Nearly 50 years after her death, Uruguay lays to rest a woman disappeared by its dictatorship


MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Nearly five decades after Uruguayan security forces seized Amelia Sanjurjo from the street, disappearing the newly pregnant woman into the maw of the military’s prison system, she received a proper burial on Thursday in her hometown of Montevideo.

The bone fragments of Sanjurjo — described as a kind, patient and disheveled-looking employee at a publishing house and member of Uruguay’s Communist party — were exhumed exactly a year ago from a military base in a small southern town in Uruguay. She was finally identified last week after investigators took DNA samples from her maternal aunt and nephews in Uruguay, Spain and Italy in hopes of finding a match.

The revelation was as thrilling as it was grim. Forensic teams have only recovered the remains of five other disappeared people in Uruguay since excavations began in 2005. The vast majority of the nearly 200 people kidnapped and killed during the country’s dictatorship remain unidentified.

The search for bone fragments, teeth and shreds of clothing, investigators say, is the hardest part, given that members of the dictatorship deliberately destroyed DNA in an effort to deny that detainees were tortured and killed.

“Each new identification is a joy. It’s a recognition of a great task that is carried out quietly by a whole group of professionals, archaeologists, anthropologists, geneticists, historians,” said Carlos Vullo, the genetic lab director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which assisted with Sanjurjo’s identification.

In downtown Montevideo on Thursday, somber crowds thronged the small wooden box that held Sanjurjo’s remains outside Uruguay’s Republic University, home to the forensic investigators that identified her using genetic testing. Some hugged. Others wept.

Representatives of the relatives of Uruguay’s disappeared paid tribute to Sanjurjo’s late father and sister, who they said devoted their lives to searching for Sanjurjo and died without getting answers.

“Today means we have found Amelia and are able to say goodbye to her, which was the right thing to do for many years,” said Ignacio Errandonea, a member of the group whose relatives were disappeared.

Sanjurjo’s surviving relatives, today scattered around Europe, sent a message to be read aloud at her wake, where supporters placed red and yellow roses on her box. From the building’s facade, Sanjurjo’s smiling face stared down at the sea of people. Mikaela Mall, a representative of the relatives, delivered the family statement, saying Sanjurjo’s loved ones were “excited to receive this news.”

“The dictatorship was cruel to her as it was to so many others, making her pay dearly for the simple and brave act of dreaming of a more just and supportive world,” the statement read. “She dedicated her entire life to her activism, and was consistent until the very end.”

Sanjurjo was 41 years old and pregnant when she was abducted from the streets of Montevideo on Nov. 2, 1977. Prosecutors said that she died after being beaten and tortured at a military detention center six days after her arrest.

The identification of victims is part of a broader effort to deliver justice and accountability 40 years after the end of the dictatorship in Uruguay, a traumatic chapter of history as violent authoritarian rule swept through South America. From 1973 to 1985, Uruguay’s military unleashed a campaign of repression after having largely defeated a guerrilla uprising, disappearing 197 people, according to the government’s count.

An untold number of Uruguayans abducted by the military dictatorship ended up detained in Argentina as a result of Operation Condor, a secret plan carried out by several South American dictatorships to eliminate their left-wing opponents. Forensic teams have so far identified 31 disappeared Uruguayans based on remains recovered elsewhere in the region, including Argentina’s clandestine detention centers.

Argentina’s reckoning with its particularly brutal past has been far more extensive than that of Uruguay and other neighboring countries. After power returned to civilians in Uruguay, the government enacted an amnesty covering the crimes of the dictators as well as their guerrilla opponents, delaying the judicial process.

In Argentina, where human rights groups estimate 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared, courts have handed down over 300 verdicts and delivered sentences to thousands of military officials over dictatorship-era crimes. In Uruguay, less than 30 trials have occurred.

Recent legal changes seek to speed the justice process along. Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou said Sanjurjo’s identification shows “the government’s commitment to the search for the disappeared.”


Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Nayara Batschke in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.


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