The Archive of Terror: Mundane Denunciations
On December 22, 1992, acting on a tip off, human rights activist Dr. Martín Almada, and Judge José Agustín Fernández uncovered some five tons of yellowed, raw files detailing institutional kidnapping, torture, disappearance and execution across the Southern Cone of the Americas. The document stash was buried in the back room of a police substation in Lambaré, a suburb of Asuncion, Paraguay. The program, called Operation Condor, in honor of the Chilean secret service (DINA) who first proposed the international system of repression, lasted from 1975 until the late 1980s and is responsible—at least according to the records in the Archive-- for the murder of 50,000 individuals, another 30,000 disappeared, and a total of 400,000 imprisoned, interrogated and likely tortured. The Archive is the mother lode of evil, documented.
Currently the files are housed in the Palacio de Justicia in Asunción, in a series of small rooms off the main lobby. After the initial discovery and media frenzy, interest in the files from North American or European sources ebbed and remained low. Other than a few South American and European scholars working on articles or advanced degrees the Archive remains painfully untapped as a resource.
The first encounter with the archive is strange, a quiet room, several computer terminals with access to the entire digitized collection, and large, rolling cases overflowing with the physical files. A few archivists work at computers, one or two students lean into their monitors reading, and there is a centrally placed table, barren and unused.
” Excuse me, but where do I start?” I asked the curator Rosa Palau, a women of about sixty, matronly--in charge. She looked up, registered mild shock at the norteamericano in the archive and pulled one large bound book out of the wheeled shelves.
“Start here, with the birth of the Condor. If you need anything else, let me know.”
Pages, pages, pages. Yellowing with time, double hole punched and crammed into large folders. No noticeable system, perhaps location, maybe subject matter, possibly chronological. Hard to say.
Then the realization, the system, how it works, peeks out from behind the memos, the denunciations, the reports, the interrogations—and its defining characteristic, its distinguishing mark is how dreary it all is. The banality of denunciation after denunciation, the day-to-day reality of writing up the agenda of meetings, a discussion in a classroom, the content of a conversation with a taxi driver. There is a painful sense of the commonplace--to the point of boredom. These weren’t secret agents tracking revolutionaries in the rain, this was the next door neighbor, the work colleague, the owner of the corner store, the cousin, the professor-- sending in unsolicited reports to the police. The cop in everyone’s head.
Let’s look at some files…
From a meeting of the Agrarian Christian League, and specifically the Agrarian Catholic Youth group, dated 9 June, 1976. Reported by a Sr. Lidio Ortiz, who informs the local Chief of Police that included in the discussion at this meeting were expositions from that most dangerous of books, the Holy Bible. We are told that among the various parables discussed were the stories of the freeing of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt, the tale of the Good Samaritan, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The meeting then took a darker turn and one of the facilitators presented on the organization and goals of the OPM (Military Political Organization) a Tupamaro-like guerrilla group, and one of the main headaches of the Stroessner dictatorship in the 70s and early 80s. Finally, a facilitator closes with the statement that,” the only way for socialism to enter Paraguay is through the Catholic Church.” A prayer, and everyone went home. I haven’t been able to track down what happened to the participants of this sinister meeting yet, but I’m betting that at least the facilitators were detained and interrogated, perhaps even disappeared.
The archives have some tangential additions as in a note dated 19 March, 1975 denouncing Sr. Pedro Benitez, a resident of Asunción who evidently tried to sell a car which in fact belonged to an unnamed Brazilian. I’m still unsure where this fits in with subversion, or maybe it was just misfiled.
Of course, denunciation works both ways. A lengthy memo to Pastor Coronel, the Chief of the National Police and a sadistic torturer, discusses numerous instances of corruption by Asunción Police Officer Arturo Hellman. The memo is so long that it has an appendix that includes the following event, Dr. Rafael Ferriera a “comunista dirigente” (communist director) was arrested and being taken to La Tecnica, one of the main torture centers in Asunción. Dr. Ferriera’s wife, however, had different plans for her spouse and offered Officer Hellman 70,000 Guaranís (today about $17USD) for his release. Unfortunately, she only had 30,000 Gs on her at the time. So, she showed up at the prison some time later and paid Hellman the remaining 40,000Gs, and the file seems to indicate that Dr. Ferriera was, in fact, released.
Finally, cultural workers and events were not immune to denunciation. In a unique entry, a newspaper account of an upcoming performance by the Argentine actress, Maria Rosa Gallo, had been clipped and sent to the local police chief. Among her repertoire for the event in Asunción is the reading of poetry by Sylvain Maréchal, Pablo Neruda, and Jesús López Pacheco. Scribbled in ballpoint pen next to the names of these writers is the cryptic, and relatively accurate, description “poetas comunistas.” Evidently the Asunción police took the denunciation seriously as there is a small typewritten note attached to the clipping indicating that the theater owner was questioned about Gallo’s “judeo-marxist activities.” I haven’t verified yet if the performance was allowed to proceed, or not.
A scrap of newspaper, notes from a meeting, a corrupt cop, a car sale gone wrong—such is the stuff of denunciation and repression. So seemingly inane as to be laughable, yet in its impact, in the violence, fear, and death that such material produced from such bland sources one is led inevitably to the conclusion that at all times, in all places, where authority exists, repression like this is only one step, one phone call, one email, one thought away. Where there is a nation-state, there is always the possibility of a Condor.