Human Rights 101 (Argentine dirty war style)

by , under Enrique Tessieri

I’ve taught students the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Some had never heard of it. I had heard of it but never understood its meaning until one April overcast day in 1977 when I was arrested and thrown into a police cell. What happened to me on that Saturday afternoon changed my life permanently.  

During the heyday of the dirty war (1976-83), when Argentina turned into a nightmare inhabited by phantoms and ogres that roamed the streets of the country with impunity, rule number one was that you never ever left your home without some ID.

At the time, US President Jimmy Carter had started his presidential term (1977-81) in January and announced a major shift in Washington’s foreign policy, which would pay closer attention to human rights. Such a foreign policy would have saved so many lives and suffering in the region. Declassified documents point to Washington’s complicity and that of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s in Argentina’s bloody coup. 

After lunch I went for a walk with a friend and passed by an attractive house, which I discovered later was the home of the US consul. I focused the camera on the building but didn’t take a picture of it. Twenty yards later two policemen in civilian clothes stop us at the corner as they wave their pistols menacingly at us.

We’re escorted to the house where I pointed my camera on.

We’re asked for documents. I search for mine and discover that I forgot them at my friend’s house. The guards allow my friend to get my ID. He returns but soon a squad car arrives.

“What should we do with them?” one of the body guard asks the police officer who steps out of the car.

“Let’s take them down to the police station,” he responded.

Argentina Richards_edited-1

 This picture was taken just before I was put in a police cell.

Riding inside a police car in Argentina during the dirty war was an eerie experience because all the people who were outside didn’t notice you. They looked the other way as if a ghost car drove past them.

We’re put in separate cells and are ordered not to utter a word. There are stories in the Argentine media about habeas corpus but they won’t help me today.

Coarse dark walls with carved messages greeted me as the day was slowly turning itself off and making way for night. As the iron door shut and locked behind me, my eyes, as if drowning in water, ventured through a small iron-barred window that was big enough for a baby to climb through. I looked outside but was immediately stopped by coiled barbwire where a lone leafless branch hung just above it. Not knowing what was going to happen to me and for how long I’d be detained, I decided to rest my hopes on the leafless branch and image that if I were a bird I could fly to free.

Amid the backdrop of cold concrete walls and uncertainty, I remembered once again President Carter’s words about the importance of human rights in US foreign policy.

Two police guards opened the cell door and ordered me to a large office where I was told to sit in front of an enormous desk that took a few seconds for my sight to travel to a police officer who sat stoically at the other end.

”You’ve committed a serious crime,” he said after a long lapse of silence hinting at nothing. ”Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!”

I don’t remember what he said after that question but it sounded like the reasoning a soldier had just before he was going to bayonet an enemy soldier’s guts. This is what I interpret him saying:

”Let me give it to you straight: Only the meek have stayed on, the bare minimum to sustain military rule so we can still run our factories. Just enough people to make our cities, towns and villages not appear too deserted. This is going to be a long war against the terrorists but we’ll prevail in the end.”

Escorted back to the cell, I passed by another one that still intrigues me after 37 years. The cell that I passed was the only one that was lighted by a naked light bulb. As I passed it, I swiftly sneaked a peek through the barred door. I noticed a person sitting on a stool with their back turned against me.

The image of that person became an obsession. Who was it? Why was that person detained? Did the person disappear like tens of thousands of others during the dirty war?

If I didn’t like being a conscript in the Argentine army, I didn’t mind it that much now. If I didn’t return to the base on Monday they’d start looking for me. 

After a long wait, the cell door opened again to a room with other policemen I noticed Major Echazú from the military base.

“Will that idiot step forward!” he yelled at the top of his voice. When my friend took the first step, the major yelled even louder: “No, I mean the other idiot!”

I was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown. I was arrested for not taking a picture, I got stopped at gunpoint, I was thrown in a prison cell and now this, being balled out and humiliated in front of everyone! But there was a certain sparkle in Major Echazú’s eyes that told me that he was just acting.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” he continued. “Do you think you’re in Hollywood? You can take that camera and stick it up your ass!”

After being thoroughly yelled at, both of us were fingerprinted by the police. I was given a warning by them: If anything happens to the US consul, I would be directly held responsible.”

Just as we were going to leave the police station, I noticed my camera on a table. It was given back to me.

As we drove away with a very deep sigh of relief, Major Echazú said we were lucky. The police and the military are rivals and there’s usually no love lost between them.

How close was I becoming a silent and unknown victim of the dirty war? I’ll never know but one matter is for certain: If human rights were respected in Argentina, the military junta would have never committed so many atrocities as it did during its reign of terror.

Even so, how can a group of murderers respect human rights?