A silent march in Uruguay keeps asking: ‘Where are our disappeared loved ones from the dictatorship?’

Thousands gathered in the 18 de Julio Avenue, in Montevideo, during the annual traditional Silent March, “Marcha del Silencio” | Image: Screenshot TV Ciudad

Every year, on the evenings of May 20, thousands of people march in silence throughout Uruguay and the iconic 18 de Julio Avenue in Montevideo. The demonstrations have been organized without fail since 1996, except during the COVID-19 pandemic. They aim to commemorate the people detained and disappeared under Uruguay's civic-military dictatorship, which ruled from 1973 to 1985.

At the Marcha del Silencio (“March of Silence”), the silent crowd holds posters with pictures of those still missing, asking where they are and demanding truth and justice from the State. They are led by victims’ families and the Association of Mothers and Families of the Uruguayans Detained and Disappeared (Famidesa).

This year's 28th edition is believed to have been one of the largest to date. According to Famidesa, demonstrations and events were held in 77 different places in Uruguay and abroad. All of them demand: “State terrorism never again.”

Like every year, thousands marched with @famidesa.
Where are they? #MarchofSilence2023 #MayMemoryMonth.

According to Famidesa, 197 Uruguayans disappeared between the 1970s and 1980s in the hands of South American dictatorships, which worked in cooperation with the U.S.-backed Operation Condor.

Rafael Lezama González, kidnapped at 23 in Argentina in 1976 and presumedly tortured at the infamous clandestine center known as Automotores Orletti, was one of them. Today, his mother, Alba González, is one member of the families association still waiting for answers.

On the eve of this year’s march, at a press conference, González said the event was an opportunity to demand the truth that is still “hijacked by the Armed Forces” and remembered the many times that families of the victims asked for responses from the political system, as reported by newspaper La Diaria.

She also said families cannot continue on a “blind search” anymore. “We need that whoever has information to deliver it. It's urgent to break the culture of silence and impunity,” she stated.

Legal battles for justice

Unlike the trials carried out in neighboring Argentina, Uruguay passed a law in 1986, called Ley de Caducidad (Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Claims of the State). This law, considered by some as an amnesty, made it difficult to hold a trial for the military and police officers accused of being involved in the crimes committed under the dictatorship.

In the past ten years, there were legal battles to be able to bring justice to the victims. In 2010, the Supreme Court declared the Ley de Caducidad unconstitutional and in 2011, a new law was adopted (Ley 18.831), aiming at “restoring the full exercise of the State's punitive power.” The Supreme Court declared of two articles of the new law unconstitutional in 2013, but it revoked that decision in May 2023, thereby making the Law 18.831 functional again. 

In March this year, a special prosecutor's office for these cases achieved the conviction of a man accused of inflicting torture in a clandestine center in Canelones, Uruguay. This was the first sentence for crimes against humanity during the dictatorship.

Professor Pablo Rodríguez Almada, a constitutional law and human rights expert, wrote in local media about the differences in the processes in Argentina and Uruguay since the 1980s. He emphasized the remaining challenges in Uruguay:

Existe una luz de esperanza, porque la sentencia de la SCJ 286/2022, del 10 de mayo de 2022, declaró la constitucionalidad de la Ley 18.831. Esa posición jurisprudencial de la SCJ permitirá que se continúe con la investigación, y determinación y castigo de los responsables de los crímenes de lesa humanidad cometidos en la última dictadura cívico-militar.

Pero la impunidad que se estableció en Uruguay desde el año 1986, año en que se aprobó la ley de caducidad, impidió que se castigara a muchos militares y policías que cometieron los crímenes referidos, porque fallecieron antes de ser condenados, por tanto, para las víctimas de dichos crímenes no hubo ni habrá justicia.

There is a glimmer of hope, because the Uruguayan Supreme Court (SCJ) ruling 286/2022, dated May 10, 2022, declared the constitutionality of Law 18.831. This jurisprudential position of the SCJ will allow the investigation, determination and punishment of those responsible for the crimes against humanity committed during the last civil-military dictatorship to continue.

But the impunity that was established in Uruguay since 1986, the year in which the expiration law was approved, prevented the punishment of many military and police officers who committed these crimes. Because they died before being convicted, therefore, for the victims of these crimes there hasn't been and there won't be any justice.

Memory and daisies

For years now, the relatives of those disappeared have been using a daisy missing a petal as their symbol. In May, a month dedicated to memory in Uruguay, these flowers can be seen throughout the country to remember those still disappeared.

Uruguayan President Lacalle Pou did not comment on this year's March of Silence, even though the government plans to present a bill to make the archives of the dictatorship public.

During his 2019 campaign, Lacalle Pou made a commitment to continue searching for the disappeared and has repeatedly regretted a declaration given during his 2014 campaign, in which he supported stopping the search for those disappeared:

Cuando me preguntan si seguiría buscando a los desaparecidos dije que no y yo no soy quién para ponerme en los zapatos de aquella persona que está buscando a su hijo, nieto o su sobrino y decirle que el presidente de la República y el Estado no lo va a buscar más, porque ese es un tema del corazón. Y ahí cometí un error humano que hasta el día de hoy me pesa.

When asked if I'd go on searching for the disappeared I said I wouldn't, and who am I to put myself in the shoes of that person still looking for their son, grandson or nephew and to say to them that the president of the Republic and the State will no longer search for them, because this is a matter of the heart. And there I made a human error that still weighs on me to this day.

The May 20 date was picked to remember the day when four Uruguayans were found dead in Buenos Aires in 1976. Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, a politician, was one of them. His grandson, Santiago Gutiérrez, now 28, is also affiliated with the National Party.

Talking to El País, Gutiérrez said he believes that the cause for those disappeared is above political parties and that he “would love for the president to publicly and openly state his position on the cause, and for the National Party, of which [he is] a member, to be much more emphatic, due to its history of resistance and sacrifice for democracy.”

Various installations and demonstrations still happen in Uruguay for the memory of those lost.

Project “Imágenes del Silencio” photographed the main demand in front of the headquarters of the main political parties in Uruguay:

To keep the memory alive is everyone's responsibility.

Truth and Justice are the responsibility of the State and the political system.

📷 Headquarters
1- Frente Amplio
2- Partido Nacional
3- Partido Colorado
4- Cabildo Abierto

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