The dirty war is here

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The Mothers of the Disappeared.

The news of the arrival, at the Noank Community Support Services in Groton, of some children from the group of 2,000+ forcibly separated at the southern border and other unaccompanied detained minors signals potentially and ominously the beginning of the end of their legal relationship with their biological parents under Connecticut law.

The blueprint is laid out in the case of Santiago G.

This is a Connecticut Juvenile Court case, as it will be for these “unaccompanied alien children” arrivals now physically in Connecticut.  All juvenile court cases are sealed.  Accordingly, I am prohibited by law from discussing this case, as the “second at bat,” court-appointed attorney for the biological mother in Guatemala who never set foot on U.S. territory.

In the summer of 1981, I was a young naval officer onboard the USS CAPODANNO (FF-1093) part of a task force of U.S. naval ships, planes and submarines assigned to carry out joint naval operations with the major maritime nations of South America, and before departing our home port in Newport, R.I. for six months, the officers and crew were briefed and strictly prohibited from discussing three topics while deployed: human rights, nuclear proliferation and border disputes.  Today, I remember vaguely that only two nations had democratically elected governments.  Argentina, Brazil and Chile, at that time, were considered the most repressive military governments.

In Brazil, at an officers’ lunch on board a Brazilian destroyer, I asked my seatmate, the executive officer, in turn, about “La Abertura” (the movement towards opening a dialogue across all political parties), after he inquired about my political views as a then-Massachusetts resident because Sen. Ted Kennedy was holding up a lot of legislation for military sales, training and assistance in the U.S. Senate to many South American countries.

All the while we spoke sotto voce in a stunted mix of Spanish and Portuguese, but then he broke out in a deliberately loud voice and perfect English for all to hear in the wardroom.  “Oh, Salcedo!  So you want to know about La Abertura in Brazil?!”  A weighty, pregnant pause hovered, like stagnant cigar smoke, over the long dining table capturing everyone’s attention and then he bellowed, “In Brazil, the only Abertura the Brazilian Navy knows is the woman’s legs!” to much laughter among the Brazilian junior naval officers and much to my relief.  After lunch, the senior officer from our ship was confused, but sensed a tone in that exchange and asked me what that was about.  I replied it an inside joke amongst our hosts.

In Argentina, I went on leave for a week to visit Buenos Aires because the Rio de la Plata River was too shallow for our ships’ entry.  There, I saw the Mothers of the Disappeared in their white head scarves pacing in front of the Casa Rosada (Pink House) presidential palace. They were silent, dignified and mournful.

In 1989, I returned to Argentina on a two-week Naval Reserve duty and at the front door of the Navy Officer’s Club, as related to me by a U.S. embassy staffer, I unknowingly walked by, elbow to elbow, with the infamous Blond Angel of Death, Commader Alfredo Astiz (now imprisoned for life, but as a young lieutenant he was the celebrated navy commando who led the successful raid for Argentina that sparked the Malvinas/Falklands War of 1982).

In Argentina’s Dirty War, Astiz befriended while undercover some of the Mothers of the Disappeared activists, arrested them and threw them off helicopters into the Atlantic Ocean when they did not cooperate with his interrogations.  A movie titled, “The Official Story” details the story of Argentine children of detainees and suspected subversives adopted by military families after their parents were made to disappear.

In Chile, while transiting the inland waterways, a calmer passage along the Chilean coast sailing north from the Straits of Magellan, I looked over at the navigational chart on the bridge with a fellow officer and I tapped on a spot labeled Dawson’s Island, and asked him, “You know about that, right?”  He was clueless.

Dawson’s Island is cold, barren and unforgiving where the Chilean military junta exiled their political opponents.  The Chilean naval training ship, ESMERALDA, would suffer ignominiously for decades as it traveled around the world as the “torture ship’ platform from the 1973 coup d’état.  In 1990, the Esmeralda visited Boston and I was assigned as their liaison officer during their port call to the heart of the land of the Kennedys.

Thirty-seven years since that first Navy deployment to South America, I read the news yesterday that in leaked documents the U.S. Navy has been tasked to build “temporary, austere accommodations” for 20,000 or 100,000 alien detainees, on operational or recently shuttered naval bases on American soil.  I cannot help but wonder if today’s young Argentine, Brazilian and Chilean naval officers and crew who may set to sail for a U.S. visit would be briefed and strictly prohibited from discussing three topics: human rights, nuclear proliferation and border disputes.

 Sylvester L. Salcedo lives in Orange.  He is an attorney and a retired US Navy veteran (LCDR, USNR) with 20 years of active and reserve service from 1979-1999.


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