Bitter Memories of a ‘Dirty War’

Bitter Memories of a ‘Dirty War’

The current debate in the United States over the use of torture in the interrogation of terror suspects has prompted Patricia Isasa, a teenage torture victim in Argentina’s “dirty war,” to speak out against the School of the Americas, a longtime training ground for torture techniques.


In 1976, in search of his 16-year-old daughter, Miguel Angel Isasa walks to Police Precinct Number One in the small Argentine town of Santa Fe and knocks on the door. It is answered by a man in a uniform who tells him she’s not there. Isasa demands to see the register of prisoners, but her name is not listed. And although he has reason to believe his daughter is in custody, there is nothing he can do. In fact, Patricia Isasa is inside, locked in an empty room, hooded and shackled, awaiting her turn to be beaten, raped and subjected to electric shock, another victim of Argentina’s “dirty war.”

Nearly thirty years later, Patricia Isasa stares out at the hundreds of activists gathered on November 19 at the Civic Center Ballroom in Columbus, Georgia, recalling her experiences as a torture victim.

“We’re here because we want to stop torture everywhere,” she says. “It’s incredible, but how is it possible that throughout all of Latin America it’s the same torture and it’s the same in Iraq? It’s because the School of the Americas is still here and they haven’t changed the manual. They haven’t changed their policy.”

Listening to Isasa is a cross-section of the 15,000 priests, nuns, torture survivors, students and other activists who have traveled to nearby Fort Benning for the annual weekend vigil at the controversial School of the Americas, whose graduates are said to be responsible for torture, killings and death-squad activity across Central and South America. This year’s protest was marked by increasing concern over the use of torture tactics on terrorism suspects by CIA and US military operatives.

The weather holds out just long enough for the rally and symbolic funeral procession honoring victims of the SOA to conclude before a thick rain sends people scattering to their cars. By then, thirty-nine people have been arrested, the majority of whom, in an act of civil disobedience, have crossed the barbed-wire fence onto to base property; if convicted, they face three to six months in prison.

One of those leading the procession is Argentine Eva Urrutia, whose parents were tortured and killed by the dictatorship in 1977. “In Argentina, when SOA graduate Leopoldo Galtieri headed the military, 30,000 people were killed or disappeared,” she says to the crowd, “We cry…”

Patricia Isasa knows this story well. Accused in 1976 of being a terrorist during Argentina’s “dirty war”, she was kidnapped from her home, “disappeared” for three months and then spent two years and two months in prison. The following year she was again abducted with another thirty men and women. Although she was released after only a few days, according to her testimony she was one of only four of those to make it out alive.

In 1996, almost twenty years after her ordeal, Isasa returned to Santa Fe to care for her dying mother. She realized that she had yet to confront the nightmares that haunted her. Over the next two years, she interviewed other torture survivors, retraced steps and dug through public records collecting thousands of documents. She had found the names of those she believed to be directly responsible for her detainment and torture. Although she believed she had found ample evidence to bring her perpetrators to trial, she knew the Argentine “laws of impunity,” which granted immunity to former military officials, would block her from seeking justice.

With nowhere else to turn, Isasa traveled to Spain in 1998 to visit Judge Baltasar Garzón, whom she had heard was working to try Argentine and Chilean officials for crimes committed during the dictatorships. Presented with the exhaustive documentation she had collected, Garzón called for the extradition of her eight suspected torturers. Argentina denied the request three years later, but under Argentine law the government was then obliged to hold its own trial. A Congressional ruling in 2003 nullifying the “laws of impunity” helped to speed the process.

Since April of this year, all eight of Isasa’s alleged torturers have been behind bars awaiting the trial that began October 17, 2003, and is still pending in the courts. A short list of those in prison includes former federal judge Victor Hermes Brusa, former mayor of San Jose del Rincon Mario Jose Facino and Juan Marcelini, who, according to Isasa, is the first and only Argentine graduate of the School of the Americas behind bars.

In a recent interview in New York, Isasa, who has a career as an architect, sips maté and discusses her just-concluded US speaking tour and El Cerco, a documentary about her case produced by Cuatro Cabezas, which will be released in Argentina in 2006.

Her next stop is Washington, DC, where she plans to lobby members of Congress in support of her case. When she returns to Argentina, she plans to create a foundation to help other torture survivors bring their repressors to justice and deal with the psychological memory of their experience.

“I’m just tired of living in the past,” she says with a smile. “I want to be able to think about the future.”

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