Dictatorships in South America: The challenges of reporting today on the recent past

In the 1970s and 1980s, the last dictatorial regimes were deployed with full repression in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay. Several decades separate us from these events, and although some countries — such as Argentina — have taken firm steps towards achieving justice, there are still thousands of families who do not know the whereabouts of their missing loved ones, and repressive agents who have not yet been convicted. On the challenge of reporting on the recent past today, Latam Journalism Review (LJR) spoke with members of the plancondor.org project, an initiative that gathers and makes visible previously scattered information after years of investigations; and with an Argentine journalist specializing in human rights, Lucía Cholakian Herrera.

Under names like "National Reorganization Process" or "Movement for the Salvation of the Homeland," they were in fact civil-military dictatorships that repressed and tortured "subversives" or enemies of the regime. Under the protection of the National Security doctrine, imported from the United States, and the mandate of Latin American armed forces to restore "internal order," a systematic violation of human rights took place at that time.

The actions of the military and paramilitary groups were characterized by illegal detentions of civilians, kidnappings and forced disappearances, illegal imprisonment in harsh conditions, physical and psychological torture, violence and sexual exploitation, assassinations, and appropriation of babies. In addition, they implemented repressive policies and conservative economic reforms.

After numerous investigations and archives came to light, more was learned about how repressive agents from different countries were coordinating actions. One of the decisive points was the creation, in 1976, of the clandestine repression center "Automotores Orletti [Orletti automotive]" in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where refugees who had fled dictatorial regimes in neighboring countries were imprisoned and tortured. Clandestine flights — popularly known as "death flights" — were also coordinated to dispose of the bodies of those murdered in the waters of the Río de la Plata.

This campaign of political repression and state terrorism in the Southern Cone was called the Condor Plan, and had the economic, logistical and ideological support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Drawing of Lady Justice holding a scale, sitting atop a book and people coming out of the book

The plancondor.org project is promoted by human rights defenders and academics who fight for collective memory, truth, justice, and non-repetition of the events of the recent past in the Southern Cone of Latin America. (Credit: Sebastián Santana

Condor Plan Project

Italian researcher Francesca Lessa, from 2013 onwards, spent a few years in Buenos Aires and Montevideo to closely monitor the trials against top repressing agents of the Condor Plan. She is Professor of Latin American Studies and Development at the University of Oxford, U.K., and a leading academic in the study of human rights in Latin America. After a long and exhaustive investigation she received death threats in Uruguay, along with 12 other people linked to the Uruguayan justice system and the defense of human rights.

As a result of this investigation, Lessa created a database of 805 victims of the Condor Plan, in which she revealed that almost 40% of the victims were political and social militants, and that only 36% were guerrillas or belonged to armed organizations. This database is hosted on the plancondor.org project website. It also verified kidnappings and illegal transfers of people and children between countries.

In 2022, she published the book “The Condor Trials: Transnational repression and human rights in South America. She also contacted researchers and social organizations that work for collective memory, truth and justice in different countries to gather the material she collected in her research on a website, and make it visible in a didactic and informative way.

The plancondor.org project is a collaborative initiative among the University of Oxford, and the organizations Sitios de Memoria Uruguay, the Observatorio Luz Ibarburu of Uruguay, pozodeagua of Uruguay, and Londres 38 of Chile. In addition to a victim database, the website offers a mapping of the paths of some victims and important places for the Condor Plan such as prisons and detention and torture centers. In addition, a list of cases and judicial sentences in national and international courts with detailed information. Moreover, it contains a large stock of documents from the press and social organizations, state archives, books, articles, audiovisual material, and infographics.

"What is original about this project, unlike academic research on the subject, is that the website allows access to all this information to a public that is not necessarily a specialist," Mariana Risso, coordinator of Sitios de Memoria Uruguay and member of plancondor.org, told LJR. "By making available contrasted and serious information, it also facilitates the work of journalists and human rights lawyers.

At plancondor.org they are very conscious of the role that the project plays in the defense of human rights and in the struggle for collective memory, truth and justice. Rodrigo Barbano, also a project member, told LJR: "We receive dozens and hundreds of contributions from victims, and from judicial operators and journalists who seek this or that sentence. If these projects work, they have a very relevant role at the informative level and in the dispute that takes place in the digital arena."

Human rights journalism in Buenos Aires

"In Argentina, unlike other countries in the region, the State carried out a very big process of [collective] memory, truth and justice during the last 20 years. It is something that is very present for people who lived through the dictatorship and for later generations," Lucía Cholakian Herrera told LJR. She is a human rights journalist based in Buenos Aires.

From the point of view of journalistic coverage, Cholakian explains: "Something interesting is that the passing on of collective memory and stories about the dictatorship era are renewed with each new generation. It’s never redundant to retell a story." For her, by changing the language, the references, the city and the places where the events took place, new perspectives emerge to tell the same stories.

But the journalist emphasizes something fundamental, that what happened has still not been solved. In Argentina "we still have 30,000 missing people, we don’t know what happened to them. Their children, and now their grandchildren, are still looking for them. It's nothing stuck in the past and which can be depleted," she said.  

Currently, the journalistic coverage of the recent past in her country is "anchored a lot in the dates of important anniversaries such as March 24 [the day of the coup d'état in 1976, which became the National Day of Collective Memory for Truth and Justice] and the progress of the trials," Cholakian said. And she adds that "the largest newspapers in the country have journalists assigned to cover trials against humanity, and this is ongoing."

Precisely, as trials make progress, the journalist believes new aspects and new approaches are appearing. "We ask ourselves more and more questions: What happened to the trans people during the dictatorship, and to the women in illegal detention centers? In this sense, she said that in recent years the voice of LGBTQ+ communities rose up to tell the story of how they lived through the dictatorship, and they began to identify their missing people. "They began to mention the number 30,400, a sum of missing LGBTQ+ community members," she said.

For Cholakian, it is very important to continue informing and producing material on human rights violations of the recent past. That is why she says: "It’s not only a matter of keeping the collective memory alive, but of using lessons learned from that terrible experience to keep this violence from happening again in the future." She warns about the advance of a new right wing in the countries of the region, which has "a denialist branch and a vindication of State terrorism."

Finally, she said: "An important part of our work is to continue telling these stories, because when untold and forgotten, there is a risk of repetition. We have to keep that flame burning all the time."