By José Elosegui.
For the last 17 years, thousands of Uruguayans have gathered in central Montevideo May 20 to demand “truth and justice” for the crimes committed during the 1973-85 military dictatorship. But this year was particularly poignant. In the last six months, authorities have identified the remains of two individuals who were detained and disappeared during the dictatorship. Three days later after the demonstration, the remains of a third Uruguayan victim discovered in Argentina were identified as well.
The march was the first since amnesty legislation, which shielded military and former military from facing human rights charges for dictatorship-era crimes, was shot down last October.
Some 10,000 Uruguayans marched in silence down July 18 Avenue, the capital’s main road. Organizations carried banners that read, “We will find them.” At the end of the demonstration, the names of those who disappeared during the military regime were read over a loudspeaker as their photographs were projected on a large screen.
The march, which revives memories of what occurred in Uruguay’s recent past, as participants clamor for truth and justice, marks the assassination of lawmakers Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz of the Broad Front and National Party, respectively, in Buenos Aires in 1976, as well as the killings of members of the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement Rosario Barredo and William Whitelaw. The four were in exile in Argentina.
The march was “a great success, [which] continues to demand and work for truth and now for justice,” said to Latinamerica Press Mara Martínez, of the Mothers and Relatives of Uruguay’s Detained-Disappeared, which called the march.
For Martínez, this march was special because in December, the remains of teacher and journalist Julio Castro, and in April, those of union leader Ricardo Blanco, were found, adding to the finding six years ago of the remains of communist activists Ubagesner Cháves Sosa and Fernando Miranda.
“I believe that we’re reaffirming more and more that we have to continue working and continue looking,” she said.
A teacher and a laborer
Castro, “a man of peace,” as Martínez called him, was killed Aug. 3, 1997 with a shot to the back of the neck after he was tortured, according to his skeletal remains. He was 70 years old when he was kidnapped. Castro was born in 1908 in the Florida department, and was a teacher and a teacher-trainer. According to Uruguay’s Ministry of Education and Culture, he was a member of the National Teachers Union, the Federation of Teachers’ Associations, and starting in 1945, the Uruguayan Teachers Federation. He was also a deputy director at the Regional Center for Fundamental Education for Latin America.
The author of various publications on education and teaching, Castro was also a journalist who edited the weekly Marcha, a mainstay of leftist journalism in the country during its 1939-74 lifespan.
Dozens of bodies of Uruguayans have been found in Argentina. The same has occurred with Argentine citizens’ bodies in Uruguay. Many of the remains show signs of brutal torture the victims were subjected to before their deaths. They are the centerpiece of evidence of Plan Condor, the coordinated effort of repression by Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s.
It is no wonder then that Argentina’s forensic team identified the remains of Uruguayan Alberto Cecilio Mechoso Méndez, whose body was found in the late 1980s. Born on Nov. 1, 1936, Mechoso Méndez was a member of the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation and later of the Popular Revolutionary Organization 33 Orientales. He was a founding member of the Party for the Victory of the People and a member of various labor organizations.
He was detained in Argentina Sept. 26, 1976 and never returned. An examination of his DNA, along with genetic information from the Uruguayan Human Rights Secretariat, allowed him to be identified.
Martínez told Latinamerica Press that the fact that he was identified must be applauded, but said that it leaves “one wanting to know more.”
Her organization estimates that some 60 people who disappeared are yet to be identified, including some brought to the country from Argentina.
The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has hundreds of remains to identify, while the Human Rights Secretariat in Uruguay is scrambling to complete a gene bank with help from victims’ family members.
“We have to keep working,” said Martínez. “It’s very important for a society to heal [because] the issue of disappearances is much more than an armed confrontation where people die on the battlefield.”
She called it the “systematic planning by the state that is very serious from a social point of view.”
While the amnesty law was knocked down last year, some high-ranking police and military members have been behind bars for years because the impunity clause did not apply to their cases.
When the governing Broad Front took power in 2005 with then-President Tabaré Vázquez, who left office in 2010, it opened the process of searching for remains, arresting and sentencing several of the dictatorship’s assassins.
On June 4, in the Legislative Palace, the state took a step toward reconciliation for the country’s painful past: it took institutional responsibility for suspending constitutional guarantees and for its illegitimate actions from 1968 to 1985.
Two-hundred-and-fifty certificates were given to victims or their family members to recognize state terrorism or illegal actions against them.
The state said that its failure to protect its citizens affected “human dignity for political” motives.
Ricardo Ehrlich, minister of Education and Culture, said that this first recognition of the state’s responsibility should help “new generations have a legacy and a country that assumed with bravery its history and its pains.”