The Disappeared

Among the grim arsenal of tools used by authoritarians is “disappearing” someone, in which they are secretly abducted or imprisoned by a government or its allies—say, by having unmarked men dragging them into an unmarked vehicle—followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts. The intent is to place the victim outside the protection of the law and to sow terror, fear, and anxiety among the populace as to the fate of their loved ones or fellow citizens.

One of the first references to forced disappearance is in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, drafted during the French Revolution to protect people from common tools of oppression employed by the monarchy. The French called for any government actions against citizens to be public, as doing something secret disguises bad intentions and is clearly intended to strike fear into citizens.

However, term’s origins and most infamous use are from Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983), in which the U.S.-backed military junta used both government forces and allied right-wing death squads to hunt down or “disappear” anyone suspected of being leftist, communist, or otherwise opposed to the government. (The Dirty War was part of the larger Operation Condor, an American-led campaign that supplied training and intelligence to right-wing military dictatorships throughout South America to suppress dissidents.)

Up to 30,000 people disappeared over several years, from suspected guerrilla fighters to students and journalists. Some were even dragged out of classrooms, workplaces, and buses. Most were kept in clandestine detention centers, where they were questioned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Argentina’s de facto dictator announced that such people “are neither dead nor alive, they are desaparecidos (missing)”—which is arguably more chilling, as intended.

It was later revealed that many captives met their end in so-called “death flights”, in which they were heavily drugged, loaded onto aircraft, and tossed into the Atlantic Ocean so as to leave no trace of their death. Without any dead bodies, the government could easily deny any knowledge of their whereabouts and any accusations that they had been killed.

Unfortunately for the junta, the mothers of the disappeared formed an activist group, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, that demanded accountability. Not only was their courage and persistence a factor in the regime’s downfall, but they and other Argentines helped led the global movement against forced disappearances, including devising the legal principles and international criminal statutes.