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Searching for the ‘disappeared’

Taking on Operation Condor

Taking on Operation Condor:  Silvia Tandeciarz (left) and Betsy Konefal, faculty who coordinate William & Mary’s National Security Archive Project, flank Suzy Ziaii ’15 and Dylan Kolhoff ’14, students involved in the project.

Stakes are high for students researching victims of Operation Condor

A dozen high-level Latin American military officers are on trial in Argentina for their role in Operation Condor, and William & Mary students have been assisting with the prosecution.

Operation Condor was a secret Cold War-era collaboration among the right-wing governments of six South American countries in the 1970s and ’80s. Its stated aim was for the security agencies of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil to share information to combat the growth of Marxism in the region. The initiative was responsible for an immense number of cross-border kidnappings and clandestine imprisonments. Repression was widespread; torture and other atrocities were common. An estimated 50,000 people were murdered, 400,000 people were jailed and another 30,000 “disappeared.” 

At least some of the condors are coming home to roost. A substantial number of Operation Condor participants are facing justice in a series of trials in Argentina. The Operation Condor trials are expected to go on for a considerable time, and some of the evidence being submitted in Argentine courts was uncovered by William & Mary students.

From the classroom to archives of formerly classified documents

For several years now, William & Mary students have been participating in a research project that has taken them far from the classroom, to Argentina and into the depths of formerly classified records at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. The young researchers examine digitized versions of never-meant-to-be-seen documents, from U.S. government agencies and from the Paraguayan dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, a regime at the geographic crossroads of Operation Condor. In the process, the students come face to face with the sordid details of this ugly time in recent Latin American history.

Undergraduates in the National Security Archive Project work with documents such as this 1977 police record of the capture of Dora Marta LandiUnder the direction of Betsy Konefal, associate professor of history, and Silvia Tandeciarz, associate professor of Hispanic studies, the students have examined thousands of declassified records. The professors say that the students are acting in a quasi-intern capacity to assist expert witness Carlos Osorio, the National Security Archive’s Southern Cone specialist, as he gathers information for Argentine judges on persons who were illegally detained, tortured, or disappeared through Operation Condor. 

Tandeciarz says William & Mary’s involvement originated with support from the QEP Mellon program beginning in 2007 and continuing for the next several semesters.

“Hispanic Studies got a QEP Mellon grant back then which allowed me to take ten William & Mary students to Washington, D.C. over spring break in 2008,” Tandeciarz explains. “There, we studied sites of memory, issues of human rights and how they were manifest in the landscape in D.C. We met with some NGOs like Amnesty International, and we went to the National Security Archive and met with Carlos Osorio.”

Osorio was so impressed with the students that he and Tandeciarz found a way to involve them in what has become the National Security Archive Project, which combines technology, interdisciplinary internationalization and faculty/student research in a unique way. Konefal and Tandeciarz point out that the students are not only translating history, but they have a role in justice.

“It takes a special kind of student,” Konefal says. “Of course, they do learn research and presentation skills, but I think that what’s been most meaningful to all of them is the realization that this research has an actual result in the world; it is real.”

Before the students can undertake a project of this scope, of course, it is essential that they have an understanding of the historical context of this time in Latin American history and the overall basics of what took place.  Many have had a study-abroad experience in Argentina, and they bring other relevant coursework to the task.

“The students have had either my history course on ‘State Violence,’” Konefal says, “or Silvia’s ‘Cultures of Dictatorship’ course—or some sort of experience like that.”

Additional requirements include attention to detail and fluency in Spanish, she added, as well as the ability to work independently on projects that aren't always well defined.

‘An ongoing, ever-murkier process’

“It requires a great deal of drive; this is not a specific assignment where we tell the students what to do and they finish it up,” Konefal added. “This is an ongoing, ever-murkier process that really pulls them in. And so they have to be both excited to be pulled into something like this—and organized enough to make their way back out.”

The prospect that their work could be used as evidence raises the bar considerably for the students, who have learned to prepare their analysis and presentations in such a way that their findings will stand up in court. Along the way, the students get to look deep inside the internal policy debates that formed U.S. foreign policy of the era.

Secret Condor operations drew the attention of the U.S. government, which maintained close relationships with Southern Cone dictatorships during the Cold War. Consequently, U.S. government agencies amassed a large number of relevant documents. State Department cables, for example, offer a treasure trove of information; other records students have studied came from the C.I.A. and from Congressional delegations that visited the region.

Most of the U.S. documents used in this research were declassified in the late ‘90s and gathered by the National Security Archive, a non-profit research and archival institution, located on the campus of the George Washington University. A massive collection of declassified Paraguayan documents, too, is available to the students, through a database known as the “Archive of Terror.” Tandeciarz and Konefal impress on their students the serious nature of the documents they work with.

“Betsy, as a historian, has made the students understand that they’re seeing what was meant to be invisible,” Tandeciarz says. “Things that were dark and unknowable are now revealed. How do you teach repression if you don’t have access to what’s supposed to be behind the scenes and never known?”

Both Tandeciarz and Konefal are very interested in human rights, and their research interests in South America’s Southern Cone also overlap.

“Betsy is a Latin Americanist,” Tandeciarz explains, “And we learned fairly early on that her ‘State Violence in Latin America’ course coincided, from a historical perspective, with my ‘Cultures of Dictatorship’ course—and we both focused at least part of our courses on the Southern Cone.”

The two faculty members took advantage of their connection to Osorio and the National Security Archive. They assembled a small group of students with a desire to dive into an Independent Study project that offered the promise of wider relevance. Osorio says he was happy to get help from a group of eager and committed young researchers.

“I remember I saw all these young students keenly interested in the issues when they visited,” Osorio said in an email. “As I am always looking for interns, I saw a vein of young researchers that would get trained and, in the process, would leave their research to enrich our analysis.”

He said that the continuity of the experience added an additional benefit, as veteran student researchers could help to break in the Operation Condor newcomers.

“After four years of carrying out the internship class with Silvia and Betsy, I was always excited to join the weekly sessions with W&M. Some students had become lead researchers as they had repeated the course twice, and could guide the younger ones. Every session would become a refreshing and enriching experience as new ideas and directions would come up. Our research premises and assumptions would be subjected to the deep questioning of more seasoned students or to the fresh questioning of a new student.”

The professors outlined the standard procedure through which the William & Mary group receive their assignments. For the students, immersion is immediate.

“A request comes from a prosecuting judge in Argentina to the National Security Archive,” explains Tandeciarz. She said the judges are interested in any documents in the archives that might bear evidence related to pending cases. The Argentines outline which kinds of documents they are looking for—but they also provide a list of names of people who are “disappeared” or were illegally detained and then released. They are looking for evidence on the fate of these specific individuals.

Student have access to digital records

The students are given electronic access to the document servers; all records are digitized, so they are searchable. The students are able to interpret, organize and present relevant documentation that is then made available to Osorio (usually via Skype or Google Docs). If it sounds exciting, it is—but not in an instant-gratification way. Konefal likens it to searching for a needle in a very disorganized haystack.

“There are often problems where names are wrong or misspelled—or where they are using pseudonyms. It’s a really complicated sort of detective work,” Konefal says. “So, we work out variations of someone’s name—first name, second name, third name, nicknames—all the different possibilities. Then we have students keep careful track of what they’ve entered as search terms.”

If they’re lucky, two or three dozen documents will come up with the name they’re looking for. Then the students begin the painstaking work of chronologically studying those documents. It’s very tedious—very hard. Of course, all of the Paraguayan documents are in Spanish, but the language is not usually a barrier for the students.

“It’s just that the process of doing this kind of research involves so much detail, it’s all about subtleties in these documents,” Konefal said. “The students really take on a lot of responsibility for accurately finding the material, digesting it, analyzing it and presenting it to Carlos—and ultimately to the judges in Argentina.”

Usually two students work on one particular batch of documents at a time. The extra pair of eyes helps when they encounter any confusion or problems in interpreting what they are looking at.

The William & Mary group forwards the material to Osorio for review, then they schedule a Skype conference. Often, a debate ensues, prompted by probing questions from Osorio. The students defend their findings as they get as close as possible to understanding what happened in a particular case.

“So the National Security Archive becomes a key player in terms of providing the evidence,” Tandeciarz says, “because with the help of our students, they have searched for traces of all those individuals who appear in the memos and the reports—everything that was transmitted by secret cable through the embassy in Argentina back to the U.S,” or that was recorded in Paraguay’s Archive of Terror.

It doesn’t make for easy reading

The students must be able to lean on each other during this kind of research—because it can be both bewildering and emotional.

“It is very difficult to read some of this stuff,” says Konefal. “These archives are absolutely full of personal letters from families searching for information about their disappeared children or husbands or wives, and it’s really difficult to get to know someone that intimately—knowing ultimately what happens to them.  I think the students are really supportive of each other as they digest this material.”

After nearly five years of working on the National Security Archive Project—with at least two more ahead for the Operation Condor trials—Konefal and Tandeciarz have files of their own which bear testimony to the singular experience the students take from this endeavor. 

“Everything we do as researchers with the National Security Archive is personal,” says Christina McClernon ’12, a veteran of the National Security Archive project. “It’s about the little bit that we, as students and researchers, can do to sustain memory and honor life. It has added meaning to my experience as an undergraduate student; it has given me direction for the rest of my life.”

Earlier this year, Konefal and Tandecairz presented an update on the National Security Archive Project to William & Mary Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65 L.H.D. ’98. According to Argentina’s Center for Judicial Information, the current Operation Condor trial is expected to last at least two more years and some 500 witnesses are expected to testify. Tandeciarz expects W&M involvement to continue as well. 

“Beyond William & Mary, I don’t know of any other universities that are involved in this,” she says. “Carlos really enjoys working with our students.”