Paraguay, A Node in Operation Condor's Global Disappearance Network

¿A dónde están? Where are they? In Paraguay, the answer to the question of those seeking justice for the disappeared is blunt: they are in the backyard of the elite police headquarters 15 minutes from downtown Asunción.

June 4, 2024

Rogelio Goiburú at work on an excavation, 2013. (Hugo Valiente)

This web exclusive piece is part of our Summer 2024 issue of the NACLA Report.

Digging in March 2013 in the backyard of Paraguay’s special operations police headquarters, Rogelio Goiburú knew he and his team were on the verge of a breakthrough. “When we hit something in the ground, I was certain that this was my father,” Rogelio recalls. “He was exactly where the anonymous witness said I should find him.” Rogelio’s father, Agustín Goiburú, was a medical doctor and political activist who opposed the dictatorship of Paraguayan General Alfredo Stroessner. In 1977, while living in exile in Argentina, he was kidnapped by security forces and never seen again. He is one among the official count of 337 desaparecidos—a likely underestimate—under Stroessner’s 1954–1989 rule, the longest-running dictatorship in the Southern Cone.

“We continued excavating slowly,” recalls Rogelio of the March 2013 discovery, “working our way downward using brushes to chisel out the contours of the body, taking care of every detail.” Rogelio, a medical doctor, remained in exile after his father’s disappearance, but returned to Paraguay after Stroessner’s fall to search for the remains of his father, together with his two siblings and mother. “When we got to the abdominal area, there was something that did not make sense. There was another body!” He continued: “I was both shocked and thrilled. While I knew it could not be my father—he had been killed alone—it was clear that we had just found two desaparecidos at once.”

Three years later, DNA matches identified the victims: Rafaela Filipazzi and Jose Potenza, an Italian-Argentine couple who had lived in Argentina but left for Uruguay, where they disappeared in 1977. After being abducted, they were taken to Paraguay to be executed and buried in this backyard in Asunción. Rogelio remembers the remnants of a bra giving them a hint that one of them was a woman, possibly middle class. The evidence suggested they had been buried shortly after death. Filipazzi was placed on top of Potenza.

Fifteen of the 44 remains recovered in Paraguay to date have been found in the Special Operations Forces backyard, and Filipazzi and Potenza were the first of four recovered bodies to be identified in the country. Their identities as foreign nationals offer a glimpse into the dictatorship’s involvement in cross-border state-sponsored violence and the workings of Operation Condor, the U.S.-backed campaign for transnational cooperation in surveillance, political repression, and state terror under the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. While Operation Condor’s existence has been well documented, the identities of these non-Paraguayan desaparecidos give a fresh perspective of just how transnational it really was.

For Rogelio, the most important development was the identification itself. “Let me be clear,” he says. “Many think I am mainly interested in finding my father, but let me tell you that every time we find someone, I also find my father. Every time. Because when searching for my father, I search for all of them. And when searching for all of them, I also search for my father.”

Searching Against the Odds

Over the years, I have followed the work of Rogelio and his team at the Ministry of Justice’s Historical Memory and Reparations office. I have visited several locations for prospective excavations and burial sites, including the Special Operation Forces lot, to understand how their efforts led to the first discovery and identification of desaparecidos.

Access to excavate any place in Paraguay is all but easy. Finding desaparecidos has never been a priority. In contrast to countries like neighboring Argentina, where hundreds of dictatorship-era human rights criminals have been brought to justice and cultural products like films have portrayed these prosecutions, the justice system in Paraguay has been passive and unresponsive, if not complicit. State structures have rarely supported efforts toward reparations, a strong social taboo remains around the disappeared, and far too few cases have been prosecuted.

After Stroessner’s 1989 downfall, the transition to democracy was led by the former dictator’s Colorado Party, which only modernized itself to remain in power. Even when the country timidly joined Latin America’s pink tide with the 2008 election of center-left former bishop Fernando Lugo, the reprieve from decades of uninterrupted Colorado rule ended prematurely when Congress hastily ousted Lugo in an impeachment process in 2012.

Against this backdrop, the human rights work has been an uphill and resource-deprived battle that requires strategic patience and perseverance. But when Truth and Justice Commission finally published its final reports in 2008, one of the outcomes was the inauguration of the office of Historical Memory and Reparations, where Rogelio—already searching for the disappeared as an activist—was appointed director. With this position, inside the Ministry of Justice, he gained legitimacy to knock on doors that were previously off-limits.

Rogelio acknowledges that doing this work from within formal institutions can be contradictory. “Why do I continue to work within the state, despite the meager resources I get? Because of the commitment that I made to make the state responsible and push it to do its work,” he says. “And in this case, ironically, I am the state. I can at least make this [issue] visible.”

His title as director of Historical Memory and Reparations conceals the reality of a precarious office space, where he works with only one invaluable but underpaid coworker, and endless ups and downs to secure a budget. Sometimes years go by without funding, and budgets only get approved after complaints and advocacy from civil society organizations. At the same time, the Paraguayan state uses an iconic 2013 photograph of Rogelio as a token of its commitment to dealing with its troubling human rights record. In the picture, taken by photographer Jorge Saenz, a human skull protrudes from the dirt in the foreground as Rogelio, seated in the background, probes another part of the remains.

“It is a win-win,” he says. “They get to show interesting work. I get to keep excavating.”

Shortly after the Historical Memory and Reparations office got up and running, it established a strategic partnership with the Argentinian Forensic Anthropological Team (EAAF), which would decisively impact their work in Paraguay. Rogelio had known about the EAAF since its inception, back in the 1980s when he was exiled in Argentina and his family was one of many searching for their loved ones. “Their formation gave us hope. As did the work of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo,” he says. Now he had a position that allowed him to collaborate with EAAF at an official level. The Argentine experts were immediately onboard and continue to work with his office. Their technical input and training made a difference in finding and later identifying the first remains.

Adding to the resource constraints, there are also more complex social dynamics standing in the way of searching for the disappeared. There is fear and strong distrust of the state, both among survivors—many of whom refuse to leave samples of their DNA for a regional database to match cases—and among perpetrators, who hold singular knowledge of the whereabouts of the victims. Rogelio has, however, been successful in gathering anonymous tips that have led to discoveries. His capacity to recruit support became abundantly clear when I accompanied him on visits to the Special Operations Forces.

A Hotspot of Violence: The Special Operations Forces Backyard

Located south of downtown Asunción, the headquarters of the elite police force spans several acres and includes barracks, training facilities, shooting ranges, and top-security prison facilities. The facility has changed its name several times, but it has always hosted elite police forces since the times of the dictatorship. It is surrounded by the Tacumbú Prison to the east and the Army Engineer corps as well as the Infantry corps, to the west. The neighborhood has been a police and military territory for over half a century.

The entire area is under extreme surveillance and access is highly restricted. Yet every time I followed Rogelio there, we were treated as diplomatic visitors, with all their privileges. Invariably, shortly after arriving, a low-rank soldier would hunt us down with a message: “The commander wants to know what Dr. Goiburú would like to have prepared for supper.” Rogelio would rub his hands and let us decide among his favorite dishes. Eating in the place where the police perfected its monopoly on violence felt bizarre. But neither Rogelio nor the commanders would miss an opportunity to talk and exchange information. They had become acquainted during three years of excavations. 

At one meal, Rogelio told the officers present: “You are not the police who were part of the repression against your own people. You are the ones who helped discover your disappeared countrymen and are now guarding this sanctuary of historical memory.” Without exception, the officers all assured us of their democratic convictions, expressing their commitment to upholding law and justice. The state of the graves showed a different picture. They were abandoned and unattended. One still hosted a pigsty, once built on top of two graves to conceal them, with pigs roaming over the precariously marked tombs.

A pigsty build on top of two precariously marked graves at the special operations police headquarters in Asunción, Paraguay. (Marco Castillo)

During that visit, and perhaps inspired by Rogelio’s capacity to talk with everyone, I too engaged a police commander, listening to him very openly. We quickly established rapport, and he ended up talking about a recent case of a rank-and-file officer facing a decade in prison for having shot a demonstrator in the face with a rubber bullet from point blank range. The victim had almost gotten his eye blown out. The fact that the victim was a member of parliament and the whole thing happening in front of TV cameras made the prosecution—which would normally have been much slower—work promptly.

The commander sought my tacit agreement that the entire episode was outrageous, that policemen are trained professionals, who conduct limited operations and always keep innocent people out of harm’s way.

"We know how the leftists always try to produce victims whenever there’s repressions only to look like heroes themselves and smear the image of the police,” he told me. “Therefore, we train to never hit people with a baton on their heads. It can break. We can break an arm, a leg. That's where we hit. Never the head. That's preposterous.” He went on: “The ones operating rubber bullet shotguns are the most professional of us all. Never would this guy have shot anyone above waist level. He could not have done it. It is really unfair."

Whether this was rapport or reality check, I was struck by how both the tactics and the assumed adversary of the police were not far removed from the dictates of the dictatorship, when the National Security Doctrine had instilled a sacrosanct conviction that leftist agitators were enemies of the state. This principle was also the rationale behind Operation Condor, as described in 1975 documents discovered within the Paraguayan secret police files known as the Archives of Terror, also located in Asunción. The strategic goal of combatting the threat of a supposed global leftist subversion was exactly what led to Filipazzi and Potenza being buried in this backyard, only meters away from where the commander and I had this conversation.

Rogelio was genuinely more open than I was during these visits and in his interactions with the police. "These are all the sons and daughters of campesinos,” he told me when he saw my discomfort. “Like the police of the dictatorship, they are all class neighbors of their victims. It doesn't take any of them long to clearly understand the situation facing the victims of state violence, and to what side they really belong. That's how I approach them and that is why they trust me."

During another visit to the Special Forces compound, we stumbled upon a police band practicing, and they offered some tunes. "This is José Asunción Flores's old band, here's where he got started as a musician," Rogelio told me. Flores, the creator of the guarania music genre and Paraguay’s greatest composer, had started his career with the police band before joining the Communist Party and eventually being exiled. When Stroessner came to power in 1954, he banned both Flores and his music. At our request, the band played for us “Gallito Cantor,” Flores's communist Paraguayan polka and a well-known tune for Paraguay’s exiled diaspora.

Having grown up in exile myself, songs like these and the names of distant people formed the recurring image of Paraguay from afar. Of course, the name of the dictator—evil incarnate—stood out. But there were also the names of cousins, aunts, and uncles with whom I would have occasional, hasty, and expensive phone calls, our conversations plagued by the echoes of delayed satellite connections. Their different accents, whether Paraguayan or Argentine, only added to the confusion of who was who. Less confusing were the names of some of my parents’ comrades—like Derlis Villagra, the brilliant student cadre, or Miguel Ángel Soler, the brave communist leader—who became the backbone of my Paraguayan landscape.

Both extremely familiar. Neither reached exile. Both desaparecidos.

Soler was the third desaparecido to be identified by Rogelio and his team. He had disappeared in 1975, and his remains were also recovered from the same backyard. When his identity was made public, the Argentine visual artist Gabriel Orge—who was coincidentally attending a workshop in Paraguay those very days—projected a picture of him and Filipazzi looking over Asunción. Like in the Southern Cone chant in honor of those who disappeared, “Presente, ahora y siempre” (Present, now and forever), they were, indeed, present again.

LEFT: Faces of Soler and Filipazzi projected on buildings in downtown Asunción. (Gabriel Orge). RIGHT: A marker identifies the spot Soler's remains were found. (Marco Castillo)

On our way back from inspecting the different graves where the 15 sets of human remains had been found, walking the approximately 2,000 feet towards the front of the Special Operation Forces, we passed by a small basement deposit with humid and moldy walls. It looked like a cave. "This was Mella Latorre's site of detention for years," Rogelio told me. Alejandro Mella Latorre is a Chilean journalist who was unlucky enough to arrive to Paraguay the same month that Nicaraguan former dictator Anastasio Somoza was killed in a guerrilla ambush. Somoza had lived exiled in Asunción, under Stroessner’s protection, and his death in 1980 shook the security forces, triggered extensive repression, and sealed off the country for weeks.

In his autobiography, Mella Latorre notes how being a foreign correspondent who had covered conflicts around the world, including Nicaragua, made him a person of special interest. He endured torture for years at the hands of Paraguayan officials, but also under the observation and participation of officials and military attachés from other Southern Cone countries and even Taiwan. That cave was one of his last detention places, where he barely survived until, shortly after the dictatorship fell, he was finally expelled from the country.

International Spaces of State Violence and Impunity

The Special Operations Forces headquarters was indeed a much more complex site than what meets the eye. It was truly a space of transnational state violence, where Operation Condor was fully enacted. But it was also an expression of how deeply embedded Paraguay was in global policies of anti-communist counterinsurgency. Documents from the Archives of Terror show how the country was not only immersed in the School of the America’s training programs, but also had a close intelligence collaboration with both the South African apartheid regime and Taiwan. Taiwanese cooperation benefited Paraguay and other global peripheries of repression such as El Salvador. The infamous Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, who led the El Mozote massacre that killed over 900 civilians, completed political warfare training in Taiwan that was also attended by Paraguayan officers and union members loyal to the dictatorship.

Rather than seeing the Special Operations Forces and Paraguay as a space of exception, both should be thought of as node in an international network of torture, executions, and disappearances where impunity is the rule. To date, only a handful of cases have been brought to justice. One exception occurred this year when Eusebio Torres, a top dictatorship-era police officer, was finally prosecuted for torture against several victims. In a historic outcome, Torres was sentenced to 30 years for crimes against humanity. The prosecutors had only asked for 15. Again, fear, which is so deeply embedded in Paraguayan society, makes human rights prosecutions and justice an anomaly. 

Scholar Francesca Lessa has observed how recent developments in human rights trials have made it possible to hold states accountable for extra-territorial rights violations. For legal systems trapped in conservative political contexts, such as Paraguay’s, this may well be an option for human rights and justice. Both Lessa and Rogelio served as expert witnesses in the ongoing trial for the forced disappearance of Filipazzi and Potenza that is being held not in Paraguay but in Italy. The defendant is Jorge Tróccoli, a former Uruguayan officer who is also an Italian national and has already been convicted in Italy for his participation in Operation Condor. If cases like theirs, and those of many desaparecidos in Paraguay, are taken seriously as evidence of transnational processes of state violence, they may very well continue to contribute to steps toward justice.

International efforts should also continue to uncover more information about other regimes’ involvement in the state violence in the region. Last year, the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, Marc Ostfield, recognized U.S. support of the Stroessner dictatorship for the first time. “We have contributed to injustices in Paraguay during the 1970 and 80s. We should neither hide nor fear talking about this,” he said during the opening of the new embassy in Asunción in June 2023. The time seems ripe for a total declassification of U.S. files related to Operation Condor and state terrorism in the Southern Cone, as part of a timid first step towards reparations.

Information is key to continue with excavations and the identification of more remains. The last identification of a desaparecido was made in late 2016: Cástulo Vera Báez, a 32-year-old communist activist from the Paraguayan countryside detained in 1977 and last seen in the infamous Emboscada prison with signs of having been violently tortured. However, more resources are needed to continue the searches.

Meanwhile, Rogelio Goiburú and his team continue to garner support from new actors. As recently as last year, a team of forensic anthropologists from Arizona State University initiated a project called “They Are Our Parents” to assist with the re-classification of existing remains and support new excavations. “There are around 30 places that we have strong documentation and testimonies on,” Rogelio told me. He’s also hopeful about finding new DNA matches of disappeared Paraguayans. “If given the resources,” he said, “we could start excavating tomorrow.”

Marco Castillo is a PhD candidate in sociology and director of research at the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His research seeks to understand political violence in dictatorial and post-dictatorship settings, political resistance, and how they relate to the production of knowledge and policy.

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