THE URUGUAYAN DICTATORSHIP
Rarely does torture as seen in the Metal Gear world take place without a political motive, as most plots revolve around geopolitical scenarios of terrorism, extortion and nuclear threats for political ends. The type of torture seen in the series is focused exclusively on the extraction of information, although we also see the terror of torture being applied as a deterrent in order to discourage rebel sociopolitical movements (such as the Sandinistas in Peace Walker). Thus, it is important to understand the political motives that make torture necessary in the first place.
The Uruguayan dictatorship lasted officially from 1973 until 1985, although political persecution existed prior to 1973. Uruguay was under the “Dictadura Cívico-Militar” (civic-military dictatorship) which seized the country in a violent coup after a decade of economic and social chaos, battled between far-left and far-right guerrillas. This dictatorship was, so you may understand, the complete opposite of a Communist (Marxist-Leninist) nation. It practiced state terrorism on a constant basis for the sake of power, there was no ideology aside from ever-present and distorted doctrines combining nationalism and anti-communism, which also included heavy elements of Roman Catholicism. Society was essentially capitalist, there was massive poverty and homelessness, the newspapers, the media and even text books in schools were manipulated by the state and filled with anti-communist pro-Unitedstatian content which eerily resembled Italian and Spanish fascism, and unlike Eastern Bloc Communist countries, there was no Socialist emphasis on universal education and health care, meaning education and health care were deplorable. Also, unlike countries like the 1970’s USSR where you really had to do something major to receive this treatment (like being a CIA spy or a terrorist), absolutely anyone could endure the most debasing forms of torture and assassination based on absolutely nothing. Not even East Germany, the most repressive state of the entire Warsaw Pact, had a free pass to do the things that arbitrarily happened under South American dictatorships, matched and surpassed in arbitrariness only by the worst horrors of the 1937-1938 purges in Stalinist Russia. And it doesn’t stop there; there were systematic abductions of newborns like in Francoist Spain, who the military officers kept for themselves or sold to infertile couples, something which has never happened in communist dictatorships, but which the right-wingers have always invoked in order to deter people from supporting communism, as happened in the rural regions of Uruguay, where landowners spread propaganda of communists taking babies to Cuba and Russia, some even reinforced with added stories of cannibalism. Well, the main opposition to this brutal dictatorship were the Tupamaros, left-wing urban guerrillas which had in their ranks men that have lived to become famous, such as former president of Uruguay José Mujica.
For you Peace Walker fans, think of the Tupamaros as the FSLN in an urban setting instead of a jungle setting. The Tupamaros, also known as the MLN-T (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros or Tupamaros National Liberation Movement), was a left-wing urban guerrilla group in Uruguay in the ‘60s and ’70s. Its origins lie in the union between the Movimiento de Apoyo al Campesino (“Movement in Support of the Peasantry”) and the members of trade unions funded by Raúl Sendic in poverty-stricken rural zones. The Tupamaro movement began by staging the robbing of banks, gun clubs and other businesses in the early ‘60s, then distributing stolen food and money among the poor in Montevideo. It took as its slogan “Words divide us; action unites us.”
At the beginning, the Tupamaros abstained from armed actions and violence, considering themselves not a guerrilla group but a political movement. In June 1968, President Jorge Pacheco, trying to suppress labor unrest, enforced a state of emergency and repealed all constitutional safeguards. By right-wingers, fascists and other pro-dictatorship types in my country, this period of struggle for the rights of workers is referred to as “the era of subversion.” This was the beginning of the end for democracy in Uruguay. The government imprisoned political dissidents, used torture during interrogations and brutally repressed demonstrations. The Tupamaro movement responded with political kidnappings and assassinations. Of particular note is the kidnapping and assassination of Dan Mitrione, a Unitedstatian FBI agent who was teaching the Uruguayan police new forms of torture and was targeted for kidnapping as retaliation for the deaths of student protesters.
Nonetheless, the movement was hampered by a series of events including important strategic gaffes and the betrayal of high-ranking members, and the army’s counteroffensive, which included the Escuadrón de la Muerte (Death squad), police officers who were granted repressive powers to deal with Tupamaros.
Along with police forces trained by the US Office of Public Safety (OPS), the Uruguayan military unleashed a bloody campaign of mass arrests and selective disappearances, dispersing those guerrillas who were not killed or arrested. Their usage of torture was particularly effective, and by 1972 the MLN-T had been severely weakened. Its principal leaders were imprisoned under terrible conditions for the next 12 years. President Mujica spent a maximum of 14 years, 10 of which he spent in solitary confinement, and 2 of which he spent in absolute confinement in a deep well. This made him experience hallucinations and drove him almost to the verge of madness, but his willpower kept
Despite the diminished threat, the civilian government of Juan María Bordaberry ceded government authority to the military in July, 1973 in a bloodless coup that led to further repression against the population and the suppression of all parties. The following month, the Tupamaros formed the Revolutionary Coordinating Junta with other left-wing groups pursuing urban guerrilla warfare in the Southern Cone. The following year, various South American regimes responded with the collaborative, international counterinsurgency campaign known as Operation Condor, with full support from the US and its allies, all in the name of anti-communism. From the US side, the deviously cunning strategist behind this entire operation was none other than Nobel Peace Prize recipient Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State for the Nixon and Ford administrations.
This period of South America became strongly associated with forced disappearances, the abduction and murder of political dissidents and opponents, intellectuals, artists, teachers, activists, and in short anyone who was a threat to the military junta. As disappearing a person removes the victim’s fate from the boundaries of the law, many were buried in remote locations and others thrown alive in the middle of the ocean where they could never be found. These were called “vuelos de la muerte” (flights of death) and became increasingly popular in the Río de la Plata region, which allowed for easy and quick disposal of subversive elements. The Argentine and Uruguayan Air Forces collaborated in this strongly due to their geographical locations. The preferred method was via cargo plane for the Argentines and helicopter for the Uruguayans.
The supposed objective behind death flights was for victims to be killed by the sea, either by drowning or by being eaten alive by animals, ridding the government of all responsibility. Some were even thrown to volcano craters. Still, many civilians were able to see the aircraft involved in the strange activities, being described as coming and going to the coast opening the doors, throwing dark sacks to the ocean and swiftly closing them again. Bodies eventually made it to the shores and the government covered the entire affair by claiming that they were the bodies of Korean immigrants who were involved in organized crime and had been disposed of by rival gangs in this way. They supported this with the fact that the bodies indeed appeared to be from Asian-looking individuals. This was later proved to be the effects of water in the bodies, causing the face to become so swollen that gave the bodies facial features comparable with those of Asian individuals.