Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-LATIN AMERICA: Making Forced Disappearance “Disappear”

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 8 2010 (IPS) - Agustín Cetrángolo from Argentina is tireless in his fight to bring to justice those responsible for the forced disappearance of his father, who was seized in 1978 by the dictatorship of that South American country and was held in at least two different concentration camps in Buenos Aires before he went missing forever.

“We want justice, and we want it to be a permanent feature of society,” said the activist, who belongs to Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence – H.I.J.O.S.), which was founded in Argentina in 1994.

His father, Sergio Cetrángolo, was one of the 30,000 people forcibly disappeared during Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, according to human rights groups.

“We didn’t expect so much progress to be made (in legal cases involving) forced disappearances in Argentina” this decade, he told IPS. “The powers of the state are doing their job, and there is social condemnation of state terrorism.”

Trials of human rights violators began to be reopened in 2003, after centre-left president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) took office and Congress repealed the two amnesty laws passed in the mid-1980s, which had kept military personnel accused of human rights abuses out of the courts. In 2005, the Supreme Court declared the two laws unconstitutional.

Along with other activists from Argentina, as well as Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Uruguay, Cetrángolo attended the international H.I.J.O.S conference Wednesday through Friday in the Mexican capital. The aim of the gathering was to put the issue on the regional agenda.

The countries of Latin America have moved at different speeds in the fight for justice in cases of forced disappearance. Countries like Argentina, and, with more ups and downs, Uruguay and Chile, have been in the vanguard of legislation and convictions, while Mexico and Colombia have lagged far behind.

“The state not only has a responsibility, as well as an obligation to investigate all of the cases, but it must also bring those responsible (for forced disappearances) before the courts,” Héctor Cerezo, a member of the Cerezo Committee, a Mexican organisation dedicated to defending the human rights of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, told IPS.

The Cerezo Committee was formed in 2001 after Héctor and his brothers Alejandro and Antonio Cerezo were arrested, tortured, and held incommunicado, and charged with belonging to a guerrilla group.

In August, the organisation joined with other human rights groups to launch a National Campaign Against Forced Disappearance, and put out a manual to help orient families with regard to steps to be taken if one of their loved ones is forcibly disappeared.

In Mexico, more than 3,000 people have fallen victim to forced disappearance since 2006, according to human rights groups. The most recent case was the Sept. 14 disappearance of Víctor Ayala, a leader of the Frente Libre Hermenegildo Galeana, a peasant organisation in the southern state of Guerrero.

During the “dirty war” against leftwing activists, social leaders and guerrillas in the late 1960s and the 1970s, 532 people were forcibly disappeared, according to the National Human Rights Commission, a public institution that enjoys autonomy from the federal government.

But the attempts to bring former presidents and senior officials in office during that time to trial in connection with the cases have failed.

In Guatemala, the estimated 200,000 victims of the 1960-1996 civil war included some 45,000 victims of forced disappearance. The state security forces were blamed by an independent truth commission for nearly all of the killings and disappearances.

In Colombia, H.I.J.O.S. has a list of 47,000 forced disappearances in the past few decades of armed conflict. The first documented case was that of bacteriologist Omaira Montoya, a leftwing activist detained in 1977.

During Argentina’s seven-year military regime, some 30,000 people were “disappeared”, according to human rights groups, although the official number of documented cases is just under 15,000.

H.I.J.O.S. says the first case in Argentina was the 1962 disappearance of Felipe Vallese, a young steelworker and leader of the Peronist Youth, which had been banned.

And the latest case was that of Jorge Julio López, a 77-year-old retired construction worker and former political prisoner who went missing in 2006 shortly after he testified as a key witness against a former police chief who ended up sentenced to life in prison.

In Chile, there were 2,115 victims of forced disappearance during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship. The first documented case was that of trade unionist Gastón de Jesús Cortés, who was “disappeared” just after the coup in which General Augusto Pinochet toppled socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

The human rights group also reports that 172 Uruguayans became victims of forced disappearance during that country’s 1973-1985 de facto regime.

But most of them went missing in Argentina, under Operation Condor, 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, torturing and eliminating leftwing opponents, with the at least tacit approval of the United States.

However, the names of more Uruguayan victims of forced disappearance may surface as the result of continuing investigations into the transfer of political prisoners in flights across the Rio de la Plata, the estuary that separates Buenos Aires from Montevideo.

The first documented case of a victim of forced disappearance in Uruguay was that of medical student Adán Abel Ayala, in 1971, at the hands of the security forces of the authoritarian government of then President Jorge Pacheco Areco.

“Forced disappearance is attributed to an individual, and not to an agent of the state. If the perpetrator is a public servant, that is not counted as an aggravating factor,” complained lawyer Yessica Hoyos of H.I.J.O.S-Colombia, which was founded four years ago.

Hoyos was another of the participants at this week’s meeting, which included the showing of films and documentaries on forced disappearance.

In June, a court in Colombia sentenced retired colonel Alfonso Plazas to 30 years of prison for the 1985 disappearance of 11 people who worked in the cafeteria of the Palace of Justice in Bogota. They went missing after a military siege of the courthouse, which had been occupied by the 19th of April guerrilla movement.

After the armed forces raid, in which 55 people were killed, nothing more was heard of the group of cafeteria employees, who had survived the attack.

The activists hope that the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which was approved in 2006 and will go into force in 2011, will give a boost to their struggle.

Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have ratified the Convention, but other Latin American countries with large numbers of victims of forced disappearance, such as Guatemala and Colombia, have not.

When the international treaty enters into effect, the state parties will be required to present an annual report on forced disappearance, with hard data and information on legislative and judicial action taken.

In September, the Argentine Senate approved a reform of the criminal code, which made forced disappearance a specific crime. The lower house is set to vote on it in the next few weeks.

“Argentina has found its own route for trying” human rights violators, but it is important for all countries “to convict those responsible for forced disappearances, because of the symbolic value as well,” Cetrángolo said.

Under a November 2009 sentence in which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Mexican state responsible for the 1974 forced disappearance of school teacher and social activist Rosendo Radilla, Mexico is required to pass a law against forced disappearance and carry out thorough investigations of past cases.

“The authorities do not register cases of forced disappearance, which are treated as kidnappings,” said Cerezo, who was in prison from 2001 to 2009, found guilty of exploding homemade bombs in three banks in the Mexican capital.

Gabriel Cruz and Edmundo Reyes, members of the Popular Revolutionary Army, a small guerrilla group, and 38 workers of the Pemex state oil company have been missing since 2007.

“In Colombia, the history has been one of denial of forced disappearances,” said Hoyos, the daughter of trade unionist Jorge Darío Hoyos, who was killed in 2001. “That’s why we want Congress to ratify the Convention, and approve the law on victims.”

On Sept. 27, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos introduced in Congress a bill on victims that would provide compensation for those affected by the violence of the guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitaries, and government agents.

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