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Legacy of disappearances and state violence in Latin America

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The coronavirus pandemic has been utilised by Latin American governments — prominent examples being Brazil and Chile — to militarise societies, criminalise resistance and normalise violence. Last year’s protests in Chile, in which the nation mobilised against the dictatorship constitution, provided an insight into repressive tactics which Chileans said were reminiscent of the terror unleashed by Augusto Pinochet’s National Intelligence Directorate (DINA).

Woman with I carry you in my blood on her face at event for International Day of the Disappeared  (EPA/LEONARDO MUÑOZ)

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has not been averse to using the pandemic to allow incursions into the Amazon; the aim being to legalise land grab and industrialisation of the Amazon. The early days of the pandemic were marked by the killing of environmental activists and Indigenous leaders in the Amazon — another sign that violence has not abated in the country, under the rule of a president who has openly glorified dictatorships.

A report coinciding with the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30 shows Latin America as the region with the highest number of disappeared persons, many of which pertain to the dictatorships era. Operation Condor — a US-backed intelligence plan that sought to exterminate all socialist influence in Latin America and in eight countries ruled by dictatorships — is estimated to have killed and disappeared tens of thousands of people. Buried in mass graves, exhumed and transferred to other undisclosed locations, or thrown off helicopters into the ocean, the disappeared victims in Latin America are an integral part of each country’s struggle for justice and collective memory.

Operation Condor sought to establish state terror through surveillance and killings. Besides the victims of this region-wide operation that also sought to neutralise opponents globally, countries in Latin America have had to reckon with their separate, historical past. Argentina’s disappeared number 30,000. Between 1958 and 2018, 80,514 Colombians were disappeared. Guatemala counts 45,000 disappeared people, while Mexico’s is currently at 73,308 — an increase of over 30,000 victims since 2018.

In the absence of a justice system that is not politically influenced, Latin America is risking an increase in state violence. While disappearances are now mostly linked to the drug wars in Mexico, for example, governments in the region have not been averse to continue implementing the same neoliberal policies ushered in the 1970s , which in turn necessitate normalising various forms of state violence. What Operation Condor did in the past to prevent a left-wing resurgence, states are now implementing within their own borders to safeguard their interests, and those of multinational companies.

Anyone who stands in the way is a target, and governments have already created narratives to justify the violence, as the trend of activists in Chile discovered dead in purported suicides, all by hanging, has showed. The latest alleged suicide victims are two Mapuche activists, mother and daughter, who were found hanged in their homes in Ercilla, in the Araucania region, which is targeted by the Chilean government for industrialisation. The case evoked memories of activist and environmentalist Macarena Valdes’s killing in 2016, where the only witness to the crime was her two-year old son. Valdes had been threatened only days before her death.


'The democratic façade is being exploited by governments in the region to promote and enact human rights violations under the guise of establishing order in society.'


In 2018, trade union leaders Alejandro Castro and Alex Munoz Garcia were also discovered hanged, following their activism against multinational companies and for safety conditions at work, respectively. In what was a more blatant display of state violence, Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca was killed by a bullet to the head on his own land by the Commando Jungla — a Chilean elite unit that was trained in Colombia by the US.

Chile is by no means the exception. Elsewhere in Latin America, such state violence against Indigenous leaders, activists and environmentalists is an ongoing occurrence. Dictatorships, with the exception of Bolivia under Jeanine Anez who took power through a military coup, are no longer the region’s preferred option for violence. Indeed, with dictatorship legacies still thriving, militarising democracy is the next best thing for Latin America’s right-wing, democratically elected leaders.

In 2019, 28 Indigenous activists were murdered in Latin America, with near-absolute impunity granted to the perpetrators. The first months of 2020 also witnessed the assassination of Indigenous and environmental activists in the region.

For the people who remember, or have been through, the trauma of Latin America’s dictatorship history, the current targeting of opponents — including the criminalisation of Indigenous resistance — is an extension of state violence in a scenario where neoliberal politics are now the norm. While the state safeguards itself and multinational corporations, it perfects its violence against civilians, using dictatorial tactics in a purportedly democratic setting.

The democratic façade is being exploited by governments in the region to promote and enact human rights violations under the guise of establishing order in society. However, militarisation indicates political and social disorder stemming from inequalities promoted by the government itself, and the pandemic has pushed these inequalities to the fore, especially when it comes to Indigenous populations. Disappearances may be associated with past trauma, but the practice, and its legacy, are still an option for governments whose methods of dealing with opponents are either direct extermination, or disappearing their visibility in terms of their struggles and cause.



Ramona WadiRamona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

Main image: Woman with writing translating to 'I carry you in my blood' on her face at event for International Day of the Disappeared  (EPA/LEONARDO MUÑOZ)

Topic tags: Ramona Wadi, Latin America, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro, forced disappearances



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Existing comments

Romona, Thank you for your essay.Sadly most of the disappearances have the finger prints of the CIA all over them. The CIA was active in South Vietnam during the Second Indochinese War in Operation Phoenix and the Philippines under Marcos . With the Pandemic dictatorial rule is spreading as Governments use it as an excuse to suppress freedoms. We should be on our guard too.

Gavin O'Brien | 09 September 2020