Reappearing the disappeared of Operation Condor

Can memory bring justice for the thousands of disappeared in Latin America?

An exhibition of Brian Carlson's work "Aparecidos" at the Monumento a la Bandera in Rosario, Argentina [Laura Tasada]

In September 1976, ten high school students were kidnapped in the city of La Plata, Argentina, in an operation coordinated by Argentine police and military intelligence. All were between the ages of 16 and 18.

Secretly imprisoned in abominable conditions, the ten were subjected to torture and abuse. Four were eventually released – following years of torment – while the other six make up but a small fraction of the estimated 30,000 persons disappeared during the Argentine military junta’s so-called “Dirty War” of 1976-1983.

What, pray tell, were the magnificent crimes that merited such punishment? It’s quite simple: The leftist inclinations of these ten individuals made them a clear threat to the public order. Transgressions included agitating for reduced bus fare for students.

Inside Story Americas – Tracing the shadows of ‘Operation Condor’

The apocalyptic threat was hardly confined to La Plata. Operation Condor – a collaborative effort of right-wing dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay to combat the communist menace allegedly imperilling the hemisphere – lasted from the 1970s until the early 1980s and dispensed with some 80,000 people .

Anyone with less than far-right convictions was fair game, while dissent was criminalised but made inevitable by the state’s own criminal behaviour. Human disposal methods included dropping sedated victims from airplanes into the sea.

In a nod to the enduring utility of the “terrorism” charge in extrajudicially deciding folks’ fates – a utility that continues to be affirmed via US drone strikes on Yemen and the like – Condor victims were cast as terrorist subversives. This labelling system effectively excused policies of state terror, encouraged by the CIA, and the US played a crucial role for years in training the Southern Cone’s forces of repression.

As Columbia University journalism professor John Dinges documents in his book The Condor Years , then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger provided a ” green light ” for the pattern of atrocities. Meanwhile, America’s partner in crime – the state of Israel – took care of arming various Condor regimes. A 2012 report by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network draws attention to certain ironies in the case of Argentina:

“The Argentinian regime and its supporters also targeted… Jewish civilians and espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric. Although just 2% of Argentina’s population was Jewish, between 10-15% of the people who were arrested, tortured and disappeared during the Junta were Jewish.”

A small price to pay, perhaps, to ensure the continued health of the arms industry.

‘Dirty’  yes, ‘war’  no

As with many a sordid affair throughout history, the centrality of money to the issue of state repression in South America cannot be overexaggerated. The prominent Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano offers a succinct depiction of the logic underpinning the former dictatorship in his country: “People were in prison so that prices could be free.”

And indeed, how could capital ever achieve freedom when there were students demanding reduced fares for public transportation?

Journalist Rania Khalek delves into the particulars of the US strategy to ” force neoliberalism down the throats” of the hemisphere’s inhabitants by facilitating the takeover of friendly dictators in as many locations as possible:

“Violent tyranny was the only way the US could implement austerity, privatisation, deregulation and the lifting of trade barriers, policies that plunged the masses into poverty and created skyrocketing wealth inequality that can still be seen today. The only winners were the elite few and, surprise surprise, US corporations.”

In order to perpetuate the myth that freedom for capital does in fact mean freedom for people, neoliberalism seeks to disappear its victims. Obviously, physical disappearance is not always mandatory; removal from the spotlight and marginalisation from the dominant discourse can often suffice. (Take the poor of India, for example, who were supposed to have been on the receiving end of the neoliberal miracle. Instead, the country has ended up with – as Arundhati Roy points out more poor people than in 26 of Africa’s poorest countries combined. They remain, for all intents and purposes, invisible .)

In the case of the literally disappeared of the Condor era, US artist Brian Carlson has embarked on an ambitious project to reappear them, as it were, by painting their portraits. In an email to me, Carlson explained that he seeks not only to honour the memory of Condor’s casualties but also to “help educate people as to US complicity” in the undertaking – a history that has itself been largely disappeared. He has thus far painted over 850 portraits.

Carlson objects to the denomination “dirty war”, which he says ends up justifying the mass slaughter; after all, killing is an accepted feature of wartime. He instead refers to the period as one of “ideological genocide” – an apt description, it would seem, given disproportionate state violence and the effort to exterminate any notion of alternative economic and social systems.

Lest anyone assume this phenomenon is dead and buried, Carlson directs our attention to the present-day Gaza Strip, where Israel is fervently trying to disappear the idea of a Palestinian people – once again with US complicity . Since people generally don’t easily forget their own existence, it’s safe to predict that Gaza will serve as a lucrative node in the genocide industry for years to come.

Forced reappearances

Carlson’s portraits have been the subject of various exhibitions. Last year on August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, a long-term installation opened at Buenos Aires’ former Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), an infamous illegal detention centre that has now been converted into a museum and ” Space for Memory “.

In its heyday, the ESMA saw thousands of victims pass through its entrails; most were kept chained to cots with bags over their heads, including pregnant women whose offspring were later appropriated by military officials and other elite persons.

Several new exhibitions of Carlson’s work are now opening in Argentina and Uruguay in honour of this year’s Day of the Disappeared, as requests for portraits continue to pour in from families across the Southern Cone.

But what, ultimately, is the purpose of memory, and what function do these forced reappearances serve?

It may sound cheesy and annoyingly optimistic to claim that memory brings justice and helps keep atrocities from recurring. However, it’s important to recognise that numerous perpetrators of Operation Condor are now being held accountable for their crimes thanks to the refusal to forget. Argentina has set the standard in this respect, launching a series of major trials in recent years.

Although comprehensive justice is obviously not logistically possible, approximations are imperative – particularly given that, in all of the affected countries, there remain sizable portions of the population that view state terror as justice. But there are encouraging trends, too. For example, a man previously kept in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well on account of leftist guerrilla activity is now the president of Uruguay.

Of course, Condor’s sponsors in North America have never been taken to task for this or other any international malevolence to which they have contributed. Here’s hoping that the human species will one day evolve to the point at which imperial immunity is disappeared.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

Follow her on Twitter:  @ MariaBelen_Fdez