Patricia Isasa's Quest for Justice

— David Finkel

PATRICIA ISASA TURNED 16 on April 24, 1976 in her home town of Santa Fe, Argentina. She was an honor student, a delegate of her school and a member of a Catholic group in support of the poor - all completely open and legal activities.

Three months later, Patricia was kidnapped by the forces of the military dictatorship. She was among tens of thousands of "disappeared" in the Argentine dirty war; unlike most, Isasa survived, released after two and a half years without charge or trial.

Even more unusually, she was able to track down the men who oversaw her imprisonment, interrogation and torture - men who had since risen to high political and judicial office in Argentina - and see them put on trial.

Isasa, who now works as an architect, still lives with the memories of torture by stress positions - her feet and hands bound tightly together in a crouching position for the first week of her arrest, with one bathroom break per day - by electric shock, by threatened rape and by guards humiliating and ejaculating on her.

Her first week was at Police Station #1 in Santa Fe. Several weeks followed at Police Station #4, where the facility for systematic torture took place - Isasa is able to identify the very rooms where "the worst three days of my life" were spent. During this time her family had no idea where she was. The remaining two years and two months of her imprisonment were at a detention facility, with 36 other women in a six-by-six meter room without windows, expecting execution at any time, until the day when she was released, without notice or explanation.

Three decades later, Isasa says, when she opened her morning newspaper at breakfast and saw the photos from Abu Ghraib in Iraq, "I realized the methods were the very same. They have not even changed their manuals. The stacks of prisoners. The dogs. The people hanging from the ceiling, just like those in the prison where I was."

That's not the only U.S. connection. The men who oversaw the torture prisons of the Argentine dictatorship, notably Chief of Intelligence Domingo Marcellini - like those of the Central American genocidists of the 1980s in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas (sometimes called "School of Assassins") at Fort Benning, Georgia. Isasa is a strong supporter of the annual mobilizations demanding the shutdown of that notorious institution.

Isasa spoke at Detroit's Wayne State University on October 8, while touring several U.S. cities. She offers her testimony both in person and through a documentary film she produced in 2004, in which she revisits Police Stations  #1 and  #4 where she was held and two other prisoners of that period also tell their experiences. Chillingly enough - in scenes where Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil" has never seemed more fitting - three officials deny that they ever did anything but follow the established procedures.

Eduardo Ramos, who posed as "the crazy guy" in a good cop-bad cop routine at Police Station #1, was a police spy who infiltrated student groups and turned in dozens of names. Mario Jose Facino was the head of Police Station #4, the torture center. He became a mayor. Victor Brusa, a court employee who became an interrogator after the military coup, subsequently rose to become a high federal judge - a position from which he was stripped after Patricia's efforts exposed his crimes against humanity.

None of the three express the slightest remorse or responsibility. "I was never involved in a repressive group," says Facino, "my job was only to detain subversives, subversive delinquents."

Bringing these men to justice is a saga in itself. Following the collapse of the dictatorship and the return of democracy in 1984, the military exerted enough pressure on subsequent governments to secure laws of immunity that protected them for years.

After years of struggle, enduring death threats that continue today, Patricia Isasa was able to present five hours of testimony before Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who demanded their extradition. (Previously he had ordered the arrest of Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet.)

While President Fernando de la Rua refused the extradition, Argentine's treaty with Spain required him to open an investigation against the accused. Years later, the first phase of the proceedings under Argentine law - gathering of testimony and evidence - are complete and the trial to determine the guilt of the accused is currently scheduled for March of 2009.

"What was the reason for these things?" Isasa asks. "If the government kidnaps 30 students in a university, people know those students. They know they were involved, for example, in the student union. So the first reaction is, of course, that it's dangerous to be involved in the student union - the military could kidnap you too. Same thing for people in unions when the trade unionists disappear. Everyone becomes afraid. And the function of torture is to make the entire society afraid. Then the government is more able to get control of a city, or a region."

At least one key witness in the case against Argentine's torturers disappeared in 2006 and is presumed dead. Isasa herself has fulltime bodyguards when she's back home. So many years after most of the world has forgotten, the death squads continue to cast a shadow. Isasa, however, will not quit until some measure of justice can be achieved for her and for thousands who did not survive to speak for themselves.

ATC 137, November-December 2008

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