By Larisa Sioneriu
In this essay I will discuss the contributions of the social movements in the fight against impunity in Argentina from an anthropological perspective. Bringing justice and reconciliation to a state that knew terror and violence in its most extreme forms is a hard yet compulsory task. For a country like Argentina , left with a vivid trauma after going through genocides, making peace with the past is indispensable in order to embrace the future. However, Argentina, like many other countries, delayed in succeeding to do so. But by delaying justice, it didn’t mean that people had forgotten what happened. The social movements that emerged from the Dirty War and its aftermath played a key role in standing up against the painful silence and imposed impunity. Therefore, I will focus on two of the organizations that managed to carry out a struggle against impunity in Argentina : Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the HIJOS.
Argentina’s Dirty War
The last military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) was the most painful period of Argentina, as its politics of terror and fear had repercussions that became endemic in the lives of the Argentinians. Following the coup d’état from 1976, Argentina become target of an oppressive and violent government whose aim was to eliminate all the dissidents and the opposition. However, along with the ones who were politically targeted, many innocent people became victims as well. The military regime, also referred to as ‘The Dirty War’, is famous for its crimes against the citizens : kidnapping, tortures and mass-murders. The officially accepted number of the victims of the regimes is 30.000. The 30.000 desaparecidos left a stain on the country’s memory. The regime met its end after being defeated in the war for the Malvinas Islands. Thus, in 1983 , the regime was replaced by a democratic one led by President Raul Alfonsin.
The country was profoundly affected by the former regime and people asked for justice. Alfonsin created CONADEP, a organization whose goal was to investigate what happened to the desaparecidos during 1976-1983. (Soledad Catoggio 2010:9) The findings of CONADEP were included in the Nunca Mas report which generated the trials of a few of the victimizers of the military dictatorship. The developing of the process in bringing justice seemed promising as some of the leaders of the former regime were imprisoned. However, the President shortly passed to laws that brought impunity to the perpetrators : The Full Stop Law and the Law of Due Obedience. The passing of these two laws left the victims and their families restless. The two laws were voided only years later, in 2001, when a judge sentenced two policemen for the disappearance of a Chilean-Argentinean couple. Following Kirchner’s presidency, Argentina re-opened itself to the search of truth and the quest for justice.
If Argentina’s government failed in many ways and very often to fight against the impunity and to manage to bring justice and reconcile its citizens with the atrocities of the past, the social movements created especially by the families of the desaparecidos prevailed. To mention a few of the organizations who fought against impunity through social movements : Familiares, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Los Hermanos, Las Abuelas, Los E-x-Desaparecidos and the HIJOS.
‘Nuestros hijos nos parieron’
Hebe de Bonafini’s words, ‘Nuestros hijos nos parieron’ (Kaplan 2004:114), are at the heart of one of the most powerful and meaningful social movement in Argentina and not only : Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo. This non-governmental organization consists of mothers whose children were taken away during the bloody military dictatorship in Argentina. These mothers, whose hearts were ripped off by loss, pain and suffering, marched into a fight against impunity, loading their weapons with inexhaustible and unchallenged resistance. From their desperate wish for finding out what happened to their disappeared children, they gave birth to an organization that became one of the most known symbols of the fight against the genocides of the military dictatorship.
Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo are particular for many reasons. To begin with, they started their peaceful, yet powerful fight against the oppressive regime only a year after its installation. In other words, they fearlessly gave voice to their suffering , unanswered questions and resentments against a regime in power.
The madres met by coincidence in the Ministry of Interior , while they were looking for questions regarding their disappeared children. When they realized that they share the same pain and the same purpose, they decided to meet again. It was on the 30th of April 1977 when the madres had their first march in Plaza de Mayo. On that day, there were 14 mothers attending the march. Since they weren’t allowed to make a public protest, they walked counterclockwise in the Plaza and captured the attention of the few people who were present there. Ever since, the madres have been marching every Thursday at 3:30, managing to ‘transform private and personal grief into collective political action and heroically challenge(d) a military dictatorship.( Gandsman 2012:195).
These marches became more and more numerous and more and more impacting. From only 14 women the number increased to hundreds and inspired other social movements as well. Their most striking symbol was the white scarf they used to hear on their heads during the manifestations. The scarves had written on them the names of their disappeared children. Although not all of them were religious or they came from different religious backgrounds, they used to simulate Christian processions and recall the image of Virgin Mary by covering their heads. As Diane Tylor (1998:102) affirms, ‘The virginal role allowed the women to perform traditionally acceptable “feminine” qualities of self-sacrifice, suffering, irrationality, even as they took one of the most daring steps imaginable in their particular political arena: they affirmed their passivity and powerlessness.’ For there weekly march and their way of expressing themselves through such symbols , they were often referred to as ‘Las Locas’.
The mothers soon started to look for ways to make themselves heard around the country and realized how useful could media be. On the 5th of October , 1977, they took advantage of the Mother’s Day and managed to publish an ad in the popular newspaper ‘La Prensa’. It is believed that they succeeded to get the ad published because one of the mothers was close to some people running the newspaper. (Kaplan 2004:118) The ad consisted of a list of names and identification numbers of 237 mothers of those who had disappeared. They sought more help from the media afterwards and succeeded to make themselves heard internationally in 1978, during the World Cup that took place in Buenos Aires. They continued their weekly march during the World Cup and this brought the attention to international media who interviewed them and published their story internationally. Another way of creating awareness during that period was by writing their stories and the name of their desaparecidos on paper currency.(Kaplan 2004:121)
However, the authorities of that regime didn’t close their eyes in front of their street demonstrations and the activities of ‘Las Locas’. In December 1977, ten people involved in Las madres de Plaza de Mayo were kidnapped. Among them were two of the madres, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga and Maria Eugenia Ponce de Bianco. The women had never returned. Moreover, at the end of 1978, the Plaza de Mayo had been sealed and hence, the mothers had lost their ‘square of fight’. In spite of all these events, the madres were not stopped and they went on with their struggle. Moreover, they continued their street demonstrations even after 1983, when a the military dictatorship was defeated by the democratic elected president, Raul Alfonsin.
In 1986, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo divided into two groups: La Linea Fundadora and La Asociacion Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The main reasons that led to their separation were the contradictory opinions on attending the hearings of CONADEP and the supporting of the exhumation of the bodies. (Kaplan 2004:145). Some of the mothers didn’t want to ‘identify’ bodies, but to ‘identify the assassins’. (Kaplan 2004:142) In spite of these contradictions between them and the division into two, the madres kept being active in their search of truth and justice. It was only during the Kirchner’s presidency (2003-2007) that the madres stopped their annual march (but not their weekly one). Under Kirchner’s presidency, las madres felt heard and understood for the first time. The culmination of their struggle and national recognition was when President Kirchner claimed: ‘We are the children of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and for that reason, we insist on strengthening the system of protection of human rights and the judgment and condemnation of those who violate them’. (Gandsman, 2012:201)
For more than 30 years, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, stood up and fought against the most fearful regime in Argentina and continued to fight against immunity until nowadays. ‘These ordinary housewives turned themselves into the crack troops of a movement that couches justice in terms of ethics and historical memory.’ (Kaplan 2004:104)
‘La lucha que nos pario’
‘La lucha que nos pario’ is a very common expression used among the HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio). The HIJOS are yet another distinctive non governmental organization that brought the fight against impunity on the streets of Buenos Aires. This organization is made of the sons and daughters of the desaparecidos in the military dictatorship.
The HIJOS was created after children of the victims of the former regime attending the commemorative meeting ‘Memory, Remembering and Compromise’ at the University of La Plata, in 1994. The commemorative meeting was organized by the friends of the abducted Carlos de la Riva and managed to gather many children of those who had disappeared during the period of 1976-1983. The gathering brought the children of the victim together and they experienced a sentiment of revelation and comfort since ‘they could share their experiences with others who understood the loss and determination they felt. They could express a variety of emotions and concerns without having to defend their feelings or explain that they wanted justice, not vengeance.’ (Kaplan 2004:155) As a result of this reunion, the ones who attended it decided to meet again the following year. This reunion led to the formation of HIJOS.
During the period in which the HIJOS emerged, Argentina was dealing with unhealed wounds. In spite of now being in an era of transition to democracy and having passed 10 years from the ending of the most painful military dictatorship, the country still didn’t overcome the terror of the former regime. Since justice had not been made, peace was ,for many, a utopia-like desire. The ‘Full stop’ law and the law of ‘Due Obedience’ issued by the President Raul Alfonsin, enabled the victimizers of the military regime to get away unpunished. Even though this law aimed to silence the victims and reconcile the past through forgetfulness, it most certainly didn’t bring peace and justice. Among the ones who wanted justice, HIJOS were one of the first in claiming it and the first to make it.
Making justice in their own way was the most prominent peculiarity of the HIJOS – the justice was made through the escraches. The verb escrachar comes from Lunfardo, an Argentinan dialect that emerged in the late 19th century among the criminals imprisoned in Buenos Aires. However, Lunfardo is now used in the day to day vocabulary in Argentina. Meaning ‘to reveal’ or ‘to unmask’, escrachar is a method of making public the identity of the perpetrators of the 30.000 desaparecidos. ‘Escraches were a communication strategy based on public exposure and humiliation, whose goal was to eliminate or limit the social spaces that repressors have gained.’ (Kaiser 2002:504) .
The escraches are not simply street demonstrations. They are a serious procedure that involves hard work and commitment. The HIJOS act as both detectives and judges. They spend a long time before the day of escrache by doing all the research on the crimes of the ones to be escrachados. Once they tracked down the repressors and gathered all the information about their involvement in terrorizing the country during the military regime, the HIJOS start organizing the day of the escrache. They go to the neighborhood of the genocida and invite the neighbors to the escrache. They talk to them and hand leaflets on which they wrote all the crimes committed by the genocida. They also put on signs with the address of the genocide and paint the walls of the neighborhood with different messages such as : ‘Si no hay justicia, hay escrache’. The day of the escrache is a celebration. They march around the neighbourhood with drums and posters, singing and announcing the neighbours: ‘Alerta, alerta, alerta a los vecinos /Al lado de su casa esta viviendo un asesino’. The neighbours and join them and they march together to the house of the one to be escrachado. Here, the HIJOS give a speech and mark the area with paintings, making sure that his identity is now revealed to the rest of the world. As a consequence, the genocida becomes a prisoner of his own house. Many of them moved away after being escrachados, because they were not able to live in that area the way they used to before. Others are even excluded from other social groups or even work – the case of the gynecologist Jose Luis Magnacco, who was dismissed from the clinic he worked in as a result of being escrachado. (Kaplan 2004:162).
‘(…) escraches are more than traditional challenge to impunity and political amnesia. Their way of bringing back the past into the public sphere compels society to face specific effects of the failure to administer justice and to define its policy toward the original human rights violations as well as within ongoing struggles for accountability.’ (Kaiser 2002:500)
To sum up, the local social movements in Argentina were at the core of challenging immunity. The aftermaths of such a bloody military dictatorship couldn’t have been other than a painful transition to democracy, in which the memories still tortured the victims and their families. The search for truth was fundamental for the reconciliation with the past , and the social movements played a great role on the stage of justice. We have seen how Las Madres and Los HIJOS succeeded in creating awareness about the past, giving voice to the victims, making justice on their own and defeat impunity.
- Kaiser, S. 2002: Escraches: demonstrations, communication and political memory in post-dictatorial Argentina. Media, Culture & Society, 24, 499-516.
- Kaplan, T. 2004: Taking back the streets: women, youth, and direct democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press
- Robben, A.C.G.M. 2010: Testimonies, Truths, and Transitions of Justice in Argentina and Chile. In: Hinton, A.L. (ed.): Transitional Justice: Global Mechanisms and Local Realities in the Aftermath of Genocide and Mass Violence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press (p. 179-205).
- Robben, A.C.G.M. 2005: Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Soledad Catoggio, Maria 2010: La ultima dictadura militar argentina (1976-1983): la ingeneria del terrorismo de Estado. Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence , pg 1-20
- Taylor, Diana , Making a Spectacle : The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Journal of the association for Research on Mothering, 3:2 , 97-109
By Larisa Sioneriu