A PERSONAL STORY
We’ve seen state repression and torture from a general historical and political perspective, but these things never stick as much without a personal anecdote that can put their horrors into the perspective of ordinary life. This is the story of my family.
My mother’s side of the family was what can be considered a subversive left-wing cell by the dictatorial government. It sounds harsh and important, but the truth was more mundane. My grandfather’s crimes were playing banned music in his gramophone (of the canto popular genre, meaning popular song) and keeping a copy of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. Both activities would have had him arrested, tortured and most likely summarily executed. My mother smoked Cuban cigars, refused to watch North American films and worked voluntarily in a “comité de base” (base committee), printing and distributing anti-government propaganda in secret. One of my uncles worked in activities so secret he could not reveal them to the rest of the family, side by side with Tupamaro National Liberation Movement guerrilla fighters. Meanwhile, olive green government vans, specifically second generation Chevy Sport Vans nicknamed “chanchitas” (little piggies, due to their shape) driven by the secret police and equipped with communication and radio surveillance systems (supplied by the US) to detect subversive messages drove ominously and slowly down the road outside the house, as in most suburban neighborhoods, in a fashion that to North Americans may seem either a made-up cliché or a dystopian nightmare, but a harsh reality for Latin Americans. I won’t post photos due to reasons of anonymity, but it should be noted that my family’s house in Montevideo was located in a neighborhood extremely similar to those commonly seen in Unitedstatian suburbia, with barking dogs, colorful bushes, trees, tidy grassy sidewalks and two-storey houses with garages and fences, something I’m describing to make North Americans imagine what it would feel like if that hit home.
The vans were ordered to be on the move on a constant basis and each was assigned their own local jurisdiction to roam. Depending on the occasion, the vans would carry radio surveillance equipment or riot teams from the Guardia de Coraceros (“Breastplaters’ Guard” derived from coraza, breastplate) ready to deploy and assist in arrests or put down demonstrations. The sight of Black Ford Falcon sedans, driven by “tiras” (literally “strings,” derived from police handcuffs), undercover police agents dressed in civilian clothing known to infiltrate left-wing cells, were enough to give anyone a heart attack. Colored in black and olive green, the Falcons were purposefully designed to invoke feelings of fear and dissuade people from resisting arrest. These cars saw the kidnappings of thousands, who were dragged to the car with black bags on their heads. Ford’s subsidiary in Argentina maintained close ties with the military dictatorship, to the point that it even sponsored the torture that the government hurled against local union leaders. The ties were so strong that the company began supplying vehicles directly to the military. Thus, the Ford Falcon was the car used in thousands of abductions and disappearances. The Argentine psychologist and playwright Eduardo Pavlovsky described the car as “the terrifying as a symbolic expression. The car of death.” One of the most symbolic crimes that involved a Ford Falcon occurred days after the military coup in Argentina. The Junta made a dramatic demonstration of its willingness to use force in a lethal way: a man was hustled from one of these cars (which later became the standard vehicle of the secret police), was tied to the most famous monument in Buenos Aires, the Obelisk, and machine-gunned for all pedestrians to see.
My idyllic suburban neighborhood was riddled by visits from government secret police officers and sometimes even soldiers, carrying their FN FALs and M1 Garands inside the houses, looking for subversive activists like my uncle. Once, a neighbor had been arrested and the rooftops of the pretty suburban houses in my neighborhood were suddenly littered by soldiers carrying FN FALs and M1 carbines and ominously overseeing the operation from vantage points looking out for possible guerrilla hostiles in the backyards.
The first visit by government agents in my house happened one cool night in April 1973. My mother and one of my aunts (the wife of my guerrilla uncle) were tiding up the laundry, my other aunt, my mother’s sister, and her boyfriend (my future uncle) were in the garden conversing and my grandparents were sleeping in their bedroom. Suddenly, the family dog, a German shepherd, started barking manically. My mother realized that something odd was happening and saw some suspicious silhouettes moving towards the house from the road, and headed back inside immediately to inform my grandparents. It was too late. My aunt and my uncle were held up by soldiers against the wall by the porch, and were being frisked for weapons. The others had already broken into the house, and two secret police agents were holding my grandparents at gunpoint, demanding to know the whereabouts of my uncle who by that time was in Argentina in exile. There were, according to my mother, two secret police agents and at least three soldiers inside the house, with more guarding the outer perimeter of the house. The soldiers were carrying M1 Garands and the secret police agents Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistols. There was also, and my mother emphasized this greatly because she found it very odd, a soldier carrying a large radio device as a backpack; the radio man.
My grandfather, coming from a family with a strong military tradition, instantly felt betrayed at having his home raided by fellow Uruguayan soldiers, and began telling the secret police agents about his time in the service, showing them his national identity card and explaining that he had once been an upstanding soldier. The agents dismissed this rudely and demanded to know the whereabouts of my uncle. My grandmother then took charge and began answering all questions fearlessly, even more so than my grandfather.
Only one of the police agents spoke, a dark-haired and dark-skinned man of medium height and strong build, with jet black curly hair trimmed to resemble a civilian and a prominent moustache. He was wearing a striped-shirt and jeans, and you would have never taken him for a government agent. While he interrogated my grandparents, who denied knowing anything about the whereabouts of my uncle, the tone of his voice went from authoritarian to directly intimidating. No dirty language was used, though. When the agents heard enough they told my uncle’s wife that she was under arrest and that they were taking her to “Batallón de Infantería Blindado Número 13” (Armored Infantry Battalion Number 13, a notorious army building for clandestine arrests and interrogations). The soldiers took her inside a Chevrolet C-10 “chanchita” next to other detainees with black bags over their heads. Needless to say, the general atmosphere here was one of absolute terror, of seeing unknown people with guns by your parents’ bed, of not knowing the fate of the person who had just been ambiguously detained for interrogation. This fear was such that the remainder of this is blank in my mother’s memory.
When they arrived at Batallón Número 13 (she didn’t know until afterwards that she had been taken there), locked her in a cell and tortured her psychologically with recorded cries from her child coming from a nearby cell, who my mother suspects the soldier carrying the radio equipment had recorded during the raid in the house. In reality her daughter was safe, but she didn’t know this and would of course assume that she had been abducted too. It could also have been the cries of another child. Either way, the purpose was to extract accurate information on my uncle’s whereabouts. Although they could have interrogated her with worse means, like electrocution, rape or drowning, these means are obviously known to be highly inaccurate as the subject will confess to anything to avoid torture. Those of you who have played “Ground Zeroes” will surely remember Skull Face interrogating Chico using Paz’s recorded cries during a rape in hopes of making him give out information about Big Boss.
One week later after her arrest at night time, they released her outside the house, violently pushing her out, and my mother ran to help her get back up, catching a glimpse of the other prisoners in the back of the truck and wondering if they would be released or would simply disappear. My uncle’s wife cried and staggered towards the house; she had been one of the lucky ones.
The second visit was lighter, as by this time my family had lost all fear for the soldiers, who were simply oblivious youths doing their duties and were unaccompanied by the fearsome Secret Police, doing simple searches. It happened during a rainy afternoon. My mother remembers my grandmother’s priority as being protecting her floors from the rain-soaked soldiers, who submissively used the “patines” (“skates,” little foot-shaped cloths used to glide through floors without dirtying them) uttering a “don’t worry ma’am, we’ll be careful.” This story always struck me as incredible, highlighting how in such a climate of fear even a middle-aged woman could order a soldier of the dictatorship carrying an FN FAL automatic rifle performing a search operation on a suspected anti-government activist into not dirtying her house. The soldier complying politely completes the scene. My mother remembers no other incidents regarding search operations, but her most prominent are these two, aside from the shock of seeing my uncle’s photo in a government broadcast demanding his arrest. My uncle avoided capture in exile and fled to Argentina and then to Sweden, which was famous at the time because of the government of social-democratic Primer Minister Olof Palme, known for his anti-colonialist and criticism of the US, who was later assassinated in 1986. Sweden welcomed political dissidents from Latin American dictatorships such as Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Now my uncle has a family in Sweden and has been living there since 1977, working as an electric engineer until his retirement. There are many stories like these in Uruguayan families and my family’s was one which fortunately ended without tragedy, but this is not the case for many, who still miss their relatives and pressure the government for information regarding their fate.
So, how does this story end for the Uruguayans?
The Partido Colorado, Partido Nacional, Unión Cívica and the Frente Amplio managed to put enough pressure on the military junta and tipped the scales in their favor after a massive act called “Río de Libertad,” river of freedom. The pictures speak for themselves:
In Uruguay, remains of anti-government activists, intellectuals, artists, teachers, unionists, guerrillas and perfectly innocent civilians who had nothing to do with anything are still found up to this day, buried in remote locations. Marches are still organized urging the government to bring to justice those who took part in these practices. Fortunately, justice has been served and in what ways; not only have many military officers been imprisoned (after a resolution was passed that allowed for the trial and imprisonment of dictatorship collaborators, previously forbidden), but José Mujica himself has risen through our democratic system to be president of the republic after being tortured for 14 years. If I ever heard a success story, this has to be it.