Volume 73, Number 3 | May 19 - 25, 2004

Argentine madres see parallels in harsh drug laws

By Roslyn Kramer

Four courageous women, survivors of Argentina’s murderous dictatorships that blanketed much of the 20th century, were in New York recently, representing the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. These legendary women had demonstrated weekly for 27 years in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo, protesting the loss of their children in the middle of the night to dead squads. The sin of these young people was political activism, or just the mere the suspicion of being involved in it.

But these distraught housewives, seamstresses — women from all walks of life — did not suffer in quiet. And that was why these four were here: to cheer on women, mostly Latina, here in the United States whose children or spouses were serving unconscionably long prison sentences for minor drug offenses. These young peoples’ entire lives were derailed for committing nonviolent acts, often of desperation, involving drugs: broken families, extreme poverty, children with learning problems — a systemic breakdown of their lives that was sometimes beyond repair.

At 30, the Rockefeller drug laws are now about as old as the 27-year-old Plaza de Mayo weekly demonstrations. A lot has changed in Argentina: “They once called us the crazy women of the Plaza de Mayo,” recalled Taty Almeida, whose son, Alejandro, was 20 years old when he disappeared in the summer of 1975. “We were crazy with pain; with impotence,” she continued, speaking through a translator at a recent luncheon in honor of the Argentinian madres at Gus’ Place on Waverly Pl. just before their return to Buenos Aires — where they would resume demonstrating.

“We transformed our pain into a fight,” Almeida continued. “We began as women who lost our children, but we were transformed into an organization fighting for human rights.”

Some Plaza de Mayo Madres were indeed killed for openly protesting their children’s murders, but many survived, not because even ruthless fascists are cowed by agonized mothers baring their pain, but because widespread publicity attracting the attention of the international press protected these grief-stricken activists.

The four madres, representing legions of fellow demonstrators in Argentina, were brought here by the Village-based William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, headed by Margaret Ratner Kunstler, the widow of the equally lauded and excoriated civil rights attorney William Kunstler. The fund’s director, Randy Credico, has become a goodwill ambassador, getting to know the madres and arranging for their visit. Credico, who also worked for three years in Tulia, Texas, to free blacks and Latinos framed on drug charges by a rogue police officer, went to Argentina to arrange the madres’ visit, and is back now helping the Argentinian women organize support for the Mothers of the New York Disappeared.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization working to ease punitive drug laws aimed at nonviolent offenders by promoting treatment rather than incarceration, also supported the madres’ visit. The D.P.A. recently won a federal court victory allowing medicinal use of marijuana in California, but the Bush administration wants the decision reversed, and is expected to appeal the issue to the Supreme Court.

The D.P.A. also opposes mandatory minimum sentences, initiated with the Rockefeller drug laws, but now widely applied. Mandatory minimums have incensed some judges who feel they remove judicial discretion and weigh courtroom power in favor of prosecutors. In some circumstances, rather than enforce draconian anti-drug laws a few federal judges refuse to take drug cases.

As severe as the Rockefeller drug laws are, they are no match for the middle-of-the-night summary death sentences inflicted by successive Argentinian military regimes. But this didn’t lessen the madres’ hopeful message to their American counterparts. It took more than a generation to bring change, but now, “after 27 years for the first time we have a president who’s really interested in human rights,” noted Carmen Lapaco, whose daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend are counted among the disappeared. Furthermore, the madres have become a rallying point for others interested in human rights: “People used to live in fear,” Lapaco recalls. “Now they organize for social change.”

The madres’ visit was inspired by an enthusiastic reporter for El Dario who saw a parallel between the Argentine demonstrators and the Mothers of the New York Disappeared. The U.S. women’s group have been demonstrating against the Rockefeller drug laws for several years in various locations here (Rockefeller Center for several years) and in Albany, most prominently at the Midtown and Upstate offices of Gov. George Pataki.

The madres were not your average tourists. They watched familes of imprisoned drug offenders descend on Columbus Circle for the long bus ride to Upstate prisons to visit briefly their incarcerated relatives. In their 10-day tour of the New York justice system they had Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Assemblymember Eric Schneiderman as guides. They met with State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and the Argentine ambassador to the United Nations.

The madres brought with them the simple cotton scarves bearing the names of their disappeared, worn on their heads during demonstrations. Still, after all these years of activism, almost nothing is known of Argentina’s 30,000 disappeared. “When we’re asked why we keep going around the Plaza de Mayo,” says Almeida, “it’s because we want to know what happened to every one of those 30,000.”


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