Latin America's disappeared: conference urges international action

Five-year old Angela tugs at the skirt of her mother's friend. ``You used to know my daddy,'' the child says, gazing at his photograph hanging on the wall. ``How does he dance? I mean how did he dance? Well, how did he used to dance?''

The child is not sure which verb tense to use because she does not know whether her father is dead or alive. Colombian security forces took him away five years ago, and he hasn't been seen since. He is one of 90,000 ``missing persons'' in Latin America.

More than 190 delegates from Central and South America met in Bogot'a last week to analyze the phenomenon of ``missing persons'' in the region, and to propose joint actions. The Eighth Annual Congress of Associations of Family Members of the Missing (FEDEFAM) proclaimed, ``For life and freedom: No more missing persons, no more impunity.''

The federation, formed in 1981, is nonpartisan and nonideological.

Holding the meeting in Bogot'a was not a casual choice. ``The international delegates had a dramatic image of the human rights problem in Colombia. But we never imagined that the situation had reached such dimensions,'' said Pamela Pereira, a Chilean who is president of FEDEFAM. ``Since 1982, Colombia has witnessed more assassinations, more disappearances than Chile under a dictatorship during the same time period.''

The delegates pointed to Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Guatemala as the countries presently confronted by the most alarming incidences of human rights violations.

In the 1970s, the practice of ``disappearing persons'' was a common counterinsurgency tactic used by countries under dictatorial rule, especially in South America's Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay) and in Guatemala. Today, the phenomenon has extended to countries with elected civilian governments where a ``formal'' democratic system exists, but where the military enjoy extensive power, the delegates said.

The majority of those on the missing-persons lists are members of leftist political parties, grass-roots organizations, unions, peasant organizations, human rights groups, and guerrilla movements.

Based in the National Security Doctrine and more recently Low Intensity Warfare, disappearances were and are still employed by military authorities in Latin America as a repressive means to fight an ``internal enemy'' - persons marked as ``communists'' or ``subversives'' because they oppose existing governmental systems or fight for social, economic, or political change, explained Edgar Caicedo, a Colombian delegate to the FEDEFAM congress. For example:

In Argentina, during six years of military rule (1976-1982), an estimated 15,000 persons were ``disappeared.''

In Guatemala, 30 years of nearly constant military rule left 35,000 people missing - the majority of whom were Indians and members of grass-roots organizations. Delegates said another 65,000 Guatemalans have been assassinated during the same period. This year so far, 200 persons have disappeared; 400 have been assassinated.

In El Salvador, 8,000 people have disappeared since 1978, delegates to the conference said. And they added that despite the existence of an elected government structure, death squad activity has resurged.

In Peru, 2,714 people have ``vanished'' within a four-year period (1983-1987). This year alone, 200 cases of disappearances were reported.

In Colombia, the Association of Family Members and Friends of the Missing (ASFADDES) documented 1,500 disappeared over the past 10 years.

Rarely are those responsible for ``disappearances'' brought to trial and condemned. In many countries, when members of the military, police, or security forces are implicated - either directly or indirectly as intellectual authors of the crimes or promotors of death squad activities - judicial processes are locked within systems of military justice, and civilian authorities cannot usually intervene.

FEDEFAM says it believes that in the cases of disappearances, international tribunals must become forums for judgment. In July, the Interamerican Court of Justice condemned Honduras for the disappearance of one of its citizens, Manfredo Vel'azquez. Although the court has no power to try those directly involved in the crime, it will order compensation to be paid the victim's family to symbolize their loss. FEDEFAM considers the ruling ``historical and unprecedented'' in the struggle to eradicate the practice of disappearances from the region.

The federation is also proposing that the United Nations declare disappearance a ``crime against humanity'' - so that it can be subject to sanctions through international channels. But it recognizes that it will be necessary to have ``disappearances'' characterized as a crime in individual countries. Persons accused of being involved in disappearances are usually tried for simple kidnapping. If family members want to bring charges, they must declare their loved ones legally dead.

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