The Congress of the Disappeared

Keith Arnatt, Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1969–72


Author's Afterword to the Newly Released Book

Although there have always been political disappearances, the expression only came to define an entity in the social imagination after this sinister method of exterminating political dissidents was adopted in the South of the Americas, between the sixties and seventies of the last century. By means of complex and clandestine apparatuses, delinquent states achieved the triple invisibility of their crimes, their victims and the extent of the extermination policy.

Nevertheless, the expression was colonizing territories. Today, it is everywhere, in the waters of the Mediterranean, the shroud of thousands of anonymous refugees, in the sands of the Sahara, in the desert of Arizona, in the steppes of Siberia, in the mountains of Afghanistan, on the cliffs of the Balkans. You don't even know where else. There are hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people missing. So many that the expression has become naturalized. It is the statute of a body without identity and of an identity without a body.

Disappearance produces an unusual effect on both individual and collective subjectivity. In families, it installs anguish and uncertainty in the face of an ambiguous situation of simultaneous absence and presence. It is an absence that becomes a presence and that will affect mothers and children and fathers and brothers and will last for the rest of their lives, almost like a curse. Also the meaning of death differs. In disappearance, there is not a cut, a before and an after, but a hiatus, a long interval of time that contains something that is not known what it is, an enigma, a question mark between existing and non-existing, created to cover up a terrible crime.

In society, the successive disappearances, as if mysterious, without leaving traces or testimonies, generate stupor, the sensation of existing what Julio Cortázar called a diabolical being that exceeds the field of reason and the limits of language, a phantasmatic power, at the same time supernatural and infrahuman at the same time that seems to come from the depths of evil. And since the victims belong to a specific group that power wants to extirpate from the social body, disappearance becomes an instrument of terror. Collective fear is instituted.

General Jorge Rafael Videla, the main mentor behind the disappearances in Argentina, is credited with providing the best definition of the new entity thus created. He did so spontaneously, in a televised interview, upon returning from a visit to Pope John Paul II in 1979. Videla and his generals had estimated that it was necessary to eliminate between seven thousand and eight thousand Argentine militants to ensure the dominant order.

Journalist Jusé Ignacio López: — I want to ask if you have contested the Pope and if there is any measure in a studio in the Government about this problem?".

General Jorge Rafael Videla: — In front of the missing person and as such, the missing person is an unknown quantity. If the man appears, he will have treatment X, if the appearance becomes certain of his death, he has treatment Z, but while he disappeared, he cannot have special treatment, he is a missing person, he does not have an entity, he is neither dead nor alive, he is missing, in front of him we can do nothing, we attend to the family.

We think, reason, conceptualize and even dream through words. Society gradually elaborates the collective trauma. There were those arrested, tortured, run over, shot in simulated escapes and even suicides. But there wasn't a word for those who just disappeared. Objects disappear, clouds disappear, people don't disappear, they can run away, they can hide, they can be killed, but involuntarily they don't disappear. The missing person does not disappear, he was kidnapped and then disappeared.

Society creates the expression political disappeared. Could have created and perhaps should have created a political kidnapper, not a political disappearer. Words do not appear randomly. They express power relations and cognitive stages of appropriating reality.

Initially, only astonishment prevailed at the sudden disappearance of people, not their mechanisms that include kidnapping, deprivation of the senses and torture. And so it stayed. The expression “political disappearance” has become, in Central and South America, the expression symbol of absolute evil, as well as the Apocalypse in the biblical narrative, and Auschwitz in modern Europe. Later, it will generate a cognitive field focused on the claim of justice and the political disappeared will acquire a political statute and a criminal-legal personality.

Until then, none of the dozens of meanings of the verb to disappear listed by Portuguese language dictionaries served the state of affairs and the state of mind of General Jorge Rafael Videla's cynical definition. Grammars did not prescribe the regency of the verb disappear in the transitive mood, and dictionaries did not list the past participle disappeared as a noun. Until, thirty years later, the Houaiss Dictionary of the Portuguese Language added to the past perfect tense of the verb to disappear this meaning: “Disappeared – noun – it is said of the individual whose whereabouts are unknown or whose death is presumed, although the corpse has not been discovered”.

It's an approximation. The entry still lacked to express the uniqueness of the forced disappearance of political activists – for being political activists. And that at the time of disappearance the disappeared were under the guardianship of the State, such as “forced disappearance” of the official language of post-Franco Mexico and Spain, or more precisely “detained missing”, in the official Argentinean language. It does not allude to the implicit cruelty and turpitude, nor does it go out of its way to welcome the female condition of the missing politician, doubly victimized, for opposing the oppressive State and for rejecting the subservient posture attributed to women by sexist society. In Argentina, systematically raped.

The verb disappear is intransitive of complete sense. Just like dying, it doesn't need a complement. However, it is said was dead and not said was disappeared. In the relative regency, as in disappeared from the city, it is not mentioned how this happened. It will be necessary to break the limits of grammar. Confucius orders to call things by their true name, instead of saying so-and-so was killed, say so-and-so was murdered, and instead of saying the tyrant was killed, say the tyrant was executed.

The disappearance of the characters in this narrative is more than dying. It's being kidnapped, tortured, deprived of any and all communication with the outside world, murdered, and only then disappeared. Therefore, it is necessary to assign the transitive function to the verb disappear as well, the police disappeared so-and-so and the resulting passive voice so-and-so was disappeared. The verbal phrase “was disappeared” performs this function, referring to the existence of a hidden agent of the action, and the use of violence. And due to the strangeness it eventually causes, it also refers to the disturbing effect of disappearances on the collective unconscious.

The semantics of political disappearance is dynamic, like a disease, a linguistic pathology generated by a social pathology. It acquires new meanings as collective perception evolves. It returns, from time to time, resignified and generating new cognitive fields. In the legal field, transitional justice is born, consisting of demands for truth, memory and justice for crimes of disappearance, which soon unfolds into restorative justice. A new fundamental human right is generated, the right to the truth. A new space for political clashes and new laws of appeasement are generated, such as the infamous Lei do Ponto Final and Lei de Obediência Devida.

In biology, a new tool is born, the technique of identifying grandchildren based on their grandparents' DNA — given the absence of missing parents. Grandchildren who constitute a special category of the missing, the missing babies, born in captivity, presumably alive, robbed not of their lives but of their identities.

In the criminal sphere, a new science emerges, Forensic Anthropology, endowed with new instruments and tools, to unravel not crimes covered up by the cunning of a delinquent individual, but those committed by the limitless power of a terrorist State. And the disappeared reappear like specters haunting the living.

However, just as the amnesty enacted at the end of the Military Dictatorship acquitted the perpetrators of disappearances without prosecuting, Brazilian legal language, unlike Mexican, has not yet typified disappearance as a specific crime. Defined as against humanity in international conventions for affecting the essence of the human condition, it is not even capitulated in Brazilian law. Nor is it mentioned in the hypotheses of article 7 of the Penal Code and in Law N.6051/73, which allows a judge to admit death settlements for missing people in shipwrecks, floods, fires, earthquakes or any other catastrophe.

The gap remains in the public records law that allows the judge to decree the absence or death by presumption: I – if the death of someone who was in danger of life is extremely probable; II – if someone, disappeared in campaign or taken prisoner, is not found within two years after the end of the war. It failed to say: III – if the person who was detained by State agents due to his political activity is not found within two years after his arrest. It is as if the Brazilian legislator were also part of the complex machine to make things disappear. Its last cogwheel: to make it disappear in jurisprudence as well.

*Bernardo Kucinski is a writer and retired professor of journalism at USP. Author, among other books, of K – report of a search (Company of Letters).


Bernardo Kucinski. The Congress of the Disappeared. São Paulo, Alameda, 2023, 148 pages.
The launch in São Paulo will take place on Sunday, May 7, at TUSP (Rua Maria Antônia, 294) (

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