One of the main reasons I am excited to think transnationally about torture and intelligence acquisition in southern South America from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, is the opportunity it affords to move beyond the common (if commonly unstated) assumption that coups and democratic transitions are the most important drivers of political change in the region. The gap between dictatorship and democracy matters, of course, but I believe that it is not wide enough, on its own, to accommodate the new counterinsurgent ideologies and repressive techniques that so deeply marked the late twentieth-century Southern Cone.

This may seem like a strange way to introduce a blog post titled “1976.” It was in March of that year, after all, that the Argentine military seized political power in a long-anticipated coup, vastly accelerating a campaign of quasi-secret kidnapping, torture, and disappearance that was to claim more lives than any other in the region. What could a focus on this already-seminal year contribute to a transnational reevaluation of typical dictatorship-bounded periodizations?

Quite a bit, I believe. I have spent the past week examining the records of Uruguay’s 1985-86 parliamentary investigation into the killings of two prominent former legislators, Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutiérrez Ruiz, in Buenos Aires in May 1976. The two lawmakers had fled Uruguay after the country’s 1973 coup, following a well-beaten path of exile to the Argentine capital. Amid a rising wave of political violence in Argentina, the two worked to denounce the increasingly open repression of their home country. Michelini in particular established close ties to international human rights groups while also becoming a fixture of the “Tortoni circle” that turned an iconic Buenos Aires café into the de facto capitol of free Uruguay.

Michelini (left) and Gutiérrez Ruiz

On May 18, 1976, however, the two were kidnapped by an Uruguayan commando team with extensive Argentine support. Three days later, their bodies were discovered, along with those of Tupamaro militants Rosario del Carmen Barredo and William Whitelaw, abandoned in the trunk of a car in an industrial stretch of Buenos Aires. All four had been shot in the head.

Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz represent a tiny subset of those killed by repressive Southern Cone states in 1976. Yet two documents from among the thousands of pages compiled by the 1985-86 parliamentary inquiry help us understand the implications of their murders. The first is a transcription of the testimony that Wilson Ferreira Aldunate gave before the investigative commission in June 1985. A member of Uruguay’s traditionally conservative National Party, Ferreira fled in 1973 to Buenos Aires, where he established himself as one of the harshest critics of Uruguayan military rule. While Michelini had been a senator of the opposing Colorado Party, he and Ferreira grew close through their shared criticisms of the dictatorship.

Michelini’s killing, Ferreira explained to the commission in 1985, came as a terrifying shock. It had long been clear that Michelini was in significant danger; since 1972 Michelini’s daughter Elisa had been in the custody of the Uruguayan authorities, and his own passport had been cancelled in late 1975.1 Michelini himself had even begun to speak publicly about what he feared the Uruguayan military might do to silence his criticisms.

Nonetheless, when they first learned that Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz had been kidnapped, the reaction of Ferreira and fellow members of the Tortoni circle was one of

…protest at the discourtesy, because we supposed that they would be liberated that night. So it seemed outrageous, this lack of respect for two illustrious citizens to whom Argentina had granted refuge. Nobody imagined that they could be killed. It was so monstrous that it didn’t cross anybody’s mind…. When Zelmar said that if he turned up in Montevideo we should know it wasn’t his choice, it was because he – unlike the rest of us – understood that he could be so monstrously killed.

Ferreira’s testimony reveals something that Michelini, alone among the Tortoni circle, had come to understand: the rules of engagement were changing in the Southern Cone. Before May 1976, Ferreira had presumed that only those linked to armed insurgency were at risk of death, and that exile in one country of the region meant a degree of protection from repression by another. But Michelini, though his collaboration with the region’s emerging human rights network, understood that these rules no longer applied. Just a few months before, in late November 1975, representatives of the region’s security services had gathered in Santiago, Chile to constitute the transnational Condor system, which used shared intelligence and joint death-squad operations to take out regime opponents across and beyond South America. The architects of Condor made clear that their targets included not only armed insurgents but also the critics who used emerging transnational human rights networks to draw attention to regime crimes. Nonviolent opponents of the national security state were learning to use the growing international prominence of individual human rights to their advantage, for instance by making South American abuses a key focus of a young Amnesty International’s first issue-specific campaign, which targeted torture worldwide. Indeed, as the Condor founders were meeting in late 1975, Amnesty was drawing on information provided by Michelini and other dissidents to launch a year-long attack on torture in Uruguay, the first country-specific effort of such focused intensity in the group’s history.

These international denunciations were clearly on the minds of the Uruguayan operatives who took out Gutiérrez Ruiz and Michelini. How do we know this? Because in addition to the four victims whose bodies were discovered in Buenos Aires on May 21, 1976, two others were kidnapped in linked operations the day before: banker José Luis Azarola Saint and his brother Juan Ignacio. José Luis, who lived in Montevideo, was a friend of Michelini’s; Juan Ignacio was not, but he, like Michelini, was living in Buenos Aires. The two brothers had the misfortune of appearing in Michelini’s address book – enough to mark them for simultaneous kidnapping, on opposite sides of the River Plate.

In testimony before the parliamentary commission of 1985, José Luis Azarola Saint explained that when a heavily armed commando unit burst into his Montevideo home, tearing it apart in a frantic search for incriminating items, they sought two things above all others: guns and “Amnesty International documents.” As his subsequent interrogation unfolded, it became clear that Azarola’s supposed ties to human rights groups were his tormentors’ central preoccupation. “They asked me if I knew anything about torture, about the submarine [asphyxiation, often in wastewater] or picanas [electric cattle prods], if I knew they were applied in Libertad [a prominent Uruguayan prison] or anywhere else.” Both he and his brother managed to convince their captors that they did not. After 48 hours of beatings, stress positions, and long interrogations, the two were threatened with death should they tell anyone what had happened to them, and released.

Azarola’s testimony suggests that the crime for which Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz were responsible was not a manufactured link to armed “subversion”; it was a willingness to denounce the systematic tortures that the Uruguayan dictatorship was employing against its adversaries of all sorts. By 1976, the repressive regimes of Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay had achieved near total military success against their guerrilla opponents; now it was the nonviolent critics of their tactics who would come into the crosshairs. Born at this moment of counterinsurgent advance and mounting anti-torture criticism, the Argentine regime would take its violence even further than its neighbors. With testimonio in global ascendance, Argentina’s generals forewent execution and imprisonment in favor of a strategy that would leave far fewer witnesses, one of a piece with Condor’s transnational death squads: extermination.

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  1. The story of Michelini’s cancelled passport is itself a valuable window onto regional security cooperation, and it can now be reconstructed in detail thanks to recent declassifications at the Uruguayan Ministry of Foreign Relations. In October 1975, Uruguay shared “intelligence” linking Michelini with subversion, and he learned he was to lose his refugee status in Argentina. He managed to secure an invitation to the United States from Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, and went to the US embassy obtain the necessary visa. With a senator’s invitation this should have been simple, but in a highly irregular move, the US embassy in Buenos Aires contacted its counterpart in Montevideo, which promptly informed the Uruguayan government of Michelini’s plans. Uruguay then cancelled Michelini’s passport, effectively trapping him in Argentina to await the fate that, we can now surmise, had already been decided.

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