The cover is coloured a gentle beige. The title, “Casos de Ninos Detenidos-Desaparecidos y Nacidos en Cautiverio en Argentina Desde 1976”, deeply disturbing. The contents, chilling. This early 1980 document produced by the Grandmothers (Abuelas) of the Plaza de Mayo contains seventy-five pages of sworn testimony and legal depositions in the cold language of the courts: photographs of infants and small children whose parents had been brutally detained by Argentine security agents or police during the first years of that country’s military dictatorship (1976-1983). Even more sinister are those photographs of happy young couples, graphic evidence provided as well by a grandmother or another relative, each pareja expecting a child. Most of these estimated seven hundred “disappeared” infants had been forcibly taken away from their mothers and fathers and handed by the military in its “dirty war”, as booty to childless couples for adoption with false birth certificates. Many of their biological parents, according to recent testimony by an apparently conscience-troubled officer of the Argentinean Navy, Adolfo Scilingo, had been taken to the infamous Naval Mechanical Centre (ESMA), tortured for days or weeks, then drugged, stripped and dropped alive by military aircraft crews high over the Atlantic Ocean, to their deaths.

These children in Argentina were among the tens of thousands of persons whose lives were violently affected throughout the Latin American continent – victims of the deliberate brutal policies of repression carried out by military regimes in the nineteen seventies and eighties. It was a terrible and dark period in the history of the Americas.

Historical roots of social aspirations

The end of World War Two had created great hopes for peace and prosperity in the hemisphere. A new generation cherished radical change, away from the old patterns of control and wealth under the traditional ruling elites, be they in the southern part of the continent or in Mesoamerica. The birth pangs of early industrialization had brought with it sharp demands by workers and peasants for a share in its benefits. Economies shifted from rural areas to urban centres, engendering a powerful work force. Labour unions gained strength. During this period new social forces emerged and, inevitably, with economic prosperity in the 1950s just beginning to be felt, laid down fresh political challenges. Huge income disparities between the rich and the poor majorities sharpened national debates.
Freshly elected socialist or social-democrat governments in such countries as Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1970) elicited much hope among the disenfranchised. Attempts to generate popular political power through guerrilla movements in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina proved, on the long run, to be counter-productive. Above all they provided the military castes continent-wide with a pretext to neutralize constitutional safeguards and to destroy the basic rights of ordinary citizens such as freedom of the press, the rights to lawful assembly, free and fair elections, and ultimately, freedom from torture and the right to life.

Cold War context

These military takeovers were supported by the US and its allies. The global Cold War defined the parameters of loyalty and power at the time. Thus, legitimate aspirations to tackle deep-seated poverty of the urban and rural majorities were perceived to be dangerous to the interests of the economic national elites and to the West. One by one civilian governments, beginning in the 1950s were overthrown by a military coup d’état. Paraguay and Guatemala (1954) were followed by Brazil (1964), Uruguay (1972), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976). Rights were severely curtailed by successive regimes in Peru, Bolivia, and in several other Andean, Central American and Caribbean nations.

National Security Doctrine

The formulation of a new hemispheric strategic policy, called the National Security Doctrine, was invoked to justify the training of thousands of military and police officers at the School of the Americas (in the Panama Canal Zone) and other army and police academies in technical and ideological instruction. Officers of the armed forces of Brazil became the school’s star pupils, enacting repressive actions especially after 1968. That country also exported and taught the use of torture as an instrument of interrogation and fear to its South American neighbours, particularly Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia. The US, however, was not the only mentor in Brazil. What is less known is that the French Army’s expertise in the use of torture, honed in Vietnam in the 1950s and later during its costly war in Algeria, became a valuable asset for counterparts in the Brazilian, Argentinean and Chilean armed forces in the application of repressive measures against their own citizens.


The Latin American continent experienced a bitter share of state terror. A long chapter of state infamy saw the crushed aspirations of generations who thirsted for decent land, education, health and living standards, along with political participation in the crucial life decisions affecting them. Appalling years followed – years when the repression of individual and collective rights became standardized. Most affected were indigenous populations- such as in Guatemala, but students, labour unions, professionals and opposition political parties were also harassed, persecuted and physically eliminated elsewhere. Those who raised their voices were silenced. Summary executions in hidden centres of detention and brutal massacres were frequent occurrences, especially in isolated villages, like those in El Salvador’s rural eastern areas.

Many members of Christian and communities of other persuasions were themselves directly affected by military repression – especially those who spoke out against injustice. The figure of Archbishop Oscar Romero is a giant symbol of such prophetic witness, but there were other, unsung, modern martyrs of violent state policies across the hemisphere. Not all church leaders and parishes opposed the tempting, comfortable stability which de facto military rule provided, especially among the upper and middle social classes, but new movements of solidarity emerged within these societies, galvanized by the sheer scale and nature of military repression directly affecting their countries’ inhabitants.

Civil society and human rights

Hundreds of small groups sprung up across the continent and the Caribbean region. Ordinary people did extraordinary things: they became quickly organized, taking rapid and often risky action to protect people fleeing from neighbouring countries or to hide their own from detention and certain torture. Audacious individuals created safe havens, helped people over embassy walls. The vast network of Catholic Church institutions and religious orders – as in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in Santiago de Chile or in Mesoamerica, became invaluable resources of safe haven, protection and legal assistance. New ecumenical organizations, including lay and clergy leadership from Catholic, Methodist, Orthodox, Disciples, Lutheran, Reformed and other evangelical Protestant churches created unprecedented initiatives of cooperation, working in close tandem with other human rights groups in “civil society”. They assisted people to obtain asylum across borders, identified places where missing persons were detained, gathered meticulous information on the nature of violations and publicly denounced reports of torture. This vast growing movement of men and women, organized, disciplined and committed to the highest standards of integrity, kept alive hope in their societies, working simultaneously for a return to the rule of law and the restoration of democratic institutions.

Outstanding examples of courage and tenacity among many of these innovative human rights groups are, among many others: the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights (MEDH) (Argentina), the Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile (COPACHI); Paraguay’s Churches’ Committee for Emergency Assistance; the Service for Peace and Justice – Uruguay; CLAMOR, of the Human Rights Pastoral Commission in Brazil; the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights in Bolivia; the Peruvian National Coordinating Committee for Human Rights; the Research and Popular Education Centre (CINEP) in Colombia; the Christian Legal Aid (Socorro Juridico) in El Salvador; the Committee for Justice and Peace in Guatemala; the Legal Assistance Office (Bufete Legal) of the Moravian Church of Nicaragua; the Ecumenical Human Rights Centre, Haiti; the Jamaica Council of Human Rights; and two particularly effective regional organizations, the Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared Persons and its affiliates; and the Caribbean Rights network.


During this period the World Council of Churches and many other sister organizations within the international family were seized upon, as rarely before, to respond to urgent calls for solidarity towards the victims of repression, at first directly, then increasingly with massive political, pastoral, moral and financial support to the organizations listed above and to many other similar initiatives throughout the regions.

One striking example of international support was that by which widely representative national teams of women from Europe, North and Latin America forged a Cadena de Esperanza (Chain of Hope) through a tight, coordinated series of high-profile visits to El Salvador during 1989, following the brutal murder by security forces of a Baptist secondary school teacher, Maria Cristina Gomez. In a joint action of the Latin American Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation the teams engaged in situ with key sectors of the population, church and human rights groups, learning of the acute conflictive realities affecting them as well as manifesting critical moral support for their struggles for justice.

A major lesson learned from this entire period of the Latin American and Caribbean effort to restore dignity and justice in their societies, is that, for things to change, churches had to unite with all the human rights organizations and social forces together in their struggle. Only then was civil society able to emerge from the long fight against arbitrary rule, that is, to forge a public opinion marked by a broad consensus, a political pluralism going beyond traditional bi-partisan control of government and the emergence of a new generation of leaders intent on serving the needs of its citizens.

* Charles Harper, of dual Brazilian and United States citizenship, directed the Human Rights Office for Latin America of the World Council of Churches (Geneva, Switzerland) from 1973 to 1992. He edited the book Impunity: an Ethical Perspective: Six Case Studies from Latin America (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996) and authored O Acompanhamento: Ecumenical Action for Human Rights in Latin America (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2006), both translated and published as well in Spanish (Montevideo, Uruguay: Ediciones Trilce, 1997 and 2007, respectively). Harper is a retired clergyman of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Recipient of the Letelier-Moffat Human Rights Award in 1984.


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