The Mothers of the Missing
The two women met in 1981, when their wounds were still fresh and the term “the disappeared” was a new and strange coinage.
A quarter of a century later, Luisa Cuesta stood under driving rain watching a bulldozer tear into the earth inside an army base in Uruguay, as a new government confronted the country’s dictatorial past.
Now a frail, white-haired woman of 85, Cuesta had only a faint hope that the body of her long-missing son would be found. But just being inside the base with other mothers, a polite military officer acting as their guide, was a long-sought triumph.
Cuesta’s old friend Alicia de Garcia in El Salvador knows no such bittersweet satisfaction. No one is investigating the deaths of her two brothers and two sons, who were kidnapped by soldiers. No one is searching for their missing bodies. Their executioners remain free. Sometimes, Garcia and other Salvadoran mothers of the disappeared say they spot the killers on the street.
“We’ve always worked and searched for justice,” Garcia said. “Here, impunity has always won. Unfortunately, we have to walk in the same place the animals walk.”
Across Latin America, the era of the dictators who ruled the region is a fading memory. But the effort to bring to trial the officers and soldiers who ordered and carried out the massacres of villagers or the secret executions of political prisoners has moved forward unevenly.
Garcia is still frustrated in her search for justice, but many other women who joined her in that first meeting in Costa Rica of the mothers of the disappeared are much closer these days to achieving their aim: pressuring their governments to account for thousands of missing people, and bringing to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity.
In Argentina, the surviving members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo celebrated a Supreme Court decision in June overturning the amnesty that prevented prosecutions of soldiers and officers implicated in that country’s “dirty war,” in which at least 10,000 people were killed.
In Uruguay, an old friend of the mothers of the disappeared, a fiery leftist lawyer and grandmother named Azucena Berrutti, is now giving orders to the military. One of her first acts as defense minister was to push for the first exhumations of the secret burial grounds of Uruguay’s military dictators.
And in Chile, one of the most notorious dictators of Latin America’s epoch of authoritarianism, Augusto Pinochet, is under virtual house arrest. Revelations that he may have enriched himself while in office have eroded his political support.
“You had a wave of crimes, and then a wave of impunity, and now you have the counter-wave, a third wave,” said Reed Brody, legal counsel for Human Rights Watch. “The passage of time has made it easier in a lot of countries, because the people you’re bringing to justice are no longer in a position to destroy democracy.”
But in many countries of the region, the advance of human rights prosecutions has been hampered by the limited resources of the local judiciary, and often because the courts remain under the influence of the same lobbies that once backed the military dictatorships.
“The Guatemalan judicial system has been captured by small groups that wield power in secret,” said Maria Eugenia Morales, Guatemala’s deputy ombudsman for human rights. “The state prosecutor is subject to tremendous pressure and influence” from former military officials and their allies.
In Guatemala, thousands of widows and widowers are still legally married because the government has never recognized the deaths of their spouses, Morales said.
The government of President Oscar Berger has taken symbolic steps to recognize the crimes of the military past. But only a handful of officers have faced prosecution.
“Why do a Nuremberg in Germany, a trial of the genocide in Rwanda, or of [former Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic, and not in Guatemala?” asked Ruth Del Valle of the National Movement for Human Rights. “The answer is because here, the army won the war.”
In 1981, at about the same time the mothers of the disappeared were meeting in Costa Rica, Frank La Rue was leaving Guatemala to go into exile.
A lawyer, he had narrowly escaped death in one of the many notable excesses of Guatemala’s four decades of military domination: the kidnapping and killing of 27 union leaders.
La Rue was the labor confederation’s legal counsel. He fled the country shortly after the mass abduction, in which an army unit entered the union’s meeting hall by knocking down the front door with an armored vehicle.
Now La Rue is back in Guatemala and working for the government as the president’s special representative on human rights issues. One of his jobs is to offer formal apologies to victims of the dictatorship’s human rights crimes.
“For me, as someone who fought in the streets, who was in exile, who suffered persecution,” he said, “it’s been a bit schizophrenic to be the one who organizes these acts of public recognition.”
La Rue recently traveled to the village of Plan de Sanchez, in Guatemala’s Maya Indian highlands, to issue such an apology after the Inter-American Court on Human Rights found the government responsible in the massacre of more than 250 people there.
The court ordered monetary compensation to relatives of the victims but has no power to launch criminal prosecutions. No military official has gone to trial in the case. According to the United Nations, the Guatemalan government has never investigated or prosecuted anyone in 90% of the 600 massacres committed during nearly four decades of conflict.
Election Brings Hope
In Mexico, the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 brought hope to the small band of relatives seeking justice for the student activists and others killed in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
One of those relatives, Jesus Martin del Campo, has been working for years to have former President Luis Echeverria prosecuted in the death of his brother, Edmundo Martin del Campo.
The Del Campos were attending a march against Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 1971 when they were reportedly attacked by government-hired snipers and stick-wielding thugs nicknamed “the falcons.” As many as 80 student demonstrators were killed.
“We knew back then that the government would never conduct an investigation because they were the ones responsible,” Del Campo said.
Fox’s election broke the PRI’s 71-year hold on power. The new president created a special prosecutor to investigate the killings, along with those of as many as 300 people in a 1968 student demonstration in Mexico City.
Charges were brought against Echeverria, who was interior minister during the 1968 killings before becoming president in 1970. But some PRI congressmen threatened to withhold cooperation with Fox’s legislative agenda if Echeverria was prosecuted.
This year, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that a 30-year statute of limitations prevented the 1971 case from going forward. Echeverria was charged again in the 1968 case in September, but the next month a judge refused to issue an arrest warrant, saying there was insufficient evidence.
Del Campo has not lost hope. “If there’s a political change that pushes things forward, like what happened in Argentina,” a successful prosecution is still possible, he said.
In that country, the election of Nestor Kirchner as president in 2003 brought a dramatic change in the official approach to the “dirty war.”
After Argentina’s military rulers stepped down two decades ago, a series of high-profile prosecutions of generals and admirals quickly followed. Then, after a series of military revolts, the Congress approved an amnesty.
In 2001, federal Judge Gabriel Cavallo ruled the amnesty laws unconstitutional. The Argentine Supreme Court upheld the decision four years later, after Kirchner and Congress had purged the court of justices who backed the amnesty.
Many old cases have been revived, although there have been no major convictions.
In Uruguay, the worst recession in the country’s history drove from power the two political parties that had backed a 1989 referendum that granted amnesty to that country’s military. The election of leftist President Tabare Vazquez last year brought many of the military’s old foes to power, including Berrutti, the defense minister.
Even though Uruguay’s amnesty law remains intact, many new charges against the military have advanced in the courts in recent months, including that of a 19-year-old woman killed shortly after giving birth to a daughter in custody.
The excavations at two Uruguayan army bases, however, did not find any bodies. “We will know the truth [about the disappeared] in any case,” Berrutti said. “That is a promise which we will keep.”
In El Salvador, the mothers of the disappeared know of no government official who dares to make such a promise.
The other day, Guadalupe Mejia Delgado was walking near her home in San Salvador when she came upon a member of the civilian security patrol that she says killed nine of her husband’s relatives with machetes and handguns.
“He stared at me the longest time,” she said. “He looked angry and confused.”
Alicia de Garcia remembers what Archbishop Oscar Romero told her and the other relatives of the disappeared when they met him shortly after they founded their group in 1979.
“You will encounter many obstacles,” he told the women. “But it will be worth it.”
In 1980, Romero was killed in one of the most notorious assassinations of the era of the dictators.
Garcia pressed forward with her efforts, despite being detained and tortured months after returning from that first trip to Costa Rica in 1981. Then five months pregnant, she was brutally beaten and violated. Eventually, she miscarried. She remembers sitting in her cell, touching her stillborn child’s tiny hands and feet.
“Those wounds are still open,” she said. “Remembering it is like reliving it.”
In El Salvador, as elsewhere in Latin America, prosecutions often go forward only when the victims or their survivors file charges. Garcia has not pressed charges in the deaths of her sons and brother, even though she has never ceased her human rights activism.
Her eyes moist and red with tears, she explained, simply: “I am afraid.”
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux, who is on assignment in Baghdad, contributed to this report from Mexico City.