Truth, Reconciliation and Government Archives: What Justice in Argentina looks like from the Mexican Perspective
On March 8th, Aleida Gallangos filed a petition before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), using dozens of declassified documents to charge the Mexican State with the abduction and disappearance of her parents thirty-five years ago. Aleida was just two-years-old when her parents were kidnapped by government forces, and has pursued her parent’s case tirelessly since discovering her true identity in 2001. After filing her case, she took a long-awaited trip to Argentina to meet with advocates, lawyers, judges, and friends to learn about the human rights prosecutions taking place there, and how to strengthen her own case in the Inter-American system. Aleida has used social media outlets to connect with human rights defenders throughout Latin America, and has met a close group of friends in Argentina whose parents were also disappeared by government forces in the 1970s. They have used Facebook to create a large network of advocates that identify with their struggle for truth and justice, and have successfully used this outlet to recover lost identities of children taken from their parents during Argentina’s dictatorship years (1976-83). Aleida recently reported back to the National Security Archive on the status of her trip, providing a poignant first-hand account of the human rights advancements in Argentina, and a unique perspective on how far Mexico has to go to achieve any comparable semblance of justice.
Aleida’s trip coincided with legal proceeding in Rosario, Argentina, where five military officers were on trial for crimes of torture and assassinations. On April 15th she witnessed the conviction of the officials who received life sentences for their crimes against humanity carried out in the secret torture center they managed in Rosario. Aleida experienced the elation of the large crowd that gathered to watch the conviction, and captured the event taking pictures of the family members of the victims and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo as they embraced after hearing the decision (Here’s a video of the sentences). She made a special connection with two individuals she met; Sabrina and Sebastian [see photos], children of two of the victims of the Rosario torture center, Raquel Negro and Tulio Valenzuela. Sebastian was one-year old when his parents were disappeared by the military, and grew up with his grandparents (see Carlos Osorio’s earlier blog entry) Raquel Negro was pregnant with Sabrina and her twin brother when she was kidnapped, and Sebastian grew up knowing that his mother gave birth to twins before she was disappeared and has spent years looking for his siblings. Sabrina was adopted in 1978 and did not know her true identity until 2008, when blood tests revealed her relation to Sebastian. Since then, she has re-connected with her brother and other relatives from her Negro-Valenzuela family. Like Sebastian and Sabrina, Aleida has a brother who she was separated from at the hands of State security forces, and reunited with almost 30 years later. Like Sabrina, Aleida’s brother knew nothing of his biological heritage, until Aleida tracked him down six years ago, living with another name in Washington, D.C. (Here’s a 2005 NYT article about her quest). Like Sebastian and Sabrina, Aleida and her brother Antonio have reestablished a relationship, and have recovered much of their past that was stolen from them at the hands of their government.
The other common thread in the both of these stories is the use of government documents, particularly from Mexican archives. In Aleida’s case, secret intelligence records produced by the Mexican Federal Security Directorate (DFS) from 1968-1976 show that the government spied on, detained, and secretly disappeared her parents when she was just two-years old (The documents are in National Security Archive briefing book no. 307). Aleida received critical evidentiary records from the Special Prosecutor tasked with investigating the State crimes of the past -and after his office closed- through Freedom of Information requests filed by the Archive’s Mexico project. The files include pictures of Aleida’s father, Roberto Antonio, being held a detention center showing signs of torture. Ironically, the case in Rosario has also used documents from the very same Mexican archives, which provide evidence of secret military assassination squads sent from Rosario, Argentina to kidnap and kill guerrilla leaders (Montoneros) living in Mexico City in 1978. The Argentine agents left behind a paper trail in Mexico when they were interrogated by DFS officials and revealed details of their foreign assassination operations. The documents were retrieved by the Archive and presented before the tribunal in Rosario along with dozens of other documents by Senior Analyst Carlos Osorio. Carlos provided expert testimony on the archival record of Argentina’s rendition and assassination program carried out by officers from the military Intelligence Detachment 121(See the National Security Archive’s briefing book # 300]. These records played a key part in the conviction of the officers responsible for the murders in Rosario.
When it comes to justice, this is where the similarities between the Rosario case and Aleida’s case end. Both cases are meticulously documented with archives that clearly reveal the names of the perpetrators responsible for the crimes. The courts in Argentina, however, have successfully convicted dozens of military and police officials and continue to put perpetrators on trial for human rights abuses, while in Mexico there has not been a single conviction for similar State crimes of the past. The Mexican government created a Special Prosecutor’s office in 2002 that made high-profile arrests of officials such as former President Luis Echeverría (Head of State when Aleida’s parents were disappeared, and still alive today) but the arrests led nowhere. The Special Prosecutor failed to secure a single conviction, there are no cases pending, no trials, and no apparent domestic agenda to carry through with human rights investigations promised during the years of President Vicente Fox. The Mexican government continues to deny its citizens legal recourse for crimes of the past, and for this reason Aleida has filed her case in the Inter-American Human Rights system.
Both cases demonstrate that the right to justice means the right to information. Archival records on these cases have provided historical illumination on government atrocities, evidence used by prosecutors, and information for family members of victims about the crimes against humanity which were committed. Aleida has seen what justice looks like when all this evidence leads to not only an accounting, but to actual accountability. “In Argentina there is a strong political will that extends across many sectors of Argentine society,” Aleida wrote in an email sent to the Archive. “Along with hard work and support of the human rights community, this has led to tremendous advancements in human rights cases. This experience has taught me many things, most notably, that justice is not impossible.”