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I've worked for a big multi-national, lived abroad for several years, travelled a lot, now in politics. Married once but separated; no kids. Generally utilitarian except for minority rights.


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MARCH 1, 2012 8:40AM

Police State Latin America Style

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          I’d read a few recent posts on a police state under Obama.  The case in favor rests on examples like the killing of al-Awlaki, the continuation of Guantanamo, drone attacks, the harsh incarceration of Bradley Manning, an increase in espionage charges for leaks to the press, indefinite detentions and warrantless wiretapping.  That list may not be exhaustive.

          But my intent is not to revisit the Obama/police state issue.  I wanted to write about a few incidents of working and living in Latin America during their dictatorial period.  Nonetheless, I note that the fact we can even openly discuss whether or not, or to what extent the current government constitutes a police state indicates it’s unlike those in 1980s Latin America.



          Argentina had what’s referred to as a “dirty war” (though “state terrorism” might be more apt) from 1975-1983.  It was under a military dictatorship and between 13,000 and 30,000 were murdered by government forces.  This is a country whose population is about one tenth of the United States.

          During the dictatorship my future ex, Rosa, was involved with one of the left of center political parties.  For some of their meetings she would be told by someone who bumped into her in a café or on the street that she should be near a certain street corner at a certain time.  A car would come by and she’d get in.  More often than not she wouldn’t know the driver or the other passengers, though often it was just her and the driver.  By mutual understanding there was no conversation.  She’d be dropped at a house, often on the outskirts of Buenos Aires whose whereabouts she couldn’t always identify.  The lights would be dim and she could seldom make out who else was there.  Some voices she would recognize.  First names only, though she did know a couple of participants.

          It had to be this way.  If you were arrested your address book would be seized.  Anyone noted in it might also be arrested or at least put under surveillance.  Many of those arrested disappeared.  They never came back.  If you had the misfortune of appearing in two or three address books, your days were numbered.  Hence the secrecy of the meetings.  But you can imagine the level of trust required to attend?  What if it were infiltrated?  Who might they be able to identify?  Could it be traced to you?

          I only had a single minor encounter.  One Saturday afternoon I was out for a walk with Rosa, my old friend Chuck (this was a few years before the Tamara chronicles) and his Argentine girlfriend Monica.  We were just moseying along in central Buenos Aires, laughing and joking.  As my Spanish was in its infancy, I had my dictionary out as a conversational prop.  Suddenly we were stopped by three police cars.  A couple of cops split us up on the four street corners.  Everyone passing by took a close look but no one stopped to gawk.  Too risky in those days.

          Chuck, an Archie Bunker lookalike, and I were obviously gringos.  Rosa and Monica by their looks were Argentines.  I was asked what I was doing in Argentina, how long I’d know Rosa and didn’t I know that prostitution was illegal.  Chuck had an easier time as he didn’t speak Spanish and they didn’t speak English.  Rosa was asked what she was doing with the gringos and what information she’d given us.  And didn’t she know that the Americans were the reason why Argentina lost the war of the Malvinas (Falklands; it had ended just nine months earlier).  We got off lucky as they let us go after an hour.  Just some everyday harassment and who knows, maybe they might have blundered on to something of import.



          I knew that a coup was coming.  It had been rumored in the papers for weeks.  After I’d finished a project in Trinidad, instead of traveling directly to the next country, Guatemala, I was told to cool my heels in Miami.  Fair enough, if four days at the Fontainebleau are my orders, it’s hardly a resigning point to follow them to the letter.  Finally I got the OK to proceed to Guatemala.  When I boarded the plane I noticed about five camera crews with all their gear.  Although I suspected the reason, I asked one of them.  “Montt’s been overthrown!”  Until the day before he’d been the President and a particularly bloody one.  The newsies on board kept chattering about the Embassy’s “deep background” briefing awaiting them on arrival.

          I was working with Dominic (my almost savior in The Accidental Cad post) and Manolo, a duplicitous Argentine about whom I have nothing good to say.  After cooling our heels in Guatemala City for a couple of weeks, we were hankering for a road trip.  The countryside is extraordinarily beautiful with dramatic mountains, valleys and lakes.  We’d been told not to venture out but decided to consult a local who seemed to have connections.

          Armando was pretty high up in the company.  I wondered why he had a larger, more luxurious office than the CEO.  We mentioned we were interested in seeing some of the countryside but had been told by New York that it wasn’t safe.  He looked at us like we’d asked if it were OK to walk under a ladder.  “No, no trouble now.  Everything’s under control.”

          We must have looked quizzical because he went on “Two weeks before the coup I wanted to go to my house in the country.  I called a friend and he assured me nothing was going to happen till August” (the coup date was August 8).  While this didn’t explicitly substantiate his “safe” assurance, it didn’t invite any follow-up questions either.  So we rented a car and took off on the Friday.

          Amatitlan, Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Chichicastenango – it was a great road trip.  But it was disconcerting to see the rebel slogans painted in large letters on mountainsides just fifty miles out of the capital.  Anyone caught putting them up would certainly have been murdered.  Four times on the weekend we were stopped at government roadblocks.  Soldiers would wave us over while they checked our car and our papers.  There were always a couple of 19 year old guys with machine guns on us.  I’d seen this before in Israel but suspected the latter were a lot better trained.

          The first three passed without incident.  On the fourth they took a closer look at Manolo’s documents.  His secondary Argentine ID had a section blackened out, as though someone had taken a lit cigarette to it.  Later we found out that because he didn’t like one of his middle names, “Angel”, years ago he’d tried to obscure it.  Well, that triggered the “No pasaran” sign from these soldiers.  A couple of them kept their guns trained on Dominic and me.  We were all standing close enough that I was able to offer assurances that Manolo did indeed work with us.  Maybe my Spanish was even worse than I thought or the soldiers worried that I might be trying to put one over.  Manolo kept talking rapidly in his and their native language but that wasn’t getting anywhere.  Unfortunately for him, he was one of those guys who sound like he’s bullshitting even when he’s not.

          I had no idea how this Guatemalan stand-off would end.  We didn’t want to call anyone in New York because we weren’t supposed to leave the city.  They didn’t want to let us go but sensed that there’d be trouble if they didn’t.  And then, Armando appeared.  Said he’d been returning home from his country house and noticed us.  Had a few words with the soldiers and we were free to go.  We were never going to know if it were just a simple coincidence or if more mysterious processes were at work.  But we did know that being gringos with connections had its privileges.



           This was ten years after Pinochet’s violent overthrow of the democratically elected Communist government of Salvador Allende.  Thousands were killed and thousands went into exile.  Much of this is covered by Costa-Gavras’ excellent movie Missing.

          I was taking Spanish lesson three times a week.  But twice the instructor was a no-show.  When she returned she explained she had taken part in one of those protests where folks take to the streets banging pots and pans.  She had been arrested and locked up for three days.  No charges but now they knew about her.

          I remembered that day.  Many people had taken to the streets and the authorities responded with mass arrests and fire hoses.  That evening on the news an oleaginous old fart delivered one of those more in sorrow than in anger “editorials” about how the mayhem on the streets didn’t really help Chilean society, that surely the protesters’ time would be best spent at the jobs or their schooling, and that after difficult times the government’s economic programs were working etc. etc.  Needless to say (though I’ll say it anyway) there was no op-ed.



          I was back in Buenos Aires several years after their return to democracy.  There were various protests about a too-generous amnesty law regarding the military officials who committed, organized or oversaw the torture and killings.  One of the most striking displays were stenciled human forms on various buildings with a script explaining “This was the last place so-and-so was seen – disappeared April 19, 1981, age 23”.  Incredibly vivid reminder.

          In the first couple of days following Guatemala’s coup, I have a distinct memory of having seen news footage of the coup taking place at the presidential palace where an American Embassy official was in the center of the action, apparently directing traffic on his walkie-talkie.  And I’m sure this fellow was reported on the local news as having been present on the scene.  However, before writing this I googled for background and could find no specific references to American direct involvement. 

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I am thoroughly frightened and grateful that we don't know from police states up in here.
A most riveting story of terrible times that too many of us in the U.S. knew (or chose to know) almost nothing about, nothing.
Good to read your perspective here garnered from travels in your line of work. A more than cautionary tale of the truths of dictatorships and daily life.

Now my friend Abra, if I may add some humour (where perhaps none is appropriate) are you ... James Bond?
Some confusion... as I remember the "pots and pans" demonstrations in Chile happened under the Allende presidency and were financed by the CIA. Perhaps they recurred under Pinochet, but I have no memory of any news coverage... maybe I'm wrong. That's often the case when it comes to my memory.

You certainly had a very fascinating and exciting life, Abra - in retrospect. I'm sure when you lived through each of those events, you didn't think so. I remember the excitement of a military coup in Turkey (as a child) although it couldn't be anywhere near what you must have seen in those countries. Like Scarlett, I must admit to wondering about your missions. :o)
Did you clear this with Janet Napolitano before posting?

Well, did you?

...We have ways of making you talk.
Bless you for your fine reporting of harrowing personal experiences the likes of which no Americans have experienced, at least since Jim Crow.
Wow, the Dirty War. A classic. Good thing your encounters happened on Be Relatively Nice to Gringos Day. And "Amen" to having the right connection at the needed time.
Thank you for such an informative piece, Abrawang. I could form an idea from reading headlines in foreign press, but I still learned much here. I must agree also with what Mary Stanik said. Excellent post. R
rated this Abra, but we would have no idea if our government was disappearing people as our MSM only reports 1 tenth of 1% of the people who are abducted and that is based on sex, race, and how sympathetic the victim is. It would be very easy for them to do it here without much coverage.
Scary. I hope it never moves North to that degree, but I worry. I feel like our country is so big and diverse that I don't know what's going on in other parts of it. And I feel completely out of control and at odds with where our country is going, to the point where we've discussed leaving.
Damon – it’s a presence easily felt. Where it’s most noticeable is the absence of any but the most anodyne criticism of the government, the absence of a real and visible political opposition, and the reluctance to talk openly about anything political.

Mary – On the one hand it’s actually a good thing that folks here haven’t experienced it directly. On the other, it’s disheartening that too little is known of the rest of the world.

Scarlett – The name is most assuredly NOT Bond. The professional life wasn’t anywhere close to being so eventful. Same thing with the personal life. I do prefer my martinis shaken and not stirred though.

jane – I’d certainly look at it as a sharp difference in degree. To say that at least we’re not seeing 40,000 suspected political enemies disappearing annually isn’t to imply that therefore there’s hardly a problem here. Argentina was a particularly brutal end of the scale. A political system can be much better than theirs was without being close to a well-ordered, rights-respecting one. So I guess I’m partly agreeing with you.

Jmac – I think the pots and pans demos have a long history and so far as I know, they aren’t a specialty of Chile alone. As far as news coverage of Latin America, it was dismal back then and it’s hard to believe it would have improved much.

Fusun – It’s remarkable how quickly one adapts to the current reality, especially as I went to Latin America with few firmly held preconceptions and much ignorance. At the time, because I was working with others equally well-traveled, I sometimes lost sight of the fact that ours was such an unusual working (and living) life.

Spumey – If you were a closer reader of my blog you’d be thinking more in terms of ways of shutting me up.

Luminous – The Japanese Americans in WW2 mightn’t share that view. But it has been a relief to get some of these stories on paper, so to speak, before memory no longer serves.

Stim – You’re right that we had it easier. It wasn’t a security blanket without holes though, as Charles Horman of Missing fame found out the hard way. In my encounter with the Buenos Aires cops, I didn’t know at that time of Rosa’s political activities. I would have been more nervous had it been otherwise.

Thoth – Thanks very much. Before I went to Latin America I thought I kept up pretty well on world events. I was surprised how little I knew when I got down there.

Desnee – That might be true if you consider mainly the numbers. But there were other indicators too. Sometimes there were witnesses to the military arrests/abductions. Word got out about the naval building where much of the torture took place. People that had been in daily contact with friends and family suddenly stopped. The scale of the murders/disappearances in Argentina would be equivalent to about 40,000 annually in the USA. And no one would have made such allegations in a public forum in Argentina under the dictatorship. As I mentioned in my reply to jane, that doesn’t let this or the previous government off the hook for anything.

Bell – It actually changed pretty rapidly in Latin America. Thirty years ago a big majority of their governments were dictatorships. Since the mid-90s most are democracies. Are you really serious about moving?
Fascinating insider account of these times. You're braver than I am on these fronts --- there are a number of countries in this world I would love to visit to see, but would not go owing to governmental/societal instability.
See, now Scarlett knows too. :)

Riveting tale, Abra. You have lived a fascinating life. I was just in Buenos Aires last month. Glad it was nothing like when you were there.
Various - I missed your comment. What one is willing to risk depends a lot on age. Some of the chances I'd happily take 30 years ago are now beyond my current appetite for risk. So I've deleted hitchhiking through Africa from the bucket list.

Fay - Nice time of year to be visiting Buenos Aires, though it can get awfully hot this time of year. Hope you enjoyed a few steaks and some of their vino tinto.
I lived in Bogota, Colombia in 1975-77 when there was an almost perpetual "estado de sitio" (state of siege) and "toque de queda" (curfew), Spanish phrases I first learned in Bogota. "Esculcar" (to frisk) was another word I learned there. The country was under occupation by its own troops. Civilians, including me, were frequently stopped & frisked at random by soldiers who leveled autuomatic weapons at our midsections. If your "papers were not in order" you were hauled off. While there, the newspapers reported the Argentine generals angrily denied reports that they intended to oust Isabella Peron from the presidency the coming Tuesday. Such false and baseless rumors were an insult to the Fatherland, they said. "Absolutely nothing will happen before Friday."
You certainly know how to make one appreciate there safe home and neighborhood.
.........(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Thanx, (ツ) & ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥
Donegal – I hope you blog about your own experiences in Colombia. That country has had a violent history but I thought they were a democracy at that time.

Algis – Thanks very much. It’s all too easy to take our relative security for granted.
I really appreciate this. Fills a gap in my knowledge. r.
JW - until I saw some of it first-hand, and I saw by no means the worst, it filled a big gap in my own. I just remembered another incident in the old USSR that would have fit the bill too, except for the Latin America part. I guess I'll try to fit that into some other post one of these days.
Abra, my first two posts on OS, dated Feb. 2, 2011 and Feb. 5 were about Latin American experiences. But I've got a million more menories of those days. Colombia in the mid-1970s was a formal democracy but the President could declare a "state of siege" any time, for any length of time, which suspended many liberties and due process.
Thanks Abrawang. Peace be with you.
Donegal - I went back and read your two blogs on Colombia. I hope you post more.

Patty - Good heavens, it's been ages. Nice to see you back. I hope you have some Continuing Adventures of... posts ready to go.