Easily recognized by his long white ponytail, Toro’s fading voice reflects years of struggle. His affectionate personality and work as an outspoken immigrant rights activist have made him somewhat of a local hero in the Bronx. However, Toro, like many immigrants from the south, is undocumented.
For over two decades living in the US with his wife Nieves Ayress and their daughter, Rosita, he remained unbothered. That changed however in July of 2007, when Toro was returning from an immigration conference in Rochester, NY and his Amtrak train was stopped during an immigration raid. He was arrested and later released on $5,000 bail.
The case of Toro, who is charged with residing in the country illegally, changed drastically in August of 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security released classified CIA documents that revealed Toro’s active participation during the 1960’s and 1970’s in the Chilean political organization MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement). The government’s attempt to link Toro to what the documents claim is “a terrorist organization” has only made it more difficult for Toro and his lawyer, Carlos Moreno, to convince a judge to grant political asylum.
In response, Moreno has put together a team of human rights activists and academics with an expertise in Chilean politics that will present evidence to prove that MIR was in fact a legitimate political organization. To defend Toro the experts will give an historical record of Chile before, during, and after Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship and will highlight the United States’ involvement and support for the anti-democratic regime.
On the Run
Toro, a founding member of MIR in 1965, still does not hide his support for the organization whose flag he hangs in his Bronx apartment. Led by former student organizers and combining elements from the union and indigenous movements, MIR adopted nonviolent tactics and even incorporated itself into the electoral system after the left-leaning Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970. As part of a trend around Latin America at that time, Allende was soon overthrown in 1973 by a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet which was heavily backed by the US.
Pinochet moved quickly to consolidate his power, which he did through the torture, imprisonment and murder of tens of thousands of Chileans, including many of the members of MIR. In 1974, Toro was arrested and tortured in numerous prison camps until 1976 when he was expelled from the country.
He spent the next several years moving from one country to another, pursued by agents of the Chilean government as part of a campaign targeting anti-Pinochet activists both in Chile and abroad. Forced to keep a low profile, Toro avoided applying for political asylum in the United States in order to keep his name off record.
In the mid-1980’s, Toro and his family settled in the Bronx, where he was able to blend in among the large immigrant population.
The Pinochet-Era Returns To Chile
Toro’s threat of deportation from the US could not come at a worse time. Earlier this year the right-wing Sebastián Piñera replaced the more liberal Michelle Bachelet as president.
Witnesses will argue on Friday that Toro’s outspoken and long-time support for the Indigenous Mapuche Movement, a group currently in direct conflict with the Piñera government, poses a threat to his life if he were to return to Chile. According to Toro, he believes there is a high risk of him being imprisoned and possibly killed by Pinochet agents still operating in the country.
Furthermore, Victor Toro is not actually alive according to Chilean records. Under Pinochet’s government, he was officially declared dead shortly after he was expelled from the country. That status has made it impossible for him to obtain a Chilean passport, which he has been without since 2005.
Despite Toro’s attempt to keep a low profile, he has still managed to become quite a popular figure in his community of the Bronx where he and his wife founded a cultural center over 24 years ago. Called, La Pena del Bronx, the center has become a political and cultural hub for the community.
Throughout the process, Toro has not stopped his support for immigrant rights and can often be seen behind a banner that reads: “Legalization Now!” His dedication for the struggle for immigrant rights comes not only from his own history in search of refuge but also, according to him, has to do with the parallels he sees between US immigration policy and the oppression he faced under Pinochet.
Victor Toro’s case has shed light on the unjust policies of the US government that target Latino’s, whether in their native Latin America or here in the United States. Toro’s role as a leader in the Bronx and active participation and support for political organizations around the city has mobilized New York City activists to support his case. As Toro adds, “It is not that I am living in the worst consequences, there are people living far worse than myself. That is why I understand that my struggle is the struggle of all immigrants.”
To support Victor Toro:
For those in the New York City Area: Victor Toro’s hearing will take place at 9:00am on October 15, 2010. The room can be found on the 12th floor of 26 Federal Plaza, New York, NY. The Victor Toro Defense Committee is urging all supporters to come out.
For donations to his legal fund: checks can be made payable to: Las Penitas Inc and sent to P.O. Box 739, Bronx, NY 10454.
Lainie Cassel is an independent journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela and New York City. She can be reached at Lainie.Cassel[at]gmail[dot]com.