– Why are you so important? asks a voice from above.
– I don’t know what you mean, sir, answers Liliana. Her hands are tied behind her back and a blindfold is covering her eyes.
Liliana Deutsch is detained, at that precise moment, in the clandestine detention, torture and extermination center of La Perla, in Córdoba province. It is March 1978. The illegal detention of her family on August 27, 1977, was, from that moment, an important item on the bilateral agenda between Argentina and the US, motivating President Jimmy Carter’s special request to dictator Jorge Rafael Videla for their release.
But Liliana, a 17-year-old girl, knows nothing about this yet. What she does know is that a group of people violently broke into her house in the middle of the night and arrested her father Alejandro, her mother Elena, and her two sisters, Betty and Susana. Now, a stranger whose face she cannot see is asking her questions whose answers are a mystery.
The story of the Deutsch family is one of the many stories of illegal detentions that occurred in Argentina after March 24, 1976, when Videla and the army staged a coup d’état to establish a regime of terror, persecution and murder of political militants, students, unionists, popular leaders and many other people unrelated to political activities. The bloody dictatorship would last until 1983.
The uniqueness of the Deutsch family was the link they had with the Democratic Party in the US. That saved them from simply “disappearing,” like the rest of the 30,000 victims who were murdered during that period, and allowed them to survive in prison until they were released and left Argentina.
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In a letter sent in November 1977, after Videla had visited the US to support the Torrijos-Carter Treaty, Carter had written to Videla: “I particularly appreciate your letter, of September 28 and October 11, 1977, and the information which you related in the second letter concerning the Deutsch family. As I am sure you are aware, there is considerable and continuing Congressional and public concern on this matter in my country”.
The Deutsch couple, Alejandro and Elena, had four children. Their three daughters were arrested the same night, but Daniel, the eldest son, managed to escape arrest.
Alejandro, seeing strange movements, phoned his son from the house to tell him that something strange was going on. Daniel decided not to return home. That call changed everything.
Daniel, together with Antonio Granero, middle sister Susana’s boyfriend at the time and current husband, were the ones who sprang into action to find out what had happened to the family.
“My father’s sister was active in the Democratic Party in the United States. When she found out about our detention, she contacted Henry Waxman, a Democrat congressman, and that’s when the demands for us began,” Susana told the Buenos Aires Herald.
But that wasn’t all.
“In addition, my husband [Granero] contacted Robert Cox, editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, and that is how our case became known in Argentina,” recalls Susana.
Antonio was a member of a legendary humor magazine in Córdoba province called “Revista Hortensia” and was known by his pseudonym “Cascote” (rubble).
It was the pressure from Democrat congressmen and Robert Cox’s decision to publish their story that saved their lives.
In October 1977, one month after being detained, Elena, Elsa and Susana, the mother and two of the couple’s daughters, were released. In January 1978 they went into exile, via Uruguay, in the United States. Liliana, the youngest —who was 17 at the time— was imprisoned for another year.
“I was in high school and, at that time, I was part of the student union of the Manuel Belgrano School, which belonged to a leftist political movement. But in no way did I participate in the armed struggle, and nor was I a terrorist, as Videla described me in the letter he sent to Jimmy Carter,” Liliana told the Herald.
Susana says: “We were a middle-class family that had everything settled. My dad was a businessman and had a boiler sales business, which happened to be a supplier to the Argentine Army.”
The entire Deutsch family went into exile in the US and settled in Los Angeles, where they had relatives. Without Argentine documents, and with the sponsorship of the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, they arrived in Los Angeles under the figure of “Humanitarian Parole,” since the option of “political refugees” was only available for citizens of European communist countries.
“Those first years of exile were very hard, full of burdens. We didn’t speak the language and we had to learn a lot of things, because everything was new. But it also helped us to leave behind all that we had lived through,” said Susana.
The case of the Deutsch family was one of the stories that reappeared in the documents declassified by the US in 2016. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought the documents to Argentina as part of a commitment made by President Barack Obama during his visit to the country in March of that year.
Among the documents was the letter that President Jimmy Carter sent to Videla in 1977, demanding the release of the Deutsch family. The issue had been discussed in September of that year when Videla had traveled to Washington to support the signing of the Torrijos-Carter treaty for neutrality in the Panama Canal.
That trip was covered in detail by the Buenos Aires Herald. As can be seen in our archives, Videla was asked on numerous occasions by the U.S. press about human rights violations in Argentina. Videla spoke of “spontaneous” groups in the security forces committing “excesses” in the fight against leftwing “subversion”.
When democracy was restored in Argentina in December 1983, some members of the Deutsch family returned to Argentina. The mother and daughters testified in the Trial of the Military Juntas in 1985 and were witnesses in the judicial process that took place between 2012 and 2016 in Córdoba known as the La Perla mega-case.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of Videla’s death. The dictator was found dead in his cell in Marcos Paz prison on the morning of May 17, 2013.
In a document called “The dimension of impunity”, the Public Prosecution Ministry organized information about Videla’s court cases, showing that he was accused in 24 cases that encompassed more than 1,200 victims. He died before being tried for many of his crimes, including those under Operation Condor.