Bodies of Water

Disappearance is not just a euphemism for state murder; it’s intrinsic to capitalism’s need for disposable classes

The oceans are full of bodies. This is nothing new; the currents are imbricated with centuries-old ghosts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the genocide of millions of Africans, the acceptable loss in the conversion of people into commodities. At Cape Horn, the particles of African ghosts mingle with the fragments of Chilean and Argentinean disappeared and whisper together of endemic violence. They are joined by the bodies of refugees turned away from shore, taken by the sea at the behest of state policy. The wind and the waves are always already full of ghosts, the particles of all the bodies rolling together with marine debris. The body is made of hydrogen and oxygen and when the body comes apart it becomes a part of what surrounds it, what consumes it.

The science of all disposal of bodies at sea—murder or memorial, is the same. The body must be weighted; chained to the bodies of other captives on a slave ship, bound to a recycled fragment of industrial railroad, interred in an official metal casket on a deployed Naval vessel, trapped below deck in a capsized migrant ship. Otherwise the body won’t sink. Bodies decompose more slowly in water, but unprotected decades will reduce even bones to sediment.

At the Villa Grimaldi Peace Park in a quiet neighborhood of Santiago, Chile, a collection of pieces of rusted metal are laid out like bones in a small, climate-controlled building. The park is on the grounds of the former detention and torture site, now a memorial garden. This is what remains of the disappeared, these scraps of inorganic matter that lay in repose instead of the missing bodies. Even as the perpetrators continue to deny that anything happened at all, the rails whisper of the ghosts in the waves. The bodies at the ocean’s bottom decomposed in the salt water as the ties corroded, pressed together. At Villa Grimaldi, there is a shirt button rusted into the surface of a railroad tie. The corpse, the clothing worn by the deceased at the time of their assassination and the rails disintegrated together unevenly; the waters took the flesh but left the metal. In the absence of other forms of evidence, this seemingly insignificant object has acquired the status of an artifact that indexes the logic of disappearance; the collection of rusted scraps that constitutes material evidence. The railroad tie, lying in repose, acts as physical evidence in lieu of the disintegrated, inaccessible bodies.

Thousands of people disappeared in the regime of U.S.-backed state repression that swept through the Southern Cone of South America, particularly in Argentina and Chile, beginning in the 1970s, under what was known as Operation Condor. Disappearance is not just a euphemism for state murder, it is the central design of an act of terror. The disappearance—the murder without the corpse, operates in multiple ways. The systematic concealment of evidence is designed to exonerate the perpetrators. The withholding of information purposefully misled people and made them hold onto the unrealistic hope that they would find their detained loved ones alive. Extrajudicial detention, torture, and assassinations were carried out with the intention of intimidating survivors by setting an example of what could happen to them.

The apparatus of disappearance is a capitalist ritual of creating ghosts. Disappearance is intrinsic to capitalism, to Western modernity, which is always already prepared to dispose of these othered humans along lines of racialized poverty. Disappearance in this sense, of the necropolitical creation of disposable classes that are prone to vanishing, exceeds structures of justice and testifies to the law as the cohering of a fiction into a system of truth through repetition and ritual—how humans are made and unmade. The disappearances in Chile were enacted both on the bodies of the individual victims and on the body politic. Victoria Saavedra Gonzàlez, whose 18-year old brother was murdered by the military for his involvement in student activism in the desert city of Calama during the 1973 Caravan of Death, tells journalist Paula Allen that with the disappearances, “Pinochet created a new [disposable] class of Chileans.”

Students, communists, socialists, union members, indigenous people—ideological threats to Augusto Pinochet’s vision of fascism paired with free market economics, were arrested, murdered, thrown into mass graves throughout the country. The murdered of Chile were buried in the Atacama Desert, for example, during what was known as the Caravan of Death of 1973. Or they were dumped in mass graves in the Santiago General Cemetery in the fields beyond the regal mausoleums where the Chilean elite were interred, as was the case with the stadium killings the same year.

Others went into the Mapocho River or the Pacific—these victims of Pinochet’s military dictatorship were bound to railroad ties by the Department of National Intelligence/La Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) and dumped into the sea, so that their corpses wouldn’t wash to shore. DINA abducted leftists, from the Revolutionary Left Movement/Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) among many others. They were detained, interrogated, imprisoned and tortured in places like Villa Grimaldi. After being tortured, some of the prisoners were taken to a small, nearby military air base. There, a doctor and a nurse, who were brought in for that particular purpose, injected them with a lethal substance. Before loading them into the helicopter that would carry them to the coast, the bodies were tied with wire to the metal rails that would ensure they would stay submerged. The railroad ties were recovered decades later as part of an ultimately unsuccessful effort by Chilean judge Juan Salvador Guzmán Tapia to prosecute the former dictator Pinochet on human rights charges.

Before the military started using the railroad ties, bodies washed up on the beaches and floated down the Mapocho River. The newspapers reported these deaths as suicides—Ignacio Agüero, in the 2008 documentary “Agustín’s Newspaper,” indicts the Chilean media for its complicity in the dictatorship and the disappearances, including campaigns of misinformation in presenting assassinations as suicides or apolitical crimes.

In 1976, the body of Marta Ugarte, a teacher and communist militant, washed ashore. In the press, she was presented as the anonymous victim of a love affair gone wrong. In fact, later research confirmed that Ugarte, after being clandestine for two years, had been captured and tortured at Villa Grimaldi. The injection that was meant to kill Ugarte failed. In the helicopter, the men tasked with dumping her body took her out of the burlap bag she had been placed in and strangled her with one of the wires that had been used to attach the bag to the rail. In their haste, the bag was poorly re-attached, and so Ugarte’s mutilated body resurfaced and washed ashore. The media campaign to cast Ugarte as an anonymous victim of mob brutality or domestic violence took place because disappearance, not open state murder, is the desired effect. Again, the power of denied information tied to the disavowal of brutality allowed the dictatorship to simultaneously enact horrific human rights abuses and emerge as a celebrated player in modern global economics. Still, this was the evidence that Judge Guzmán was able to use, years later, to press those involved to at least partially confess. According to a 2003 Reuters article, helicopter mechanics involved in the disappearances attested to hundreds of victims, including Ugarte, being fasted to railroad ties and dumped into the ocean to sink.

Señora Lionila, whose son was murdered in Calama, says “They buried us alive.” In Calama, the families of the disappeared were told of their loved ones’ deaths; the official story was that the 26 prisoners were killed in an escape attempt. The military promised the return of the bodies, however, the families never received the remains and the military never revealed where they were buried. Although these families have been informed of the fates of their loved ones, they continue to speak of the pain of not knowing. Without a body to bury, the survivors are condemned, as Saavedra Gonzàlez, the sister of the murdered student, tells Allen, “to be eternal desert walkers.” They have been lied to before—maybe their husbands and sons are still alive, somehow. Maybe the desert that swallowed them up will spit them back out again. More than co-existing with the ghosts of the disappeared, the survivors themselves exist in a kind of liminal state, the open grave of mourning. They are unable to lay their dead to rest and are also condemned to remain phantoms, without peace. They haunt present-day Chile, demanding recompense for that which the stable, prosperous State would rather forget.

The families searched for 17 years in the Atacama Desert before, in 1990, finding the remains of what had been a mass grave. In the late 1970s, the corpses of several of the disappeared were discovered in a mineshaft in the desert. Unlike the sea, the desert preserves bodies. Fearing the discovery of the larger mass grave, the military ordered the Calama bodies exhumed and thrown into the ocean. The operation was codenamed “Operación Retiro de Televisores” (Operation Removal of the Televisions). Bodies were dug up, some accidentally crushed into the sand before they were sent to the sea. Still, the sand of the Atacama desert is full of bones—shards and fragments and chunks. Saavedra Gonzàlez tells filmmaker Patricio Guzmán what she found of her brother:

A foot. It was still in his shoe.
Some of his teeth. I found
part of his forehead,
his nose,
nearly all of the left side
of his skull,
the bit behind the ear with a bullet mark…
a few teeth
and bits of bones
and a foot.

When a foot, or a piece of skull, appears in the sand, how do those left behind convince themselves, as the amnestied murderer attests, that the rest was thrown into the sea? They will search forever. Violeta Berríos Àguila, whose husband was killed in Calama, finds a jawbone. She tells Guzmán that she doesn’t want a jawbone, she wants her husband’s body. “I want him whole. They took him away whole I don’t want just a piece of him.” Later she says, “I do not believe that they put the bodies in sacks and threw them into the sea. It would have been so much easier and faster for them to throw the bodies into the hills. I think that if they were in the water, the bags would have decomposed, the fish would have broken through, and the bones would have floated to the surface because they were so light. They would have landed on the beach somewhere by now.”

Without fully accepting the actual death of her husband, Berríos Àguila considers the logic of the bones—what would have survived the desert, the digging up. She reasons that the military must have put the decomposing remains in sacks, and even weighted sacks would not withstand the sea. Having held her husband’s jawbone, she attests to the lightness of bones, spit back onto the shore like driftwood. After decades, bone and steel have both hollowed out, become porous. In his film Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán goes to the Atacama and traces the simultaneous archaeology of the stars and the sand—the remnants of galaxies, ancient humans, and murdered dissidents. The astronomer tells him, stars and bones are made of calcium, they dissipate into each other. The archaeologist tells him, even if the bodies are in the sea we will find a trace of them someday. The wife tells him, she does not want to die without finding what remains.

The oceans are full of bodies—the waters speak of the necropolitical creation of disposable classes that are subject to vanishing. The boundaries are made clear, between the privileged class of the human and its other. The ritual of body disposal, which prevents or makes ghosts, is at the foundation of political community. The Middle Passage, as global capitalism’s constitutive act, filled the waters with the ghosts that imbricate the civilization slavery built. The ocean is still where capitalism leaves its refuse, swirling gyres of trash and the sediment of corpses. These violent burials seem to reenact shades of the first—Pinochet’s regime separating out the “disposable class” as they re-constituted capitalism in the Americas, the easy murder of 900 refugees, just in one day, on the waters of the Mediterranean. These seemingly disparate historical moments exist in a genealogy of violence that is not episodic or mysterious, that is traceable. The water is full of evidence, and that which is dumped as trash reemerges to haunt us, demanding justice.