Workers and activists gathered in the central plaza of Asunción, Paraguay on May 1st to commemorate International Workers Day. Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo marked the day by raising the minimum wage by 5%, half of what many of the unions present were demanding. But another piece of news set the tone for this annual gathering: the return to Paraguay of an ex-minister of the dictatorship who orchestrated the murder and torture of thousands of political dissidents.
In the early hours of May 1st, Sabino Augusto Montanaro, the Interior Minister in Paraguay during the repressive Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989), returned to his country after 20 years in Honduras. Doctors say 86 year old Montanaro is suffering from senility and Parkinson’s disease. Montanaro’s lawyer Luis Troche said his client returned to the country not to apologize for his crimes or face justice, but because, “according to Paraguayan law, he is too old to go to jail.”
Montanaro served as a minister under Stroessner from 1966 to the end of the dictatorship and played a key role in the regime’s repression, directing the abduction, torture, and murder of political opponents of Stroessner. Now, upon his return to Paraguay, he faces various criminal charges and thousands of angry citizens, many of whom greeted his return to the country with protests and calls for the ex-minister’s imprisonment.
Martin Almada, a human rights lawyer and former political prisoner, discovered documents which prove that Montanaro played a key role in Operation Condor, a unified, cross-border network of repression coordinated by military dictatorships in the region throughout the 1970s and 80s.
In 2006, Stroessner died at age 93 in Brasilia without facing justice for the repression that took place under his watch, including the disappearance of some 400 people and the torture of 18,000, according to a Truth and Justice Commission.
Paraguayan Bishop Mario Melanio Medina told the ABC Color newspaper that Montanaro was Stroessner’s “right hand man” and “number one [in command] after Stroessner.”
Rubber Bullets and Memory
Around noon at the May 1st rally, some 1,000 protesters began marching toward the private hospital where Montaro was a patient. While pounding drums and yelling political chants, the marchers paraded down the middle of many streets that were empty due to the holiday. The chants and drumming increased in volume when the marchers passed the red headquarters of the Colorado Party, Stroessner’s party which lost its 60-year-long grip on the country with the 2008 election of Fernando Lugo.
The march reached a climax upon arriving at the hospital. Dozens of riot cops surrounded the building, protecting the ex-minister by creating a wall with their thick metal shields, while hundreds of victims and family members of victims of Montanaro’s repression rallied in the streets outside, demanding justice.
When the majority of the marchers arrived at the hospital, one group charged the front door, trying to break through the police line and get to Montanaro. The police responded with brutal force that left one man bloody and stunned.
As the numbers of protesters outside the hospital increased, news spread that a judge ordered Montanaro’s transfer from the private hospital to a police hospital. Protesters responded by gathering around the side of the hospital where ambulances leave and arrive. Police formed another wall in this section of the hospital to protect Montanaro’s ambulance and allow for his safe transferal.
When the gates opened, and the ambulance transporting Montanaro began to leave, police pushed protesters back, crashing night sticks and shields on the bodies of the marchers, who responded by throwing stones at the police and ambulance. Protesters managed to get to the ambulance, breaking its windows with rocks as the police repression increased and the ambulance sped off. Police dispersed the crowd with a barrage of rubber bullets that injured a number of protesters.
Later, a vigil including hundreds of people gathered in front of the police hospital. “We, the relatives of the victims, are going to mount a special vigilance so this criminal has no space nor privilege in which to hide, or to argue that he’s insane to escape justice,” said Rolando Goiburu, the son of Dr. Agustin Goiburu who was disappeared under Stroessner, according to EFE.
Earlier in the day President Lugo arrived to echo the protesters sentiments. He spoke of Montanaro’s return: “I promise that there will be justice, the same mistakes that previous governments made will not be repeated, and there won’t be any privileges for anyone.” He told protesters outside the hospital that this is a “good opportunity to recuperate historical memory.”
Judith Rolón, a daughter of Martín Rolón who was disappeared during the Stroessner dictatorship, said Montanaro “will not have peace until he says where the disappeared are.”
Benjamin Dangl is currently based in Paraguay, and is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press), and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.