Opinion | How to Shame a Dictator


What to do when your neighbors have carried out crimes against humanity.


Atención! Murderer Next Door

What to do when your neighbors have carried out crimes against humanity.

In the mid 1990’s, we found ourselves in a tragic and uncomfortable situation of living amongst known torturers, kidnappers, and murderers. Genocide perpetrators had total liberty and freedom to navigate the same spaces that we lived in our city. At a bar, sitting next to your table, you could find one of the worst perpetrators of forced disappearances. In this photo, you can see my father in 1974; he was thirty years old. My father, Enrique Jose Juarez, was a leader in the Peronist youth movement. He was a filmmaker. He disappeared on December 10th, 1976. To this day, they have remained silent and there has been no mention whatsoever of what they did to his body. MONTAGE SEQUENCE TITLE CARD: Between 1976 and 1983, over 30,000 people were killed or disappeared by a military dictatorship in Argentina. TITLE CARD: In the mid 1990’s, the children of the disappeared organized under the name of HIJOS. They staged peaceful protests they called ‘Escraches’ to demand justice, which had been denied them by amnesty laws. Buenos Aires Argentina, 2001 Chanting: “Murderer, Murderer, Murderer” The red-paint filled balloon signifies that the house is stained with blood. We did not choose sticks or stones or violence. The “escrache” strategy is a way of revealing that there is an unpunished murderer adjacent to where you live. They shouldn’t be in your neighborhood, they should be in prison, but if they are in your neighborhood, you know who they are. It is not about killing with your own hands and killing the members of the military. Instead the purpose is to build on this idea of justice and anti-impunity. We are going to do an escrache on a perpetrator of mass murder. If there’s no justice, there’s escrache. Our demand was justice. Trials and Punishment. The previous governments hadn’t paid any attention. “Trial and Punishment” We had to peacefully publicize what these people had done. Letting everyone know that this person was a rapist, a torturer, a murderer. Saying it loud, with paint, flyers and crowds of people in the streets, drumming and chanting. “Attention neighbors, a murder is living next door to you!” The point of the escrache is that it settles and it starts creating a ripple effect. We always said that the escrache starts the next day. When the action was over, when we had already shown who lived there, and what they did. The perpetrator’s social isolation in the neighborhood becomes a symbol of his imprisonment. The visible joy was a powerful force as it had to counterbalance the fact that we were branded as violent or as doing something illegal by a large segment of society. What is unacceptable is to oppose the movement, and say “Don’t do anything”. It is precisely that silence that makes impunity possible. Many times we were repressed during these actions, with gas, batons; but at the same time our numbers grew. Escrache is our way of transforming memory into action. Tomorrow, the newsstand owner decides not to sell to him, the tax driver decides not to drive him, the baker won’t sell to him. The next day, the struggle multiplies. It worked because many people did not know that the person greeting them everyday was responsible for the crimes of the dictatorship. My mother was a wardrobe designer for theater and film. She arrived at the Devoto prison in bad shape healthwise. They were detained without being accused or charged, with no indication of the duration of the captivity. We stayed with my grandparents. We asked my aunt what we could bring my mother in prison. She said we should bring her an apple because the military wouldn’t let you bring anything through. “They’ll let you through because you’re a kid”, she said. My mother took a bite out of the apple. And she passed it to her friends. I told her the apple was a present for her. And she told me that they shared everything. That I would understand why later in life. Jorge Rafael Videla was one of Argentina´s most depraved and atrocious perpetrators of mass murder. He was the ideologue of the massacre that occurred during the dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. He is ultimately responsible for all of the forced disappearances. He was the fundamental figure. Hence the importance of him being in prison because if he was not detained, everyone underneath him would be absolved. The Videla escrache was symbolic for us. We rallied more than 10,000 people. My grandson would kill me if he saw me. We stopped by the Military Hospital, where many babies were born and subsequently, were stolen from their mothers. “Where are our siblings?” – H.I.J.O.S At this hospital, mothers who had been abducted gave birth and lost their babies. “Videla, Murderer” Videla was one of the organizers of the theft of the babies belonging to disappeared women. The majority of the pregnant women were killed after they gave birth. Many of these children began living with a different name and a different identity. The grandchildren whose identities were recovered were able to tell their story. On October 8, 2004, I was able to discover my true identity thanks to H.I.J.O.S. and to the grandmothers´ movement. For me, the most powerful ending happened in front of Videla´s home. He was living comfortably in a luxury apartment. We rented a scissor lift that our friend climbed on. We displayed the victims´ faces in front of the perpetrator´s house. Our friend ends up at around the same height as Videla’s balcony and speaks to him directly. Society judges you and everyone here says they do not want to live next to a murderer. They want you to rot in prison. Murderer! Murderer! The day we were at Videla´s house, the window shutters were closed, you could not see inside or see if there was anyone there. The person usually does not come out and says “I didn’t do it” or “What is happening?” On the contrary, they hide even more when there is an escrache. It’s not a dialogue with the mass murderer. It’s a message from society to that person and to the people who have the power to put him or her in prison. The Videla escrache was a milestone. Shortly thereafter [Change to: A little later] he was tried and sentenced to prison for the case of the stolen babies. He went to jail, as anyone with multiple life sentences should, instead of living at home. The powerful symbol of Videla’s dictatorship collapsed with his imprisonment and subsequent death in prison. It was no longer possible that the most emblematic perpetrator of state terrorism could go unpunished forever. In those years, the silence started to reverse itself. Head of ESMA Detention Center Jorge Eduardo Acosta Sentenced to life imprisonment, 2011 Commander Alfredo Astiz Sentenced to life imprisonment, 2011 Navy Lieutenant Commander Ricardo Cavallo Sentenced to life imprisonment, 2011 Naval officers Manuel Garcia Tallada and Adolfo Donda Sentenced to life imprisonment, 2014 and 2011 At that time, it was unimaginable to hold trials for crimes against humanity. These trials started in 2003, when Néstor Kirchner assumed the presidency and he committed to the principles of “memory, truth and justice”, which human rights organizations demanded become government policies. My mom had asthma. No one dies from it. And she died due to lack of medical attention. There is a lawsuit pending trial for my mother´s case. We are suing the Bureau of Prisons and those who participated in her death. At least we’ve gotten a real conviction, not just social condemnation. Of the people who disappeared my father, along with so many other activists. The process of memory, truth and justice in our country was a collective achievement. It was an unprecedented and unparalleled example for the world. 30,000 disappeared. Present! Now and always! We have a saying, “The impossible only takes a little longer.” It took us many years to re-open cases of crimes against humanity to prosecute and convict the murderous criminals in this country. But we did it. Escrache was a useful tool during times of impunity. Silence is over in our country, and that is an advantage. But we have to keep fighting for the collective memory and for the 30,000 disappeared. There is still a lot left to escrache to this day.

By Sean Mattison

Mr. Mattison is a filmmaker.

Faced with a lack of prosecution of those accused of crimes against humanity committed during Argentina’s military dictatorship, family members and descendants of the country’s estimated 30,000 disappeared took action. In the mid-1990s, they began gathering outside of accused perpetrators’ homes and workplaces to publicly shame them and raise awareness about the government’s systematic and brutal targeting of its people — and how it had gone unpunished. The human rights group HIJOS (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetfulness and Silence) led and labeled this direct-action style of protest “escrache,” or exposure.

After years of organizing and sustained pressure from activist groups like HIJOS, the amnesty laws protecting the perpetrators were repealed. In the short documentary above, we see how peaceful protests ensured that the perpetrators could no longer live in quiet anonymity. Now “escrache” is an important tool for activists seeking justice worldwide.

Sean Mattison is a filmmaker, photographer and visual artist.

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