Evidence uncovered by Kate Doyle, a researcher at the non-profit National Security Archive has proven crucial in several recent human rights trials in Latin America.
Doyle tells host Lisa Mullins how documents that originate within the US government are establishing culpability for crimes committed by former American allies in Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Doyle, along with Fredy Peccerelli, the forensic anthropologist of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, have won the 2012 Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive (ALBA) and Puffin Foundation Award for Human Rights Activism.
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is “The World” a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. The 1960s, 70s, and 80s were a turbulent time in many Latin American countries. Popular insurrection threatened authoritarian regimes. Military and security resorted to ruthless tactic to cling to power. Today, several Latin American nations are making strides to examine their painful past, but to reveal the full story they need documentation and that’s hard to come by. A handful of human rights crusaders have worked to unearth new evidence of those so called “dirty wars”. Among them is Kate Doyle. She directs the evidence project at the National Security Archive. This week Doyle received the Puffin Foundation Award for Human Rights Activism. She won it with Guatemalan forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli. Kate Doyle has gone to great lengths to get some key documents, but sometimes, she says, people come to her with the evidence.
Kate Doyle: In 1999 a group of people gave me a document that had been leaked from military intelligence files in Guatemala. That is a kind of registry of the disappeared. It is literally a logbook compiled by a military operational unit that went after suspected subversives, kidnapped them, tortured them for information, and secretly killed them. Those bodies are buried somewhere all over the country. These are hundreds of people, part of the forty thousand estimated disappeared in Guatemala. And that military logbook, which I took out of the country and publicized in Washington because of the fear in Guatemala that if it was publicized there it would endanger people’s lives, that logbook is now at the heart of a collective case of forced disappearance in Guatemala. And some of the bodies of the disappeared chronicled in that military logbook have actually been found on a former military base in Chimaltenango outside Guatemala City. With the DNA laboratory that the forensic anthropologists have been able to use to match the material from family members with the DNA from the bones, we have been able to identify five of the disappeared. That’s how vital these documents and the kind of evidence we find in the clandestine cemeteries is to helping account for what happened.
Mullins: How did you get out of the country with documentation like that? I can’t imagine that it happens without some kind of threats against you.
Doyle: If I told you all my secrets of my trade, Lisa, I wouldn’t be able to do it next time. It’s called a purse.
Mullins: It’s called a purse. But is it dangerous?
Doyle: You know, it’s dangerous for my partners and colleagues in Guatemala and other countries. It’s dangerous to live there. It’s dangerous on the ground, and people like Fredy Peccerelli – the forensic anthropologist, the family members of the disappeared who have never stopped asking for information about their loved ones. It’s dangerous for them. They are targeted. They receive death threats. They receive phone calls at any hour of the night. So they need protection, they need support, and it’s important to shine a light on the work they’re doing so they can have that protection.
Mullins: You were also recently in Peru to testify in a case against the former Intelligence Chief who was working for President Alberto Fujimori. What was the nature of that case and what was your involvement?
Doyle: Peru’s former Intelligence Chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, is already in jail on charges of corruption. He’s been convicted of corruption charges. He’s now been indicted for his involvement overseeing a commando team that went into the Japanese embassy in 1997 to rescue a group a hostages that had been taken by Peruvian guerrillas and held for a number of of months. If Alberto Fujimori, the President of Peru, and Vladimiro Montesinos, his Intelligence Chief, had left it at that, you know, it was a successful hostage rescue operation, they would have been heroes. Instead, the commando unit decided to turn their guns on their already captive hostage-takers and kill them right there in the embassy and outside of the embassy grounds. And so this indictment on the assassination of the guerrilla hostage-takers in the Japanese embassy are the charges that were just heard in a Peruvian courtroom in April, and Vladimiro Montesinos was sitting not ten feet away from as I testified about a declassified defense department document that had been written by officials in the US embassy in Lima about that commando attack to rescue the hostages that also resulted in the assassination of these guerrilla hostage-takers.
Mullins: So you were facing him, perhaps him facing you? I wonder what that was like?
Doyle: I have to admit that it was eerie to be sitting in the courtroom with the Former Chief of Intelligence of Peru, a man known for the most venal corrupt dealings and his involvement and oversight of some of the most terrible human rights crimes in the hemisphere.Yes, it’s scary to go up against human rights criminals, but I think all of us who do this work, when we get to go up against them in a court of law, we feel that we are participating in history and in that sense we feel protected and supported.
Mullins: And how would, for the people of these countries themselves when a society in Latin America is engaged in a debate about whether or not it even makes sense to look back, let alone uncover the bones themselves, how do you see that argument? Because there is an argument that says, “Look, let the past remain in the past.”
Doyle: Latin America suffered its own kind of holocaust in the 20th Century. It’s hard for us, as US citizens, to conceive of the dimensions of the violence that took place in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s basically on behalf of an anti-communist ideology that the United States promulgated in the region. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Civilians, unarmed civilians were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were disappeared by their governments. The family members of the disappeared will never forget what happened and will never walk away from the fate of their loved ones. So to me, it’s a false argument, this idea that you can somehow bury a past as painful as that, ignore the continued search on the part of hundreds of thousands of people, from mothers and sons and sisters and brothers, and somehow pretend that healthy functioning democratic societies can go forwards without coming to terms with the fact that their own institutions targeted their civilians for death.
Mullins: Of course, here you are, an American speaking in a judiciary in a Latin American country where very often the offenses you’re talking about happened with US complicity. Does that affect your credibility?
Doyle: That’s right. The United States supported the militaries and police institution in Latin America through millions of dollars of aid, through training, through intelligence services, but that support translated into the documentation that those same US officials created, describing our support and the allied militaries we were working with, whether they were in Guatemala, Peru, Argentina, or Chile. Those documents, today, form the core of some of the key evidence that we use in these trials. The Latin American militaries are unwilling to turn over their records. So when you have stonewalling on the part on the military and resistance on the part of the government of a place like Guatemala or Peru for example, the US declassified documents from that same era can provide us with a door into understanding how the violence took place.
Mullins: Thank you. Kate Doyle, who directs the evidence project at the non-profit National Security Archive. This week she received the Puffin Foundation Award for Human Rights Activism, one of the major prizes in the field of human rights. Very nice to speak with you, Kate. Congratulations.
Doyle: Thank you, Lisa.
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