I was thirteen years old when I first stepped off the boat onto the shore of the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary and met Carol Patrick, who had a fuzzy auburn spider monkey sitting atop her shoulders. The monkey’s name was Sweetie and there were others like her who followed us as we explored the premises. While the tour lasted only an hour, the experience stuck with me. Four years later I was lying in bed listening to the melodic chatter of the jungle, waking up at sunrise to feed a pair of baby Titi monkeys, floating in warm waves during breaks, and leading the same tour that had first inspired me to volunteer.
A few years ago, I found myself in the middle of the Mekong River headed for the remote village of Ban Pak Nguey in Northern Laos. For seven hours, I meandered on a long wooden boat decked with chairs from old minivans, slipping deeper into a rugged landscape softened by silky waters and the envelopment of a milky red smog—the byproduct of slashing and burning the fields that time of year. Meanwhile, fishermen in long canoes with hand-held motors propelled effortlessly past our slow-moving mass.
On the 24th of March Argentina celebrates the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, a public holiday to honor the lives of the victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship, also known as the “Dirty War,” which spanned from 1976 to 1983. It is a day met with collective solemnity, as Argentina—much like many other Latin American countries that experienced similar dictatorships—recalls this chapter in its history as having induced a heavy trauma to its national identity. Thirty thousand people were “kidnapped” (the term in Spanish for one of these individuals being “desaparecido”) for their alleged dissidence to the right-wing regime during a penetrating epoch of repression, fear, and unchecked human rights abuses.There’s no better way to understand this time period than to look at the story of one notable survivor: Patricia Isasa.
Kidnapped from her school in the Santa Fe province as a teenager, Isasa spent almost three years being held and tortured in different concentration camps. Unlike other less fortunate victims, she lived to tell the tale. On January 28 of this year, Isasa was invited to the Global School of Policy and Strategy in UC San Diego to discuss the life-altering events of her youth, as well as the many legal pathways she took after the end of the dictatorship to bring her perpetrators to justice.
Isasa began her talk with an explanation of what it meant to be a “desaparecido.” Being a “desaparecido” most often included being taken by the government, sent to a clandestine place, tortured, moved to another concentration camp, killed, and then secretly disposed of (either through a common grave or through the dumping of your body off of a plane into a lake or river, which Isasa described as the “Argentine” way). As a young girl of sixteen, Isasa’s student activism and early political inclinations had been sufficient grounds for her to be taken into military custody and forced to spend the next two and a half years imprisoned in three different concentration camps.
Isasa had no shortage of dehumanizing experiences from the time she spent illegally detained. She described different unidentified men hitting her against walls and leaving her in dark rooms with her hands and feet tied for weeks on end. She also chronicled the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of officers who reserved a “special treatment” for women that included raping them and ejaculating on their naked bodies as they tortured them with electric shocks. Detainees were forced to eat rotten food and bathe in freezing temperatures; the conditions of all of the camps being abysmal. Isasa and other victims of torture and abuse described their experiences as comparable to the infamous stories and pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib in 2003, as they recalled officers forcing detainees to rape one another while they themselves took torture-breaks to play soccer. This nightmarish chapter of Isasa’s life finally came to an end in 1978 when she was abruptly released after being held for two years without a trial or formal charges.
One member of the audience asked Isasa the question on everyone’s mind: “What was it that got you through this time?” Isasa’s reply left nothing to the imagination. 1975, the year before the formal start of the dictatorship in Argentina, was the year that Spain’s military dictator Francisco Franco passed away. With his passing came the death of his dictatorship and the unlikely emergence of democracy in the country. After 36 years of unceasing repression, Spain had at last broken from its fascist history, something which gave Isasa, all the way in Argentina, some degree of reassurance. It proved to her that someday her own troubles—the dictatorship, the kidnappings, the fear and repression—would come to an end. Like many before her, it was the act of looking forward, realizing that what she was going through wouldn’t last forever, and the belief that history would right all wrongs that effectively forged her psychological resistance.
While surviving the torture and abuse had been morally exacting, arriving at justice was similarly strenuous as Isasa had to battle a rigid wall of impunity. Even after Argentina’s return to democracy, all three of her main perpetrators were still protected by it. The chief exterminator of the camp she had been detained in was mayor. Her torturer, who had subjected her to horrific sexual abuse, was Santa Fe’s Ministry of Culture. Her interrogator, who had forged documents to prolong and authenticate her torture, remained a federal judge in the province. To Isasa, nothing was worse than knowing that all the people who had conspired in her dehumanization would not bear the consequences of their actions.
Having failed to attain justice domestically, Isasa turned to international law. It was at this juncture that she traveled to Spain, found a lawyer willing to represent her, and filed a lawsuit from abroad. While her lawyer tried to issue a warrant asking for the extradition of her perpetrators, it ultimately proved unsuccessful as the Argentine president at the time, De La Rua, rejected the extradition and the accused were never called to testify. To Isasa, this was a blatant admission of Argentina’s refusal to make amends for its past — most likely out of a fear that it would point to much more inculpating complicity. The events of the past in Argentina were not isolated to the actions of one military general but rather enabled by the many (kidnappers, torturers, judicial henchmen) who abetted and assisted the regime in its systemic acts of repression. Isasa considered this to be a truth so incriminating that she could see why many Argentines wanted to shun it altogether.
Ultimately, Isasa persevered and her efforts, along with the pressure of many grassroots organizations within Argentina (one being the highly influential “Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo” that tirelessly campaigned for the return of kidnapped children and stolen babies), proved fruitful. It was not until Nestor Kirchner’s administration in the early 2000s that this curtain of impunity was finally lifted with the repeal of various laws that had previously protected government officials. What followed was a historic wave of criminal trials where approximately 259 of the accused received sentences for “crimes against humanity” and “genocide.” In the end, Isasa was able to testify in trial, which resulted in her three primary abusers being convicted. They received three life sentences each, which they are currently serving at a maximum security prison.
In the midst of an ongoing debate within nation-states and Human Rights institutions about what measures of transitional justice should be pursued in post-conflict societies (whether it should be retributive justice or reconciliatory measures), Isasa’s stance could not be more clear: the law should act as the ultimate mediator. Isasa firmly believes that trials offer the necessary means to engage in a debate, deliver proof of crimes, commence a national discussion, and — most importantly— follow the truth. She stated how her own trial hadn’t been centered around the demand to be compensated for her individual suffering, but more so on the setting of a precedent and the encouragement of others to further this legacy of accountability. There should be no pardons, no amnesty, and no impunity. To Isasa, retributive justice is the ultimate vehicle for both the healing of individual victims and the repair of a damaged national body.
With an opera based on her life having premiered in Canada in 2016 and talks of a movie in the works, Isasa’s story has captured the attention of many. More so, her past experiences and prolonged work for the Argentine Human Rights and Justice Ministry have only given more weight and passion to her number-one belief: the guilty must always pay for their crimes.