When Fr. Dennis O’Mara was arrested for the fifth time along with other members of the Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture for handing out Christmas cards after Sunday Mass at a Catholic church in the rich area of Chile’s capital, Santiago, we were in summertime temperatures. This meant that summer school for the teachers and supervisors of sacramental programmes in Catholic parishes throughout the country would soon begin, in January, before February’s vacation period.
The military regime of Augusto Pinochet found priests like Fr. Dennis and lay leaders committed to Church programmes a danger to the nation’s security, and actually issued a decree of expulsion for Fr. Dennis that said precisely as much.
They had only contempt for the country’s traditional democratic system, which allowed the Socialist leader, Dr. Salvador Allende, to become president in 1970. Although he was only halfway through his six-year term at the time, Pinochet led the military coup d’état that violently imposed a dictatorship on 11th September 1973.
The Church’s bishops began to condemn the human rights abuses that began to explode everywhere, and in every form, arbitrary arrests at night, exile, executions and disappearances of thousands, and torture on a daily, widespread basis at the interrogation centres established and run throughout the country by the secret police.
When foreign priests like Fr. Dennis were arrested for participating in non-violent protests, police would often shout at them, “Why don’t you go back to your own country, and protest there?” I remember thinking at the time that they would have a point, if the U.S. government ever treated people the way the Pinochet regime treated their people.
Three decades later, their words come back to haunt me. As U.S. military hardware and personnel are deployed in increasing numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border, where my present assignment is, I knew that I was morally obliged to be consistent in my stance of faith inspired opposition to the abuse of basic human rights to bodily security, due process and asylum from danger, as, incredibly, the pigeons that the U.S. government sent to Latin America and other parts of the world came home to roost.
The Nixon-Kissinger administration in the U.S. (1969-1974) interfered in the internal democratic processes of many countries, acting on the “National Security” theory that the spread of Soviet-supported Communism in developing countries could only be stopped by military dictatorships installed by, or with the aid of U.S. government agencies and military forces. Other U.S. administrations also applied this theory in brutal ways throughout the 20th century, but Chile is a classic case.
National security is now again invoked as legitimising the use of Department of Homeland Security agencies and the U.S. military to go down the same road of resolving social issues like the need for reform of the U.S. immigration system with highly developed, increasingly harmful weapons, detention camps, and even widespread mistreatment of vulnerable people that could also be termed torture. The closing of our borders to thousands of families fleeing violence and starvation, the systematic separation of very young children from their parents, the violent abuse detainees are subjected to in for-profit migrant detention camps throughout the U.S. and even the deaths of people while in detention all give evidence of Pinochet-grade mistreatment in our own country. And now, it is our turn to peacefully protest the dictatorship-like tendencies of our own government, as it grows in violence and excessive military characteristics.
Since arriving in El Paso in 2011, nothing has angered me as much as the militarisation of the border, because of its shocking clarity and shameless manifestations. I have often conducted visiting groups from faith communities or university service programmes up the stairs of a local seasonal farmworker centre near the facilities of the Customs and Border Police (CBP), at one of the bridges linking Juarez, Mexico, with the U.S., in order to view over the walls the crowds of asylum-seeking families and individuals being processed for days at a time, forced to stand in the open-air pens of the facility with no protection from the desert sun. The men often removed their shirts to wrap them on their heads, for protection. The sight is astounding, and sickening. Has the U.S. become such a poor country that we cannot afford to treat people with dignity? Are we actually coming to look like some sort of barbaric society we read about in news items or reports? Uniformed personnel, both from Homeland Security and the U.S. Army, wander about, heavy weapons slung on their backs, helmets on their heads. Spools of razor wire and cement barriers that can be moved by forklifts line the side of the bridge’s traffic lanes, ready to shut access off out of fear of huge caravans forcing their way into the U.S., something that is more fiction than reality.
I once heard testimony from members of a family who underwent a SWAT-like raid of a family home in El Paso, which took place to spectacularly “take down” the father, an undocumented migrant who has worked steadily for his family for years, paying taxes and receiving nothing from social welfare programmes. This raid had one team member, suited up like the others in bullet-proof apparel and helmets, recording the shouting and the breaking into the house, and the tackling the undocumented person on the front lawn, in front of his screaming children, in order to provide footage for a police-focused reality television programme. There is no question for me that many security people deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border feel permitted to act in these ways, and perform in a kind of “bad as we wanna be” freedom that allows them to act with impunity provided by the present U.S. administration. I never could find out where the father ended up, after visiting a downtown county jail where migrants were often taken when the for-profit detention centres were filled. They had no record of him at the front desk. It was exactly like the search for missing relatives that families often asked priests and lawyers to help them look for, back in Pinochet’s Chile, after their arrests and takedowns in the middle of the night. I assume he was deported, regardless of any judge’s ruling, if there was one.
The militarisation of the U.S.-Mexico border assumes the same characteristics as the militarisation of Chile, and provides us with the same obligations, as followers of Jesus Christ, to put love of God and of neighbour into the practice of solidarity with the victims of violence, as we work, then as well as now, employing peaceful means of protest and the raising of awareness, to help our society and government to become more humanised and respectful of basic human dignity. We follow Father Dennis’ example.
“The militarisation of the U.S.- Mexico border assumes the same characteristics as the militarisation of Chile, and provides us with the same obligations, as followers of Jesus Christ, to put love of God and of neighbour into the practice of solidarity with the victims of violence.”