Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-PARAGUAY: First Remains of Victims of Dictatorship Exhumed

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Jul 30 2009 (IPS) - The discovery of the remains of two victims of the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay has opened a new chapter in the investigation of human rights crimes committed by the regime.

On Jul. 23, a committee made up of prosecutors and family members of victims of the dictatorship witnessed the exhumation of a common grave holding the remains of two people at a site reported to be a clandestine cemetery.

The grave was found on the grounds of a police barracks in the Bañado Tacumbú neighbourhood in Asunción.

“This is compelling proof of a dark chapter in Paraguayan history,” Antonio Palazón, head of the Ethical Tribunal against Impunity, a local NGO that is working to clarify hundreds of cases of forced disappearance, told IPS.

“Until yesterday, the ‘Stronistas’ (as Stroessner’s followers are referred to here) said there were no victims of forced disappearance, that it was all just our lies,” said Palazón.

According to the report released in August 2008 by the independent Truth and Justice Commission (CVJ), which was created by law, 336 people were “disappeared” by the dictatorship, at least 59 were the victims of extrajudicial execution, nearly 20,000 were illegally detained and 18,000 were tortured.

However, the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared says the number of victims of forced disappearance was much higher.

The remains of the two victims exhumed last week were found thanks to a tip-off from a former military conscript who served at the police barracks in Tacumbú in the 1970s.

The anthropologists who exhumed the bodies believe a third victim may also have been buried there.

“This was a clandestine cemetery; we knew about it because we knew that some of our fellow activists who were ‘disappeared’ were brought to this place,” activist Guillermina Kanonnikoff told IPS.

Kanonnikoff was arrested and tortured by the police in 1976, along with her husband Mario Schaerer, who died under torture in the Departamento de Investigaciones de la Policia, the dictatorship’s secret police.

Schaerer and Kanonnikoff were members of the Organización Primero de Marzo, a clandestine movement created in the 1970s to carry out armed resistance actions against the dictatorship.

Kanonnikoff is a plaintiff in the case against Sabino Augusto Montanaro, Stroessner’s interior minister from 1966 to1989, for her husband’s death.

Montanaro, who unexpectedly returned in May from Honduras, where he had been given political asylum, is facing prosecution in seven cases of crimes against humanity.

Under house arrest, he is awaiting the results of medical exams that will determine whether he is fit to stand trial.

The remains found last week “are one more piece of evidence that we are closing in on Montanaro, as the man responsible for genocidal human rights violations while he was interior minister,” said Kanonnikoff.

Pastor Coronel, head of the Departamento de Investigaciones de la Policía in Asunción, had been sentenced to 25 years for Schaerer’s death. He died in prison in 2000.

Also sentenced in the case were Lucilo Benítez, Juan Martínez and Camilo Almada, who are serving their prison terms in the Agrupación Especializada, a police unit near the site where the bodies were exhumed last week.

Palazón said that during the dictatorship, the usual procedure after left-wing activists or others were seized was to send them to the Departamento de Investigaciones de la Policía, where the torture centre operated.

“If they didn’t die in the tank (where victims were subjected to water torture, known as the ‘submarino’), they were killed somewhere else, and their bodies were finally thrown in common graves,” said Palazón.

The bodies of the victims, referred to as “packages” because they were wrapped up in plastic bags, were taken to the area and buried in the middle of the night, and plants were planted on top, to make it look like a flowerbed or garden.

The remains exhumed last week could belong to two men buried in 1976 and 1977, who were apparently brought from the maximum security prison in Emboscada, 38 km from Asunción.

One of them may be Argentine citizen Oscar Luis Rojas. “We are probably talking about two people from other countries, who were held in prison with us, as victims of Operation Condor,” said Kanonnikoff.

Operation Condor was a coordinated plan among the military governments that ruled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at tracking down, capturing and eliminating left-wing opponents, trade unionists and other alleged “subversives.”

When Stroessner was overthrown by a coup in February 1989 he fled to Brazil, where he lived until his death in 2006. Shortly after he was ousted, unsuccessful attempts were made to locate common graves where victims of the dictatorship had been buried.

In December 1992, human rights lawyer and former political prisoner Martín Almada discovered the so-called “Archives of Terror”, a room full of official records in the Departamento de Investigaciones de la Policía in the capital.

The hundreds of thousands of documents that he basically came on by chance have shed light on the workings of Operation Condor.

In October 2008, new archives were found, containing identity cards and folders full of photographs and information on former political prisoners, in the basement of a building in downtown Asunción that belonged to the Interior Ministry.

Investigators believe the common grave exhumed on the grounds of the police barracks last week will not be the only clandestine cemetery found.

The hope of the families of the victims of forced disappearance is growing. “Now we may finally find out what happened to them,” said one relative.

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