Recent Politics of Cruelty
excerpted from the book
The Politics of Cruelty
an essay on the literature
of political imprisonment
by Kate Millett
WW Norton, 1994, paper
Recent Politics of Cruelty in Action
Alicia Partnoy's account of her experiences in a clandestine Argentinean
prison under the military government were published piecemeal
and anonymously in human rights journals until they appeared together
in the work entitled The Little School. Though narrated in the
third person, the arrest is her own abduction on January 12,1977,
when she was taken to the headquarters of the 5th Army Corps and
then to a strange little compound hidden behind it, a few shabby
trailers parked around an old house about a mile from the You
and I Motel (Tu y Yo) on Carrindanga Road, a belt highway outside
the town of Bahia Blanca. It is remote, dusty: one hears the traffic,
a few trains, even the lowing of cattle. Handcuffed, Partnoy was
brought with a blindfold over her eyes, but by tilting her head
she was able to read the letters A.A.A., the initials of the Alianza
Anticomunista Argentina, a paramilitary group "with whom
the military has since denied any relation."
The term "Little School" (La
Escuelita) is military humor, a name the victims of this clandestine
prison heard all the time, the name they used in their own minds,
whispered to each other when they dared to break its rule of silence;
a mocking irony remembered as the experience itself by those who
survived. "I knew just one Little School," Partnoy warns
the reader, "but throughout our continent there are many
'schools' whose professors use the lessons of torture and humiliation
to teach us to lose the memories of ourselves. Beware: in little
schools the boundaries between story and history are so subtle
that even I can hardly find them." In Argentina, more than
thirty thousand persons disappeared during the "dirty war"
between 1976 and 1979, four hundred of them children kidnapped
with their parents or born in captivity. The vast majority of
the disappeared remain unaccounted for.
Partnoy's Little School is in fact a little
hell: there are two small rooms where an average of fifteen prisoners
are forced to lie prone on camp beds. They must remain in this
position twenty-four hours a day in a continuous condition of
helplessness and inactivity. They are always blindfolded and their
hands are bound. Between the two rooms there is a small tiled
hallway where guards are on duty to ensure that they will neither
speak nor move. Crude circumstances but absolute: the captive
is totally immobilized and utterly forbidden to communicate. Blinded,
deprived even of sight, he or she is reduced to an object. Move
or speak and you are beaten with a rubber truncheon. Partnoy endured
this parody of an authoritarian classroom regimen for six months
from her arrest in January till the following June, unable to
move, to speak, or to see.
To be imprisoned under these conditions
is torture itself. But there are further tortures: past the guards'
room and their kitchen and bath down the hall, a door opens onto
the patio where the "torture room" is located, just
before the latrine and the water tank. The torture room is equipped
with an iron bed frame, standard equipment in such places; humble
object made for other purposes but used here for the torment of
electric shock. The metal conducts, and it is strong; prisoners
can be bound to it. The guards sleep in trailers; in time a few
more trailers will be added for more "disappeared."
It is the ordinary squalor of this bizarre
homemade jail that makes it so real. The roof leaks: "When
it rained, the water streamed into the rooms and soaked us. When
the temperature fell below zero, we were covered with only dirty
blankets; when the heat was unbearable we were obligated to blanket
even our heads. We were forced to remain silent and prone, often
immobile or face down for many hours, our eyes blindfolded and
our wrists tightly bound."
It is as if, by covering the captives
with blankets, they are made to disappear within their hidden
prison. For six months Partnoy's family had no idea where she
had vanished; the military denied that it had her in custody just
as it had denied thousands of others. The ability to "disappear"
a human being is such an awesome power that the verb itself, grammatically
intransitive, becomes transitive and now takes an object. A new
passive is also created: one does not disappear, one is disappeared.
The word is further detached from its nearly abstract connotations
of perception or impression and transformed into a specific act:
"to disappear" someone is to erase a presence, perhaps
even an existence, through capture.
But in a very special manner; this is
no ordinary kidnap, this is an act by authority. Government now
causes its citizens to exist or cease to exist. These magical
feats of appearance and disappearance, the condition of being
seen or being invisible, present or not present, border on conjuring.
The state's very efficacy in abducting its targets not only has
the effect of making them cease to be but perhaps also to have
never been. Since the fact of their detention is not recognized
or recorded officially anywhere, the "disappeared" can
be killed with the same ease as they can be detained until broken
through torture. When broken they may be tried, used as witnesses,
To practice torture, the state creates
the usual preconditions for torture: on coming to power in 1976,
the junta annulled the constitution. During the three years that
follow the most oppressive years of military rule, thirty thousand
Argentineans simply vanished from among their fellow citizens.
Government statements consistently denied this; the last official
pronouncement, the Final Document of the Military Junta on the
War Against Subversion and Terrorism of April 1983, denies it
categorically: "There is also talk of 'disappeared' persons
who are still held under arrest by the Argentine government in
unknown places in our country. All of this is nothing but a falsehood
stated with political purposes, since there are neither secret
detention places in the Republic nor persons in clandestine detention
in any penal institution."
A few months later, the dictatorship collapsed;
by December 1983, a democratically elected president had come
to power. Partnoy returned to Argentina the next summer to find
a country where "hundreds of unidentified corpses were being
exhumed, most of them with signs of torture." She testified
before the commission appointed to investigate disappearances
and helped to identify the location of the Little School. But
for all the crimes of this government and despite overwhelming
evidence against it, only two military leaders, General Jorge
Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera, were given life sentences for
their part in the disappearance and torture of this enormous number
Partnoy is stunned with disappointment
by the results of the junta's trial: "Only three others were
convicted and four military officers were acquitted of all charges.
The rest of the criminals enjoy complete freedom." She is
fully aware that this trial could have set a precedent in Latin
America, only the second considerable trial for torture since
Nuremberg. Nuremberg however was a case of the victor judging
the vanquished; here was a case of a nation judging itself: "It
is true that a very important trial has taken place against the
generals who presided over the country, the men responsible for
the massive assassinations. But it is also true that not until
justice is brought in cases like that of the Little School will
there be a safeguard against the recurrence of these crimes in
Indeed, the results of the Argentinean
trial are deplorable, virtually an exoneration of the military
and all its brutality, a brutality in which thousands of uniformed
members of the armed forces took part, together with thousands
more paramilitary and covert actors who were never censured or
brought to trial. Out of all these only five convictions, three
of them minor: crimes as it were without consequence. The outcome
was very reassuring not only for the Argentinean military but
for all other military regimes in the region. A great opportunity
has been lost. What began as a trial of the military ended as
a surrender to military intimidation. In capitulating to the army
by failing to try or punish the torturers among its ranks, Argentina
may have made their return not only possible but easy. Justice
seems further away than ever and the squadrons of Little Schools
throughout the continent operate as usual.
How do such [national security] systems come into being? The case
of Brazil is a comparable model for study, since the politics
of cruelty are now part of life in the region and many countries
can furnish an example: Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela,
Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala. It begins with an ideology, the
doctrine of the national security state. Brasil, Nunca Mais, the
historic secret Report of the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, published
in English as Torture in Brazil, is based on a five-year study
of the official court records of military trials from 1964 to
1969. The Report gives a careful account of how such an idea develops
and proliferates, how it originates in economic conditions, takes
over politics, and permeates the legal system, resulting in the
web of police apparatus that enforces abduction, interrogation,
Although portions of the Brazilian military
were first seduced by Nazism and impressed by its early victories,
Brazil finally joined the Allied forces in World War II and its
expeditionary force fought on the Italian front under U.S. command.
That connection was strengthened as generations of Brazilian officers
thereafter came to the United States for military courses. They
returned profoundly influenced by a new theory of national defense.
They had learned in America that fortifying their national system
against external attack was "far less important than shoring
up institutions against an 'internal enemy' that might be trying
to undermine them."
In 1949 the Superior War College was founded
in Brazil, modeled upon the National War College of the United
States, further adapting this interpretation of American Cold
War strategy. U.S. national defense policy focused upon an exterior
enemy, the Soviet Union, communism. Brazil could imagine no such
external danger. But since any threat to U.S. economic interests
in Brazil was perceived to be communism as well, a substitution
was made: the enemy in Brazil's case was interior rather than
exterior. At the Superior War College this was developed into
an elaborate political program, and military personnel were trained
for political and administrative office in government on the assumption
of the military coming to power.
This idea was developed into a political
program by the Brazilian military in the years it prepared for
the coup of 1964, when the reformer President Joao Goulart was
deposed by the army with the assistance of the United States through
covert operations, destabilizing propaganda, and repeated assurances
of support from the U.S. Embassy and its military attaché.
The new military government proclaimed
itself a "victorious revolution," which "confers
its own legitimacy upon itself." Then it set about changing
the laws, enacting a series of "Institutional Acts,"
five in all, which cumulatively granted it dictatorial powers.
They were necessary: given the unpopularity of its economic program,
only force could implement it. Every door was opened to foreign
investment incentive, easy credit, land purchase; huge projects
were undertaken, massive indebtedness was built up as the living
conditions of Brazilian citizens deteriorated. This neocolonial
| situation where one nation holds sway over a formally independent
country, extracting economic and political benefits, | gradually
requires greater and greater military enforcement.
And therefore the need for "security"
grows ever more urgent. Upon taking over, the new government drove
ten thousand civil servants out of office, then instituted a General
Committee for Investigations; five thousand investigations, affecting
a total of forty thousand persons. Within months it had created
a National Intelligence Service, extended the jurisdiction of
military courts to the civilian population, abolished most political
parties, developed the ability to suspend the legislative branch
at will, rewritten the constitution, and given total license to
Through a barrage of acts, decrees, prohibitions,
it had nearly silenced dissent, but sporadic resistance gave it
occasion to restore the death penalty and to develop more and
more "organs of security" until it had a great machine
of repression, what came to be known as "the System."
By the time that General Emilio Medici followed Marshal Castello
Branco into office in 1969, the System was well developed: thousands
were being sent to prison, abducted in the street or seized in
raids upon their homes, interrogated, tortured, and murdered.
The "internal enemy" is hunted
everywhere and with a thousand arms, one after another variety
of police force is established and locked into an interconnecting
grid: the army, navy, and air force police powers, the political
state police, the federal police, the civil police, the military
state police, and the civil guard. It is not an open war but a
secret one, carried out through interrogation, surreptitious investigation,
telephone taps, the storing and processing of information; clerical
at one end, brutal at the other. The System proliferates and expands
into acronyms, gathers autonomous and officially unacknowledged
paramilitary units under the umbrella of OBAN (Operation Bandeirantes),
which gains support in the business sector and funding by numbers
of multinationals, among them Ford and General Motors, its headquarters
a police precinct where every type of police organ is represented
The very fact that OBAN was extra-legal
gave it great flexibility and impunity with regard to methods
of interrogation; this in turn empowered it for important victories
in the "fight against subversion." This conglomerate
is so successful it provides a model for the next step in the
System, DOI-CODI, the Center for Internal Defense Operations,
which coordinates every police and paramilitary organ region by
region, culminating in DEOPS, the State Departments for Political
and Social Order-the most important forces of political repression
and responsible for the most investigations, abductions, interrogations,
tortures, and murders.
Once the enemy is the citizenry itself,
there is no end to fears for security; dissent is treasonous,
opposition criminal activity. The System is a pyramid extending
upward from its base of interrogation rooms to its apex with the
Council of National Security; its chief holds cabinet rank and
meets each day with the president, its budget expands exponentially.
Directed against its own people, [the system] must be paid for
and supported by them as well, a luxurious burden of paranoia,
a great useless expense undertaken to ensure their oppression.
In designing the National Intelligence
Service after study in the United States, General Golbery do Conto
e Silva had foreseen this. In his Geopolitica do Brasil, which
became a manual for military government, he concluded that there
was no alternative: "There is a new dilemma, that of well-being
versus security. This was pointed out by Goring in the past, in
an imprecise but highly suggestive and well-known slogan: 'More
guns, less butter' . . . there is no way to escape the need to
sacrifice well-being for security, once the latter is truly threatened."
Goring of course had been speaking of a country at war with an
external enemy; Golbery is speaking of one at war with its own
population. They must not only endure poverty so that the military
can remain safely in power over them, they must sacrifice every
right as well.
Ultimately only the military is safe in
the national security state. Everyone else is at risk; any life
may come under suspicion and unbearable persecution. Living in
a protected world of their own, the military are a separate caste
enjoying great privilege and unlimited power, a world of state
crime and lawlessness completely protected by the specious legality
of its own laws. The doctrine of national security is an absolute
one; it has decreed from the beginning that "internal opposition
could not be tolerated" if its own security were to be maintained:
toward that monopoly on authority it has dedicated its entire
armory of force, every gun and roadblock, every listening post
and agent. But its greatest weapon is torture: arriving at total
control, it acknowledges this as its surest avenue.
Torture is institutionalized under regimes
like these, a deliberate political and social policy, a calculated
strategy of widespread intimidation which goes far beyond the
old abuses of police interrogation. The secret character of torture
is only ambiguously maintained: protests against it in the congress
or the press are rare and swiftly punished, but when suspects
are arrested it is routine to beat them in the sight and hearing
of their neighbors. The population at large must know something
of disappearance, enough to be afraid: the opposition must know
more, enough to despair. There are circles of awareness, but within
the System itself, there is hardly any pretense: the Report of
the Archdiocese, compiled from the official records of the military
courts themselves, gives a frank and open picture. Once in the
custody of OBAN or DOI-CODI, very few escaped torture; but most
victims did not refer to it when they finally reached the courtroom,
silenced by their own fear or a well-grounded sense of futility
as well as the advice of council. Nevertheless, of the seven thousand
defendants tried in this period, nearly two thousand had the temerity
to speak out in such a court, testifying that they had been tortured
and protesting against it. Although their courage had no effect
and allegations of torture were ignored and dismissed, the information
they provided, information the military regime did not even think
to suppress, is invaluable and gives us an understanding of the
Torture had a budget and staff, training
procedure, study and teaching methods, was regarded as a science.
There are classes, classrooms, visual aids, technical terms, and
apparatus: slide photographs of torture are followed with practical
demonstrations on prisoners. The classes are described in the
testimony of the prisoners who were used as live subjects in classes
where acknowledged experts like Lieutenant Hayton would instruct
large groups of eighty or one hundred army personnel, the lecture
and photographs followed with practical "hands-on" exercises.
Dulce Pandolfi, a twenty-four-year-old university student, was
used as a guinea pig for torture classes in the barracks on Barao
de Mesquita Street in Rio: "stripped naked and subjected
to beatings and electric shocks and other torments such as the
'parrot's perch.' After being taken to her cell, the defendant
was assisted by a doctor, and after a while, was again tortured
with exquisite cruelty in a demonstration of how torture should
be carried out." One student prisoner was even used as a
subject before an audience of military cadets at a preparatory
school. Another prisoner was told as he was being used for demonstration
that his torturers were exporting their sophisticated knowledge
of the technology of pain and "owed nothing to any foreign
organization" in their expertise.
Perhaps they overstated their case: the
practice of using live subjects, according to the Report of the
Archdiocese [Brazil], was introduced by the American police instructor
Dan Mitrione in the early years of the regime: "Mitrione
took beggars off the streets and tortured them in classrooms,
so that the local police would learn the various ways of creating,
in the prisoner, the supreme contradiction between the body and
the mind by striking blows to vulnerable points of the body."
When Mitrione was transferred to Uruguay to teach policemen there,
the use of live subjects could be refined upon.
The methods of torture reported in the
military court records are now common throughout the continent.
They have names like the "parrot's perch" and the "ice
box" and the "dragon chair." In the first, the
prisoner's wrists and ankles are tied to an iron bar anchored
between two tables, suspended just above the ground. The body
is then beaten or shocked with electricity. The dragon chair is
a device into which one is strapped for the same purpose. It has
a metal seat to increase conduction and an iron bar that pushes
the legs backward with each shock, causing deep gashes. Electric
shock is produced by army field telephones and various rotary
devices called "the little pepper" or "the doubler
of tension." Ice boxes are any number of cold and restrictive
spaces where the victim is confined for long periods to endure
deafening noises, strong light, or lack of ventilation. Insects
and animals are also used: snakes, dogs, cockroaches. Every sexual
orifice and organ is invaded through these methods: electric shock
is typically directed at the most vulnerable parts of the body-the
fingers and mouth, as well as the penis, vagina, breasts, and
anus. The experience of drowning is created in many ways as water
is forced into the mouth through tubes or towels; strangulation
is approached by hanging or with a garotte. Victims are made to
stand precariously on aluminum cans, or hung on beams as if crucified.
Torture is routinely practiced for a considerable
period ever before interrogation begins, for its own sake and
without the excuse of obtaining information, to induce terror
and despair and to bring about the victim's moral destruction.
To complement this, friends and relatives are captured so that
emotional ties may be called upon. From the records of the court
it is clear that "children were sacrificed before their parents'
eyes, pregnant women had miscarriages and wives were subjected
to suffering to make them incriminate their husbands." Women
prisoners were raped, penetrated with objects, and ritually humiliated
by groups of males before whom their vulnerability I was ingeniously
In Brazil ... the Amnesty of 1979 closed all cases of the regime's
crimes against its citizens, and the long list of the 440 torturers
printed at the end of the Archdiocese Report-names obtained through
the military court's own records of its procedures against their
victims-is a list of men now beyond the reach of the law, which
includes many still "in service" to the republic.
Force remains immune to justice, even
the "moral justice", the Report argues for, having despaired
of any other and anxious not to be accused of "revenge."
If the rule of law and democracy has returned to Argentina and
Brazil, it may be only temporarily; meanwhile it has been extinguished
Somehow the official version is always a lie, and even the most
informative reports fail to produce results. Because if a trial
ever takes place, the court fails to convict: the witnesses come
forward, the bodies are exhumed and analyzed for evidence of torture
by experts, yet somehow the military always escapes unscathed.
Somehow the national security state maintains its immunity; it
is such a general phenomenon now, such a widespread ideology,
so essential to the military element and its unchallenged power
in the society of the region and its neocolonial mission, that,
like a colony of bacteria temporarily in remission, it simply
relocates and continues to operate with impunity.
Guatemala has undergone only one period of reform in this century,
the decade between 1944 and 1954, the presidential terms of Juan
Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman-a period of popularly elected
democratic government where labor organization was permitted,
even encouraged, and a beginning was made at land reform. The
moment of Arbenz's fall is the moment history stopped in Guatemala
or took another course, the army withdrawing support for an elected
government that had relied upon it, joining in a CIA-supported
coup replacing democrat with dictator, and beginning forty years
of military repression. Land reform would never again be considered
in an agrarian economy of staggering disparities, the larger holdings
accounting for as much as 90 percent of the land in export agribusiness;
as the great plantations swell, the peasantry's communal land
and subsistence plots contract and they are forced to travel to
the coast to perform as migrant labor several months a year at
wages that barely sustain life. The big plantations reek of chemicals,
toxins, insecticides; crops are sprayed by air while Indian laborers
are exposed in the field; workers' living conditions and their
shack housing are described by the International Labor Office
as "totally unacceptable with regard to hygiene, health,
education and morality."
Arbenz's agrarian policy offended United
Fruit with plans for appropriation of unused portions of its vast
holdings. The American firm demanded twenty-five times the sum
Arbenz was offering in compensation and registered its claim directly
with the State Department: a head-on collision with the U.S. government.
Direct threats to U.S. corporate interests were totally unacceptable.
Arbenz's modest reforms were now considered "Communist,"
the Arbenz government toppled, and the new military government
was very careful to appeal to | United States investment as well
as its Cold War ideology.
The doctrine was American; so was the
advisory planning, training, and instruction, the military aid
and materiel. In Guatemala, the doctrine took the form of counter-insurgency.
a variant on the ideology of the national security state. Perhaps
also an intensification, especially if one remembers that counter-insurgency
is also described as counter-terror. So while the huge repressive
machinery of the national security state tends to lie in wait
for transgressions against its authority, poised and ready to
pounce, counter-insurgency assumes that the mischief is already
going on, that an insurgent force is present, that it has dared
to organize and band together, that it is out there, ready to
be attacked, even to attack authority itself, the military state.
This is to assume not only that the enemy is internal, the population
itself, but that there is a real enemy with a face, the guerrilla,
the armed resistance. In the first period of counter-insurgency
in the sixties, when U.S. Special Forces were used in training
and advisory and perhaps even in some combat capacity, some eight
thousand persons were killed by the Guatemalan government, although
the guerrillas themselves did not number over five hundred. In
the eighties there may have been ten thousand insurgents, but
something like eighty thousand persons were killed. The other
victims are considered support, accomplices in some sense: they
were there, they were in the neighborhood, it is difficult to
tell the guilty from the innocent, and these people, like the
Viet Cong-for counter-insurgency was built on American strategy
in Vietnam, the "model hamlet" method of invading and
controlling alien populations and the "Phoenix" pattern
of assassination-these people must be crushed, if necessary exterminated.
One begins with deception, spreading lies and disinformation,
"fooling them, finding them, attacking them, annihilating
them," as Rios Montt's four tactics outline it in his "Standing
Orders for the Development of Anti-Subversive Operations"
in the so-called Victoria 82 Plan of Campaign.
It is interesting that in the case of
the doctrines of both the national security state and counter-insurgency,
Latin American military could accept a U.S. version of their military
situation and their relationship to their own population, without
objecting that American strategists did not apply these doctrines
at home. Only the U.S. Special Forces operated on the same dynamic
toward civilians as did Latin American regimes, since this was
a unit dealing with foreign nationals or a teaching branch for
export. There are consequences in the fact that the U.S. military
did not posit an enemy within its population or a hostile dynamic
toward its citizens: what was appropriate for export was not acceptable
at home. There is an unconscious racism and imperialism inherent
in such a double standard. It is related to privilege, or what
has become privilege in the face of deprivation, that narcissistic
glow U.S. nationals experience in their certainty that their civil
rights are still intact, respected. Others elsewhere have lost
or never had the traditional "liberties" they continue
to enjoy-together with their recent economic hegemony. Observing
their own good fortune in comparison to the fate of other citizens
under other governments may be so satisfying that scruples about
equity or causation do not arise.
The American counter-insurgency doctrine
was formative, all-pervasive: lives were lived and lost behind
its perceptions. Its effect was a nightmare brutality of clandestine
executions and mutilated corpses, yet acceptable to Latin American
militarism for reasons of its own. One might guess at a colonized
sense of inferiority before the glamour and wealth of empire,
the young officer dazzled by study abroad. But far more important
is the balance of power at home, preserving that. Through such
necessity they have arrived at a particular form of bad faith
which accepts any terms in order to maintain power. That these
are one's own people is not material: the ideology of anti-communism
has made them estranged, foreign, contaminated, possessed by a
diabolic force that makes them more remote than foreigners, less
sympathetic, less human. The rules of combat do not apply here;
the rules of war are military, not paramilitary. There is nothing
too cruel or outrageous in this combat, there is no restraint,
no mercy, no quarter. Counter-insurgency becomes counter-terror.
In the city, one is always dealing with
"unknown assailants," "masked men," and nameless
or anonymous "death squads," "vigilante groups."
In the countryside, where the army openly confronts the peasantry,
there are other forms of manipulation and distancing: Indian foot
soldiers deal with Indian peasants, but by careful design they
are never from the same provinces or language groups. The soldier's
training has been a systematic denial of his natural sympathies,
part of it a deliberate brutalization whereby he has been beaten
routinely, endured it, and been taught to beat others. He has
been thoroughly conditioned to believe there are "Communists"
everywhere and to regard them as anathema. He has been lied to
and suborned and estranged from his origins and background. Although
he was conscripted by poverty or even impressed and kidnapped
on market day, the army has in time become his home, his whole
sphere of experience now: its male culture is familiar and agreeable.
It is an entire institution, secure and reassuring, full of authority
and prestige, a path of opportunity far above what fate would
have presented otherwise; promotion is frequent, sometimes every
four months, there are extra awards for guerrilla deaths, executions.
One is fighting a crusade, warring with
a pure evil. Counterinsurgency was always understood to be a "dirty
war": beyond morality, magical and abstract. Everyone is
pretending: there is no Communist threat, the opposition is indigenous,
a broadbased spectrum of worker, peasant, and middle-class dissatisfaction
arising out of traditional commitments to democracy and religious
values where the Communist Party is an insignificant minority.
But the specter of communism has been used successfully to justify
military rule and then dictatorship. Doctrine, dogma, myth, convenience.
The army grows richer and more powerful, no longer the servant
of the propertied classes but their partner. The political parties
are eviscerated; elections are fraudulent. Measures are more and
more extreme, the military proliferates through every institution,
controls more and more of the social apparatus, declares frequent
states of siege which suspend the constitution and all other civil
Conquest is through sheer nastiness: the model is not a warrior
or officer ethic but the mafia, criminality. But it is a highly
technical and completely sophisticated criminal force, enjoying
every advantage of governmental prestige and cohesion: its very
mechanical heart the great communications center in the National
Palace where all intelligence information from every source is
coordinated and the orders go out for death squad killings. This
great complex, the Regional Center for Telecommunications (La
Regionale), a gift of U.S. "development assistance,"
not only puts Guatemala in twenty-four-hour contact with the police
and security of six other neighboring states and the Southern
Command of the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal Zone but also functions
as the command center for the supposed random killings, the thousands
of tortured bodies which the regime passed off as inexplicable
crimes by unknown assassins or persons beyond the law, zealots
whom it claims it cannot control or identify. On February 18,
1981, Amnesty International published a report which concluded
that "no pro-government groups existed independent of government
control and that government agencies were directly responsible
for the killings and kidnapping which the authorities ascribed
to extremist death squads." Amnesty's conclusions were based
on a variety of testimony, including that of Elias y Barahona,
former press representative of the Ministry of the Interior, whose
duty it had been to present such deaths as savage infighting between
the extreme left and extreme right, utterly disassociated from
government. Deaths ascribed to much-publicized squads like White
Hand, ESA, and NOA, groups which advertised themselves by leaflet
and claimed "credit" by crude notes pinned upon disfigured
bodies, were and still are the work of the government itself:
the Ministry of the Interior was said to keep a supply of blank
stationery from the chief death squads.
Executions by the various police forces
are routinely performed by groups of demoted policemen forced
to atone for past irregularities by assassination duty with short
pay and some chance of reinstatement. Executions by the military
itself are also conducted by government personnel, the assassins
generally two confidentiales or secret military intelligence agents
in one part of the country, who are provided with tickets and
photographs of their victims either routinely approved from the
lists in the central regional files by the heads of the detective
corps and the military police or, in the case of the prominent,
decided upon at meetings of the Departments of Interior and Defense.
Duty is temporary and hard to trace; the agents return at once
to their own locales and are disassociated with the crime.
Surveillance is highly developed through
La Regionale; electronic information from any government data
base can be correlated to intelligence. Whatever may be learned
from the state-run telephone company, the ministries of Labor,
Finance, Immigration, and Passport Records. Everything is on hand,
ready for "when the time comes to pick them up," as
the historian Michael McClintock demonstrates in The American
Connection, Volume 2, State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala.
Tens of thousands have met this fate. There is very little detention;
nearly everyone who disappears in Guatemala is murdered. Combined
with torture and mutilation, it is a very hard death.
... the instant when Archbishop Romero [El Salvador] is murdered
with one bullet on a church altar while saying mass on March 24,
1980, is ...crucial. By then it was civil war, a mass popular
movement against which the army was at war; and by then Romero
himself would be so incensed he would not only admonish the soldiery
to disobey orders to torture fellow peasants but go on to justify
open rebellion, perhaps even the armed struggle: "when a
dictatorship violates human rights and attacks the common good
of the nation, when it becomes insupportable and all channels
of dialogue, understanding and rationality are closed, when this
occurs, the Church speaks of the legitimate right to insurrectional
violence." At his funeral, a hundred thousand mourned Romero
in the cathedral square and the military opened fire on the crowd
with machine guns. Things had gone this far.
Counter-insurgency has produced this, the American doctrine, the
American training and advisers, the American aid and war materiel
in congressional appropriation after appropriation. Archbishop
Romero had begged that the repression come to an end and that
U.S. military aid come to a halt: another appropriation was voted
the day after his murder. One must go back to the beginning of
counter-insurgency theory and implementation, the article of faith
that all forms of opposition and protest are subversion: trade
unions, student demonstrations, opposition parties. Every form
of dissent has been criminalized, converted to communism, to treason:
for economic reasons, if no other, since the disparity in wealth
is so enormous, the oligarchy of the "fourteen families"
so powerful, the role of the security forces to guard the elite
so manifest. "Development" and "civic action"
were supposed to balance the role of "coercion" in counter-insurgency;
but this would involve basic economic change, undesirable and
therefore unfeasible, so they remain public relations gestures,
words and phrases.
What is created instead is a vast network
of security forces and political police, the product of twenty
years of U.S. training. Organized beside it is a secret paramilitary
force, faceless bands of men mobilized under patronage, low-level
government workers who must "volunteer" to keep their
jobs, army reservists and veterans retrained as part-time assassins
in the city and the countryside, who in the jargon of the U.S.
Defense Department, CIA, Public Safety Program, and U.S. Army
pronouncements cited in Volume 1 of McClintock's American Connection
form the "basic civilian counter-terrorist organization."
"Young elites," they are called flatteringly, "who
have a stake in the community, because they have a family, own
a house or a piece of land, are ambitious to get ahead in business,
profession or politics." The selection of such men is the
"first priority after the military have cleared an area,"
training them for guard duty, nighttime roadblocks, surveillance,
and to act as informants and guides for the military, not excepting
assassination squad duty. U.S. advisers created this web of counter-terror
in ORDEN and a number of other Salvadoran paramilitary organizations,
civil defense patrols, and death squads.
In forming such units every interest and
prejudice can be played upon, every mercenary or ideological connection,
religious belief, ethnic identification, class consciousness,
incorporating employees of the landlord class, lesser relatives
of property, recipients of patronage, and especially families
identified with the National Guard. It is a volatile mix: once
organized and empowered, once citizens are permitted and encouraged,
trained and directed to break the law, to carry arms and to commit
murders and assassinations, it is hard to stop this process, modify
or moderate it. Directed and controlled by the army and security
forces, the identity of paramilitary individuals is secret to
the rest of the population, just as their deeds are obfuscated
and confused in the press, blamed on "extreme elements of
the right or left." Constant confusion is necessary, references
to mysteries, unknown assailants, masked men, vigilantes, fringe
groups, persons "out of control," with "no official
ties," phantoms, independent and "unaffiliated"
bodies. A language of the indefinite comes into being, the unaccountable:
there will be no accountability, only power, fear.
Yet for all this, as one U.S. Army study
puts it, "paramilitary forces are primarily political."
An astute observation; even when the message is merely intimidation,
"Their function is to provide visible and effective demonstrations
of the power of the state." Even when the source of the violence
is muddied, the message is still effective: one gets the point.
Responsibility and blame are avoided at the same time.
The irresponsibility inherent in counter-insurgency has placed
the prestige and power, the moral authority of the United States,
its military and material assistance of all kinds behind the thinking
of U.S. Army handbooks which can describe an imaginary Latin American
country called "Centralia" where counter-insurgency
techniques are considered with this single limitation: "You
may not use mass counter-terror, as opposed to selective terror,
against the civilian population, i.e. genocide is not an alternative."
McClintock cites this source, and one is forced to consider with
him just how high a percentage of the population may be exterminated
under the term "selective."
Under the massacre conditions of army
counter-insurgency, that percentage could go very high indeed.
Over and over in counter-insurgency thinking the armed resistance
is conceived of as being like fish in the sea; failing to catch
the fish, the army will drain the sea instead by destroying its
base of support in the local population, if necessary by exterminating
that population itself. The term "civilian" has no meaning
now, the entire citizenry in some regions may be bombed and machine-gunned;
strategists like Colonel Ochoa deny even that civilians exist
in certain zones even children there are military targets. By
the eighties, emboldened by the Reagan administration, the army
itself had become a death squad.
Massacre after massacre is attributed to the Atlacatl Battalion,
trained in El Salvador by U.S. Special Forces from Fort Gulick
in the Canal Zone, or to the Ramon Belloso, trained at Fort Bragg,
North Carolina. The El Mozote massacre, reported in the U.S. press
and by the Americas Watch Committee, took the lives of a thousand
civilians from a number of villages in Morazan; the main strike
force was again the Atlacatl Battalion, comprising three thousand
army and security forces as well as paramilitary irregulars.
In El Mozote itself there was only a single
survivor, a thirty-eight-year-old woman named Rufina Amaya. The
troops arrived early in the morning and rounded up the villagers,
locking the men up in the church and women in a house nearby.
At noon the men were blindfolded and executed in the town center,
Amaya's husband among them, who was nearly blind. Then the women:
in the afternoon the young women were taken to the hills and raped,
then killed and their bodies burned. Next the old women were taken
and shot. "The soldiers had no fury," Amaya explained,
"They just observed the Lieutenant's orders. They were cold."
Hiding among the trees, Amaya heard the soldiers discuss how to
kill the children; they seem to have decided to choke them, because
later she heard their screams and calls for help but heard no
shots. Three of her own children were among those dead; all were
under ten years old.
State Torture and Religion, The Torture
The idea of human "trash" takes hold in the minds of
security and police authority. Perhaps its most tragic use at
the present is against children.
There are locations where such abuses
became extraordinary, as in the widespread torture of children
in South Africa following the uprisings in Soweto there are ...
places where the torture of children is routine and consistent,
that is, governments that torture suspects will torture suspected
children as well.
This is the case in Turkey. Helsinki Watch
attorney Lois Whitman, in an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times
(Friday, January 3,1992), describes several cases of the torture
of children apprehended on both criminal and political grounds
such as distributing leaflets; for this offense a sixteen-year-old
Turkish girl was badly beaten and held for two months. Whitman
herself interviewed nine children between the ages of thirteen
and seventeen, all of whom had been abused in detention. Helsinki
Watch has reports of dozens of other cases of the torture of Turkish
children in custody. Their families were never notified of their
whereabouts; all of them were incarcerated in adult prisons, none
were permitted to see lawyers during their interrogations. A child
of fifteen accused of robbery was detained for four days, during
which he was subjected to falaka, the soles of his feet beaten,
then his whole body beaten with clubs while he hung suspended
upside down, naked and blindfolded. He was then handcuffed to
the door of his cell and beaten again, suspended again by the
arms and given electric shock. This child then signed a confession,
since repudiated. Turkish authorities consistently deny allegations
of torture: Turkish attorneys charge that torture is routine in
80 to 90 percent of political cases and 50 percent of criminal
cases. Turkey is a signatory state both to the European and the
United Nations Conventions Against Torture.
There are indications that the torture
of children may become more specific. Destitute and defenseless,
children of the street are becoming targets of disappearance and
death, the victims of what are now habits of cruelty, established
practices of dealing with the unwanted human being. At first there
were only scattered press references and reports of this phenomenon
in Guatemala, although the numbers of children murdered by death
squads, the police, and the military in Brazil and Iraq had indicated
a disturbing pattern; by now UNICEF has gathered information on
the torture and disappearance of children in many countries which
indicates strong tendencies in some, emergencies in others.
Death squad culture has created a scenario
now, a manner of locating and apprehending a target, the scapegoat
vanishing only to reappear as the mutilated example of an existence
that will not be tolerated: communism, destitution, overpopulation,
feral childhood. These are street children, beggars, some of them
addicted to "glue," some of them migrants or refugees
of counter-insurgency, some abandoned-place, land, and parents
lost, no longer even remembered. Their numbers grow, they are
a "problem," an increasing social phenomenon perceived
as an offshoot of criminality and addiction throughout the region;
drugs a familiar excuse for police brutality whereby the desperate
condition of these children may be construed as corruption rather
than poverty. Their presence is offensive in the eyes of security:
conspicuous, a blemish to the public image, not only an embarrassment
before visitors but a threat to tourist income.
Their very being suggests the stray, an
insult to order and ownership and family cohesion. There is about
them an inevitable lawlessness because they are also utterly indigent
and dependent for sustenance upon garbage or petty crime, sleeping
in the open in ditches, ravines, culverts, or protected only by
cardboard and other scraps of material. The children of no one,
wandering outside a social order where children are dependent
for existence upon being the acknowledged property of adults.
Unacknowledged, then, without public resources of any kind, deprived
of any type of collective support that might constitute "permission"
to exist, they exist anyway; without permission, that is without
parents or sponsors. It is an existence increasingly precarious
in authoritarian society, and in view of the growing brutality
of police methods and the hardening of attitude that accompanies
the use of torture in social policy, increasingly perilous as
In Guatemala, these children are being
subjected to police brutality which ranges from casual torture
during round-ups to mutilation, disappearance, and death. According
to Amnesty International sources and W. E. Gutman's report in
Omni magazine (November 1991), which includes information supplied
by the child advocacy group Casa Alianza and is accompanied by
a large number of photographs of disfigured and mutilated young
corpses, the perpetrators of these crimes against children in
Guatemala are police and security personnel. Sometimes police
patrols operating in plainclothes or hiding their badges; at other
times police officers working second jobs, "moonlighting"
by operating as executioners "on behalf of local municipalities
and private businesses." A third type are members of private
security corporations that are licensed by the national police
and the Ministry of the Interior. For all the evidence of their
crimes, these men are rarely tried or indicted.
There is little outrage or sentimentality
over these deaths, since the lives in question are not those of
beloved offspring but understood to be a kind of public nuisance.
In view of the "delays, irregularities and blatant reversals
connected with official inquiries" into these cases, Amnesty
feels that children's rights have been continuously subordinated
to trade and diplomatic concerns. Meanwhile worldwide there are
some 100 million street children living in fear of their lives,
many of whom "disappear, are beaten, illegally detained and
confined, sexually exploited, tortured and systematically killed
by agents of the state." Gutman and Amnesty list twenty-two
countries where children are systematically sexually exploited,
as in the Philippines, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, or illegally
imprisoned and tortured, as in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, E1
Salvador, Iraq, South Africa, and Turkey, and where they may also
be executed either extra-judicially or legally, as in the United
States, where fourteen states have juveniles on death row.
But reversion is a constant danger. Once a society becomes as
regimented as Argentina, Brazil, or Uruguay, as dominated by inquisitorial
ideology and security controls and surveillance, reversion is
always possible, remains as near as the resumption of military
rule-for which civilian politicians have frequently been responsible.
They are so again in voting for blanket amnesties which grant
the military virtual impunity. The party and the army cut deals,
the politicians forgive all, playing it safe, propitiating the
armed forces. The victims lose their rights, so do the people
at large. Consider Uruguay, where there was an attempt, by popular
plebiscite, to overturn the congressional vote whereby professional
politicians had extended total amnesty to the previous military
regime. A grass-roots campaign was organized to reverse this gift
of impunity through a popular referendum. Every obstacle was put
in the way of obtaining the referendum: a staggering number of
signatures (one sixth of the population) was required just to
initiate the ballot. Then a year passed while government contested
the signatures on the most specious grounds and harassed those
who had dared to sign. But enough had, and it came to a vote.
However, by that time the citizenry had been muddled and intimidated,
unremitting propaganda and advertising had created a majority
who, through exhaustion and confusion, would finally endorse the
government position that to grant amnesty to the army for its
crimes would preserve the new peace of democracy.
The amnesty itself had violated Uruguay's
own commitments to the UN Conventions Against Torture. Then the
results of the referendum, in permitting crime to be excused by
a special plebiscite, violated the principle of equal protection
before the law, which is fundamental to it. So is the principle
of governmental accountability: rebels and criminals pay dearly;
the state is increasingly unaccountable. It is as if the Germans
had voted after the war to excuse Nazi crimes against the Jews.
In Uruguay, too, the new "democratic" government had
now come to be the protector and apologist of the previous military
In Stanley Milgram's classic study Obedience to Authority, naive
college students cast as "teachers" in a university
experiment on learning and memory delivered massive amounts of
electric shock to other students cast as "learners,"
simply because they were repeatedly ordered to by an "experimental
scientist." Abridging his book for Harper's magazine in an
article entitled "The Perils of Obedience," Milgram
states that most of his subjects who delivered shock did so out
of a "sense of obligation," which leads him to agree
with Hannah Arendt's contention that evil is essentially banal
and to conclude that directed cruelty does not require a sadistic
personality: "That is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson
of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without
any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a
terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive
effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked
to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental j standards
of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to
... even the governments who are signatories to the UN Conventions
Against Torture who offend. The United States, for example, which
offends more abroad than at home, though it is not without offense
there as well, has been extremely slow to ratify. A Special International
Tribunal convoked at Hunter College in 1990 concluded that the
United States does in fact violate the conventions in holding
political prisoners, sentencing them disproportionately, and violating
their rights through cruel and degrading treatment in its prisons,
particularly the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois,
and the Women's High Security Unit at Lexington, Kentucky, object
of popular outcry for its program of sensory deprivation in underground
cells, constant illumination, and absolute isolation. Numbers
of notable American political prisoners such as Leonard Peltier
serve outlandish terms, some in solitary under inhumane conditions.
While governments must truly concur in
abolition, it is unlikely they will do so without popular pressure.
Conventions against torture, like all pledges and promises, are
only as good as the power to enforce them and the means of redress
when violated: means of an international court or authority to
whom any citizen might apply-means presently not at hand. Implementation
is crucial: guarantees of extradition to safety, indictment of
the offending authorities, power of appeal against one's own nation
state. The sovereignty of the nation state itself is a great obstacle
to the abolition of torture.
There is nationalism at the popular level,
and on the level of government itself, multinational or transnational
economic power-these forces put torture in place and keep it there.
As long as we identify culture and language and love of place
with nation and national government, we are vulnerable to patriotic
manipulation; as government's power increases, there is a concurrent
increase in manipulation. To have any effect on state power, even
to see and apprehend it, one must, as a first step, transcend
nationalism. Amnesty and the other non-governmental groups are
effective just because they ignore borders and identify through
Torture cannot be prohibited without an attack upon state power,
limiting it, pruning it back to democratic proportions, imposing
strict limitations upon its increasing luxuriance.
How does the state come by its powers? Through its monopoly on
force and its capacity to incarcerate. Therefore it has always
had them, relinquished them only after long campaigns of agitation
produced certain restraints which eventually curtailed them. But
only for a while, since vigilance is the price of this type of
freedom. In a sense, therefore, the state has simply reassumed
these powers, slipped back into them as its claims were permitted
to grow and magnify themselves through unchallenged arguments
of revolutionary necessity, military necessity, counter-insurgent
necessity, the complex necessities of national security-for all
of which one must read its own self-interest, its hold on power.
A consolidated power, not merely of this
particular government, regime, administration but the state itself,
its accumulated force as it would be passed on to the next cast
of military officers or even law-abiding civil bureaucrats. That
power has advanced steadily and we have permitted it. To curtail
it now may be late and difficult. Uncontrolled, it is terrible
and has produced the present, this growing nightmare of force,
torture only its most obvious excrescence. There is the prospect
of it proliferating or going on untrammeled; yet even continuing
as it does, it produces crime from which only the accident of
place removes one.
Certain governments now "get by with
murder" because the fortunate citizens of other governments
completely fail to identify with their unfortunate fellows, are
effectively "nationalized," confidently imagining "these
people" deserve their fate. Anyway it's not their affair,
they are the happy citizens of State A, which does not torture
its citizens; as for the woeful conditions in State B, they are
something else again. Imagining the two unrelated, accidental,
a matter of luck. Or as Page duBois explains the dynamic in Torture
and Truth, "Torture has become a global spectacle, a comfort
to the so-called civilized nations," their proof of the "continued
barbarism of the other world," the Third World "which
has become, beside the site of torture, the spectacle of the other
tortured for us."
The collective will toward abolition,
small and weak as it is, is likely to succeed first at the abolition
of physical torture, somatic torture, torture to the body itself.
But this success would not prevent the growth of psychological
torture. In Uruguay, for example, prisoners brought out of clandestine
detention and interviewed by reassuring psychologists upon their
admission to acknowledged public prisons were promised they would
not be mistreated any more. In fact, their every confidence was
systematically betrayed by a highly sophisticated behavioral psychology
completely at the service of the state. As Lawrence Weschler describes
Libertad Prison in Uruguay, the declared purpose of the regime
was to drive one mad, a deliberate manipulation of sanity and
suffering. All punishment was in relation to the rules, but the
rules are secret and are changed every day. The declared purpose
is to break the prisoner by destroying his mind, and every effort
of behavioral science is brought to bear to accelerate this. Guards
are trained to show aversion, films are projected out of focus,
it is forbidden to sing, laugh, smile everything has emblematic
meaning, to draw a rose brings a month in solitary as ideological
punishment. There are two prisoners to each cell but only one
chair; since it is forbidden to sit on the bed. one prisoner must
pace or stand at all times.
The prison itself is a panopticon, where
everything is visible; the larger society begins to replicate
a panopticon as well. The logic behind all this surveillance and
imprisonment is generally economic; in this case, the military
government had put its hopes in the free market theories of Chicago
economist Milton Friedman, or as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo
Galeano put it, people were in prison so that prices could be
free. With governments, one thing leads to another.