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Who are Los Desaparecidos?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term los desaparecidos is used to describe the victims of forced disappearances in Central and South America. Many people use the term to refer specifically to people swept up in Operation Condor, a notorious campaign which was directly implicated in thousands of disappearances and acts of repression in South America in the 1970s. In most cases, the fates of los desaparecidos or “the disappeared” are unknown, despite the efforts of friends and family members.

Most of the los desaparecidos were left wingers and moderates who were caught up in right-wing government campaigns which were designed to stamp out dissidence. They were commonly accused of terrorism, treason, and other anti-government acts, while others were simply quietly abducted because of their associates, physical appearance, or taste in books.

The abductions of los desaparecidos often involved members of the military and law enforcement, but they were outside the legal system. People simply vanished one day with no explanation, and were taken to internment camps. Many of los desaparecidos were tortured and eventually murdered, with numerous mass graves scattered across South America testifying to the fate of many of these missing individuals.

In the 1980s, as military juntas and oppressive governments began to wane in Latin America, many citizens started to speak out about los desaparecidos. They had previously been afraid of reprisals from the government, but with the overthrow of violent governments, they felt confident marching in the streets, posting “missing” posters, and agitating for information about the fates of the thousands of missing people across Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia, among other nations.

Several task forces and commissions attempted to gather information about the fates of the disappeared, but they were stymied by destroyed records and lack of cooperation from officials who might have been able to provide more information. Some victims have been identified through inspection of mass graves by international teams of forensic anthropologists, with some volunteers working at great personal risk to identify the dead in politically unstable regions. Others have been identified through the testimony of survivors, and through the scattered available records.

However, the vast majority of los desaparecidos remain unknown, and they may never be known. Many people lost friends and family members during the 1970s and 1980s, and the memory of this turbulent period in Latin American history is still fresh in the minds of many South and Central Americans. Violence against some social groups in Latin America is still an issue, as exemplified by the hundreds of murders of young women which have plagued Ciudad Juarez in Mexico since 1993.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon261082 — On Apr 13, 2012

Who was the famous singer in the 1970's, early '80s that was also accused of terrorism or treason? He was more popular than others that have been mentioned.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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