Patricia Isasa: Human Rights Activist and Survivor of Argentina’s “Dirty War”

by Cristina Hernandez
Staff Writer

Trigger Warning: Rape/Torture

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.

March for the Day of Remembrance of Truth and Justice

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.

Images by
UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy
Monk fotografia


by Rebeca Camacho
Staff Writer

2018 marks the thirtieth-year anniversary of the enactment of Brazil’s constitution, ending an era of military dictatorships that swept the country from 1964 to 1985. This year the Brazilian public elected former-military general and far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro into presidential office–the first president in over ten years to not represent the Workers’ Party (PT). Bolsonaro’s election can be attributed to a combination of the Brazilian people’s indignation with the PT’s previous administrations and the strategic alignment of his campaign with that of his protectionist counterparts abroad. Bolsonaro framed himself as a man of the people, but one need only look at his plans for economic reform to determine exactly whose interests he is representing.

As we examine Bolsonaro’s campaign, there are certain historical parallels with Donald Trump’s 2017 campaign worth mentioning. Much like Trump, Bolsonaro understood where the PT had failed the people; he brought attention to serious concerns of insecurity and the displacement of Venezuelan economic migrants within Brazil’s borders, ultimately using them as fuel for divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. Similar to how Donald Trump appealed to a portion of society that felt disconnected from reality, Bolsonaro ignited political fervor among those in Brazil who viewed him as the only credible alternative. Unfortunately, through his appointment of neoliberal economists into his cabinet and an agenda favoring the business elite, many of his proposals reinforce a status quo of inequality.

‘Women against Bolsonaro’ March in Brazil

From Foreign to Familiar
With Brazil’s political climate more closely resembling an episode from the Netflix original political thriller “House of Cards”, much of the Brazilian people began tuning out the news. The increasing disconnect between Brazilian politicians and their constituents amidst economic uncertainty opened up the way for Bolsonaro to emerge from the fringes of the political spectrum.

Indeed, the primary reasoning behind Bolsonaro’s victory was his campaign as the “anti-establishment” candidate. With the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff and the similarly low approval ratings of her successor, sitting-president Michel Temer, the Brazilian people grew tired of finding their leaders in the midst of misconduct allegations. Brazil’s news cycles and reputation abroad have been tarnished by some of the country’s most widely reported corruption scandals such as “Operation Car Wash” and “Mensalão” (or “Big Monthly Stipend”), which implicated individuals from virtually all levels of government and major Brazilian firms. In this way, the PT’s past and that of many in charge served as their own worst enemy.

So, it should come as no surprise that Bolsonaro would leverage the people’s loss of faith in the administrators of the country’s welfare as a deflection away from points of contention raised by his own critics. Bolsonaro’s heavy use of social media platforms such as “Whatsapp” for campaigning, his decision to run for office as the Social Liberal Party’s (PSL) candidate, in an effort to distance himself from the ruling far-left Worker’s Party (PT), provided him the credibility to present himself as a departure from the image of Brazilian politicians that the public had come to despise.

Bolsonaro’s weaponization of inflammatory rhetoric and promotion of conservative values endeared him to a disenfranchised segment of the population. Similar to the “silent majority” that Donald Trump’s “anti-political correctness” movement captivated, some Brazilians were enamored with Bolsonaro’s bigoted verbiage as a deviation from the global progressive wave. Much like Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro framed himself as the outsider at odds with the political and intellectual elites. However fastidiously criticized his policies were in academic circles, the business elites proved beguiled by Bolsonaro’s promised governmental reforms. With the majority of the population expressing dissatisfaction with the previous two administrations headed by the Worker’s Party (PT), Bolsonaro was able to utilize public skepticism of “establishment” politicians to alter Brazil’s position as a “peaceful giant”–a historically neutral and cooperative international agent.

Bolsonaro supporters in October 2018

The recent economic destabilization of some of Brazil’s Latin American neighbors played a pivotal role in Bolsonaro’s victory, empowering an isolated demographic to express their collective political voice. Residents of Brazil’s state of Roraima, for instance, have largely borne the negative impacts of  Venezuelan migration as many migrants sought refuge from the worst economic crisis in their country’s history. Bolsonaro played on the uncertainty of the residents of Roraima during his campaign. He suggested a possible withdrawal from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, and more recently stated that he would resort to “whatever means necessary” when “saving Venezuela from itself.” His rhetoric is more like that of military leaders during Brazil’s period of political oppression and Donald Trump’s anti-immigration platform. In this way, Venezuela served to negatively reinforce what Brazil’s future could look like if the way the country is running the economy does not change.     

Bolsonaro’s victory is largely attributed to his economic vision, or lack thereof. When asked of his economic policy, Bolsonaro admitted his inexperience in the field and professed his reliance on the expertise of his cabinet’s nominee to be Minister of the Economy, former banker Paulo Guedes. As a graduate from the University of Chicago and fervent advocate of Neoliberalism and free-market economics, Guedes espouses the urgent need for a shift away from Brazil’s long-standing system of heavy government involvement, a sizeable welfare state structure and stringent oversight of Brazilian institutions.

Plans for a smaller government translated into optimism in Brazil’s stock market. The idea of privatizing a good portion of the country’s public agencies can be attractive to potential investors, but at what cost? The progress made for social and environmental causes is intimately tied to combating the driving forces of inequality in Brazil. This is what is at risk. Bolsonaro’s administration promises to free the country from its many inefficiencies and overly bureaucratic characterization. But when less oversight translates into deregulation of environmental policies and disregards the root causes to social injustice, many of the ails affecting the country’s workforce will continue to fester like unattended open wounds.


Photos by:
Renato Gizzi
Alessandro Dias


by Mekalyn Rose
Editor in Chief

This is the second article of a two part series discussing drug decriminalization and its implications for Portugal, the United States and Mexico. Part One can be found here:

Portugal’s [decriminalization] methods are drastically different from the increasingly strengthened War on Drugs in the United States, where over half a million people die from prescribed, legal and illicit drugs combined every year. The question is, if Portugal has been so successful in combating their own drug epidemic with these methods, why has the United States been so slow––even resistant––to follow suit?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Understanding current U.S. motivations behind domestic drug policy warrants taking a look at why it all started.

On the surface, draconian style laws in the United States in regards to the War on Drugs seem to boast a noble mission of promoting widespread health and eliminating crime. However, the historical underbelly of drug policy reveals highly political and racial motivations for the enactment of laws. Today, the United States faces a raging opioid epidemic with an unsustainable influx of incarceration, which points to one key point: something isn’t working. In order to move forward in molding policies that do work, it’s important to recognize how we got here and what went wrong.

The Road to Radicalization: Origins of Drug Policies

The first push against drugs in the United States came in 1875. Shortly after the arrival of male Chinese workers during the mid-nineteenth century, San Francisco passed a law against smoking opium. In 1909, the Anti-Opium Act made it a federal offense. These laws did not apply to the alternative method of injecting opiates, more commonly practiced by Whites; rather, they targeted a particularly Chinese practice. This was fueled by both the perceived threat to white male workers” during a work shortage, as well as stories published as part of a fear campaign emphasizing the “Yellow Peril” led by William Randolph Hearst which “[claimed] white women were being seduced by Chinese men in the opium dens.”

Laws pertaining to cocaine use took a similar route of reasoning. In the late 1800s, cocaine was introduced to Black communities as dockworkers first used it to withstand up to seventy hour stretches of work before this method of coping was also adopted on the plantations. Many of the crimes committed by Black people in the South were subsequently blamed on cocaine addiction. In 1914, The New York Times published an article titled “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.” This article included the idea that heavier artillery was needed to take down a “cocaine-crazed negro,” further inciting racialized fear.

Twenty years later, new drug policies were directed towards Mexicans. Similarly to perceptions of cocaine effects, marijuana was claimed to give Mexicans “enormous strength” and that it would “take several men to handle one man,” statements left unsupported by any noteworthy evidence. Nevertheless, The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibited its use or sale as a method of controlling the surge of immigrants following the Mexican Revolution, who were accustomed to using it as a medicinal plant.

Fast forward to the 1970s and marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, but for an entirely different reason. In 1994, John Ehrlichman––the former domestic policy advisor under President Nixon––admitted in an interview that the War on Drugs, which was speed-rolled during Nixon’s presidency in the ‘70s, was politically motivated against Nixon’s antiwar and Black opponents.

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.

It would seem that the debate of whether or not to reexamine our drug laws would end there, as history has reflected “how deeply embedded drugs are in our cultural frame of reference, the background ‘unconscious’ of our society where reactions are formed prior to conscious reflection.” However, both the cultural stigma against illicit drugs and political motivations continue to release a message of drug demonization and prohibition that constitutes an ideology the United States attempts to force onto its citizens and allies.

The Costs of Suppression and Regulation

Mexican President Vicente Fox has discussed the failed War on Drugs and U.S. denial of its own mistakes within a prohibitionist past, calling for a new paradigm. Ironically enough, the effort to curb illegal drug use turned out to be the very catalyst to create a breeding ground for drug trafficking. It wasn’t until after opiates, cocaine and marijuana were criminalized within the United States that the lucrative drug trade “materialized south of the U.S.-Mexico border.” Today, the United States faces a daunting realization. Almost half a century since Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs and nearly one trillion government dollars have been spent, efforts have adversely culminated into the antithesis of the “Land of the Free” with an estimated 450,000 people incarcerated for drug related offenses in 2016, compared to around 40,900 prisoners in 1980.

Notably, when it comes to marijuana, public opinion has begun to shift. Nine states and Washington D.C. have legalized both recreational and medical cannabis use and research on health benefits have produced many positive results. Despite this progress, the conversation of legalization, let alone decriminalization, usually doesn’t apply to other drugs and the legalization of cannabis––especially in California––has had an unintended consequence for the drug trade coming out of Mexico. Illegal substances create a market and cannabis is no longer profitable, at least not for the cartels. Now, heroin is the new market and U.S. pharmaceutical companies are partly to blame.

The current opioid epidemic can be traced back to a public health system saturated with the very substance that incited the original drug laws: opioids. The United States has a “pain” problem. In 2015, it was reported that around 92 million people, or 38% of the U.S. population, took a prescribed opioid painkiller. Despite a lack of pain reported in the last couple of decades, “sales of prescription opioids in the United States nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014.” While painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin have proven highly effective in treating pain, their abuse potential is significant. Around 4-6% of people who misuse their prescriptions turn to heroin, which happens to be a “cheaper and more powerful” alternative.

Questioning Current Approaches to Drug Policy

So, what do these changes reveal about current approaches? Will there always be another drug exploited to profit off the masses? History will indicate yes, unless society forgoes the fear and taboo of illicit drugs long enough to discuss honestly the realities of human culture and address the issue of drugs as a whole. Drugs have always been incorporated into human society and it is unrealistic to push a goal of complete eradication, nor is it always straightforward to define the line between safe drugs and dangerous ones. Anything used beyond the scope of necessity increases risk, as the abuse of opioid prescriptions indicates.

There is also no proof that the decriminalization policies used in Portugal will provide the United States with the same positive results. Some counter arguments cite the massive size difference in population and the cyclical nature of drug epidemics that cannot be helped by policy. However, it is maintained that “much of the American approach to drug policy is based on speculation, fear-mongering, and outdated methodologies and ideologies, instead of the empirical evidence that allowed the Portuguese task force to focus on specifics of poverty.” Today, there is growing support for decriminalization, backed by both the United Nations and World Health Organization.

Finally, the question remains why the United States has appeared resistant to change. Among several possible reasons, propagandist belief systems have shaped our perspective and knowledge of drugs, private prisons profit off drug crime, pharmaceutical companies benefit from addiction and language such as “druggie” and “junkie” continue to promote the dehumanization of people seeking help. A culture of shame replaced by a society of well-being would alter the label of “criminal” to “ill,” provide greater avenues for seeking help, allow for valuable medical testing and free up law enforcement to focus on bigger issues and improve their relationship with communities. Like Portugal in the 1980s, the United States is reaching a point of desperation. The rate of change is dependent upon our willingness to question the foundation of our current viewpoints and how to implement laws or strategies founded on principles of health and public good instead of racial or political underpinnings. Perhaps then the focus will be less on the thickness of physical chains and more on the alleviation of psychological ones on the road to healing.


Image by Anne Worner