking a degree of long delayed justice.

Despite a nationwide search and a reward of $64,000, López has not been found. At the height of el proceso, it was said that if your loved-one did not reappear within twenty-four hours, the chances of seeing them again alive were slim to none. News of López’s abduction has now slipped from the headlines. It seems he’s disappeared a third time.

Colombia: The Para-Narco State

In 2004, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency declassified a 1991 intelligence report that outlined a “who’s who” of the Colombia's drug-trafficking underworld. The fourteen-page document, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request of the National Security Archives, lists over a hundred names, each numbered and followed by a brief personal profile.

On page 10, number 79 is Pablo Escobar, the pudgy, mustachioed former head of the Medellín Cartel, which at one point controlled almost the entirety of the global cocaine trade; no surprise. But below Escobar, at number 82, is Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the twice-elected current president of Colombia.

The intelligence report describes Uribe as “a senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín Cartel at high government levels” and “a close personal friend of Escobar.” (At the time, Uribe was a Senator from Escobar’s home state of Antioquia, the capital of which is Medellín.)

Both the Colombian and U.S. governments pointed to blatant inaccuracies in the document and vehemently denied any links between Uribe and narcotraffickers. Although the report says the intelligence is checked through “interface with other agencies,” it also admits the information is “not finally evaluated.”

Allegations about Uribe’s links to violent paramilitaries, which are heavily involved in the drug trade, have long dogged the president. (In Colombia, these links were widely suspected as fact, sort of like George Bush’s frat-boy cocaine habit and spotty military service.) Drug lords, including Escobar, and wealthy landowners created the paramilitary groups in the 1980s to combat kidnappings by leftist guerrillas; both the right-wing paramilitaries and the leftist guerrillas are on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Senator Gustavo Petro, an ex-guerrilla, recently accused Uribe’s brother of helping form the paramilitaries. Since Petro originally made the accusations, an unfolding investigation has landed 14 members of congress in jail for having intimate ties with paramilitaries. And Uribe’s Foreign Minister, María Consuelo Araújo, had to resign after her brother (a congressman), cousin (a governor), and father were implicated in the scandal. Her brother, now in jail, is accused of involvement in the kidnapping of one of his opponents in the 2005 elections.

Uribe’s head of the DAS, Colombia’s intelligence service, was also arrested. He is accused of providing paramilitaries with a hit list of human rights workers, college professors, and union activists who were later assassinated. Paramilitary collusion with all levels of government and security forces was Colombia’s worst kept secret, but the extent and the formality of these arrangements have left the public stunned.

Colombia has never had an official Truth Commission. How could it? With more than four decades of ceaseless civil war, it has never had the chance. The closest it has come is the ongoing demobilization process begun in 2003 of the country’s 30,000 paramilitaries, who are blamed for the vast majority of human rights abuses in the country. As part of the demobilization deal, the paramilitaries are to receive extremely lenient sentences for crimes against humanity (six-and-a-half years at most) in exchange for confessing to past crimes.

The first of these confessions came from paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, one of the most feared men in Colombia. In court, Mancuso sat behind a laptop in an impeccable pinstriped suit and methodically scrolled through eighty-seven slides of a PowerPoint presentation that described in chilling detail the murder and disappearance of 336 people. Some of these slides describe how Mancuso planned — with the help of the military — the massacres of fifteen and as many as fifty campesinos at a time. He called these “anti-subversive operations” — the same euphemism used in Argentina and Guatemala.

The deal with the paramilitaries elicited an unusually harsh rebuke from the head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch: “The Colombian government is putting the final touches on a scheme to launder the criminal records of top paramilitary commanders — including some of the country’s most powerful drug lords — while allowing them to keep their wealth and maintain their control over much of the country.”

Indeed, while Mancuso sat comfortably in the courtroom, Yolanda Izquierdo, who led an organization of dispossessed campesinos seeking the return of stolen lands, was shot twice in the head. A week before, another campesino leader had been assassinated. This wave of brutal killings casts serious doubts as to whether Colombia’s three million internal refugees — the largest displaced population in the world after Iraq's and Sudan’s — will ever get their land back.

Since their creation, paramilitary leaders and their allies — namely, politicians and landowners — have accumulated large swaths of the country through the forced displacement of campesinos accused of being guerrilla sympathizers when in fact, the guerrillas are despised by most campesinos almost as much as the paramilitaries. Still, it’s the paramilitaries who have seized an estimated 26,000 square miles from the campesinos — a land-grab of an area larger than the state of West Virginia, comprising about a quarter of the country’s arable land. The price of the Faustian bargain for an unquiet peace with the paramilitaries was apparently the livelihood and happiness of three million Colombians.

Imposed by official decree in Colombia, as elsewhere in Latin America, amnesia and oblivion become internalized by society in an unsettling process that greases the wheels of power and bulletproofs the status quo. Memory, however, at the very least, provides the means to ensure that past and future injustices do not go unnoticed and, hopefully, unchallenged.

Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches from Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism.

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