For the families of Latin America’s ‘disappeared’, finding justice is painfully slow

Jun 8, 2022 | 1 comment

By Belen Fernandez

Back in 2012, in the southern Peruvian city of Ayacucho — birthplace of the Maoist guerrilla outfit Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) — I found myself carrying a small white coffin containing the remains of a man named Alejandro Aguilar.

As I recounted at the time in an article for the London Review of Books, Aguilar had been an itinerant wool trader and was one of the victims of a 1984 guerrilla massacre of more than 100 Peruvians.

Women protest in the 1980s for Chile's disappeared.

Women protest in the 1980s for Chile’s “disappeared”.

Twenty-eight years later, his remains had been exhumed from a mass grave and were being returned to his wife and other family members, who had traveled to Ayacucho by bus from their village more than 700 km away.

I happened to be standing nearby when a hand was needed with the coffin, and thus paid my first and last respects to Aguilar before he was loaded back on to the bus for his final journey home.

There were copious tears from the family, but they assured me they were grateful to have closure at long last.

Realm of the disappeared
As we recently marked the International Day of the Disappeared, countless families across Latin America have yet to attain closure.

In Peru itself, an estimated 16,000 people disappeared during the violence of the 1980s and 1990s. Their remains are reportedly contained in more than 6,000 unmarked graves across the country, the vast majority of which have yet to be excavated — although a new law will supposedly facilitate the process.

But Peru is just the tip of the iceberg: A veritable realm of the disappeared encompasses much of the hemisphere, from Argentina and Uruguay to Brazil and Guatemala.

Argentina racked up an estimated 30,000 forcibly disappeared persons during its so-called “dirty war”, which began in 1976; Guatemala’s own lengthy war is thought to have disappeared 45,000, on top of the hundreds of thousands killed outright.

Bones of the disappeared recovered in Argentina.

Bones of the “disappeared recovered” in Argentina.

Meanwhile, estimates range from 15,000 to 109,000 disappeared during Colombia’s protracted conflict. Figures depend on the organization doing the counting — and the year they started counting from.

Burying the truth
Across Latin America, the process of uncovering the truth about the fates of legions of disappeared people has generally been characterized by a great deal of inertia and antagonism on the part of authorities.

Why? In many places, the state’s reluctance to dig up the crimes of the past has to do with the state’s own complicity in many of those crimes.

Case in point: Peru. While there in 2014, I spoke with an official from the national Human Rights Commission who was in charge of the case of Alejandro Aguilar and fellow massacre victims.

As it turned out, the official himself was also a victim of criminal behavior in 1984 — but not by Sendero Luminoso. His two sisters, aged 11 and 18, had been raped and murdered by members of the Peruvian armed forces. Two months later, his father was disappeared by the army.

Right-wing Latin American governments, it bears reiterating, presided over conditions of socioeconomic misery and inequality, thus contributing in no small part to the very rise of the leftist guerrilla movements and other forms of opposition that then allegedly had to be stamped out at all cost.

Even now, political, military, and other elites with physical and/or ideological ties to past atrocities are still entrenched in various Latin American nations, exerting pressure to keep the truth dead and buried — to replace forced disappearance with forced amnesia.

Under the pretense of leaving old wounds alone in the interest of peace, the discouragers of transparency are perfectly happy to condemn family members of the disappeared to gaping psychological wounds for the rest of eternity.

Immunity from justice?
As with many a nefarious undertaking across the globe, the United States deserves more than a little blame for the quantity of disappeared in Latin America.

After all, it was none other than that ubiquitous American statesman Henry Kissinger who in the 1970s gave the green light to the Argentine military junta, which then went on to launch its signature program of dropping suspected opponents from aircraft into the sea.

U.S.-orchestrated coups in Guatemala and Chile — in 1954 and 1973, respectively — ushered in periods of brutal violence in both locales.

Meanwhile, U.S. support for the larger Operation Condor — a collaborative effort to exterminate leftism in the Southern Cone — translated into an endorsement of transnational state-sponsored murder and disappearance.

And while Argentina, for one, has made strides to prosecute some of the officials responsible for the atrocities of the Condor era, it goes without saying that Kissinger & Co are among those perpetually immune from justice.

Indeed, U.S. meddling in the hemisphere is nothing new, and is in fact a tradition almost as old as the nation itself. Since unilaterally appropriating Latin America into its official “backyard” in the 1800s, the US has often regarded genuine manifestations of democracy in the vast territory as obstacles to enrichment opportunities for US business elites — and therefore, in many cases, downright national security threats.

Human bodies themselves can be obstacles, which helps to explain US support for brutal regimes intent on disappearing folks agitating for a dignified existence.

And until a meaningful reckoning with the gruesome past-turned-present takes place, every day in Latin America is a Day of the Disappeared.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger:


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