New York's Dirty War
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On Feb. 5, 2004, a historic march took place at the Plaza de Mayo circle in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For over 25 years, Argentine mothers have come to the circle to protest against the disappearance of their love ones from the despicable acts of the military dictatorship of Argentina, which formed in 1976. What made the day different this year was that members of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared joined them. They came to Argentina to pay homage to the Mothers who had inspired them in their seven-year struggle against the Rockefeller drug laws of New York State. Two groups of mothers from worlds apart united against the violation of human rights.
It was a bright, sunny day. Dozens of elderly women marched through the plaza, praying that their dedication might somehow bring justice to the children of the disappeared. Old women from the Asociation Madres de Plaz De Mayo -- the most radical of several groups participating -- began the march waving bright blue flags proudly displaying their logo. A banner reading "Ni Un Paso A Tras!!" -- "No Step Back" -- was held tightly in frail hands. A sea of white handkerchiefs adorned the heads of the Argentinean mothers, gracefully marching in protest against atrocities that were committed against them and their families. It is estimated that 30,000 people were kidnapped and murdered in the reign of terror that existed between 1976 and 1983.
In 1973, a similar reign silently began in New York State. The draconian Rockefeller drug laws sentenced thousands of men and women, many non-violent offenders, to life imprisonment. They were "disappeared" from the roles they played in society. For over thirty years, these laws have devastated and destroyed families. Although the acts of the New York legislature were not of the same caliber as those implemented by the Argentinean dictatorship, the enactment of the Rockefeller drug laws was similarly a violation of human rights. Over 94 percent of the population incarcerated in New York State prisons are people of color.
In 1998 the Mothers of the NY Disappeared was formed to fight to repeal these laws. In five years, using street level protests inspired by the actions of Argentinean mothers, they managed to change the political climate of New York State by putting a human face on the issue of the drug war.
In 2001, for the first time in 27 years, the governor of New York along with the Senate and Assembly all agreed that the laws must be changed. Acute disagreement on what changes should be made, however, threw the repeal of the laws into limbo. Meanwhile, over 16,000 men and women convicted under these laws are wasting away in New York State prisons.
One member of the Mothers group from New York was Julie Colon, an aspiring actress whose mother, Melita Oliviera, a first time non-violent offender, had served 13 years of a 15-to-life sentence for the sale of cocaine before she was granted clemency two years ago by Governor George Pataki.
"My mother had made a mistake, and she paid dearly for it," said Colon. I am here to join with other mothers and family members to share the pain of losing someone dear. Although it was not finite, the act of her being taken from my life for all those years was devastating to me." Julie was placed in foster care. Her case is representative of many others in the NY group including Arlene Olberg, whose baby was born in prison while she was serving time under the Rockefeller drug laws.
The pain of losing someone dear is what ties the American families who have lost sons and daughters to the Rockefeller drug laws with the Argentinean families who lost members to the brutal dictatorship. The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo -- the grandmothers of the disappeared -- was formed on October 22, 1977, and remains dedicated to finding the children that were stolen from them.
In an attempt at political repression, the dictatorship would kidnap pregnant women and put them in concentration camps where their children were born. Then they were murdered and their children were put up for adoption. To date 77 children have been found through DNA testing. President of the group, Estela de Carlotto, lost her daughter on November 26, 1977. Laura Estella de Carlotto had been a militant student at the university. Estela, a soft-spoken woman in her 70s, said, "we had warned her of the danger, but she wanted to change the country." Nine months after her kidnapping, the military police called Estela to tell her that her 21-year-old daughter had been assassinated.
Estela notes that protesting the kidnappings "was dangerous, some of us were kidnapped and assassinated." Their perserverance paid off. Recently the government annulled two immunity laws of those who committed the atrocities, allowing the law to be able to prosecute them. Estela said that "the new president opens his doors to us all the time because he belongs to the same generation of the children that disappeared."
Members of another group, called the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora, told a similar story. Their office walls were adorned with photos of love ones that had disappeared. Some of the women had pictures of murdered family members draped around their necks in the place of jewelry. In a round table discussion the Mothers of the New York Disappeared and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora exchanged information about each groups' struggle. At the end of the meeting their leader suggested that she write an open letter to the governor of New York State asking him repeal the laws. The letter would be signed by many organizations that fight for human rights in Argentina.
"We thanked them for their generosity and understanding. We went there not knowing how they would accept us" said Luciana, the wife of a former Rockefeller drug offender who attended the meeting. "Seeing these women gives me the strength to continue my fight to change these laws."
Some might argue that the families of those incarcerated under the Rockefeller drug laws have not suffered as much as the Madres in Argentina. But for 30 years the oppression of these laws has been felt in New York. Both groups of mothers, worlds apart, are connected by their respective struggles.
In mid-April the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora will visit New York to meet with politicians and others to voice their protest. For more information, visit www.15yearstolife.com.
Anthony Papa is co-founder of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared. He served 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws. His book "15 To Life" is being published in fall 2004 by Feral House.