Enforced Disappearances in the Americas are a Crime of the Present

The last time Victoria Montenegro saw her biological mother, Hilda Ramona Torres, she was just 13 days old.

On 13 February 1976, a military intelligence group forced their way into her home in Buenos Aires province, Argentina, killed her parents (both political activists) and took her to a police station. Hernán Antonio Tetzlaff, who led the military operation, took her, changed her name and adopted her as his daughter.

From that time Victoria Montenegro was known as Maria Sol Tetzlaff Eduartes, born on 28 May 1976 and daughter of Hernán Antonio Tetzlaff and Maria del Carmen Eduartes.

It took 25 years for Victoria to find out her real identity and another decade for her to see seven high ranking military officers (including the former de facto Presidents Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone and an obstetrician) brought to justice – sentenced to between 10 and 50 years in jail for their part in the systematic plan of appropriation of babies during Argentina’s military rule (1976-1983).

Victoria is far from alone. The “Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo” – the organization that has led the search for Argentina’s “stolen babies” – has already helped 105 men and women recover their identity.

They believe there are hundreds more to be found.

Relatives of the disappeared in Argentina and other countries have led the fight for justice for the thousands of enforced disappearances that took place across Latin America in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Their efforts have led to the creation of an International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August.

Steps forward

During 2011 – and despite obstacles in investigations and frequent setbacks – there were significant advances in the investigation and prosecution of disappearances and other human rights abuses committed under military regimes across Latin America.

In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff signed into law the creation of a Truth Commission to investigate human rights violations committed between 1946 and 1988.

In Chile the number of cases of human rights violations under investigation by the courts rose to its highest level yet after a court prosecutor submitted 726 new criminal cases and more than 1,000 complaints filed over the years by relatives of people executed on political grounds during the military government of General Augusto Pinochet.

Former President Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile to find himself the subject of a criminal investigation on the basis of complaints about serious human rights violations – including disappearances – brought by victims and their relatives and documentation provided by Amnesty International

Glass half empty

In some countries, however, justice is still a distant hope for relatives of the thousands of disappeared.

Suyapa Serrano Cruz is still looking for her two sisters, Ernestina and Erlinda, who were stolen from their family by soldiers on 2 June 1982 when the girls were seven and three years old during a military operation near their home, at the height of the bloody conflict in El Salvador.

30 years on, no-one knows where Ernestina and Erlinda are. They remain two out of around 890 children disappeared during the conflict. While some have been located by local NGO Pro-Búsqueda in recent years, the Suyapa’s family is one of many who continue to suffer the pain of not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

For Lucía Cuevas, the lack of justice over the 1984 disappearance of her brother Carlos, a political activist, and the torture and murder of his wife and baby son in Guatemala in 1985, also means that the wound is still open.

Even though last December the then Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom admitted state liability for Carlos’ disappearance and publicly apologized for this crime, Carlos has never been found and no-one has ever been brought to justice for his disappearance or for the murder of his wife Rosario – a founding member of an GAM, an organization formed by relatives of the disappeared – or of their baby son.

The story is sadly similar for most of the 200,000 cases of enforced disappearance that took place during Guatemala’s internal conflict between 1960 and 1996.In spite of the progress in the investigations into enforced disappearances, many high level officials involved in those crimes have managed to dodge justice throughout the region

Meanwhile, in the USA, no investigation has even started to ensure justice for the cases of those who were subjected to enforced disappearance in CIA custody under former President George W Bush in the context of the so called “War on Terror”.

‘Not an issue of the past’

“We have recently seen some positive historical decisions and convictions in several countries across the Americas to ensure justice for the disappeared and their relatives,” said Javier Zúñiga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International.

“The problem, however, is that decades on from the crimes, justice is still a dream for thousands of relatives and disappearances are still too common in many countries.”

The relatives of some of the hundreds of men and women who are forcibly disappeared every year in countries like Mexico and Colombia will understand what Zúñiga is referring to.

In December 2011, Mexican environmental activists Eva Alarcón and Marcial Bautista were taken off the bus they were travelling on from their home town in the state of Guerrero to Mexico City, and has not been seen since.

Efforts to investigate the incident have been weak, with many irregularities, although witnesses have identified police officers as being among those who arrested them.

Eva and Marcial’s stories are not unusual in Mexico. In recent years, the country has witnessed a spiralling number of abductions and enforced disappearances in the context of the public security crisis and drug cartel violence.

Many irregular migrants from Central America crossing Mexico on their way to the USA have also been reported disappeared.

According to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, the whereabouts of approximately 3,000 people remain unknown in Mexico as a result of abductions by criminal gangs and enforced disappearances involving the security forces during the ongoing public security crisis. The routine failure to investigate these cases has denied relatives access to justice and placed them at risk of reprisals in the quest for the truth

Farther south in the Americas, in Colombia’s 45-year-long internal armed conflict, enforced disappearance continues to be a widespread and systematic practice committed principally by paramilitary and security forces. At least 30,000 people are thought to have been forcibly disappeared during the conflict. The whereabouts of many civilians abducted by guerrilla groups also remain unknown.

Four members of the Galárraga family – 19-year-old Jenny Patricia, 18-year-old twins Nelsy Milena and Mónica Liliana, and 13-year-old María Nelly – were abducted by paramilitaries in the southern department of Putumayo in 2001. Their bodies were not found until 2010. Forensic experts reported that their bodies were partially clothed and that the four had been tortured; three had been dismembered before they died, and the fourth had been bludgeoned to death. They had also been raped or subjected to other sexual abuse.

After initially refusing to investigate whether the four had been victims of sexual violence, only recently have the prosecuting authorities acknowledged that sexual crimes were committed. However, only one of the 10 paramilitaries implicated in the crimes has been charged with sexual offences.

Since his disappearance in September 2009 from the capital of the Dominican Republic, the relatives of Juan Almonte Herrera have not spared efforts and avenues to clarify his fate. However, they are still far from knowing the truth. Although witnesses saw him being arrested by the police, the police always denied having arrested him and the authorities have failed to carry out effective investigations.

All American states should promptly ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, recognizing the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive and consider communications from and on behalf of victims and from other states parties and to implement the Convention into national law.

“Governments have a duty not to betray the thousands of people looking for their loved ones. We will continue to support them and to press the authorities to give relatives and the society at large the full truth, justice and reparation,” concluded Javier Zúñiga.