My terror of forgetting is greater than my terror of having too much to remember. Let the accumulated facts about the past continue to multiply. Let the flood of books and monographs grow, even if they are only read by specialists. Let unread copies lie in the shelves of many libraries, so that if some be destroyed or removed others will remain. So that those who need can find that this person did live, those events really took place, this interpretation is not the only one. Yosef H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor ( 1989)

After the fall of the military regime in 1983, President Alfonsin's amnesty laws and Menem's presidential pardons allowed those guilty of atrocities to go free. These actions both ensured impunity and strengthened the conspiracy of silence, making it possible for belief in the "official story" to continue. In the few prosecutions, the criminals' connections with the power structure, together with the long judicial delays, meant that they either received light sentences or had the cases against them dropped.

In late 1994 the Menem government passed law 24.411, which offers economic compensation to the relatives of those murdered or disappeared. The Grandmothers, like all the other human rights organizations except the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, interpret this law as the government's acknowledgment of the genocide perpetrated by the state during the dictatorship, and they have endorsed it. However, no legal sanctions are planned for those responsible for the crimes.1 In 1995 former navy captain Adolfo Francisco Scilingo confessed to taking part in the murder of political prisoners who had been drugged and thrown from aircraft into the Rio de la Plata.2 In the same year, the chief of the army, Lieutenant General Martin Antonio Balza, publicly admitted to the kidnapping, murder, and torture carried on by the armed forces during the repression but denied the existence of lists containing information about the disappeared, and the Argentine bishops announced that they would "examine their conscience" about the role of the church during the dictatorship. None of these declarations resulted in any action whatsoever.


Under the banner of "pacification" and "reconciliation," a culture of impunity has flourished in Argentina. The regime's unpunished crimes have created a climate in which people increasingly see police violence, lack of an independent judicial system, and endemic governmental corruption as normal, everyday aspects of Argentinian life. As has frequently been demonstrated throughout the world, impunity is the enemy of democracy, because it prevents social reconciliation. When the prerequisites for authentic reconciliation-truth and justice, acknowledgment of the crimes committed, and punishment-are not met, forgiveness is impossible. Reconciliation cannot be dictated from above.

As an act of violence, impunity also has serious consequences for individuals and families trying to heal from the psychosocial trauma caused by human rights abuses during the dictatorship. The repression has damaged at least three generations: the parents of the disappeared, the disappeared, and the children of the disappeared. And the long- term effects of growing up in an atmosphere that legitimizes crime and denies reality are likely to harm the mental and spiritual well-being of future generations of Argentines.

In May 1990, the People's Permanent Tribunal-an international group-met in Buenos Aires to discuss the case of Argentina as part of its sessions on crimes against humanity in Latin America. After hearing testimonies from victims of the repression and reviewing extensive documentation, the tribunal noted, "Under the justification of pardoning, forgetting, or reconciling, the structures, mechanisms, and attitudes of the past remain intact in the present. They allow the continuation of crimes against humanity, while simultaneously destroying the possibility of civilized coexistence between people. " Impunity, according to the tribunal, fulfilled at least three purposes: it protected those who had committed crimes, allowed history to be written from the point of view of the oppressor, and shifted the blame for the economic and social chaos created by the dictatorship onto the most marginalized and exploited segments of the population. It had become a structural element of the Argentine reality, perpetuating an unequal distribution of power and the exploitation of workers, whose status, rights, and working conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Moreover, the tribunal pointed to the danger that impunity has created for the consolidation of democracy in Argentina: " Accompanied by the great majority of the Argentine people, we denounce as totally erroneous the project to achieve peace and democratic coexistence by negating the values on which this coexistence is built: life, liberty, equality, truth, and justice."

The economic situation in Argentina has been-and is-devastating for major segments of society. The free-market-oriented economic policies introduced by Finance Minister Domingo Cavallo during the Menem administration {and continued by his successor, Roque Fernandez opened the economy to international competition and investment. Inflation was drastically reduced and government agencies were aggressively privatized. The country has been struggling with recession, unemployment has reached a staggering 20 percent, and important social benefits have been reduced or eliminated. These unpopular measures have been denounced by opposition parties and labor unions, which believe the poor are being squeezed to protect investors and international agencies-the same sectors that benefited most from the dictatorship.

High-ranking members of the Menem administration have been at the center of scandals involving allegations of drug trafficking and extortion. For example, in "Swiftgate" President Menem's brother-in- law Emir Yoma was accused of trying to obtain money from Swift- Armour, a transnational meatpacking corporation. t 1 A lethargic court investigation has not produced definitive results.

Nor is corruption limited to the upper levels of government. Police brutality and corruption are rampant in Argentina. Many officers now in positions of authority had participated directly in the repression; since they were under the control of the military, they enjoyed total impunity. Under democracy, the police have stressed the need for "security" and for waging a "war on crime." The structures of repression created by the dictatorship thus continue to shape current police operations. Some of the worst police abuses have been carried out against young people; and they have been denounced by the progressive media and human rights organizations, as well as provoking vigorous community organizing.

The judiciary seems little better. In Catamarca province, the case of Maria Soledad Morales, a seventeen-year-old girl found murdered who obviously had been tortured and mutilated, has rocked the country by revealing the degree of corruption in the province's judicial system. The governor of Catamarca and two of his closest associates came to figure prominently in the case; not surprisingly, it remains unsolved. Weekly silent marches, organized by Carmelite nun Sister Martha Pelloni, the former headmistress of Maria Soledad's school, have attracted up to 30,000 participants. The director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, Martin Abregu, summarized the situation: "The case has inflamed Argentina. It's a case of passion and politics, cover-ups and killers. But mostly it's struck a chord because people are -sick of impunity in this country. "

The lack of trust in the judicial system has become endemic, notes political scientist Atilio H. Boron: "The judicial system is in shambles. Only those few with money and resources can make some use of it. It is not independent; it is very closely linked to the centers of political power. If the decision of a judge does not agree with those in power, it gets changed. The Supreme Court is addicted to the government. Interior Minister Carlos Corach himself has said that he runs the Court by telephone.

In 1992 and 1994 the bloody bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) brought outcries from around the world. Though neither case has been solved, there is strong evidence of police involvement, at least in the AMIA case.16 And in early 1997 the burned body of Jose Luis Cabezas, a thirty-six-year-old photojournalist working for the news magazine Noticias, was found in his car in a resort town. His magazine had published investigative reports on alleged corruption in the provincial police.

These are just some of the most obvious examples of what the Grandmothers call "the current impunity in action."


In analyzing the mechanisms that impede the development of democracy in Latin America, Eduardo Galeano uses the expression "the kidnapping of history": "For those who are starving, the system denies them even the nourishment of memory. So that they don't have a future, it steals their past. Officia/ history is told by, for, and of the rich, the white, the male, and the military." The work of the "Grandmothers provides a strong counterpoint to the kidnapping of history in Argentina.

As historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes in describing the history of the Jews: "What we call 'forgetting' in a collective sense occurs when human groups fail-whether purposely or passively, out of rebellion, indifference, or indolence, or as the result of some disruptive historical catastrophe-to transmit what they know out of the past to their posterity." By telling their stories and by pursuing the truth, the Grand- mothers work to prevent such failure, ensuring that those responsible for atrocities do not win a victory over history. The Grandmothers' everyday work, their personal testimonies, and the pictures of the disappeared that they publish regularly in their newsletter challenge the country's pervasive historical amnesia. It keeps the victims from becoming an anonymous mass. Every time the Grandmothers find a disappeared child, a detailed picture emerges of how the dictatorship implemented a methodology of terror that targeted society's most vulnerable members. Each story contains a thread that connects the police, the military, and the intelligence services to the disappearances. Nonetheless, the perpetrators have denied the evidence and have tried, unsuccessfully, to silence the Grandmothers.

u.s. psychiatrist Judith Herman has analyzed the relationship between crime and silence:

In order to escape accountability for their crimes, perpetrators will do every- thing in their power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator's first lines of defense, but if secrecy fails, the perpetrator will aggressively attack the credibility of the victim and anyone who supports the victim. If the victim cannot be silenced absolutely, the perpetrator will try to make sure that no one listens or offers aid. To this end, an impressive array of arguments will be marshalled, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated rationalizations. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same apologies: it never happened; the victim is deluded; the victim lies; the victim fantasizes; the victim is manipulative; the victim is manipulated; the victim brought it upon him- or herself (masochistic); the victim exaggerates (histrionic), and, in any case, it is time to forget the past and move on

The Grandmothers challenge silence and denial by bearing witness to the crimes of the dictatorship: they defy the numbing and the active for- getting that the culture of impunity fosters. The Grandmothers have zeroed in on the politics of memory, on what is remembered and how it is remembered, and on the distortion of the historical record. They know that silence and forgetting play into the hands of the powerful and that personalizing the disappeared and naming the murderers are the first steps in the recovery of truth.

Grandmother Delia Califano speaks of her everyday telling:

I need to transmit what I know. When I go to the beach, if somebody sits close to me, I find a way to tell my story. It is a way to keep memory alive. I feel it complements our public work, the speaking up we do on the radio and TV. When somebody sits next to me in a train and we start talking about the high cost of living and the fear that the military might step in, I bring up the disappearances. I am always searching for a way to let others know what happened.

The Grandmothers' determination to not forget and to continue documenting the methodology of terror led them to help found the Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (FEDEFAM), started in 1981 in Costa Rica. Grandmother Marla Alexiu de Ignace was FEDEFAM president from 1991 to 1993. FEDE- FAM, which has lobbied the United Nations and the OAS to recognize forced disappearances as a crime against humanity, has strongly opposed the amnesty laws and the presidential pardons in Argentina and other Latin American countries. In 1993, at the United Nations, FEDEFAM sponsored the testimony of one of the found children, Laura Scaccheri, who after eight years was restituted to her legitimate family. Laura asked the Human Rights Commission to support the restitution of the Reggiardo Tolosa twins to their family, challenging the notion that the twins themselves should be the ones to decide with whom to live:

Now I live with my family. With them. I can ask questions. search. look back bit by bit, cry and laugh with love and. above all, without lies. If my restitution and that of fifty other children happened. why is it so difficult for the others? ...Like for instance. the current case in Argentina of the Reggiardo Tolosa twins in which it is claimed that they should be the ones to choose. That means delegating to children what adults should be doing. Can a child that has been living with someone for years choose to leave? I don't think so. In my own case it was very difficult to understand that they had lied to me for so long. that they lied about everything.


Because they want the past to be remembered, the Grandmothers speak often about the importance of collective memory. However, as the creation of the National Genetic Data Bank demonstrates, their focus is on the future. Increasingly, they have emphasized working with the young, because it is the next generation that will inherit the country and will continue their work. The Grandmothers know that workers, community groups, students-all those who question the injustices of the sys tem-might well become the next targets of repression, if democracy does not take a firm hold in Argentina.

In 1990 the Grandmothers published a book of prose and poetry, Algun dia ...{Someday. ..), by two young women, Mariana Eva Perez and Yamila Grandi, who hope someday to find their siblings born in captivity. Both their mothers were pregnant when they were abducted. Mariana Eva Perez was fifteen months old when her parents disappeared. She tells what she knows about her brother:

From the testimony of a woman who was in the ESMA, the camp where my mother was taken, we know that my mother delivered my brother on November 15, 1978, that he weighed a little over three kilos, and that the delivery was normal. We also know that she was allowed to keep the baby for three to four days, which is unusual because generally they took the babies away as soon as they were born. After the delivery, apparently she was scared that she would be tortured and killed. She left the ESMA with my brother in her arms and that is the last we know of her. She had named him Rodolfo Fernando. So, I know I have a brother and that is the one the Grand- mothers are searching for.

I grew up with my grandparents, who gave me a lot of love. They always told me the truth. When I was eight or nine years old they took me to the National Genetic Data Bank to deposit my blood. That was very confusing. My grandmother explained that it was to help identify my brother. I was really glad with that news, I always wanted a brother. However, I got sad when I realized I could not meet him. I finally decided that I would play my part in the search, that I would support the Grandmothers. After that decision, when I would go the Bank, I would say, decisively, "Here is my arm, please go ahead."

Her grandmother Argentina Perez recalls:

Mariana has always been very spontaneous. Her fjrst-grade teacher told me that one day she stood up and said: "Teacher, can I say something?" When she said yes. Mariana told the class: "1 want my schoolmates to know that my parents are disappeared:. Then all the children started to ask what that meant, and the teacher had to explain about the disappearances."

Mariana adds:

I thought it was important to let them know about my history. because when I like someone I want them to know who I am. And I don't just care about my brother. I care also about the other children who disappeared. When I can, I go to see the Grandmothers to find out what they are doing and if there is something I can do to help.

In 1992, the Grandmothers celebrated their organization's fifteenth anniversary with a three-day international seminar on the issues of identity, affiliation, and restitution. At the closing ceremony, after the various panels and addresses by sociologists, physicians, psychologists, social workers, and lawyers, the found children and the siblings of children born in captivity spoke. Mariana fully understands the importance of their role:

At the end of the seminar, we spoke about the future of the Grandmothers, and we said that their work has to continue. If they are unable to continue because they get too old or too sick, we will take over. The future of the Grandmothers is in our hands. We all agreed about that. We told the Grand- mothers not to worry. Their work will not be over when they are gone. Our goal is to continue until we find the last child, and even after that. So that people will not forget what happened here, so that history does not repeat itself. As soon as the dictatorship was over, some people wanted the Mothers and the Grandmothers to shut up, they did not want them talking about the past. That is why it is so important that we keep the memory alive.

The voices of the young are beginning to be heard in Argentina. In October 1995, high school students protested over the use of the infamous ESMA facilities for a swimming contest. The youngsters pointed out that thousands of people had been tortured and killed in the ESMA and that to try to legitimate its use by hosting a sports event there was an affront to the memory of the disappeared. Out of 120 expected participants, only 20 showed Up.27 More generally, many now attending schools and universities are commemorating the students who disappeared during the dictatorship and are committing themselves to the values for which so many of them were killed. They are refusing to accept unemployment, poverty, lack of education and health services, poor housing, and all the other injustices of the present Argentine society. In October 1996, inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo/linea Fundadora, students at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires National School, the city's most prestigious public high school) publicly commemorated ninety former students who had been killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. The event, "Bridge of Memory," and an exhibit on the lives of the disappeared students attracted hundreds of people.

In 199 5 about seventy young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty started a new human rights organization. They are children of those who disappeared or were assassinated during the dictatorship. They call themselves HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra el Olvido y el Silencio; Children for Identity and Justice, against oblivion and Silence). Among their basic demands are the annulment of the amnesty laws and the presidential pardons, so that their parents' murderers can be prosecuted, and restitution of the disappeared children made to their families of origin. Miguel Santucho, a twenty-year-old member, describes the organization:

HIJOS is a very heterogeneous group. There are different political perspectives, different ages and cultures. In our group we do not have a hierarchy; we don't have representatives or a president. We carry out our work in committees, we meet in assembly once a week, and we try very hard to reach decisions by consensus. We came together to create HIJOS because we felt that there was something missing in our lives. My mother disappeared. I only know a few things about her, and I can't fill that void.1 realize that the reason that she disappeared is that at the social level she represented something that the dominant class wanted to eliminate. Her bonds with other people needed to be destroyed. By recovering those social bonds. I will be able to reclaim part of my identity and obtain justice. ...We are an independent organization, but we are aware that our existence today is possible thanks to the twenty years of struggle of the Mothers, the Grandmothers, and the other organizations.

At the June 27, 1996, celebration of the "first thousand Thursdays" of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, HIJOS was a highly visible and welcome presence. One member of HIJOS declared to the press: "For us, HIJOS, this march of the Mothers represents the contact with our history and the struggle of our parents. Those who believed in the victory of death were wrong: twenty years afterward, here we are to say 'pre- sente."

On October 29, 1996, the first anniversary of Antonio Bussi's assumption to power as governor of Tucumin province, HIJOS organized protests in Tucumin and Buenos Aires. Bussi, a well-known commander during the dirty war, had been in charge of the clandestine detention camps in that province. Trained by the Pentagon, Bussi had learned in Vietnam the counterinsurgency techniques he later applied in Tucumin. Calling it a "Day of National Shame," HIJOS marched to the Plaza de Mayo, accompanied by human rights activists. Representatives of the political parties were conspicuously absent from the event.32 HIJOS has received threats and some of its members have been arrested. The organization met with Minister of the Interior Carlos Corach to request a "preventive" habeas corpus for its members, making the government responsible for eventual attacks on them. The minister offered them police protection but they refused, saying, "We don't want policemen on our doorsteps. They are the same people that murdered our parents. What we want is that the security forces be purged."

The Grandmothers' struggle for the identification and restitution of their disappeared grandchildren is, like most women's work, essential, everyday, and down-to-earth. The qualities that they bring to the public arena-fortitude, patience, and vigilance-are central to establishing a real democracy. In keeping historical memory alive, the Grand- mothers have assumed a role that grandmothers often play in the life of their communities: telling the stories that create a sense of identity and common purpose among family members. Their refusal to give in to complacency and silence affirms the continuity of life and provides hope. By recovering the identity of their grandchildren, they are beginning the essential process of constructing a historical and inclusive Argentine social identity, an identity that is itself necessary to heal a deeply damaged society and lay the foundation for a living democracy.

Against forgetting, against unfinished business, nobody can speak more eloquently than the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo:

We must not forget or be silent. Our duty is to keep alive the memory, to keep talking tirelessly about the horrors of the Argentine genocide. We will not let any episode, insignificant as it may seem, go by without expressing our views. We will clarify and spread the truth, the whole truth, to enlighten the minds of those who still refuse to understand.