Following the lead of other South American countries, Paraguay is investigating human rights abuses committed during the country’s last dictatorship, including the widespread sexual abuse of girls.
The Ministry of Justice’s investigation, which opened in July 2016, is the South American country’s first attempt to uncover the abuses committed during the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. The late dictator seized power in 1954 and ruled for 35 years, during which he developed notoriety for overseeing the gruesome and systematic torture and killing of his political opponents.
Paraguay’s Truth and Justice Commission said that 19,862 people were illegally detained, 18,772 were tortured and 336 were forcibly disappeared during Stroessner’s dictatorship. Some human rights groups estimate that closer to 3,000 or 4,000 Paraguayans were killed by the state.
Among the dictatorship’s least investigated crimes, however, are those that victimized some 1,000 girls who “may have been groomed and then systematically raped,” Rogelio Goiburú, who is leading the Ministry of Justice investigation, told Americas Quarterly.
According to Goiburú, these victims tended to be between the ages of 12 to 14 and from poor families in the countryside. Senior officers in Stroessner’s government are believed to have removed them from their homes and held them captive while subjecting them to various forms of abuse.
Investigators have had difficulty getting victims to come forward because they still feel “a lot of guilt and shame,” according to a report by Paraguay’s Commission for Truth and Justice. And although the military personnel accused of the abuses have died, Goiburú told Americas Quarterly, human rights groups have stressed the importance of seeking truth not only for the benefit of the victims, but for Paraguay’s collective memory of the era.
“To talk about these crimes remains a taboo,” Goiburú said in the Americas Quarterly interview. “The legacy of state terrorism is a continued fear of speaking out. We need to break this cycle and bring the dictatorship’s crimes against humanity to light.”
One woman, Julia Ozório, stated in a video released in May that she was abducted in 1968 at the age of 12 and taken to a country home, where she was kept as a sex slave for two years.
“The military hunted girls and pulled them out of their homes in exchange for employment in public institutions for their relatives,” said Ozório. “No one could say anything. We were mercilessly raped. They did not want anyone who is over 15 years old because they said they already had hard bones.”
Regional push for justice
The investigation in Paraguay comes amid a regionwide push to prosecute human rights abuses and other wartime crimes under right-wing military dictatorships that ruled multiple Latin American countries during the latter half of the 20th century.
Last month, Chile criminalized torture and inhumane treatment, which was previously permitted under its dictatorship-era constitution. In October, the Vatican and Argentina’s Catholic Church opened its archives from the country’s ‘Dirty War,’ raising hope that other Latin American countries that suffered under military dictatorships would do the same.
These countries – including Uruguay and Brazil – have also convened truth commissions or tried former officers in court in recent years. In a landmark trial in May, more than a dozen military officers in Argentina’s army were convicted for their roles in Operation Condor, a coordinated repression of the dictatorships of the 1970s in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The renewed push for justice may also reap momentum from feminist and other social-rights movements across Latin America. In September, Bolivia allowed transgender citizens to use their correct gender on their ID cards, while Peru and other countries across the region have recently garnered international attention for their movements against gender-based violence.
In comparison, the small landlocked country of Paraguay has trailed behind its neighbors in seeking reparation and truth from the horrors of the dictatorship era. Stroessner’s supporters remain influential under the current administration of President Horacio Cartes – who took power in 2013 at the head of the establishment Colorado Party – leaving many skeptical that the current investigation would be successful.
Still, there have been signs of movement in recent months among Stroessner’s opponents in Paraguay’s political sphere. A bill introduced in Congress last month calls for removing plaques honoring Stroessner from buildings and plazas across Paraguay, for example, as the legacy of the late dictator in Paraguay still generates controversy.
Those who condemn the dictatorship are still debating whether to remove plaques and other Stroessner memorabilia from public spaces or to keep them as a reminder of the dark episode in the country’s collective memory.