The death flights are synonymous with U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships. Widely used in Argentina and Chile to eliminate all traces of victims and safeguard the state and perpetrators’ impunity, the death flights were not just a means of disappearance but also of extermination. Documents reveal that dictatorship’s opponents were at times heavily sedated after prolonged torture and thrown off helicopters into the water, while still alive.
During Argentina’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1981 under Jorge Rafael Videla, over 30,000 people were disappeared. The forced disappearances of the regime’s opponents in Argentina were part of a region-wide operation known as Plan Condor, carried out with full knowledge and support of the U.S. Declassified documents from the U.S. Department of State testify to the fact that the U.S. was aware of the extermination and disappearance procedures. Notably, the U.S. also provided the helicopters used to carry out the death flights.
For relatives of the disappeared, reconstructing memory is an ongoing, arduous process, hampered by the state’s refusal to collaborate with human rights organizations, as well as the protection it offers to perpetrators.
But state impunity is also being challenged by the children and relatives of genocide perpetrators. In 2017, Historias Desobedientes was formed, providing a platform for mobilization and a stance that works for Argentina’s collective memory and justice. The group participates in marches for justice and actively speaks out in communities in order to communicate their testimonies and assert their commitment to justice.
Argentinian lawyer Pablo Verna is the son of a genocide perpetrator, Julio Alejandro Verna, who worked as an army doctor, sedating prisoners at Campo De Mayo in preparation for their extermination by death flights while still alive.
Verna’s first indications of his father’s involvement came from his mother, who divulged her husband’s role in the death flights. Upon confronting his father in July 2013, the initial denial was overturned by a confession. More details were confessed– all dictatorship agents working at Campo de Mayo were involved in the extermination and disappearance of political prisoners.
Verna’s confrontation with his father over his participation in the death flights wrought a change in family dynamics, notably the estrangement from his father. It also propelled Verna to seek the legal means through which he could testify against his father in court. The process involved the drafting of a bill proposing an amendment to the existing legislation which prohibits children from testifying against their parents.
Speaking to The Globe Post, Verna expounds upon the legal, political and social implications of this possible change in legislation and its contribution to Argentina’s struggle for memory and justice.
The Globe Post: How will the change in legislation to allow children to testify against their parents in dictatorship-era crimes against humanity affect the struggle for memory and justice in Argentina?
Verna: The bill which I drafted to allow daughters, sons and relatives of genocide perpetrators to denounce and testify against their parents in court was presented on November 7, 2017, by 26 people who are in the same situation. This has both ethical and political significance. Fernanda Raverta is an MP who gave us extensive support from the beginning, as did many other MPs, as well as the house of commons which voted for a motion in favor of this project, and with a majority. Although the modification to the criminal procedural legislation has not yet been implemented, it carries with it a significance.
Of significance is the name of the collective I am part of: “Historias Desobedientes, hijas, hijos y familiares de genocidas, por la memoria, la verdad y la justicia” (Disobedient histories. Daughters, sons and relatives of genocide perpetrators for memory, truth, and justice). When we say we are sons and daughters of genocide perpetrators, the description we adopt says pretty much everything. Thinking we want reconciliation would be absurd. Given that our collective has been formed only two years ago, there is still a lot ahead of us, but it is also very important that we could get together and think of how to contribute to memory, truth and justice with however much or little each of us has to tell. Silence was imposed on us behind closed doors by our families of origin, but now we feel the will to collaborate in terms of memory, truth and justice, and exposing what we could perceive within our families.
I believe that the legislation should be modified, but nevertheless, in specific cases the judges have the obligation to remove any obstacles that limit, prohibit, nullify or restrict and means or sources of evidence. If this does not happen, international human rights, which are there to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish serious crimes against humanity, are being breached.
This is exactly what happened on July 2, 2019, when after an intense debate among two of the three judges of the Oral Federal Tribunal N°4 of San Martin locality admitted my testimony in the trial where nine genocide perpetrators are being prosecuted, even if it was on the grounds that my father is not being accused in that oral proceeding. However, it was a step forward in our fight, since there are other cases in which testimonies of children of genocide perpetrators were admitted but their parents were dead at the moment of the testimonies, therefore they will never be accused. There was only one previous exception, but on varied and case-specific criteria, so at that time there was still a lot ahead before I could testify.
In this precedent, which is the testimony of Vanina Falco (the biological daughter of the man who “appropriated” her brother Juan Cabandié), it was decided at the first instance that the law prohibited her testimony, and only two of the three appellate judges ruled she could do it. What is serious is this lack of conscience, made clear by the fact that out of four judges, two decided against memory, truth and justice. This is equivalent to saying “nothing has happened here” from justice’s point of view. This results in the silencing of humanity and a repeated punishment through the reverberations of genocide.
Thus, it becomes evident that the fight at the judiciary (which is not the same as justice) is a slow one, and it is done step by step, but with encouraging results, especially if we consider that the possibility of children and relatives of genocide perpetrators to testify in trials for crimes against humanity is a historic event of international relevance.
It should be stressed that in such trials, the conviction of repressors is as important as the truth expressed in the verdicts, and particularly the historical reconstruction of facts that is carried out by the complainants. Hence my gratitude to Pablo Llonto, the prosecuting lawyer with whom I have been in touch since the second half of 2013 and who has embarked with me on this path. This led me to developing great affection and mutual appreciation for all who endured the genocide in this period (1979-1989). But I am also deeply thankful because the possibility of contributing to memory, truth and justice ⎯ and now especially to justice ⎯ is unique insofar as it dignifies me as a human being, and therefore it allows me to heal. All that and more is expressed in every glance and every hug we give each other.
Readers can visit juiciocontraofensiva.blogspot.com and “Juicio Campo de Mayo Causa Contraofensiva Montonera” on Facebook, where it is possible to read the trial diary to know the stories of these true protagonists of the resistance to the genocidal dictatorship in 1979 and 1980. There is also Virginia Croatto’s documentary, “La Guardería” which can be found on Youtube.
TGP: What level of support is there among the children of former officers to proceed in this legal possibility?
Verna: When you consider the full extent of genocide perpetrated in Argentina, I have to admit that so far, a very small number of genocide perpetrators’ descendants have organized to repudiate the parents and their action. But our numbers are gradually increasing.
There was also an important trigger – one of the most aberrant, current attempts at genocide denial and impunity by the courts known as the “2X1” ruling, which stipulates that the time spent in prison before receiving a conviction counts double towards the total sentencing for crimes of genocide. This is a clear attempt to disguise impunity. In this case, the voice of Mariana Dopazo (ex-daughter of the genocide perpetrator Miguel Etchecolatz) was the catalyst to unite approximately 30 people in a brief time, to share our histories, imbued with guilt and shame.
Thanks to the persistence of our comrade, Analia Kalinec, I began to realize that there had to be more children of genocide perpetrators who faced similar situations and wanted to meet. This finally happened when we encountered each other among the spontaneous comments appearing below the report carried by the magazine Anfibia about Mariana Dopazo being present in the march which saw people protesting to repudiate the court’s judgment.
So while we are still a small number, we are still many because of what this movement implies. We hope that our numbers will increase, because this is a good opportunity to meet and heal, in complete confidentiality. The only requirement is that we stand for memory, truth and justice, and against the genocide perpetrators.
TGP: Can you relate the progress so far regarding your own testimony about your father’s participation in the death flights?
Verna: My testimony was recent: July 2, 2019. At this stage, the advances at the legal level are important, because we are breaking the barriers of silence, now also in front of the judiciary. In this specific case, it will be the prosecuting parties (prosecutor and complainant) who will present the evidence, among which my statement will be included.
As I understand, the judges’ view will have more or less impact in deciding what the source of the testimonial evidence is. It is evident that when the person testifying is the son of a genocide perpetrator who was able to overcome the silence imposed on him, who could overcome the psychological actions he was subjected to within his family, and could also break the ideology of extermination imparted on him since childhood, that does not equal the testimony of someone who witnessed the perpetration of any other crime, and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the latter.
Whoever declares that he is the son of a genocide perpetrator can transcend the imposed silence and overcome the psychological dynamics prevalent in one’s family.
The death flights were a means of exterminating and disappearing people which the genocidal dictatorship in Argentina implemented with utmost cruelty. That cruelty is exercised daily by the genocide perpetrators who continue to maintain their silence regarding the disappeared victims. The relatives of the disappeared have the simple, basic and human need to know the fate of their loved ones. With silence, the crime of forced disappearance is committed over and over again.
Rather than considering it a result, I think of my testimony as a starting point. This a good time for the genocide perpetrators to break their pact of silence – it is also what relatives would ask if they could – to transcend the ideology of extermination.