Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

The French Role in the Export of Torture

Developing countries are routinely condemned and blamed for the use of brutal techniques in trying to obtain information from prisoners. The same condemnation should be extended to industrialized countries that not only use these techniques themselves but export their use to other countries.

The origin of these new revelations is an investigation on the role of the “special forces” of the French military during Algeria’s war for independence in the 1950s by the French weekly magazine Le Point. A French judge, Roger Le Loire, who was investigating the disappearance of French citizens in Argentina during the last military regime, interrogated General Paul Aussaresses about his knowledge of training given by his soldiers to the Argentine military in torture techniques. General Aussaresses’s testimony helped draw a complex picture of the French military’s responsibility in teaching torture to their Argentine colleagues.

Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Trinquier was reportedly the architect of brutal repression in Algiers and of the development of the concept of “modern war.” One of that concept’s basic tenets was the “secrecy doctrine,” which was to cause havoc in the Argentine population during the last military regime that ruled my country. An important premise of that secrecy doctrine was the need to hide the detention of political prisoners, as well as their death and the elimination of the bodies.

Many of those bodies were dumped in the ocean, and several of those were later washed ashore in Argentine and Uruguayan beaches.

The use of military personnel frequently dressed as civilians, looking for political opponents to interrogate and torture, was a technique implemented by the French in Indochina and Algiers, and later exported to Argentina through French military advisers. In Argentina, these techniques led through the “disappearance” of almost 30,000 political prisoners in the 1970s, almost all of whom are still unaccounted for.

The origin and justification for these techniques was the paranoid fear of communism, best exemplified in a document written by General Jacques Massu, one of the leading French officers in Algiers. In a note dated March 19, 1957, General Massu stated this principle, later applied by the Argentine military: “It is not possible to fight against the subversive and revolutionary war orchestrated by international communism with the classical procedures for combat. It is necessary to use clandestine and counterrevolutionary methods and actions. And it is necessary that these methods be accepted by our souls and our conscience as needed and morally valid.”

The justification of some French officials for this “assistance” is that it had been requested by the Argentine government. As Pierre Messmer, a former prime minister, stated, “Argentina wanted the advisers so we gave them what they wanted. Argentina is an independent country and there was no reason for us to deny their request.” This indicates that training in repression wasn’t the isolated decision of a few but a definite state policy.

Is there a moral to be derived by this sad story? Yes, there is. It is that no country, no matter how technically advanced, is free from the dangers of using and exporting brutal repression. And it is the duty of informed citizens to denounce these vicious policies. Unless they do so, barbarism will extend its cruel wings over any country’s powerless citizenship.

César Chelala is the co-author of “Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims,” a cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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