Creation and Organization of
the National Commission on the Disappeared
(Never Again) - Report of Conadep
One of the most important tasks facing resurgent democracy in Argentina was tackling the problem of the disappeared and determining the fate of the victims. The first indispensable reparation demanded by society after fundamental institutions had been restored was to ascertain the truth of what had happened, to 'face up' to the immediate past and let the country judge.
The National Executive recognized this when it stated that 'the question of human rights transcends governments, it is the concern of civil society and the international community'. This was the first clause of Decree No. 187 of 15 December 1983 which set up the National Commission on Disappeared People. Its aim was to clarify events relating to the disappearance of persons in Argentina and investigate their fate or whereabouts. The Commission was to receive depositions and evidence concerning these events, and pass the information on to the courts where crimes had been committed. Its brief would not extend, however, to determining responsibility. It would be the task of the courts receiving the material emanating from the Commission's investigations to determine responsibility and try the guilty parties.
In order to guarantee objectivity, the National Executive resolved that the Commission be comprised of individuals who enjoyed national and international prestige, chosen for their consistent stance in defence of human rights and their representation of different walks of life. The President of the Republic called upon the following people to carry out their function independently and ad honorem: Ricardo Colombres, René Favaloro, Hilario Fernández Long, Carlos T. Gattinoni, Gregorio Klimovsky, Marshall T. Meyer, Jaime F. de Nevares, Eduardo Rabossi, Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú and Ernesto Sabato.
By the same decree, the government invited both Chambers in Congress to send three representatives to join the Commission. Only the Chamber of Deputies complied, and on 6 March 1984 elected the members Santiago Marcelino López, Hugo Diógenes Piucill and Horacio Hugo Huarte, all three from the Radical Party.
Prior to this, on 29 December 1983, Ernesto Sabato was unanimously elected President of the Commission. Five departments were created to deal with the different aspects of the Commission's work:
a) Depositions Department under Sra Graciela Fernández Meijide.
b) Documentation and Data Processing Department under Dr Daniel Salvador.
c) Procedures Department under Dr Raúl Aragón.
d) Legal Affairs Department under Dr Alberto Mansur.
e) Administrative Department under Dr Leopoldo Silgueira.
Embarking on something completely new to Argentina, the Commission started work in a climate charged with tension not only due to the nature of the task in hand but also because of incredulity shown in some quarters, disagreement in others and criticism in many more.
We must also remember that the setting up of the Commission caused resentment among those who favoured other channels of investigation (e.g. parliamentary), or who saw the Commission as an attempt to circumvent any more profound clarification of the matter.
Nevertheless, the Commission's first steps, within the framework of the precise powers laid down for it by the Decree, stimulated immediate public response in an incredible process of reconstructing collective memory. A kind of popular wave of support for the Commission was evident from the start, and this no doubt provided the enthusiasm, the courage and the large dose of imagination which we needed to respond to the magnitude of the task in hand and the desire for the truth emanating from all sectors of society.
We must emphasize here the invaluable assistance the Commission received from human rights organizations. They provided manpower, technical resources and all the experience acquired under the very difficult conditions in which they worked during the de facto government. The Commission was also helped by the work done by the UN, the OAS and other international organizations on the disappeared in Argentina. They compiled and processed an enormous amount of data which investigated important aspects and disseminated conclusions on a phenomenon which moved world opinion. This international solidarity was what the military authorities insultingly called the 'international campaign to discredit Argentina' when it clumsily attempted to minimize the clear demonstration of universal fraternity which, without a doubt, helped bring the hitherto uncontrolled actions of state terrorism to an end.
The contribution made by the staff was fundamental. Most of them regarded their task as a civic duty rather than a job. They could not otherwise have worked all the extra hours at weekends and holidays which the task demanded. It should be remembered that at the outset we had only two offices staffed by employees on temporary loan from the Civil Service, who had no experience at all in these matters, and who found it difficult to cope with the frightful tales which emerged with every testimony. These were lengthy, exhausting, horrendous depositions in which a father, a mother, a wife recounted their pilgrimages through the courts, ministries, police stations and army barracks, searching in vain for information about the fate of their loved ones. Or, worse still, descriptions, interspersed with sobs, of the ways in which their children were tortured in their presence.
These early collaborators were unable to stand the strain and left, their shocked reaction in itself a testimony to just how little they had known of what was going on. The ones who stayed, those who occupied the vacant jobs and those who gradually joined the team as secretaries or lawyers came face to face perhaps for the first time - with the horrifying vision of what had happened in Argentina. Each and every one of them increasingly felt a need to provide answers for our society as a whole and especially for the relatives of the disappeared, who came in their thousands hoping to discover something more about them. There was certainly no room for bureaucracy. Every person who received a deposition, and every lawyer who processed it to facilitate its passage through the courts, acted with a dedication born of a real awareness of what was at stake. It was that dedication which enabled us to receive so many depositions and testimonies, and study and process so many dossiers for the courts in so short a time.
No sooner had the Commission started work than it became obvious from the flood of depositions and testimonies that we had to take on more people and obtain more space in the San Martín cultural complex. Its director, Javier Torre, resolved the problem immediately and even surpassed our own expectations. The whole of the second floor, fully furnished and equipped, was put at the Commission's disposal. This gave the public better access and the staff more comfortable working conditions. The Commission was, therefore, able to act with greater speed and efficiency as the workload increased through massive popular response, and the deadline laid down by the Decree came nearer every day.
The creation of the different departments was aimed at carrying out the tasks according to the following work schedule. The Depositions Department, which had more staff than the others, saw as many people as it could from 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. from Monday to Friday initially and subsequently from Monday to Thursday, leaving Fridays free to process the vast amount of material collected. Each deposition was given a number corresponding to a file containing all the information relevant to that particular disappearance (publications, letters, press cuttings, habeas corpus, etc). This was complemented by taking statements from witnesses and liaising with the appropriate government departments.
For information about events which took place in areas at some distance from the Commission's headquarters where there was no permanent delegation, representatives of the Commission travelled to fifteen of the provinces, collecting more than 1,400 depositions. In addition to the full Commission members and heads of delegations forty-seven people undertook this work. These testimonies, especially in the most isolated areas, revealed some of the cruellest methods mentioned in this report, visited on our poorest and therefore most defenceless compatriots.
Testimonies were not only collected in the provincial capitals. The Commission members often went out into the countryside. In Tucumán, for example, the CONADEP delegation heard evidence in Famaillá, Lules, la Banda del Río Salí and Monteros. In the town of Libertador General San Martín, Jujuy province, they verified the mass abduction of 200 people in one night, sixty of whom are still missing. We have to thank the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo for their tireless efforts in this locality. With their cooperation, we were able to collect in one day more than seventy testimonies from simple peasant people who were obviously deeply distressed at not knowing the fate or whereabouts of close members of their family.
CONADEP's arrival in a province was generally an important event. There were press conferences, interviews, round tables for information purposes at which the media were present. The legislative bodies and human rights organizations cooperated with CONADEP in the task of receiving depositions, and on most occasions the delegations met with top officials in the provincial government wh o lent their support.
The visits also served to coordinate the process of verifying the existence of secret detention centres. For this we had to visit witnesses in their own homes, which were often more than 50 kilometres away. This operation proved that the scope of the tragedy extended to the furthest corners of the country. We were sure, however, that the speed with which we had to cover each area we visited prevented us from obtaining all the existing information. We would have needed to visit many more places to be able to complete the full picture of what happened.
Given the fact that a large number of Argentines (it is not yet certain exactly how many) had to leave the country, we decided to ask our diplomatic representatives abroad to receive depositions. We also decided that members of the Commission would travel to obtain new evidence and testimonies. We received the support of the Foreign Secretary, Dante Caputo, and the active collaboration of Dr Elsa Kelly of the Foreign Office, and Ambassador Dr Horacio Ravena in charge of human rights at the Foreign Office. They arranged for the staff of the Argentine missions abroad to cooperate fully with the Commission.
Commission member Rabbi Dr Marshall Meyer went to the USA and visited Los Angeles, New York and Washington. When he went to Europe for the UN Working Group on Human Rights, he also received a substantial number of testimonies in Geneva and Paris.
The head of the Commission's Legal Department, Dr Alberto Mansur, went to Venezuela. He gave a press conference about the work already carried out, and the Commission's successes. At the same time he asked all those wishing to present depositions or give evidence to see him personally at the Argentine Embassy. He did the same in Maracaibo and also spent a day visiting the headquarters of the Latin American Federation of Prisoners' Families who presented him with another 160 cases of disappeared persons of whom the Commission had not been aware. They also gave him lists of Uruguayans, Peruvians, Paraguayans, Bolivians and Chileans who had disappeared while resident in our country.
The head of the Depositions Department, Señor Graciela Fernández Meijide and member of parliament Hugo Piucill went to the Argentine Embassy in Madrid and the Consulate in Barcelona. In both cities they received numerous depositions from families of the disappeared now living in Spain and also extremely useful testimonies from released prisoners. Of particular importance was the contact made with a witness which enabled us to carry out an inspection in the Campo de Mayo, and with another who gave information which threw light on the 'church of the Santa Cruz kidnapping' where two French nuns disappeared.
Commission member parliamentarian Horacio Huarte went to the Argentine Embassy in Mexico City. His arrival had previously been announced in the media and many people came forward with depositions concerning events in Argentina. The depositions, testimonies, evidence, and information collected on these journeys abroad generally made a valuable contribution to the Commission's Legal Department.
One point worth noting was the enormous concern expressed for our work by the people of the countries we visited. This was reflected both in the large amount of space dedicated to the problem of the disappeared in the press at the time of our visit, and the more general support for the Commission, related to the high expectations for the outcome of judicial proceedings already under way.
In cases where some urgent supplementary action had to be taken (exhumations, obtaining documents outside the Commission's terms of reference, inspection of secret detention centres, impounding and/or proof of ownership of personal effects and documents etc.) the corresponding file was passed to the Government Procedures Department for the completion of formalities. Search, the labyrinth to pinpoint the exact moment at which traces of many thousands of people had been lost was a difficult and often painful task, since it revived bitter memories for those who had been released.
The procedure was generally as follows:
1. Identifying 'in situ' the secret detention camps with people released from these camps.
2. Visiting the morgues to obtain information about irregular admissions.
3. Making inquiries in neighbourhoods and workplaces as to the exact location of secret detention camps or the different ways in which the disappeared had been abducted.
4. Receiving declarations in places other than the Commission's headquarters from people either in active service with the Armed Forces or Security Forces, or retired from them.
5. Checking prison registers.
6. Checking police registers.
7. Investigating crimes committed concerning the property of the disappeared.
The Commission also made investigations on the basis of information provided by people who had been told their loved ones might be in a certain place. We accompanied relatives even though the chances of success were very slight and the procedures were difficult and time-consuming. Investigating the fate or whereabouts of disappeared persons who might be detained but still alive proved fruitless. The Commission was asked by relatives to check the Río Negro Military District in Viedma, the 29th Rural Infantry Regiment in Formosa, and the National Atomic Energy Commission, all to no avail. On other occasions, relatives of the disappeared received telephone calls, usually anonymous, indicating that the victims might still be alive in various psychiatric or medical institutions such as the Tomás Borda Psychiatric Institute, the San Justo Psychiatric Clinic, the Manuel Estévez Interzonal Psychiatric Institute, the Alejandro Korn Psychiatric Institute and the Braulio Moyano Psychiatric Institute. The Commission accompanied relatives to all these institutions and thoroughly checked the lists of patients, especially those designated 'NN' (identity unknown).
They then went through the wards to study the patients. In each ward they questioned nurses, doctors and even the patients themselves, showing them photographs and describing special features to help them recognize the victims or jog some memory they might have in the back of their minds. None of these visits proved positive in terms of finding people, but perhaps they were positive inasmuch as they put an end to the terrible anguish and false expectations of families who by now no longer had the strength to bear them.
The Legal Department, which was in charge of preparing the presentations made to the courts, scrutinized each file in great detail and processed it like a proper legal indictment. With the primary objective of determining the fate and ultimate whereabouts of the disappeared always in mind, it organized, selected and linked the large number of depositions and evidence received, paying special attention to any relevant details which would point the investigation in a fruitful direction.
As the efforts to locate the disappeared proved more and more hopeless, however, the presentation of depositions to the courts increased. Both the material received testifying to events which had occurred and the results of the statements, the information solicited and the inspections carried out, led to a wide range of crimes being identified.
The Department began from the moment the victim was kidnapped and followed the itinerary of the abduction to the detention centres where most of the crimes were committed. As we said before, this was a totally new situation; investigating clandestine activity by the State which, by acting quite outside licit norms and procedures, itself became a criminal organization. Some of the serious obstacles the Department came up against in their work were: clues and documents had been destroyed; the perpetrators of the crimes were masked, used false names or nicknames and had forged credentials, buildings which had served as operational bases were altered; land used for secret cemeteries had been dug over; and in many cases it was impossible for the victims to recognize their captors since they were blindfolded or hooded from the outset.
One prime consideration in the work was that when coming to a conclusion the Department should not be influenced by anything that was not reliably checked. The findings to emerge from the investigations, however, more than confirmed the veracity of the accounts contained in the depositions. When an investigation was considered to be sufficiently far advanced, the file was presented to the courts. When it was felt, on the other hand, that no further progress could be made for the time being, it was filed away until such time as it was reactivated by fresh evidence.
Working methods improved as we went along, especially when we realized that if the files were grouped together according to detention centre or 'camp' where a disappeared person had been seen alive, or where a released prisoner had been held, there was a greater chance of testimonies coinciding, and this made the proof more conclusive. From this emerged the so-called 'packages', or combined depositions, testimonies and evidence, containing several files with a common link such as reference to a certain camp. In some cases a 'package' of depositions or evidence was put together according to the common circumstances of the victims - for example, the 100-odd conscripts who disappeared while doing their military service.
The part played in all this by released prisoners was decisive. While in no way detracting from the mentions they are given in other chapters, we would like to stress their courage and solidarity here. They came forward from the very start, despite having themselves suffered terrible deprivation and torture. Civic values and unquenchable ethical considerations overcame the fear they still felt. It was they who provided concrete information about other disappeared persons, gave details of the camps and agreed to identify the places used for imprisonment and torture, that is, 'their' places of imprisonment and torture. The fact that this Commission is able to present concrete, irrefutable evidence to the courts - as we are sure we can - is certainly due to the testimonies of these released detainees. What we have achieved in the course of these investigations would not have been possible without their collaboration.
We must point out, however, that our work was hindered by the destruction and/or removal of a vast amount of documentation containing detailed information on the disappeared. We appealed to various institutes and organizations of the military and security forces for instructions, organizational diagrams, orders and the names of certain of their members who, because of the central role they played in the repression, could have supplied us with vital evidence.
Approximately 1,300 requests for information were made, broken down as follows:
Ministry of Defence, 280
Foreign Ministry, 30
Ministry of the Interior, 60
Federal Police, 100
Provincial Police, 100
Federal Prison Service, 70
Government of Buenos Aires Province, 10
National and Provincial Courts, 290
National Register of Persons, Property and Automobiles, 80
Various bodies (official and private), 280
For bureaucratic reasons, and for others unknown to us, many of our questions remained unanswered, since the organizations connected to the Armed Forces did not reply satisfactorily to the Commission's requests for information. A similar lack of cooperation was shown by some judges, both in Buenos Aires and in the provinces, who returned our letters and refused us the benefit of their status and experience. We even had to ask the President to order certain administrative and security bodies to comply with our requests and to annul the provision which allowed members of the Armed Forces to refuse to answer our questions on the pretext of 'military secrets' (Decree No. 2107/84).
Although the work of this Commission will undoubtedly not satisfy some quarters, we believe that it carried out its brief to get to the root of these events which had few - if any - precedents in other parts of the world. In a few short months, the staff of CONADEP processed an amount of data and files which would have taken years had it not been for the spirit which fired them. A look at the list of cases sent to the courts is proof enough of this.