The Culture of the Disappeared in Latin America

By Victoria Landaeta

Editor, Economics and Social Anthropology Undergraduate  


In 1966, when the Guatemalan, CIA-fortified, military regime begins ‘Operation Clean-up’ (Operación Limpieza) by forcibly disappearing thirty known members of the national communist party, they begin one of the Latin American Cold War’s most notorious and vicious processes of political repression. Between 1966 and the present day, it is estimated that over 150,000 people have become desaparecidos, ‘disappeared’ in Latin America, some 40,000 alone in Guatemala. Across Latin American borders, people consider this label worse than death— a name for victims of a crime that, according to Harvard’s ReVista, was ‘designed to produce uncertainty, leaving no corpses, no traces, no explanations, and hence, no accountability.’ Like an infection, this ‘dirty war’ tactic spread across Latin America, employed by military and paramilitary groups and governments who intended quick, untraceable executions for their enemies.


When the Cold War heats up in Latin America in the 1970’s, the Argentinian military junta made some 30,000 people disappear and Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime made over 3,000 people disappear in the span of a few years. Society is marked by the fear of ‘who’s next?’ and ‘will they ever come back?’ Political repression is accomplished not only by vanishing 33,000 left-wing heretics, but by leaving the lives of thousands of family members shattered and irresolute. However, this inspired a counter-cultural movement, led primarily by mothers, that laid the foundation for Latin Americas’ accountability vendetta. In 1977 the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo march in Buenos Aires, demanding their children be returned alive, a protest that ‘shook the foundations of the dictatorship’s legitimacy,’ and inspired thousands to demand the same— though it resulted in several mothers disappearing too. The right to hold government accountable, previously forgotten in the face of authoritarian fear, becomes the new revolution and ultimately the demise of the regime.


The Cold War’s legacy in Latin America has predominantly been one of reacquaintance with national identity and democracy, a process which has been slowed and complicated by the ominous shadow cast by the memory of desaparecidos— Barbara Frey, Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota, calls it a ‘seemingly impenetrable wall of silence and impunity.’ Like post-World War II Europe, Latin America has had the task of facing itself in the post-Cold War era. Social healing requires accountability, and accountability requires evidence. Desaparecidos leave no evidence. Perhaps this is why, for instance, it took Chile twenty years to create its Museum of Memory in Santiago, to create visual and public accountability for the regime’s crimes.


However, the story of desaparecidos does not end in the 1990’s with the Cold War. Countries like Colombia and Mexico have not yet moved out of the conflicts that perpetuate the culture of disappearances in their countries. The war on drugs is the modern war on communism. Between 2007 and 2009 alone, over 35,000 people have disappeared in Colombia, with over 20% of these victims being women or children under the age of fifteen. Though drug conflict has affected Colombia for decades— the United Nations recognises some 57,000 desaparecidos in Colombia— a formal inquiry, the Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas (UBPD), has only come about in the last two to three years. Colombian Red Cross representatives insist there is not enough political interest in this topic even though there are thousands of families insisting on answers. In the last decade, several mass graves containing over 1,500 bodies have been found in Colombia (some of them were found because the decomposing bodies were contaminating the water that people in near-by towns drank). Even with the FARC making a peace deal in 2016 and formally ending the war on drugs, some 40,000 desaparecidos remain a complete mystery in terms of parties accountable for the crime and status of life (or death).


In Mexico the escalation of violence since 2007, when the war on drugs was escalated by the government, has been brutal. Over 34,000 individuals have disappeared and about half of them are under the age of thirty. Much of the young population in Mexico that does not have access to education turns to cartels to make a living. Males between the age of nineteen and twenty-five are characteristically the most vulnerable group. Since Joaquín, El Chapo, Guzman was extradited to the United States last year, cartels have taken up record levels of violence, engaging low-level government employees and proliferating corruption with the intent not only of retaliating but of becoming untouchable. For this reason, 2017 was the most violent year thus far, with over 25,000 reported assassinations. Several thousand people will have disappeared without even being reported because family members know better than to trust local police. Instead, they form neighbourly alliances and take matters into their own hands, facing anonymous threats over the phone, routine vandalization of their possessions, and strained relations with other family members. Even against recent pressure from the UN, Mexican leaders are ill equipped to tackle the problem of desaparecidos because of rampant low-level corruption. This perception of government impotence is increasingly fuelling social outrage, especially in young Mexicans who feel their generation victimised by the conflict. Socio-political change may be a while away, but accountability is being demanded by the youth and the families of the desaparecidos now.


Latin America’s social and political landscape in the last century has often been shaped by absence— absence of democracy, absence of accountability, and absence of people. The culture of desaparecidos is a memory for some and a reality for others, but they are united by the desire for change and for improvement. Now more than ever Latin America faces itself and asks for change and recognition of regimes’ (past) mistakes. It is this fervour for accountability that drives social change, progress and cultural healing and gives hope that the answers we are looking for will rightfully be given.


Featured photo provided by Cultura Colectiva

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