Uruguay arrests ex-soldiers responsible for kidnapping in Porto Alegre in 1978


Two former colonels were arrested in Uruguay for participating in kidnappings in the context of the so-called Operation Condor, which united efforts of the military governments of Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s to fight opposition to the authoritarian regimes in vogue at the time.

Carlos Alberto Rossel Argimón and Glauco Yanonne de León were arrested last Wednesday (7). Both are involved in the kidnapping of Uruguayan civil servants Lilian Celiberti and Universindo Díaz in Porto Alegre, in November 1978 —Lilian’s children, Camilo and Francesca, aged 7 and 3 at the time, were also kidnapped.

The operation was carried out by the Uruguayan Army, with the help of the Rio Grande do Sul civil police, in a proven case of the participation of repressive apparatuses from two South American countries in the same mission. The episode became internationally known as the “kidnapping of the Uruguayans”.

Lilian and Universindo were refugees in Porto Alegre because their political organization, the Partido pela Vitória do Povo (PVP), was suffering persecution in Uruguay, whose regime was then led by Aparicio Méndez (1976-1981). In the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, they lived in the Menino Deus neighborhood — the two were not married, just companions in activism.

They had gone to Brazil to collect reports of human rights violations linked to Operation Condor actions. Universindo had passed through Sweden, where he had refugee status and had worked with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Lilian was in Italy before. The idea was, through proximity, to obtain information about abuses in Uruguay and pass it on to human rights bodies in Europe.

The kidnapped group was taken to Montevideo and separated: the children were handed over to their grandparents, and the adults were taken to a prison, where they were tortured. In 2000, in an interview with Sheet, Lilian said she had received electric shocks; Universindo was even placed on a macaw tree and beaten.

The military operation finally leaked to the Brazilian press, which reported on the kidnapping of the Uruguayans in Porto Alegre and exposed the existence of Operation Condor. Lilian says that she managed to alert other activists about her arrest with coded messages.

However, the two spent five years in prison. The international repercussion of the case triggered human rights bodies, which pressured the Uruguayan dictatorship for the release —which took place in November 1983.

The first complaint against the military was made in 1984, by the team of the Institute of Legal and Social Studies of Uruguay. But only in 2018 was the prosecution formalized, for four crimes, including deprivation of liberty and torture. The country has an amnesty law, but it has held trials for cases in which the occurrence of crimes against humanity is proven, which do not prescribe.

The former colonels were prosecuted based on an investigation carried out by the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Humanity. According to the newspaper El Observador, the arrest was made by order of judge Silvia Orioste. She concluded that Argimón and Yanonne are “criminally responsible for the crimes of deprivation of liberty […]aggravated by repeated crimes of violence”.

The arrest was ordered to “preserve the guarantees of the judicial process”, and the two will remain in custody at least until the conclusion of the judicial process.

On the Brazilian side, in 1980, the Court sentenced two agents for involvement in the kidnapping of the Uruguayans —the former Internacional player Didi Pedalada and João Augusto da Rosa, from the DOPS (Department of Political and Social Order)—, to six months in prison each for abuse of authority; Rosa obtained an appeal and did not serve her sentence. Other officers were detained but released for lack of evidence.

In 2010, Rosa filed a claim for moral damages against Luiz Cláudio Cunha, author of the book “Operação Condor: O Sequestro dos Uruguaios”. At the hearing, he, who denies participating in the action, was called a kidnapper and a liar several times.

When asked about her knowledge of the former DOPS agent, Lilian Celiberti, listed as the author’s witness, stared at Rosa for a few seconds and declared: “He was one of those who kidnapped me and took me to Uruguay.” The former agent remained impassive. Universindo died in 2012.

On the Uruguayan side, in addition to the former military officers arrested last week, another former officer, Eduardo Ferro, was arrested in Spain in 2021.

The kidnapping of Uruguayans in Porto Alegre was one of the few failures of Operation Condor (1975-1985), which provided the exchange of logistics and intelligence for the arrest of guerrillas and opponents of military regimes. It is estimated that, as a result of Condor’s actions, around 50,000 people disappeared or died in the region.

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