“We are going to smash your hands to pulp like the Chileans did to Victor Jara.” Those were the words of the torturers in a Uruguayan prison spoken to my friend Miguel Angel Estrella, a pianist from Argentina. They were referring to the fate of the imprisoned Chilean singer and guitarist Victor Jara, whose hands were destroyed so that he would never play the guitar again. Jara, a fervent opponent of the Pinochet regime, was brutally tortured and later machine-gunned to death following the coup that brought Pinochet to power in 1973.
Estrella was being held in Uruguay’s Libertad prison, accused of being a guerrilla from Argentina fighting the Argentine military regime. Unable to prove the charges against him, and given the unprecedented international pressure, the Uruguayan government released him in 1978 after having kidnapped him at the end of 1977.
Estrella was luckier than most of those imprisoned by the South American military. Although tortured and held for a long time in isolation, Estrella eventually recovered, leads a brilliant career as a musician, and is now Argentina’s ambassador to UNESCO.
One of those who trained the Uruguayan torturers was an American operative, Daniel (Dan) Mitrione, who was later captured and killed by Uruguayan guerrillas. According to A.J. Langguth, a former New York Times bureau chief in Saigon, Mitrione was among the U.S. advisers who taught torture to the Brazilian police.
Mitrione’s method for the application of torture was carefully orchestrated. Langguth reports that the method was described in detail in a book by Manuel Hevia “Cosculluela,” a Cuban double agent who worked for the CIA, “Passport 11333, Eight Years with the CIA.”
This is Mitrione’s voice: “When you receive a subject, the first thing to do is to determine his physical state, his degree of resistance, through a medical examination. A premature death means a failure by the technician. Another important thing to know is exactly how far you can go given the political situation and the personality of the prisoner. It is very important to know beforehand whether we have the luxury of letting the subject die . . . before all else, you must be efficient. You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more. We must control our tempers in any case. You have to act with the efficiency and cleanliness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist..”
In Uruguay, Mitrione was the head of the Office of Public Safety, a U.S. government agency established in 1957 by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to train foreign police forces. At Mitrione’s funeral, Ron Ziegler, the Nixon administration’s spokesman, stated that Mitrione’s “devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere.” Thanks to former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk’s efforts, the policy advisory program was abolished in 1974.
Mitrione’s case was far from unique. Through the School of the Americas, thousands of military and police officers from Latin America were trained in repressive methods, including torture. On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, a coworker and her teenage daughter were massacred in El Salvador. I knew one of those killed, Ignacio Martin-Baro, vice rector of the Central American University. He was the closest I have ever been to a saint.
A U.S. Congressional Task Force concluded that those responsible for their deaths were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Human beings make culture. And we also make torture, that bastard child of culture. It is up to us to change this situation. When running for president, Barack Obama stated, referring to the Iraq war, “It is not enough to get out of Iraq; we have to get out of the mind-set that led us into Iraq.”
A similar assertion could be made about torture. It is not enough to say that torture will not be practiced any longer by the U.S. We need to get out of the mind-set that made torture possible in the first place.
Dr. Cesar Chelala, a writer on human rights issues, is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and a national journalism award from Argentina.