New York's Dirty War By Anthony Papa, AlterNet
March 24, 2004
On Feb. 5, 2004, a historic march took place at the Plaza de Mayo circle in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For over 25 years, Argentine mothers have come to the circle to protest against the disappearance of their love ones from the despicable acts of the military dictatorship of Argentina, which formed in 1976. What made the day different this year was that members of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared joined them. They came to Argentina to pay homage to the Mothers who had inspired them in their seven-year struggle against the Rockefeller drug laws of New York State.
Two groups of mothers from worlds apart united against the violation of human rights. It was a bright, sunny day. Dozens of elderly women marched through the plaza, praying that their dedication might somehow bring justice to the children of the disappeared. Old women from the Asociation Madres de Plaz De Mayo - the most radical of several groups participating - began the march waving bright blue flags proudly displaying their logo. A banner reading "Ni Un Paso A Tras!!" - "No Step Back" - was held tightly in frail hands. A sea of white handkerchiefs adorned the heads of the Argentinean mothers, gracefully marching in protest against atrocities that were committed against them and their families. It is estimated that 30,000 people were kidnapped and murdered in the reign of terror that existed between 1976 and 1983. In 1973, a similar reign silently began in New York State. The draconian Rockefeller drug laws sentenced thousands of men and women, many non-violent offenders, to life imprisonment. They were "disappeared" from the roles they played in society. For over thirty years, these laws have devastated and destroyed families.
Although the acts of the New York legislature were not of the same caliber as those implemented by the Argentinean dictatorship, the enactment of the Rockefeller drug laws was similarly a violation of human rights. Over 94 percent of the population incarcerated in New York State prisons are people of color. In 1998 the Mothers of the NY Disappeared was formed to fight to repeal these laws. In five years, using street level protests inspired by the actions of Argentinean mothers, they managed to change the political climate of New York State by putting a human face on the issue of the drug war. In 2001, for the first time in 27 years, the governor of New York along with the Senate and Assembly all agreed that the laws must be changed. Acute disagreement on what changes should be made, however, threw the repeal of the laws into limbo.
Meanwhile, over 16,000 men and women convicted under these laws are wasting away in New York State prisons. One member of the Mothers group from New York was Julie Colon, an aspiring actress whose mother, Melita Oliviera, a first time non-violent offender, had served 13 years of a 15-to-life sentence for the sale of cocaine before she was granted clemency two years ago by Governor George Pataki. "My mother had made a mistake, and she paid dearly for it," said Colon. I am here to join with other mothers and family members to share the pain of losing someone dear. Although it was not finite, the act of her being taken from my life for all those years was devastating to me." Julie was placed in foster care. Her case is representative of many others in the NY group including Arlene Olberg, whose baby was born in prison while she was serving time under the Rockefeller drug laws.
The pain of losing someone dear is what ties the American families who have lost sons and daughters to the Rockefeller drug laws with the Argentinean families who lost members to the brutal dictatorship. The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo - the grandmothers of the disappeared - was formed on October 22, 1977, and remains dedicated to finding the children that were stolen from them. In an attempt at political repression, the dictatorship would kidnap pregnant women and put them in concentration camps where their children were born. Then they were murdered and their children were put up for adoption. To date 77 children have been found through DNA testing.
President of the group, Estela de Carlotto, lost her daughter on November 26, 1977. Laura Estella de Carlotto had been a militant student at the university. Estela, a soft-spoken woman in her 70s, said, "we had warned her of the danger, but she wanted to change the country." Nine months after her kidnapping, the military police called Estela to tell her that her 21-year-old daughter had been assassinated. Estela notes that protesting the kidnappings "was dangerous, some of us were kidnapped and assassinated." Their perserverance paid off. Recently the government annulled two immunity laws of those who committed the atrocities, allowing the law to be able to prosecute them. Estela said that "the new president opens his doors to us all the time because he belongs to the same generation of the children that disappeared."
Members of another group, called the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora, told a similar story. Their office walls were adorned with photos of love ones that had disappeared. Some of the women had pictures of murdered family members draped around their necks in the place of jewelry. In a round table discussion the Mothers of the New York Disappeared and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora exchanged information about each groups' struggle. At the end of the meeting their leader suggested that she write an open letter to the governor of New York State asking him repeal the laws. The letter would be signed by many organizations that fight for human rights in Argentina. "We thanked them for their generosity and understanding. We went there not knowing how they would accept us" said Luciana, the wife of a former Rockefeller drug offender who attended the meeting. "Seeing these women gives me the strength to continue my fight to change these laws."
Some might argue that the families of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws have not suffered as much as the Madres in Argentina. But for 30 years the oppression of these laws has been felt in New York. Both groups of mothers, worlds apart, are connected by their respective struggles. In mid-April the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora will visit New York to meet with politicians and others to voice their protest. For more information, visit www.15yearstolife.com
. Anthony Papa is co-founder of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared. He served 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws. His book "15 To Life" is being published in fall 2004 by Feral House
Argentina's notorious death camp recovered for democracy
In the School of Naval Mechanics of Buenos Aires, over 5,000 were killed and much more tortured during the military ruling between 1976 and 1983. President Kirchner authorized to erect a monument in honor of the victims and in an unprecedented act in the history of Latin America apologized, on behalf of the State, for the crimes committed there.
Argentineans lived a moving day on Wednesday. To mark the 28th anniversary of a military coup that stripped the South American country of democracy and left, according to Human rights groups estimations, up to 30,000 people systematically persecuted, kidnapped and murdered by the state between 1976 and 1983, the government authorized to create+ a "Museum to Memory", in the building that once hosted one of the most horrendous death camps during the dirty war.
The notorious School of Naval Mechanics, or ESMA by its initials in Spanish, was the grave of no less than 5,000 people, reported by the authorities at that time as "disappeared". There, the Argentine Navy tortured and killed what they called "terrorists and insurgents" in their criminal crusade against "communism". Only a handful survived.
One of Kirchner's biggest priorities is to put that to rights. "Not even full justice will make amends for the aberration Argentines had to endure. But we have to work with the tools at our disposal," he said this month. Esma is the most potent symbol of the barbarous cruelty the country's military leaders unleashed on the population.
However, the moving day had started earlier in the morning when Kirchner himself ordered Army Chief Commander, Roberto Bendini, to remove the picture of Jorge Rafael Videla, Army Chief and de facto president of Argentina between 1976 and 1981, from a wall at the Army School.
Kirchner addressed a strong statement to the Army staff in which he asked the military "not to interfere with the normal constitutional order of the country again, as the State terrorism was one of the bloodiest and unjust experiences the Argentine people had to live in history".
Then, Kirchner, his ministers and the Major of the Buenos Aires city, Anibal Ibarra, left the place to take part in the commemorative acts before the walls of the ESMA. In a quite emotional and simple act both officials signed the documents allowing human rights groups as the world famous "Mothers of Plaza de Mayo" to set up a museum in honor of the victims of the State terrorism.
A visible moved Kirchner listened to several poems written by either killed or survivor prisoners in the ESMA, including one belonging of one of his young fellows when he was a college student. The Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat, played his famous song "To Liberty", choired by the many thousands of people that attend to the ceremony.
Later, in an unprecedented act in the history of Latin America, Kirchner apologized, on behalf of the State, for the crimes committed during the dirty war of the seventies. "I come here as President of Argentina to apologize, on behalf of the State, for having kept silenced during two decades of democratic ruling".
"The speech of our president was excellent. It really moved me", told PRAVDA.RU, Ebe de Bonafini, leader of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association. "I feel happy because it is the vindication of our dead children. They were with us, today.", she added.
And one can only say yes. From the shadows of the horror which meant the dungeons of the School of Naval Mechanics for a generation plenty of life, they shouted with the crowd: "30,000 of disappeared Argentineans: Present!".
Photo: Army chief removes Videla's picture at the Army School. Kirchner looks over.