On the 15th April 1977, Nora Cortiñas’ life would change forever. That morning would be the last time she would hear from her son, Carlos Gustavo, who on his way to work would be kidnapped by the military junta.
Mehdy C Ortiz
Nora Cortiñas was not alone as there were around a total of 30,000 forced disappearances during the military dictatorship that lasted between 1976 and 83. The brutal regime led by Jorge Rafael Videla, sought to eradicate dissent by any means possible.
In the wake of Gustavo’s forced disappearance, Nora went in search for answers to find that many more mothers where in search of their disappeared sons, they naturally began to unite together in the main square of Buenos Aires, the Plaza de Mayo, and by the 30 April 2017, Nora Cortiñas’ and the other ’mothers’ became known as the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.”
At first, the mothers were few; they would gather standing still every Thursday outside the Presidential Palace to confront the military dictatorship guilty of kidnapping their sons and daughters.
However, as the public were not allowed to assemble together, one of the mother’s suggestion was that they walk in pairs around the Plaza and so they did. As the time went by, the association united thousands of mothers and proved to be a powerful and inconvenient force in raising awareness and human rights activism against a government acting with impunity.
The state’s policy to repress and silence the masses only served to further fuel Nora’s determination to seek justice and answers, not just for her son but for all the other ‘disappeared.’ She was now, not only the mother of her disappeared son, Gustavo, but united with the other mothers, she was the mother of all the 30,000 others that would disappear during this time of state terrorism.
Today, the movement is still very much alive and Nora is seen as a champion for the human rights movement, not just in Argentina but all around the world, something that resembles a vast change to what her normal life as a housewife was prior to the disappearance of Gustavo.
Before then, Nora was a traditional mother who spent most of her day at home teaching others to sew. She got married at a young age and the result of Nora’s sudden change of character when her son disappeared, was difficult for her husband to come to terms with.
Whilst Argentina has gone a long way since the end of the military dictatorship and consequent establishment of a representative democracy, the fight for justice and human rights in Argentina is still an ongoing process that forms a prominent role in the life of Nora Cortiñas.
One of the cases that Nora Cortiñas has been greatly involved in, is the forced disappearance of 28 year old Santiago Maldonado on the 1st August 2017. Sparking unrest around the country, it has been a stark reminder of ongoing injustices still present in Argentina.
His dead body was found 71 days later and whilst the government deny any involvement, there are several witness testimonies to the contrary.
During Nora Cortiñas visit to the UK, I met up with her in the Senate House of The University of London. She gave me a warm welcome and talked to me about her busy week in the UK. She was brought here by the Argentine Solidarity Campaign with whom she was working closely with throughout her time here. She raised awareness by giving talks alongside the organisation and met the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, in the Houses of Parliament.
For 87, Nora’s strong and composed character can be easily picked up on. In light of recent events, The Prisma spoke to her about Santiago Maldonado and the current situation in Argentina.
What are the details surrounding Santiago Maldonado’s disappearance?
Santiago Maldonado is the victim of an enforced disappearance and death.
He was a young artisan, in solidarity with an indigenous Mapuche community, who decided to move to Patagonia and work as an artisan. Then, he learned to make tattoos and was in the area as a friend of that community.
He was pursued by the authorities, it seems that for a long time, maybe two or three years. The authorities did not see him in a good light.
That area has owners, the ‘Benetton’, an Italian company that bought off the government 1 million 200 thousand hectares of land. Argentinian governments have the bad habit (something that would be prohibited in any country) to sell our land to foreigners, who not only take away its wealth and profits, but they also deteriorate the land and leave it helpless afterwards.
Evidently Santiago and the entire community were spied on. The community were always harassed by the authorities in charge.
You speak of the Mapuche?
Yes. The Mapuche were attacked in 2015 and again in January of this year by the Argentine National Gendarmerie (ANG), a military group that, when they receive orders, can be very aggressive and murderous.
In August, that community located near the Benetton family were attacked. A judge ordered that they lift the fines they had been given for protesting to have their land returned. Then the gendarmerie acted, commanded by the Ministry of National Security, who exercised a brutal repression against that community. In that attack, Santiago was pursued. There are witnesses that state he was taken by the gendarmes to Esquel and from that moment nothing else was known of him.
Does the government recognise the disappearance?
No. The government has denied it from the start. There are however, many witness accounts, although when they went to give their witness testimonies, they were all beaten, mistreated and tortured. The government has always tried to blame the Mapuche for Santiago’s disappearance.
What are the next steps then?
We decided to change judge as the previous one was complicit in trying to conceal the evidence and aggression carried out in the community. He had looked the other way and allowed the gendarmerie to deprive them of their rights and land.
I had previously gone to that community in January when they pursued several Mapuche, however they were all released.
Then recently, when we returned, we did so with the Provincial Commission for Memory, an organisation created in the province of Buenos Aires for the defense of human rights.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has gone to that community and they themselves have concluded that an enforced disappearance had taken place.
There was certainty that this young man, who had not appeared in 70 days, appeared on the riverbank just when the commission was coming.
According to the International Convention of the OAS, the forced disappearance of people can only be carried out, managed and sponsored by the State.
We await the government’s further response and will wait the necessary time required. The human rights organisations are all united in overlooking and determining Santiago’s true cause of death.
This would surely resonate with your past as you had to go through the same with your son Gustavo?
Yes. The ‘mothers’ have for 40 years been fighting against the forced disappearance of people, we live permanently tuned in so that it never happens again, however it has happened again.
Do you believe that there will ever be justice for Santiago?
We need there to be justice for the sake of his parents, his family and for the Argentine people. We want all the justice and all the truth. The same thing we asked for our 30,000 disappeared, we also ask now for Santiago and for all those disappeared during the times of constitutional governments that has took place in Argentina. We do not want the government to hide the truth, we want them to say things as they are. Mrs. Bullrich has to resign. If the judge does not tell the whole truth by finding out when, how and who killed Santiago, it will be a very painful process that we do not want to live out anymore.
There was a forced disappearance. If there was not, the government has to use all the measures to show that it was not like that. We need to know who took Santiago, who determined his death and how they managed to carry out, through the Benetton family, the repression they did. If it is shown that the organisations are wrong, we will apologise, however all the circumstances show that Santiago was kidnapped by the gendarmerie. It is also believed that the gendarme who appeared with his face bruised with blood, had been the result of Santiago’s resistance when he was taken by force.
How big is the problem of impunity in Argentina, not only in times of dictatorship?
We are still currently having trials of cases that occurred in the past, times of great repression, many involved with the appropriation of babies born in captivity, who had their identity taken away from them through a sector of the dome of the Catholic Church that was the middleman in delivering them to recognized families, military or police.
There is a long way we have travelled from those dark days and after many years of struggle; we had a trial in 1984 and another one in 2004, something that does not happen in many Latin-American countries.
The law of 2×1 has proved to be very controversial, what have activists like yourself done to fight against this?
In this government we have gone backwards in the defense of human rights. They tried to implement an illegal law that had already been nullified, which would have resulted in impunity for all the crimes still pending from the period of state terrorism.
We went out in the street, we fought and we managed to reverse that law. Now we continue, we want the judgments to continue. Our country is a window to the world of everything we do and as a society we deserve all the truth, justice and memory.
South America is going through changes where popular governments or ‘left’ governments have been disappearing. How much does this affect Argentina?
Each country is independent and has its justice system and laws. We support the people who struggle for human rights and we do not want injustices, deaths, torture, disappearances, and so we try to support peace processes. We were like observers in Colombia during the attempts of peace. We also hope that the situation in Venezuela and other countries will stabilise. But we are always spectators and respectful of the decisions of each country.
In October there were midterm elections where President Macri won. Do you think that Argentina generally supports him?
As a society we think that the government is wrong and does not favour the people, it has time to change its political direction so that we do not go back in the development and defense of human rights. We want him to govern for everyone, not only for the richest.
We want the government to offer its hand to all the Argentine people, so that there is no more hunger, that salaries become regulated, that there is work, attention to health, housing, and education. That we can have a rich country, that we once again have a welfare state like the one we had, and that there are not people who have to go out to the street to beg.
You have been fighting for these rights and justice since your son disappeared. Has your way of fighting changed?
No. I am true to my principles from when they took Gustavo. I also have two other children, Gustavo is not there but my children are also a path and I keep fighting for them. But what we really want is that the seed that was planted with the struggle, grows, that the country is the country that it was decades ago, a progressing country and a rich country. And we want our country, which has a rich land, to show that in Argentina nobody is going to die of hunger.