A Brief Genealogy of Disappearance and Murder

The notion of disappearance has existed throughout time involving the absence of an individual or group of people and can be found throughout historical tales and literature.  Originally disappearance took place during the Roman Empire as a means of discursive disappearance:  damnatio memoriae (literally “damnation of memory” in Latin), was a form of dishonor that was used by the Roman Senate upon Roman elites and Emperors who were found to be traitors to the state.  This would result in the seizure of property and the erasure of their names from sculptures and historical records.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries,  “disappeared” came refer to the explainable loss of human life such as in the case of Amelia Earhart, however the more common use of the term refers to people who are taken from their families and communities through a pre-meditated act of political aggression, such as in the disappearance of García Lorca who was shot in 1936 and his body dumped in a mass grave.  Disappearance, in this context, is specific to a willed removal of human life along with a conterminous effort to efface all traces and details of that specific life and death.

The invocation of this expression in Spanish, desaparecidos, maintains a specific reference to the forced disappearance of a specific group of people for political purposes and has become the historical reference point for the definition of this term today.  Desaparecidos, first coined during the military junta of Argentina’s guerra sucia, literally meaning “dirty war,” (1973-1986),  is a term which reflects the lives lost due to the political repression of the military dictatorship under Jorge Rafael Videla.  Before and conterminous to Videla’s rule, many right-wing governments dominated the Southern Cone from the 1950s through the 1980s and together these governments, with encouragement and support of the CIA, organized  a political campaign, Operation Condor  (Operación Cóndor), aimed at deterring the left-wing presence and influence in the region, likewise disintegrating the democratic processes of organization and resistance.  In addition to the US government’s direct involvement, the “Chicago Boys

Organized in the mid 1970s, Operation Condor  was a covert political campaign which specifically used disappearance as a tool of physical repression involving the intelligence and security branches of these member states:  Videla in Argentina (1976-1981); Pinochet in Chile (1972-1992); Ernesto Geisel in Brazil (1974-1979);  Breno Borges Fortes, in Uruguay (1972-1976); Hugo Banzer in Bolivia (1971-1978); and Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay (1974-1987).  Organized on 25 November 1975 by the military intelligence agencies of Argentina, security agencies from Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina met with the head of Chile’s secret police DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional of Chile), Manuel Contreras, in Santiago de Chile officially creating “Plan Condor.”  Brazil signed on six months later.   This “plan” promoted cooperation between these governments in fighting left-wing movements and also  extended previous agreements made between various South American countries  (ie. la Conferencía de Ejércitos in Caracas in 1973) which encouraged the exchange of information about leftist movements and individuals.  Operation Condor should be contextualized in light of the Cold War and the fear of the United States’ government that a Marxist or Leftist revolution in the region was imminent; hence Operation Condor had explicit approval from the United States since organizations such as the ERP, the Tupamaros, the MIR and the Montoneros were in the cross-hairs of the CIA and the right-wing elite of the Southern Cone.  According to French journalist Marie-Monique Robin, author of Escadrons de la mort, l’école francaise (2000), the development of Operation Condor must also be partly attributed to General Rivero, an Argentine intelligence officer who was a student of the French government.  French military involvement in Operation Condor has recently come to light where, for instance, Direction de la surveillance du territoire (DST) trained the Argentine security forces in torture and disappearance between 1973 and 1984, with General Contreras having stated, “C’est la DST qui a le plus coopéré.  C’était un service de renseignement ami” (“It was the DST which cooperated most. It was a friendly intelligence service.”)  Many of the agents involved in disappearance received their training from French former military who had honed their torture skills in Algeria during the French occupation.  Evidence of cooperation is well-documented and is demonstrated in the “vols e la mort” which from 1976 on were used by Chile’s DINA and Argentina’s SIDE (Secretaría de Inteligencia de Estado) in order to remove vast numbers of people by leaving no trace of the corpses.

Many countries that were not directly involved in disappearances in the Souther Cone took part indirectly.  For example, Peru voluntarily cooperated in handing over intelligence information to security services of these countries and participated in the 1975 Santiago de Chile meeting for Plan Condor.   More evidence of inter-country cooperation was found on 22 December, 1992, when a Paraguayan judge, José Fernández, discovered the “Archives de la Terreur” detailing the fate of thousands of political prisons from the Cône du Sud, most of whom had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the security services of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.  This archive evidenced 30,000 desaparecidos and further demonstrated cooperation by the governments of Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.   Since the nature of disappearance is ontologically bound to not leaving behind physical evidence (ie. both the body and all historical records) except in this rare case of the “Archives de la Terreur”, it is unsure how many victims resulted from Operation Condor. It is clear that Operation Condor disappeared tens of thousands of people until the official end to its operations with the ousting of Argentina’s dictatorship in 1983.  In recent years, various national truth and reconciliation commissions produced evidence of the disappeared:  during the 21 years of dictatorship in Brazil there were 339 documented cases of government-sponsored political assassinations or disappearances; in Uruguay there are 180 documented cases of disappeared; in Paraguay there are 500 cases of disappeared; in Chile of the 3,000 murdered, 1,198 were forcibly disappeared; and Argentina’s list of disappeared is by far the greatest with the numbers ranging from 8,960 to 30,000 persons.

During Argentina’s guerra sucia,  state-sponsored violence targeted left-wing militants, trade unionists and student movements during a military dictatorship which was known as the “Proceso de Reorganización Nacional” (1976-1983), led primarily by Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1981).  Later dictatorial presidents of Argentina during the guerre sale were Carlos Lacoste (1981), Leopoldo Galtieri (1981-1982) and Reynaldo Bignone (1982-1983).  The repression preceded and followed Videla’s dictatorship.  In 1973 upon Juan Perón returned to power, the Ezeiza Massacre and Perón’s withdraw of support of the leftist group, Montoneros, gave birth to a far-right paramilitary death squad called the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance during Isabel Martínez de Perón’s presidency.  Armed struggle continued in Argentina and the Guevarist People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) was active in the province of Tucúman and in1975 there were 137 servicemen who had been killed by left wing groups.  In 1975 Isabel Martínez de Perón appointed Jorge Rafael Videla as commander-in-chief of the Argentine Army who famously announced, “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.”  Videla’s open support of the death squads was realized after his overthrow of Perón’s government on 24 March 1976.  Targeted assassinations of trade unionists was commonly used in the guerre sale, but disappearance slowly became a dominant tool of repression.  Although is widely believe that Jorge Ricardo Masetti, leader of the Armée guérillera du peuple (EGP), is the first of Argentina’s desaparecidos (1964), it was not until Videla’s dictatorship that disappearance was used strategically and commonly as form of political repression.   Targeting student activists and trade unionists, Videla’s dictatorship referred to its systematic persecution of the people of Argentina as the “Proceso de Reorganización Nacional.”  De facto President, General Videla, once famously stated in a press conference during the military government which he commanded in Argentina: “They are neither dead nor alive, they disappeared”. It is thought that in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, up to 30,000 people (9,000 verified named cases, according to the official report by the CONADEP)  were subjected to forced disappearance.

Forced disappearance implies murder, yet it likewise leaves uncertain this fate as well as the location and identification of the body since the victim is usually first kidnapped, then illegally detained, often tortured and then killed with the corpse dumped or hidden.  Given legal codes in many countries, the “disappearance” of the body creates a legal loophole for the oppressors given that they can always claim that there is no proof of wrongdoing.  For instance, during Argentina’s guerre sale, it was commonplace that the police would tell families looking for their children that their children were off traveling in Europe to deny the reality of disappearance.  The methods of disappearance in Argentina consisted of kidnapping, imprisonment in one of the 375 detention centers around the country, torture, and then finally the victims were thrown alive, often drugged, from airplanes into Rio de la Plata and into the Atlantic Ocean or buried in mass graves scattered all over the country.  Pregnant women were allowed to carry their children to term and after giving birth—often blindfolded—these women were murdered.  Their children were then stolen, given often to those who participated in or were knowledgeable of the mother’s disappearance, and these children grew up into adulthood with the appropriating parents only to learn through a medical coincidence or from information gathered, their true identities.

The cases of the desaparecidos were brought into the open during the early years of the guerre sale by groups of mothers who called themselves Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an association which was first formed by 14 women whose sons and daughters were missing.  Their first protest took place in front of the presidential palace on 30 April 1977, in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires.  Today the Madres continue their political activities to keep alive the memory of their disappeared children and to demand justice as they still  gather in Plaza de Mayo every Thursday with their trademark white kerchiefs upon their heads which have come to represent the search for the disappeared.  Immediately after  the guerre sale, the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, CONADEP, was created by President Raúl Alfonsín on 15 December 1983 to investigate the fate of the desaparecidos during the military dictatorship.  CONADEP, presided by Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato, recorded the disappearance of approximately 9,000 persons from 1976 through 1983, noting that the actual number could be much higher.  Human Rights Organizations place this number at 30,000 and the research of the commission is documented in a report called Nunca Más (Plus Jamais), presented to Alfonsín on 20 September,1984, which made way for the trial of the military juntas.  This report also states that approximately 600 persons were “disappeared” and 458 assassinated by death squads (ie. the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) during the Perón government (1973-1976).

The organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grands-mères de la Place de Mai) was formed in 1977 because there was a double disappearance for those mothers whose children had children.   There were approximately 500 children born to desaparecidos and likewise these hijos  (enfants) are considered disappeared, kidnapped.  In 1996, H.I.J.O.S. (Enfants pour l’identité et la justice contre l’oubli et le silence), was formed by children of the disappeared and by Argentinians who are “hijos por la compasión” (enfant par compassion) in order to uncover the truth about these stolen lives.   Between the Abuelas, H.I.J.O.S., forensic anthropologists, and the Banco Nacional de Datos Genéticos at Hôpital Durand, 87 hijos have been located and reunited with their families, some of the remains of the disappeared have been located and identified, and many of those responsible brought to justice.  H.I.J.O.S. continue their political work through escraches, une manifestation which is a performance of the people to decry the injustices often in front of the homes of the military leaders who are either not yet imprisoned or  under house arrest.  During the trial of ex-Navy Captain Alfredo Astiz, also known as “L’Ange blond de la mort”, H.I.J.O.S. attended the trial and with national television cameras on Astiz, known for infiltrating the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and disappearing two of their leaders, the H.I.J.O.S. cried out “murderer” and threw rotten tomatoes at Astiz.   Of the many organizations formed in the aftermath of Argentina’s guerre sale with the goal of recuperating the memory of the disappeared, Memoria Abierta is the most visible organization outside of the government which has been collecting testimonials of the human rights abuses through oral and visual archives.   Memoria Abierta is currently working on an initiative to construct a “Space for Memory and the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights” in the territory of the École supérieure de mécanique de la Marine (ESMA) which was once a detention center from where over 5,000 Argentines were disappeared.  In Spanish the word desaparecer means the act of disappearing:  Ellos lo desaparecieron (They disappeared him).  The word desaparecidos today still maintains its connectivity to the disappeared in the Cône du Sud.

Disappearance is specifically addressed by the OAS dans la Convention interaméricaine sur la disparition forcée de personnes (1994) with the implication that certain disappearances during armed conflict may constitute war crimes.  The Statut de Rome de la Cour Pénale Internationale, effective 1 July 2002,  made “disparition forcée” qualifiable as a crime against humanity, indicating no statute of limitation while also defining this practice as a crime against humanity.  On 20 December, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention internationale pour la protection de toutes les personnes contre les disparitions forcées stating that the systemic practice of disparition forcée constitutes a crime against humanity while also setting up certain rights: that families receive information on the disappearance of their loved ones, that the children born during captivity be returned to their families, and established the right of victims to seek reparations.  Founded in 2007, the Coalition internationale contre les disparitions forcées (ICAED)  enforces the 2006 convention by gathering information about the disappeared from their families and various human rights ONG (organisations non gouvernementales) working against the practice of disappearances on local, regional and international levels.  As of March 2009, the ICAED has over 40 member organizations from around the world.   The Federación Latinoamericana de Asociaciones de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos (FEDEFAM) was founded in 1981 in Costa Rica and in 1983 created an annual commemoration day to draw attention to the fate of the disappeared each 30 August, la Journée Internationale des disparus. 

Enforced disappearances are taking place in all regions of the world, and the following list is extensive but certainly not complete.

La démographie figurée de l’Algérie demonstrates that there were almost 90,000 Algerians disappeared each year between 1866-1872.  Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison demonstrates that the French pursued a policy of extermination against the Algerians during the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in the disappearance of approximately a third of the Algerian population.

• During the Algerian Civil War which began in 1992, Islamist guerrillas are accused of having disappeared thousands of people with the exact number still in dispute by the government, with latest figures indicating 6,000 disappeared.   

• For almost 500 years the city of Potosí, founded in 1545, was home to one of the largest sites of human disappearance:  Cerro Rico.  Mined for its silver (and now for tin, zinc, and lead), it is estimated that eight million have died in these mines.  The deaths continue through the present day and risks sinking the entire city of Potosí.

• Rio de Janeiro is a city of missing people as police records show that since 1993 more than 10,000 people have been disappeared. Media reports suggest the majority of these disappearances having been carried out by drug traffickers, corrupt police officers and death squads.   

• In Chechnya, there are an estimated 5,000 disappeared since 1999 with many believed to be buried in dozens of unidentified, mass graves.

• In Colombia the AUC (a right-wing military group) and the Colombian military disappeared people more than 7,000 people disappeared according to the government with the real number believed to be double this number.

• During the armed conflict of El Salvador (1980-1992) anywhere from 8,0000 (U.N. figures) to  2,270 (official government figures) were disappeared to include disappeared children.

• During World War II, Nacht und Nebel (German for “Night et Fog”) was a directive by Hitler to kidnap and disappear political activists and members of the resistance throughout Nazi Germany’s occupied territories.  The Night and Fog prisoners, from France, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands, were usually arrested in the middle of the night and then taken to prisons hundreds of miles away for questioning, eventually being led to concentration camps (specifically, Nazweiler and Gross-Rosen).  Until 30 April, 1944 there is evidence of almost 7,000 were captured and disappeared under Nacht und Nebel orders.

• In Guatemala since 1960 more than 45,000 disappearances have been reported, most of whom were disappeared from small villages between 1978 and 1986 during counterinsurgency campaigns against indigenous and guerrilla groups.

• A report was released in January 2009 by Ensaaf, a human rights ONG in India, which demonstrated quantitative findings of mass disappearance in the Indian state of Punjab in the early 1990s during counterinsurgency operations in this region.

• During and after the student manifestations of 1999 in Iran, there were more than 70 students reported as disappeared.  During what has been called the “Green Revolution” (also called the “Twitter Revolution” because of the protestors’ reliance on Twitter), a movement born on 13 June 2009 in response to the presidential elections of 2009 which many believed to be fraudulent, there are reports of disappeared.

• In Iraq, under Saddam Hussein there were tens of thousands of people who were disappeared, most during “Operation Anfal”, a campaign against the Kurdish population of Iraq conducted between 1986 and 1988.   Amnesty International has collected the names of more than 17,000 people who were disappeared in 1988 alone.  It is believed the total number of disappeared to be beyond 100,000.

• In Morocco, disappearance was a commonly used during the rein of Hassan II to repress the resistance of the Sahrawis and the Polisario of the “contested territories” often being held in Tindouf, Algeria and in detention camps in Morocco (ie .Tazmamart and Cercel Negra). After the eventual release of hundreds of Sahrawis in the 1990s there were still approximately 500 unaccounted disappeared.

• From 1977 to 1983 there were a series of abductions of 17 Japanese citizens from within Japan by agents of the North Korean government.   

• During “the Troubles” of Northern Ireland, disappearance was used on specific individuals from 1972 through 1985 and according to Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, there are 15 known cases of disappeared, only six of whose remains have been found.

• In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, the military has disappeared hundreds of people according to human rights organizations with the BNP (Balochistan National Party) announcing that 3,000 people had been disappeared since 2000 and the Interior Minister admitting that 4,000 had been arrested since 2005.

• On one night in December 1984 in Putis, Peru, about 100 indigenous were forced to dig their own graves before being executed with automatic weapons by the Peruvian army.  Between 1980 and 2000 more than 15,000 are thought to have disappeared.   

• During the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986) there were more than 1,500 disappeared persons with over 500 cases of disappearance recorded between 1975 and 1980 for which he was he found guilty by the District Court of Hawaii in 1994. On 30 August 2007 while marking the International Day of the Disappeared, hundreds of Philippine relatives and supporters of desaparecidos, mostly activists, were disappeared by Philippine security forces.

• Similar to the damnatio memoriae of the Roman Empire, damnatio memoriae was used during the Great Purge (1936-1938) of the Soviet Union through  Kruschev’s reign—traitors were retouched out of  photographs, written out of books and historical records and their representation in public art was either reworked or removed.  These disappeared were re-scripted as if they never existed.

• Disappearance in Sri Lanka is considered to be one of the highest rates in the world with the United Nations reporting in 1999 that since 1980, 12,000 Sri Lankans were disappeared by security forces with the Sri Lankan government reporting 17,000 disappeared.

• From 1992 through 1996 in Tunisia there was severe political repression to include disappearances which are documented by Amnesty International in Au nom de la sécurité: atteintes aux droits humains en Tunisie (2008).

• Turkish security forces are accused of disappearing more than 1,500 Kurdish civilians in the 1980s and 1990s in their attempt to target the PKK and in 2009 there were several mass graves excavated that were believed to hold some of these disappeared with organizations such as Les Mères de samedi claiming that the investigations into Turkey’s disappeared is not extensive enough.

• Post 11 September 2001 thousands of Muslim men were arrested as part as the United States’ “War on Terror” and over 14,000 of these men were reported missing and are the focus of l’investigation de l’ACLU’s (American Civil Liberties Union) into these disappeared (January 2004).  With the creation of Homeland Security in September 2002, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was implemented (also known as “Special Registration”) requiring that certain male non-citizens on student, work and tourist visas from a list of 25 countries (all Arabo-Muslim countries with the exception of North Korea), above the age of 16 be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated, to include those men already in the United States.  Special Registration along with a legal loophole created through a declared “state of exception”—the “Patriot Act,” the “exceptional” suspension of habeas corpus, and the Clinton-era Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996—authorized the detention and interrogation of these men.    Hence, anyone suspected of wrongdoing (for what was, in 80% of the cases, visa overstays) could be detained indefinitely.  Disappearance of those “special registrants” (95% of whom were Muslim men) took two forms:  identity and somatic disappearance.  These men were either forced into secret detentions and secretly deported or they were temporarily detained for hours and later released without identity papers, awaiting deportation hearings indefinitely while forced to live in a country where identification is central to all social and economic interactions.   In addition to the off-shore detention facilities known as “black sites” which were used to hold, torture, interrogate and disappear foreign combatants captured overseas as part of “extraordinary rendition”, the US government used centres de détention fédéraux to disappear many special registrants physically and bureaucratically.  Muslim communities such as that of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue H in Brooklyn, lost half their members in the months following 9/11.  As of 11 May 2003 the Bush administration had collected information on 85,581 people with at least 13,153 of them in deportation hearings.

• In the former Yugoslavia disappearance was also common with approximately 25,000 disappeared being attributed during the conflict between 1991-1995 in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia.

• There were approximately 3,000 disappeared resulting from the Gukurahundi, the armed conflict between the dominant Shona Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU PF)  government of the Republic of Zimbabwe and the dominant Ndebele-speaking Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com