Strategies of a torturing regime - Chile (Paz Rojas)

May 2007

[English] [français]



Lungern (Switzerland) - 30 April – 2 May 2007


1st May 2007

Having thought long and hard about how to present this subject, at a time when we are thinking about the nature of torture, the words to refer to it or to deny it, I decided that the only way to penetrate the depths of a torturing regime was through our work, the multidisciplinary practice of dealing with victims.

I would firstly like to mention the profound sadness we feel at the moment. A new place of torture and extermination was recently discovered in Santiago, a place where prisoners were abused, raped, their faces and finger prints burnt, they were suffocated with plastic bags, poisoned with cyanide, or beaten to death. One of ours was murdered, a woman who had disappeared, six months pregnant. Those responsible for these crimes are starting to talk, usually denying their own responsibility and denouncing their colleagues. The justice system is gradually unveiling the truth which remained hidden for almost 33 years. This terrible news reinforces our belief that torture, disappearances and murder are crimes that remain latent and permanent. That is why restoring the value of the human person remains our greatest challenge.

Our work as medical practitioners started straight after the coup of 11 September 1973 with two colleagues[1], themselves imprisoned subsequently and horribly tortured. An atmosphere of terror was created among the Chilean population, followed by a psychological war against the government of President Salvador Allende, using all means of communication; once the symbol of democracy, the Moneda Presidential Place, had been bombed, we realised that we were dealing with state terrorism.

From that day on, a series of criminal acts were committed by the military dictatorship which, from day one, imposed its will arbitrarily on the forces of law and order, the legislative and the institutions of the country. The Constitution was abolished, the parliament closed, the press gagged. It was decreed that Chile was in a state of war – in other words, all the measures taken were acts of state terrorism.

When we received the first torture victims, we were dumbfounded, perplexed, filled with doubt and pain faced with our inability to understand this phenomenon at a medical level. We then understood that we physicians, used to considering the inside of the body, had to turn our gaze to the outside, in particular towards the dictatorial power and its torture system.

Without abandoning the medical model, we saw in those cases that it was not the symptoms which led us to a diagnosis, as each victim had experienced torture in a different way, depending on his background, life story, beliefs. All the psychological parameters had been alienated or exacerbated: subjectivity, the emotions, consciousness, language, memory, temporality, the body, dreams and, in particular, the perception of an exteriority in the depths of absolute evil. The main problem was the origin, the appearance of this cruelty, this trauma caused by another human being: the torturer and his system[2] .

After a year working ceaselessly with the victims of the dictatorship, we had to leave Chile. The need to know about the experiences of the victims, their families and the whole of society had become almost an obsession.

To meet the need to get to the bottom of things, to find out exactly what happened in Chile, we have had to enter into a process of reflection, research, elaboration and denunciation. After three years of work, supported by André and Geneviève Jacques, our first book entitled "Torture and Resistance in Chile" was published in France, sponsored by the ACAT. It is based on a study of 300 survivors of torture, of which 80 cases were analysed in depth in therapy sessions. Having analysed in depth the biological, psychological and ideological aspects, we now understand more about these people and how they suffered before, during and after torture.

We have grouped the various torture techniques together : mainly physical, mainly psychological, mainly biological or mainly sexual, using the term "mainly" because, in all cases, the torture acts on the whole being, regardless of its intensity and duration.

The symptoms and syndromes at appearing at various times in the traumatic experience and the lives of survivors have been studied in detail. We have seen that the most frequent problem, which lasted for a long time, was ’bottling up’ in the deepest recesses of the memory the inescapable presence of the torturer and his system, a brutal and sinister memory ready to surge to the surface at any reminder.

We tried, right from the start, to find out more about the torturers and their system.

Some twenty responsible persons were identified, and in chapter V "Officials of the system of repression" devoted to them, we presented our objectives:

To find out about their organisation and operation, and the methods applied to ensure their effectiveness. To find out some of the basic mechanisms used by the system to recruit, prepare and train officials. To apply certain methodological and psychological elements to study the training and actions of these officials.

Thanks to the testimonies of survivors, we were able to describe their appearance, gestures, looks, personalities, intellectual level, language, aggressive and violent behaviour. We could thus build a profile of the torturers.

These two areas (that of the survivors and that of the torturers) concerned us deeply. We felt, from the start, the "duty to know", as the French lawyer Louis Joinet, UN rapporteur on impunity, put it several years later.

We therefore started to understand how, why and in what way the dictatorships of Latin America took root from 1954. We found out about the doctrines and strategies of national security and counter-insurrection and discovered the places where torture was taught systematically to Latin American military personnel. Later, in Paraguay, we found torture text books.

Eleven years after starting our work, in 1984, the UN proclaimed the Convention Against Torture. Its Article 1 defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person". This corresponds exactly to our research, not only in terms of the clinical manifestations, but also from the point of view of intentionality, as it is always an action committed consciously and clearly. But it was the end of this article which posed the greatest challenge "…when such pain or suffering is inflicted either by or at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of, a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."

Freud wrote in "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" that, "in truth, evil has not been eradicated. The basic instincts have merely been curbed by education and culture, as the primitive never dies". Later, Paul Ricoeur said that one of the main causes of suffering is to know the violence committed by a human being against another. This is the hidden secret, never uncovered, which makes evil a mystery. Kant, in his work on radical evil, said that we should not ask where evil comes from, but rather where the fact that we can do it comes from.

At the outset, in our perplexity, in addition to the traces of torture to be found in the body and soul of the victims, it appeared to us to be vital to understand how Chilean soldiers who, for a long time, had been seen as normal, educated, even kind people, had become torturers from one day to the next. Primo Levi once said that torturers are individuals made of the same substance as the rest of us, but their acts are the product of a certain form of education.

We came up with a possible response: that these men are part of a system which uses the structures of the State to torture, the press and the legal system to deny it and the education system to disfigure the enemy. Torturers are the last link in the chain. Our in-depth studies on the torturing regimes and their officials coincide with many publications on the mentality and behaviour of those prepared to torture, abduct and kill, such as the book published by the International Red Cross entitled "The Roots of Behaviour in War" and the book by Françoise Sironi “Bourreaux et victimes, psychologie de la torture” (Torturers and Victims. The psychology of torture).

To summarise, the training given to torturers includes the following elements in particular:

create in their mind the idea that they are involved in a grave conflict against a ruthless enemy, stripped of all dignity. The enemy is inhuman. His image is demonised, provokes fear, hate and disgust, leading to the need to destroy him; the enemy is not a person, but a sub-human, a ’humanoid’ as one member of the Chilean junta put it. If you analyse the language used against political prisoners, you will find all manner of epithets relating to perversity; suggest that, if the enemy is not eliminated, he will eliminate you; break or pervert the link with the other person, distance oneself from them to cancel out any feelings of guilt.

Moreover, military institutions are certainly places where belonging to a group and rallying around shared aims and ideologies are factors which extinguish individuality and provoke depersonalisation. Orders are issued, and blind obedience, loyalty and military morale are expected. Being part of the group cancels individual responsibility.

A great deal of work exists on this subject. Konrad Lorenz summarises the issue of violence in these terms: "Man is not a killer – the group is". Military groups also organise themselves in a hierarchy, the collective aims of which are submission, obedience and the renunciation of all individual responsibility.

The DINA (National Information Directorate) was founded on confidentiality and life-long silence. Any betrayal would be punished by death.

Over the years, we found that, in addition to the trauma caused by the torture itself, there was also a total absence of truth about what happened in Chile and an absence or perversion of justice in that country.

The torturers, omnipresent in the minds of their victims and their families, were still at large.

We started to realise that this impunity constituted a new psychological attack which added to the trauma of the torture. The trauma caused by impunity is such that, at a seminar organised by my institution, the CODEPU (Corporation for the Defence and Protection of the People’s Rights), in December 1996 in Santiago, I suggested and demonstrated the need to consider impunity as a crime against humanity. Many people from the world of human rights attended this seminar, including Ljuis Joinet, special rapporteur on impunity.

We must search for the truth and for justice, not just before the courts, but also social justice, as justice also includes an ethical aspect, the only sustainable form of crime prevention.

Marie Jo Cocher, executive secretary of FIACAT, recently sent me the last text written by André Jacques before his death in September 2006. It is entitled "Never again". One paragraph states that “… may justice be served and those responsible for planning and executing these crimes be held publicly to account for their acts and judged accordingly." He continues "For the ACAT, it was a new challenge: to move away from its strict specialisation on torture and look more generally at its causes and the responsibilities of the torturers and those who gave them their instructions." At the end of the text, he writes "a good example of this commitment, as affirmed by Sylvie Bukhari of Pontual, ’so that the fear goes over to the other side, so that they know that we will never be silent. May they know that they will have no peace and will be permanently pursued. May they realise that they have no right to use violence against their own people. May they learn that human rights are universal and indivisible and that everyone deserves the same respect, so that the fundamental hope of all human beings to live in liberty and dignity becomes a reality."

Agreeing wholeheartedly with these words, I would like to thank FIACAT for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Doctor Paz Rojas

Neuro-psychiatrist, CODEPU CHILE

[1] Doctor Katia Reszczynski and Patricia Barcelo

[2] At that time, there was little literature on the subject, even though, almost one hundred years before, the German psychiatrist Bonhoeffer had described it as "an exogenous, non-specific reaction" similar to the problems mentioned above. In the 19th century, the external agent had been described as the “generator of conflicts through fear, terror and the unexpected". In 1884, Oppenheim described traumatic neuroses with a purely psychological origin. Post-traumatic disorders were also diagnosed among survivors of the Russo-Japanese War.

In 1899, Kraepelin, the great expert in schizophrenia, described "Schrekneurose", in other words a neurosis caused by fear or panic, and also mentioned that judicial and administrative delays could have pathogenic effects, an idea similar to that to which we refer when we speak of the psychopathology of impunity. Little was said about this field for some time, until 1982, when the term post-traumatic stress disorder appeared for the first time.

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