Ignacio Errandonea has been searching 39 years for a brother who went missing in the 1970s as military dictatorships swept across South America.
Errandonea, a member of an organization searching for the nearly 200 Uruguayans still missing from the small country’s military rule, says he just wants to know what happened and where his brother is buried.
Resigned to the reality that such answers may never come from official avenues, Errandonea and other families of missing people have begun promising anonymity to anybody, including aging perpetrators, who come forward with information. It’s a race against time: many of the former military leaders who may know something have begun dying in recent years.
Using a new, anonymous hotline, the families are spreading their message in churches, temples and other public places across the nation of 3.3 million people. An open letter disseminated nationwide says that families simply want to “cry for our disappeared.”
“If you saw something, know something or know some detail that can help find (our loved ones), we appeal to your humanity,” reads part of the letter. The families make clear they are not forgiving perpetrators, and their offer of anonymity isn’t the same thing as government immunity from prosecution.
“Realistically I know that my brother was killed,” said Errandonea, a gray-haired 61-year-old janitor. “But he was taken alive and the military has yet to say what happened and prove to me that he’s dead.” The number of people who were disappeared or killed during Uruguay’s 1973-1985 dictatorship is small compared to other countries in the region. In neighboring Argentina, rights groups estimate that 30,000 were killed or disappeared. More than 3,000 people are estimated to have been killed or disappeared in Chile.
However, Uruguay’s search for its 192 missing citizens is an example of how nations across the region are still struggling over how to come to terms with their loss and get justice for victims and their families. When Uruguay returned to democracy in 1985, then-President Julio Maria Sanguinetti appointed a military prosecutor to investigate claims of disappeared loved ones. But the effort failed to obtain much information and no remains were recovered.
Gerardo Bleier, a local journalist whose father disappeared in 1975 in Montevideo, the capital, says Sanguinetti mistakenly downplayed the military’s violence. “It’s true that the barbarity in Uruguay never got to the level of Chile and Argentina,” said Bleier, whose father was a Communist Party member. “But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
In 2003, the Commission for Peace was created and charged with getting information from the military, which recognized its responsibility in a handful of disappearances. In 2005, a search for the remains of disappeared people was launched, but the effort only led to the recovery of four bodies.
In March, President Tabare Vazquez created a new commission to search for answers about the disappeared. But family members worry it could end up like previous failed attempts to find people.
Bleier estimates that there are about 50 people, including three or four former military leaders, who could provide key information about what happened. But he says a recent Supreme Court decision that crimes committed during the dictatorship should not come under any statute of limitation probably has kept people from coming forward.
“The campaign by the families is the last resort,” said Bleier. “Those who know what happened are going to die. At most there is about five years.” In September, retired Gen. Pedro Barneix committed suicide before he was to be sent to prison for the death of a detainee during the dictatorship. Last year, retired Gen. Pedro Dalmao died in prison, where he was serving time for the death of a dictatorship opponent.
Retired Col. Guillermo Cedrez, former leader of the Military Center, an organization for retired officials of all military branches, says the families are asking for answers that don’t exist. “The Army gave all the information it had and the families refuse to believe it,” he said.
Such statements do little to ease Errandonea’s pain. His then 20-year-old brother disappeared in 1976 from neighboring Argentina, where he had gone into exile after opposing the Uruguayan dictatorship. Errandonea believes his brother was caught up in Operation Condor, a coordinated effort among military governments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay to share intelligence and eliminate opponents.
So far, the family’s effort has led to 300 calls to the anonymous hotline and a handful of leads that have not panned out. But the families are not giving up. “We are asking for information from the random soldier who perhaps was on duty and saw or heard something,” said Errandonea. “People who were not involved could know something.”