Doctoral Dissertation

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From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Southern Cone of South America was the site of a dramatic transformation in both the practice and conceptualization of state repression. The shift was particularly clear with respect to one of the most emblematic manifestations of this violence: systematic torture, justified as an imperative tactic of interrogation and reshaped by two interrelated and fundamentally transnational developments. In the years leading to 1976, all the countries of the Southern Cone came to be governed by authoritarian regimes that saw in supposedly “scientific” torture a tactic critical to national security. At the same time, over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, key actors across civil society came to understand torture less as a tool of counterrevolution that had to be defeated politically and militarily, and more as a crime perpetrated by individuals, one demanding judgement in national and international forums.

My doctoral dissertation historicizes this multifaceted transformation, tracing two key changes in the practice and representation of torture as a tactic of counterinsurgency in the Southern Cone. First, I document the creation of a new infrastructure of training in torture and other interrogatory methods that linked Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and neighboring countries. This network of facilities and exchanges operated not only by way of the regional Condor intelligence system, but also through bilateral relationships. Atop a base of preexisting local techniques and traditions, repressors incorporated internal security practices developed by the French in Algeria and refined by the U.S. for use in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Second, I explore transformations in the social meaning of torture. These modifications are evident in its use and justification by Southern Cone security services, as well as the tactics of those who opposed torture, among them armed insurgents, dissident police and military officers, exiled lawyers, and human rights groups across the region and beyond.