Interview with a torturer

An Uruguayan journalist goes face-to-face with one of the three men who tortured him when he was a prisoner during the Dirty War in Argentina:

Video in Spanish, with English subtitles, from Al-Jazeera.

The torturer’s name is Héctor Julio Simón, nickname El Turco Julián (Julian the Turk). I had not heard of him before reading this item at Memory in Latin America (a good place to go for backgrounder on all kinds of Latin American dirty war abuses, BTW.)

Like many torturers, “Julián”, a convinced fascist and rabid antisemite known for his Hitler salutes, who worked out of the infamous Olimpo prison (among other places), has a strange and uncomfortable relationship to his erstwhile victim. This even though Gerardo, the journalist, has forgiven him and is now only seeking answers–chief among them, the names of the other two, who were truly vicious to him. One, nicknamed “Kung Fu” for his brutal martial-arts style of prisoner abuse, remains unnamed at the end, although Gerardo has managed to find out who the other one, known as “Colores”, was.

“Julián”, as you can see, can’t quite meet his victim-turned-interrogator’s eyes. And he’s full of excuses and attempts at deflection. But he does let slip a crucial truth: that torture twists the torturer as much as it does the victim, in its own perverse way. After his stint as a torturer ended, Julio Simón’s troubles began in earnest; he became jumpy and restless, feeling that no place was safe, and he ended up living out of his car, desperate to hide and unable to escape the demons now eating him from within.

One can see that torture isn’t really about obtaining intelligence (ordinary questioning, without coercion, can do it better, as can exercising a lawful search warrant.) Most of the “information” obtained through torture is useless, since a victim will say anything it takes to make it stop. It’s about power, about making sure the victim knows that s/he is powerless, and about holding that person’s life in the balance, for whatever purpose the higher-ups have in mind–until the authorities decide that the person has learned a lesson and can be let go. Or else the bodies are dumped from planes into the sea to destroy the evidence, as was the case in Argentina. And yes, some torturers are truly sadistic, and enjoy other people’s suffering–or have convinced themselves that the victim is not the right sort of person, maybe not even human at all, and is therefore fair game. For them, the power trip is as much a high as any drug.

But what is less well understood is that the torturer, unless he is a complete automaton, can also feel profoundly helpless long after his career as a professional tormentor is over, especially if he is no longer with the military, the police or any other agency where he can go on exercising that inordinate power he used to have. Cut loose from the monstrous machinery that sustained him in his bloody career, he soon realizes that he is illegitimate, without credibility, as well as helpless. He cannot go seamlessly back to a normal life, a family, an innocent job, although he may, for a long time, pretend quite successfully. But there comes a time when the pretense breaks down, and it happens most often to torturers who no longer exist in a state of authority and impunity. Perhaps he knows that whatever he has done, someone else in turn can do to him. The paranoid mindset of fascist times stays with him wherever he goes, long after democracy is restored. In fact, it is then that he will be at his most uneasy. He may fear that his former colleagues, especially the more brutal ones like “Kung Fu”, will track him down and kill him if he squeals, as “Julián” does. He may also feel guilt, or even empathy, that he does not want to feel again if face to face with one of his victims, as here. He will do anything to avoid confronting and reliving the past, even when such a confrontation is the only thing that can help him. (To admit the past is to admit one’s own role in it–and one’s own powerlessness.) He may be a tangled knot of contradictions and attempts at self-justification, scrambling to weave some solid identity out of the torn cloth of his destroyed character. But whatever the case may be, torture has left its own mark on him. No sense of normality is ever possible again after that.

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3 Responses to Interview with a torturer

  1. Simon says:

    hi Sabina…thanks for that one. I had heard of el Turco Julian, so I enjoyed every minute of it.
    They should hunt these fascists like Nazis until the end of time.
    On a different note… I hadn’t heard that wonderful River Plate word “tarado” in years…and I LOVE it… 🙂

  2. Hi, Simon…yes, they’re definitely looking for these guys. These people have a lot of courage, considering how many others have turned their backs. If the government and the courts are slow to do anything about it, at least the survivors and families of victims are not. I love how they hold regular “escraches” (another wonderful local word) to expose the torturers, literally, right where they live. They hold big, noisy protest marches and write graffiti and put up posters to make sure all the neighbors know who really lives there. Nothing like seeing these guys made hugely uncomfortable by the people they once put through hell!

  3. John says:

    Excellent article Sabina, keep up the good work.

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