"¿Adónde van los desaparecidos?" asking literally, "where do the disappeared go?" This question is asked by the Panamanian music icon, Harvard educated attorney, and human rights activist Ruben Blades in his song "Desapareciones". Thematically, the song refers to the "Desaparecidos" the name given to the thousands of people in various Latin American countries who vanished at the hands of the State. This unfortunate period in Latin America lasted from the early 1960's to early 1980's and is known in Spanish as "La Guerra Sucia", or Dirty War.
The most notable Dirty War occurred in Argentina where thousands of individuals were secretly imprisoned, tortured, or simply never returned home from work or school. The same occurred in Mexico to political dissidents of the Partido Revolutionario Institutional, commonly known as the PRI, and the party which ruled Mexico for the better part of the last century. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was recently convicted for his role in orchestrating disappearances during his tenure. And last year, on the other side of the world, Iran's turbulent elections further exposed to the World that country's commission of the same reprehensible conduct against its citizens.
Fortunately for most of us, over the past 50 years the United States, unlike Iran, Chile, Mexico, and Argentina, has not abducted its citizens, deprived them of due process, tortured them, or performed extrajudicial executions -- at least, not outside the context of the War on Terror. In America our political institutions are strong and the rule of law prevails. But sadly, we too are waging our own Guerra Sucia and have steadily produced thousands of American Desaparecidos. Instead of targeting political dissidents, America's Dirty War is being waged against our youth.
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison. In doing so, in addition to falling outside of international norms, we ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating that young people have a unique capacity for change, can be rehabilitated, and can ultimately contribute positively to our society. As Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and Co-Director of the Advancement Project says, "we must stop funding arrest strategies and instead fund investment strategies."
The Supreme Court in its recent decision in Graham v. Florida, held it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole for the commission of offenses other than murder. However, this decision only requires that the cases of 129 individuals be reviewed, leaving to die in prison roughly 2500 others sentenced to life as juveniles.
The more we are able to connect on a human level to this unfortunate situation and to those young people serving life sentences, the sooner we can end America's Guerra Sucia, and the sooner the U.S. can join the rest of the nations of the world in meeting international standards on the treatment of juvenile offenders.
Together with my friend and colleague Mario Rocha, we produced the following video. It attempts to both shed light on America's Dirty War against its youth and also help each of us to realize that this is an issue that truly affects us all. At age 16, Mario Rocha was wrongfully imprisoned and sentenced to life behind bars before finally regaining his freedom at age 27. Mario continues to be an advocate for social change through the Sixth Sun, an independent multimedia and youth literacy project which he started in 2003 while in prison.
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