The Man Who Discovered the Archives of Terror

For many years KPP has been working with the Paraguayan government to protect, restore and catalog the so-called Archives of Terror.  Donna Schenck-Hamlin working on the project.  To read more about the project, click here.

Below is an account of the Archives’ discovery from the UNESCO website:

On 22 December 1992, a Paraguayan, Martín Almada, discovered three tons of documents in a police station. They turned out to be the archives of Operation Condor, which confirmed the crimes carried out in the 1970s and 1980s by the six dictatorships of the Southern Cone of Latin America. A former UNESCO colleague looks back.

During the 1960s I was director of a primary and secondary school in the suburbs of San Lorenzo (Paraguay). My wife, Celestina Pérez, and I lived in accommodations provided by the Juan Bautista Alberdi Institute, named after the Argentinean lawyer who had defended Paraguayan interests following the devastating conflict of 1870. Our once well-educated and prosperous country had never recovered. So much so that, in 1954, the military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner, undoubtedly the most savage in the entire Southern Cone of Latin America, descended on us.

We carried on our work as educators against a backdrop of permanent siege and the suspension of civil and political freedoms, looking to the Brazilian Paulo Freire for inspiration on the pedagogy of the oppressed. For us, school was the antechamber of democracy.

When I was elected president of the Association of School Teachers, my colleagues and I launched a campaign entitled “A roof for every Paraguayan teacher”, because primary teachers were in dire need of housing. In 1965, we built a cooperative teachers’ residence in San Lorenzo called Villa del maestro. In the 1970s, I was able to take up my studies again in Argentina, at La Plata University, with a scholarship from the Argentinean government. I submitted a thesis on educational science, specializing in educational policy, on the theme of “Paraguay, Education and Dependency”, which argued that, in my country, education only helped the ruling classes, and that it perpetuated underdevelopment and subjugation. I was the first Paraguayan to receive a PhD in educational science.

When I went back to Paraguay in November 1974, I was immediately arrested and brought before an Operation Condor military tribunal, where Paraguayan officials sat next to Argentinean, Brazilian, Bolivian, Chilean and Uruguayan military attachés. For 30 days I was subjected to barbaric torture, based on “scientific” techniques taught at the School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone [a zone controlled by the USA from 1903 to 1979].

I was accused of “intellectual terrorism” for my education work and for having demanded a decent salary and housing for teachers.

Meanwhile, Celestina was put under house arrest at the school. For ten days the political police called her and made her listen to my shouting and crying. On the tenth day, at midnight, they told her, coldly, that the “subversive educator” had died, asking her to come and collect the body. This news proved fatal and Celestina died in December 1974.

After three years in a detention centre, I was transferred, for “misconduct” – I had taught my cellmates to read – to the Emboscada concentration camp, 45 km from Asunción. I went on hunger strike for 30 days. Thanks to the energetic intervention of the Committee of Paraguayan Churches (CIPAE) and Amnesty International, I was conditionally released in September 1977. But the freedom was only relative – I was re-arrested in November and interrogated at the infamous Technical Section of the Ministry of the Interior. This “elementary school” for assassins operated without interruption from 1956 to 1992.

An exile at UNESCO

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) then negotiated political refugee status for me in Panama, where the government backed my application for a post in Paris as education consultant for Latin America, in November 1978. I went on to join the staff of UNESCO’s Education Sector, where I stayed until the end of 1992. I was one of many Latin Americans to come under the protective wing of UNESCO – including Argentineans Julio Cortázar and Juan Gelman, the Bolivian Fernando Laredo, Chileans Mario Leyton and Miguel Núñez, and the Ecuadorian Jorge Adoum.

Reading UNESCO documents made me realize that my campaign was justified and I continue to think that we were right to fight, so that the following recommendation by the then Director-General, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, could be applied: “To teach everyone to respect and ensure that others respect, one’s own human rights and those of other people, and to be prepared, when necessary, to find the courage to defend them in all circumstances, even the most difficult – such is the most imperative moral duty of our generation.”

During the week, I was a Latin American educator working for UNESCO. But at the weekend, for almost fifteen years, I spent my time researching the mystery of Operation Condor in Paraguayan police journals. Father Charles Antoine, then head of the weekly magazine Dial (which published news about Latin America), offered help with methodology and let me use his library outside working hours.

The Paraguayan military dictatorship came to an end in February 1989, and, in December 1992, I went back to live in my own country. Through my research, I was convinced that the archives of Operation Condor could be hidden in three places.

Outcome of the investigation

Martín Almada is laureate of the French Republic Human Rights Award (1997), the Right Livelihood Award (2002) and the Tomas Moro Prize from the Paraguayan Catholic University of Asunción (2007). He is Commander of the Order of May of the Argentine Government.

The new democratic constitution of June 1992 gave us the right to access the files kept on us. I asked Judge José Agustín Fernández for mine. According to the police, there were no such files, and I had never been detained. So I then requested that the police central archives be searched. This was covered extensively in the newspapers.

Then a woman telephoned me: “Professor, the documents you are looking for are not in the central archives, but in a police station in the suburb of Asunción.” I invited this woman to come to my office, and she brought a map of the place, saying she wanted to help bring about the return of democracy. I immediately passed the information onto the judge and, a few days later, on 22 December, accompanied by national and foreign journalists, we exhumed three tons of documents – the infamous Operation Condor “Archives of Terror”.

They were immediately transferred to the courthouse. We then worked tirelessly to make sure these archives were preserved, while making them available to historians. They played an important role in establishing the Commission of Truth and Justice, which, after four years of hard work (2004-2008), confirmed the crimes carried out by the dictatorship and gave rise to a series of conclusions and recommendations that the democratic government is about to implement.

Human rights organizations, backed by the Paraguayan government, have requested that UNESCO inscribe this entire archive, which I had the honour to rediscover, on the Memory of the World Register. This inscription is crucial because it protects the right of people to their identity and their memory. And protecting memory means making it possible to understand the present and to build the future.

Martín Almada is head of the Celestina Pérez de Almada Foundation, whose distinguishing characteristic is to associate protection of human rights and protection of the environment. The Foundation was awarded the European Solar Prize in Berlin in 2005.

To read Martín Almada’s account of his experience and see some photos  on the UNESCO website   click  here.


One Response

  1. Hi there! This article couldn’t be written any better!
    Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept preaching about this. I most certainly will send this article to him.
    Pretty sure he’ll have a very good read. Thanks for sharing!

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