The Case That Changed
the Face of Human Rights

Georgetown University Press
 Washington, D.C.

Named an "Outstanding Book" By the American Association of University Presses.

Joelito Filartiga

In 1976  the police abducted 17-year-old Joelito Filartiga to obtain information about his father's political activities. Three hours later he was the victim of what was, in reality, just another torture-murder by a tinhorn dictator in the middle of South America. Breaking Silence is the inside story, written in dramatic non-fictin,of the struggle for justice by the Paraguayan artist and philanthropist Dr. Joel Filartiga and his family.



“Joelito was only one who died of torture that day. One among hundreds every day, all around the world. But they go unnoticed, forgotten, without any testimony. It is as if their suffering and deaths never happened.”
                                 — Dr. Joel Filartiga

Breaking Silence
is dedicated to those whose deaths did happen—and continue to happen.



Joelito Filartiga
The Filartigas' struggle brought Joelito's torturer before a U.S. Federal Court, that ruled “the torturer has become—like the pirate and slave trader before him—hostis humani generis, the enemy of all humankind.”

Following Joelito’s murder, the Filartigas did not buckle under to the fear and misdirected shame that is characteristic of human rights victims, not unlike those of child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Contrary to the reasonable expectations of the dictatorship, they refused to go along with the official cover up and discreetly bury young Joelito. Instead, breaking the silence of human rights victims, the Filartigas did everything in their power to reveal the truth.

Georgetown University, Catalog, Hardcover, 320 pp., ISBN 1-58901-032-9

Advancing Human Rights series
Sumner B. Twiss, John Kelsay, Terry Coonan, series editors
Georgetown University Press

"Over ten years, I've observed Dr. White's meticulous research methods at work yielding a monumental study on international human rights law and politics. From my standpoint as a human rights educator, Breaking Silence is a triple winner: a highly readable and gripping dramatic thriller, a true story by an historian who witnessed the development of the landmark case from its tragic beginning to triumphant ending; and a book that puts the human into the study of human rights." —Richard Pierre Claude, founding editor of Human Rights Quarterly and professor emeritus of government and politics, University of Maryland.

Young seventeen-year-old Joelito Filartiga was taken from his family home in Asuncion, Paraguay, brutally tortured and murdered by the Paraguayan police. Breaking Silence is the inside story of the quest for justice by his father—the true target of the police—Paraguayan artist and philanthropist Dr. Joel Filartiga. That cruel death and the subsequent uncompromising struggle by Joelito’s father and family, led to an unprecedented sea change in international law and human rights.

The author, Richard Alan White, first became acquainted with the Filartiga family in the mid-1970s while doing research for his dissertation on Paraguayan independence. Answering a distressed letter from Joelito’s father, he returned to Paraguay and journeyed with the Filartiga family on their long and difficult road to redress. White gives the reader a compelling first-hand, participant-observer perspective, taking us into the family with him, to give witness to not only their agony and sorrow, but their resolute strength as well-strength that led to a groundbreaking $10 million legal decision in Filartiga v. Pena. (Americo Norberto Pena-Irala was the Paraguayan police officer responsible for Joelito’s abduction and murder, who the Filartiga’s had arrested after finding him hiding in Brooklyn.)

That landmark decision, based on the almost obscure Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, ruled that U.S. courts could accept jurisdiction in international cases-recognizing the right of foreign human rights victims to sue—even though the alleged violation occurred in another country by a non-American and against a non-American. So fundamentally has the Filartiga precedent changed the landscape of international human rights law, that it has served as the basis for nearly one hundred progeny suits, and grown to encompass not only human rights abuses, but also violations of international environmental and labor rights law. Today, there are dozens of class action suits pending against corporate defendants ranging from oil conglomerates destroying the Amazon rain forest to designer clothing companies running sweatshops abroad.

Breaking Silence is a remarkable, consuming story, documenting not only the most celebrated case in the international human rights field—but also the tragic and touchingly human story behind it that gives it life. In 2001, Dr. Filartiga was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Alien Tort Claims Act continues to be hotly debated among politicians and law makers.


RICHARD ALAN WHITE is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Washington, DC, and former consultant on Latin American affairs for ABC World News. He has worked for Amnesty International, and is the author of The Morass: United States Intervention in Central America and Paraguay's Autonomous Revolution: 1810-1840.


© Georgetown University Press 2004 




After the funeral, Dr. Joel Filartiga came home to a dead telephone. All night Joel had tried getting through to me, dialing my number in California, hearing a ring, and then the operator would break in, announce that all international lines were busy, and disconnect the call.

        Now there could be no doubt. The dictator’s secret police had isolated him, cutting him off from reaching help abroad.

        Filartiga looked around the living room at his family. Beyond exhaustion from their vigil, his wife and three daughters stared helplessly back at him. For the first time since the murder, Joel felt raw fear.

        That afternoon Dr. Filartiga had a long talk with a friend at the embassy of Peru. The next day, the diplomatic mail pouch carried his letter out of Paraguay.





It took nearly two weeks for Dr. Filartiga’s letter to reach me in Los Angeles.

        Those first few months of 1976 had been an exceptionally fulfilling time for me. With all but a few remaining formalities to complete my PhD. in Latin American history at UCLA, I had received a post doctoral fellowship to return to South America. And on top of everything else, the Filartiga family had invited me to stay with them at their home in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay.

        On April 13 it all blew apart. Repeatedly I called the Filartigas’ number in Asuncion, only to get busy signals. Finally, asking the local operator try, she told me the phone was “out of

        I tried getting through to Dr. Filartiga’s rural clinic, but the operator at the telephone kiosk there said the family had left the village. Nobody knew when, or even if, they would be back.

        At last, I called a mutual friend of ours, Roberto Thompson. In the four years since meeting Roberto, we had come to know each other well. Still, because the Paraguayan secret police routinely monitored international calls, especially those of former political prisoners like Roberto, our conversation would have to be guarded.

        “Hola Roberto. Como has estado? Habla---”

        Recognizing my voice, he broke in before I could identify myself. “Fine, just fine. And yourself?” he said casually in English.

        Taking his cue, I switched to English as well. “Actually, I’m a little confused. Yesterday I received a letter from a friend, and I can’t seem to get through to him by phone. Do you know what I’m talking about? I mean---”

        “Yes, of course,” he interrupted again, in the same nonchalant voice.

        “So tell me,” I asked, “is there any possibility of an accident of some kind?”

        Roberto answered in precisely chosen words: “No. There’s no question of that. Something very bad happened. It definitely wasn’t an accident.”

        “Ah well, my information is several weeks old. I was just wondering how things are now?”

        A brief pause. “Better. At first it was very difficult. But people are feeling stronger now.”

        It was my turn to hesitate. “Listen, Roberto,” I said carefully, “if it isn’t inconvenient, could you do me a favor and let him know that everyone up here has been informed of what happened. And if he still feels it’s necessary, I could come right away. But there are some important things that should be taken care of first. So he must call, or send a telegram or something, to let me know.”

        “Yes. I see,” Roberto replied, now clearly uneasy.

        “If I don’t hear from him, I’ll assume things aren’t so bad now, and will keep to my plans. Anyway, I’ll be getting a letter to him. Do you think you could pass that message along?”

        “But of course.”



I had met Roberto when I first visited Paraguay in 1972, to conduct research on a Fulbright-Hayes Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. Because the U.S. Congress funds the national scholarship program, Fulbright scholars travel abroad under government auspices. In practice, this semi-official status means automatic acceptance by the American community, endless invitations to diplomatic parties to meet the host county’s dignitaries, and introductions to local notables who can help you out.

        Roberto, then the editor-in-chief of Paraguay’s principal newspaper, was one of the first contacts set up by the U.S. Embassy. We hit it off right away and he extended me every courtesy: from the use of a desk in the city room to having an after work beer with other Paraguayan professionals. In fact, it was thanks to Roberto I came to know Dr. Filartiga.

        Unlike the United States, in Latin American countries history plays an overtly political role. Indeed, the tradition of publishing historical essays in newspapers often is used by these governments to create a “usable past,” to foster nationalism and buttress their legitimacy with the real, or invented, glories of their country’s history.

        In any event, in 1973 Roberto published a lengthy article of mine on the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay, in four consecutive ABC Color Sunday Supplements. After reading the first installment, Joel stopped by the newspaper to check out the rest of the essay.

        Dr. Filartiga, who is also an accomplished artist, evidently liked the remaining three installments. On the spot he appropriated Roberto’s desk, and made pen and ink drawings, graphically capturing their central themes.

        After seeing Filartiga’s drawings, I was delighted and wanted to meet him. However, not until two years later, when I next returned to Paraguay, did we get together.

        By then, mid 1975, Roberto’s political fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. Sacked from his job at ABC Color for exposing a particularly outrageous case of government corruption, he had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Investigaciones, the Paraguayan political police. As further punishment, General Alfredo Stroessner also banned him from practicing his profession.

        Even though the dictator prohibited Roberto from working as a journalist, the owner of the newspaper continued to pay his regular salary for a year. So we worked out a deal in which Roberto would translate my dissertation into Spanish, and ABC Color would serialize the entire work in their Sunday Supplements.

        One afternoon shortly after we began working together, Roberto showed up at my place with two strangers. The well dressed, handsome teenager hung back, appraising me with friendly, if somewhat reserved, curiosity.

        The middle aged man, however, exuding a confident good humor, openly sized me up. His goatee and girth contributed to a Hemingway presence, and his glistening coffee irises comfortably locked onto my eyes.

        “Richard,” Roberto began, “I’d like to introduce Dr. Filartiga and his son Joelito. They’ve--”

        “So this is the Yanqui,” the vibrant stranger broke in with a smile, “who dares to write the history of our country?”

        “And you can only be,” I quipped back, “that audacious artist who had the gall to doctor it when I wasn’t looking.”

        And for the rest of the day there went my disciplined writing schedule.


We settled under the enormous mango tree that shaded the front yard of my house. I told Joel about the materials I found in the National Archives, that gave the lie to the traditional history books that berated Paraguay's founding father as the arch typical Latin American tyrant. I went on how Dr. Francia--the George Washington of Paraguay--was really a populist, who championed the common people at the expense of the privileged classes, those same elites who had gone on to write their embittered version of history.

        Joel told me about the rural clinic he ran, the only private medical facility in the village of Ybycuí, 80 miles outside of the capital. He explained how, after graduating from Medical School eighteen years before, his  decision to become a country doctor had scandalized Asunción society, all but branding him a traitor to his class. Why, people openly questioned, would this son of the such an old and distinguished family, this brilliant young physician, shun a lucrative medical career in Asunción, electing instead to tend to peasants in the countryside?

        As our friendship grew, I asked Filartiga to read the manuscript of Paraguay's Autonomous Revolution, and compose pen and ink drawings for each chapter. He invited me to visit his clinic.

        As much as my work benefited from Joel’s artistic contributions, my visits to Ybycuí proved to be of far greater value. There I found a world that otherwise I would have never known. And it was there that I grew to know the Filartiga family.

        Nidia, at thirty eight, was five years younger than her husband. Possessing inexhaustible energy, she seemed to be in constant motion. As the clinic’s administrator and head nurse, Nidia tackled the endless problems of keeping a Third World rural medical facility on track. No task was too menial--she spent hours everyday cooking and washing--or overly daunting--assisting Dr. Filartiga from the most routine procedure to major surgery.

        Generally unaware of the admiration of the staff and patients, Nidia did recognize the necessity of deliberately down playing her physical beauty. Otherwise, authentic human contact with the peasants they served, people who already held the Filartigas in awe, became all but impossible.

        Only on those rare occasions when we would go to a restaurant, did Nidia put aside her drab work cloths. Bringing out her fetching appearance she let out her blond hair, highlighted her bottle-green eyes with a touch of make up, and displayed her trim figure in a dress left over from her upper-class youth.

        Nidia quickly, and completely, won me over.

        Dolly, a strong willed young woman, and at nineteen the oldest of the Filartiga children, worked along side her parents in all aspects of clinic life. Some months before we met, however, partly in search of greater independence from her father--who indeed was capable of being a stern task master--Dolly had decided to spend the week days at the family house in Asunción, where she could take advantage of the better educational opportunities.

        At fourteen, Analy, the quietest of the children, also did her share of the work. And another helper, Katia, at eleven the baby of the family, brightened a room simply by her sparkling presence.


The clinic itself can only be described as a marvel of necessity. Nothing was wasted. For bandages, thread-bare sheets were cut up and disinfected in boiling water, over and over, until they literally fell apart. Even gauze and disposable syringes, after being sterilized, were reused.

        Dr. Filartiga’s work load consisted of 20 to 30 consultations a day, as well as averaging several major procedures or operations per week. And, while he kept rudimentary patient records on card files, not even an informal book keeping system existed. In any event, there was not any real need for one. Joel personally knew each of his patients, almost without exception peasant farmers eking out a subsistence living. For those few who had any spare cash, he adjusted his fees according to an informal sliding scale based upon their ability to pay.

        Basically, though, the clinic operated on an exchange-of-services basis.  Almost everyone contributed in kind: bringing a chicken or some vegetables, chopping wood, digging a new well, helping out with the cooking and laundry, making repairs or adding on a new room. “In my whole life here,” Joel told me, “I have never had to buy anything to eat. And the clinic, under my direction, has been built by the peasants with their work.”

        Over the years, the clinic had grown from two small rooms to a modest compound. By 1975 it consisted of the Filartigas’ living quarters, a combination consultation and examination room, an operating room, a workshop, an institutional size kitchen and three hospital type rooms, accommodating several patients each. As is customary throughout Latin America, even in most respectable hospitals, relatives of the patients attend to their non-medical needs, such as serving their meals, washing them and helping them to the toilet.

        Patients began arriving before dawn. Many coming from the distant reaches of the Ybycui valley, spending five or six hours traveling in rickety old ox-drawn carts to reach the clinic.

        Occasionally, there were others who came quietly in the middle of the night. For the security of all concerned, these people did not mix with the regular patients. They received medical treatment, and if necessary, convalesced in the semi-privacy of the Filartigas’ living quarters. They departed as discretely as they arrived.

        Ordinarily though, barring life or death emergencies, the people gathered in the front yard, softly talking among themselves in Guaraní, stoically waiting for Dr. Filartiga to open up at 6:00 am.

Paraguay is the only officially bilingual country in Latin America. Spanish is the language of government and commerce; Guarani is the native Indian tongue, spoken by the vast majority of the population, especially in the campo where most people have, at best, a cursory knowledge of Spanish.

        An insight into Paraguay’s bilingual culture can be seen in the saying: “One makes business in Spanish --and love in Guaraní.”

        It is also true that one gets sick in Guarani. Many times, I would hear Dr. Filartiga speaking Spanish with a patient, only to shift to Guarani as soon as they began the medical consultation.

        Watching people arrive at the clinic I noticed that a few, like the mayor of Ybycui, dressed in middle class garb. But these were the exception. Peasants, clothed in sweat-stained hand-me-downs, made up the vast majority of Filartiga’s patients.

        One morning, as I helped lift a man curled up in pain from the back of an ox cart, my eyes fixed upon the inch thick, deeply gouged soles of his bare feet. The realization struck me that he had never worn shoes; that a lifetime of working in the fields had so deformed his feet that, should he somehow find the money to buy a pair of footwear, his gnarled feet could never fit in them.


That afternoon I saw Joel explode in frustration. Sitting in his cluttered office after lunch, he was telling me about the chronic medical problems he treated. Filartiga blamed the dictatorship’s indifference for many of his patients’ ailments. He explained how not only the myriad of maladies stemming from undernourishment and contaminated water--such as gastric enteritis and parasites--but also tuberculosis and leprosy, easily could be prevented through basic public health programs.

        Rather naively, I questioned what was being done.

        “What do you think?” he replied wearily. “So long as General Stroessner and his Mafia run Paraguay only for their own personal benefit, without a care about the misery and death their greed causes, what can be done?”

        “Well,” I said, “have you tried contacting any of the international health organizations?”

        “Richard, you do not understand,” Joel sighed. “I will give you one small example of the way things work here. A few years ago, the big cotton growers began using Folodol M60. It is a very powerful insecticide to protect their crops. And it works very well. There are no more cotton blights. And they are making more profit than ever.

        “But it is also a very potent toxin. And the people who must work those fields day after day, week after week, year after year, end up poisoned. Many get sick. Some die!

        “Here I will show you.” Leaping to his feet, Filartiga began rummaging through the drawers of a cabinet. “Never mind, I will tell you,” he said in growing frustration, apparently unable to find the patient records he sought.

        “Now, I have all these cases of appendicitis and spontaneous abortions. And almost all of them are workers from the cotton fields!” He slammed his fist down on the desk. “This never was the case before they started using Folodol M60. And last year alone, three people died!”

        “So what’s being done about it?”

        “What is being done?” he exclaimed, his frustration bursting to the surface. “Nothing, absolutely nothing. That is what is being done. Stroessner’s on the side of the greedy growers. The government does absolutely nothing to control them.”

        Flushed with emotion, Joel paused for a deep breath, and then went on, “I wrote a letter to the Minister of Health. Nothing happened. I wrote letters to the newspapers. None of them dared publish them. I have talked with other doctors. They say they have the same problems. I tell everyone I talk to, and nothing changes. The big cotton growers just go on using more and more Folodol M60. And more and more poisoned workers arrive at the clinic. And some of them die!”

        Anchored behind his desk, gripping its oaken bulk, he finally calmed down. Then, with a touch of resignation in his voice, he chided, “Well, so now you know what is not being done. And even worse, what can not be done.”


The people’s esteem for Dr. Filartiga far surpassed the respect usually accorded small town physicians. They depended upon Joel not only for their medical needs, but generally regarded him as their political champion as well. For more than two decades, since Stroessner seized power in the 1954 military coup, so many people had been tortured and murdered for attempting to better their lot, they long since had abandoned any illusion as to their fate should they openly oppose the dictatorship.

        Even Dr. Filartiga, whose upper-class background afforded him a good deal of protection, was not immune. Three times he had been arrested and tortured. The last time, in 1966, accused of giving medical aid to members of an armed resistance movement cost him weeks of beatings and electric shocks. And, of course, the inevitable dips in the pileta.

        Pileta is Spanish for swimming pool. In the lexicon of Paraguayan torture, however, it is a bathtub filled with vomit, urine, feces, blood and other bodily fluids in which victims-- usually under the supervision of a police physician--are immersed, until they lose consciousness. Only to be revived, for the torment to begin all over again.

         Fortunately, at the time Filartiga’s mother, Lidia, held the influential post of President of the Women’s Auxiliary of Stroessner’s Colorado Party. To her horror, she learned that the ominous green X, that marked those slated for execution, appeared next to her son’s name on the prisoner list.

        Lidia begged, bribed and cajoled her powerful contacts in the regime until she got Joel’s death status rescinded, and his sentence reduced to internal exile. For nine months Filartiga languished in the remote hamlet of Mbuyapey, where each morning he was required to report in at the police station. During his banishment, the people of Ybycui held weekly masses to pray for the safe return of their maverick physician-artist-philanthropist-champion. 


The people’s love of their doctor’s son equaled that for his father. In some ways it was even more intimate because Joelito did not carry the baggage of his father’s awesome status. Joelito had grown up with these people. And, in the lapses caused by the activist life style of his parents, the people of Ybycuí became something akin to a second, extended, family that raised him. He knew and fully accepted them; they knew and fully accepted him: embracing him as one of their own, teaching him their culture and wisdom.

        Joelito enthusiastically pitched in with all tasks around the clinic. Because of his mechanical aptitude, he spent a good deal of time repairing equipment and serving as the clinic’s driver--delivering medicines and checking on the progress of patients, bringing to the clinic people too ill to make it on their own, especially those from the outlying regions of the Ybycuí valley.

        Early one morning as I accompanied Joelito on his rounds, we came across a pick-up soccer game. Joelito pulled over and, jumping out, said, “Come on. Let’s go kick the ball around a while.”

        I tried to beg off. “I’ve never played soccer in my life. I don’t even know the rules.”

        “You don’t know how to play soccer?” He looked at me in amazement. “Everybody plays soccer. Come on. Let’s go.”

        “No. Look, I’m serious,” I persisted, “I’d just spoil the game. When I was growing up we played another kind of football, American football. And that was a long time ago.”

        “How old are you anyway?” he asked.


        “See. You’re not so old,” Joelito said breaking into that easy, open laugh of youth. “Come on. It doesn’t matter. Don’t be afraid.”

        And then, as if it resolved everything, he added, “They’re all my friends. It doesn’t matter. They won’t mind. You’re my friend too. Come on. It’ll be fun. Let’s go!”

        It was fun.


When we got back to the clinic Dr. Filartiga had just finished a grueling three-hour caesarean section on Señora Mariana Brizuela, who gave birth to a healthy son. Even as Mariana still lay unconscious, recovering from the anesthesia, Joelito began cleaning up the operating room.

        I followed Joel into to the living room where, with an exhausted sigh, he flopped on the sofa. “A delicate operation,” he said. “The baby was---”

        “Papi, Papi, come quick!” Joelito shouted, bursting into the room,”“Señora  Brizuela’s

        With the surprising agility some heavyset men possess, Dr. Filartiga sprang from the sofa and ran to the operating room. I noted Mariana’s lack of breathing, her chalky death pallor, and silently agreed with Joelito--obviously she was dead.

        Seeing the alarm on Dr. Filartiga’s face was confirmation. But, not visible to me, was his medical sixth sense kicking in.

        While furiously spinning the hand crank that tilted the operating table to lower Mariana’s head, Filartiga began snapping out orders. “Nidia, bring five milligrams of Levofed. Now! Prepare another five of adrenaline. And the same of Doca! Hurry!”

        By the time the table was fully repositioned, Nidia had two of the hypodermic needles ready. But, she explained, “There’s no Doca.”

        What followed appeared more like a choreographed show rather than a life and death medical emergency.

        In one continuous motion Filartiga swooped the first syringe from
Nidia’s outstretched hand and plunged it through the plastic IV bottle of saline solution already inserted in Mariana’s vein. And, as Nidia injected the adrenaline in her other arm, he instructed her, “We’ll use Effortil instead of Doca. It’s almost the same generic composition.”

        A moment later, as Filartiga checked Mariana’s pulse with one hand, Nidia placed the Effortil syringe in his other. Without breaking stride, he jabbed it deep into Mariana’s buttock. Then, with Joelito holding her steady, he balled both hands into fists and began external cardiac massage, a procedure he continued for the next half hour while Nidia and Joelito took turns wiping away the sweat running down his face.

        At last, Mariana began breathing, her blood pressure rose, she opened her eyes. “Doctor, how is my baby?”

        “He is perfect. A fine, healthy boy,” Filartiga assured her. Flexing his hands to restore circulation, he continued checking her blood pressure and pulse. “And how do you feel

        “Tired. A little sore,” she answered groggily. Small wonder. Mariana was still strapped to the tilted operating table; and, in fact, would have to remain in that position for the next four hours.

        “Can I go to my room now? I want to see my baby and my husband,” she pleaded.

        “Not just now, my daughter,” Dr. Filartiga said. “You have had a hard time. Your blood pressure is still low. I am going to keep you here for a little while longer. Somebody will be with you all the time. Now go back to sleep and rest.”

        Returning to the living room I asked Joel, “What happened to Mariana? When I first saw her, she sure looked dead to me.”

        “Almost. Another few minutes and I do not think that the Levofed and Effortil could have raised her blood pressure in time. She came very close.”

        Once again collapsing on the sofa, he lit his pipe and explained in detail. “Mariana suffers chronic low blood pressure. With the excessive loss of liquids when she gave birth, she went into acute circulatory shock. It is a very severe condition. The body temperature and blood pressure drop drastically. And this cuts off the circulation of blood to the brain. The patient then enters into a coma, and the heart stops. It was very close.

        “To be truthful,” he finished, “at first I did not think she would live. It was a miracle.”

        Yes, I thought, a miracle. A miracle that you left the city and set up your clinic in this remote village. A miracle that you immediately diagnosed Mariana’s condition and knew what to do. A miracle that, because of  the years practicing medicine with chronic shortages of medicines, you have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of their generic compositions and substituted Effortil when there was no Doca. A miracle that Nidia, without any formal training, has become a most incredibly competent nurse. And, a miracle that young Joelito, while scrubbing the operating room instruments, kept a conscientious eye on Señora Brizuela and told you as soon as she went into shock.

        Yes, I thought, a miracle.


At first, Joelito would stop by my place to deliver one of his father’s drawings, or to drop off a bottle of molasses or a chunk of cheese that Nidia sent from Ybycuí. Then he began just coming over without any special reason.

        Much like at the clinic, Joelito naturally seemed to slip into helping out around my rented house in Asuncion: stacking fire wood, repairing a leaky faucet and generally doing what ever needed to be done. It did not take long to develop an independent friendship of our own.

        Everyone knows a Joelito. An easy going and secure young man with the aura of a natural leader. In Joelito I saw one of those special people who, as he made his way through life, was sure to fulfill his promise.

        Joelito’s openness pretty much precluded taboo subjects between us. I asked him what his father thought of the Playboy Bunny sticker he had plastered on the rear window of the family car.

        “Oh, he complains that it’s embarrassing. You know how serious Papi is. But when he tells me to take it off, I just laugh, and ask him that if it’s so bad then why doesn’t he take it off himself? Then he laughs too. And we both end up laughing about it.”

        “Do you have any idea,” I said, “how lucky you are to be able to laugh like that with your father?”

        “What do you mean?” he asked, genuinely perplexed.

        “Look, most fathers just boss their kids around. It’s a lot easier than putting up with all the hassle of treating you with respect, like a real person. I never laughed like that with my father.”

        “You mean you and your father weren’t friends?” he asked incredulously.

        “Friends? No, you couldn’t say we were friends,” I told him and changed the subject. “Anyway, what do you plan to do with the last 700 months of your life?”

        “Seven hundred months?”

        “Sure. You’re sixteen now,” I said. “If you live to the average age of seventy or so, that’s about fifty-five years, about 700 months.”

        Joelito took a moment to absorb the new concept. “That’s an awful long time. Too long to worry about,” he laughed.

        “I know a lot about how bad things are here and I’m going to change them. But I want to be successful and happy too. Not like Papi. He’s always angry about something.

        “He says that you can’t be successful and good at the same time here in Paraguay. He says to become wealthy you have to prostitute yourself and work with the dictatorship. To be good you have to suffer and fight.”

        “So how about you?” I pressed. “What are you going to do?”

        “I’m going to be a doctor like Papi. And an architect too,” Joelito said. “And I want to be an artist like Papi, because you can make changes with art too.

        “You’ve seen my drawings. What do you think?” he asked without a trace of self-consciousness.

        “They’re really good,” I told him truthfully. Joelito’s talent was already pressing the limits of his father’s instruction, his drawing taking on a distinctive style of his own.

        “And what about you?” Joelito asked. “What are you going to do with your last 500 months?”

        Somewhat taken aback by his agile math, a few beats passed before I answered. “Well, in a couple of weeks I’ll be going back to UCLA to finish up my dissertation, the book that Roberto translated and your father made the drawings for.

        “Then, I hope to come back here to work on another book. After that, I don’t know. Probably teach at some university.”

        “You’re just like Papi. Always working. Always so serious. Will you be happy being a professor?”

        Again I stalled, half toying with the idea of weaseling out from under Joelito’s question.

        “You know,” I told him, “I don’t even think about being happy anymore. Somehow that has just slipped away.”

        “See. You and Papi need more happiness.”


Throughout that exceptionally raw Paraguayan winter of 1975, Filartiga and I spent many evenings relaxing in the warmth of my fireplace. Our discussions ranged from art and history to philosophy, from United States foreign policy to world politics, from the practice of medicine in Paraguay to the inner workings of Stroessner’s dictatorship.

        “Richard,” Joel explained, “I will tell you a good way to begin understanding how Stroessner and his cronies function. Imagine that your Mafia gained control of an entire country. That they became the government.

        “That is why Paraguay, with a population of less than three million, is the world’s largest importer of American cigarettes. Of course very few remain here, because they are smuggled into countries all around South America.”

        Filartiga paused long enough to light his pipe. “It is said that smuggling is Paraguay’s biggest business. It makes perfect sense when you add in the whisky, narcotics, electronics, perfumes, and all the other luxury goods.

        “There even is a traffic in rare animals. Flamingos from Argentina, panthers from the jungles of Brazil. Other endangered species protected by international treaties. Rich people in Paris and New York pay exorbitant prices to impress their friends with such exotic pets.”

        “Government sponsored organized crime,” I agreed, throwing a piece of wood on the fire. “It really is like a Mafia setup.”

        “Yes. But worse. Because they have the power of a sovereign nation state. So who is to stop them? They can get away with anything.”


        “Anything,” Filartiga insisted. “Even selling Paraguayan citizenship to Nazi war criminals. It is no secret. I have seen the naturalization papers of Dr. Josef Mengele.” 


Of course, it took more than corruption to hold together Stroessner’s gangster regime. I asked Joel about the secret police.

        “Investigaciones are entirely separate from the Army,” he explained. “Not that one is less vicious than the other. Stroessner plays them off against each other, promoting a rivalry. In fact, the political police are so powerful that they serve as a check against the possibility of a military coup.

        “The campo is mostly left to the Army. The urban centers to Investigaciones. Like the old Nazi Gestapo, their primary purpose is to repress political dissent. But both rely on a vast network of pyragues.”


        “Informers. The human pestilence that permeates the fabric of Paraguayan society,” he said. “According to an old Guarani legend, the pyrague is a mythical being. His feet are encased in thick mats of hair, so he can silently sneak up to your house at night and listen in on your secrets.

        “Pyragues are everywhere. They can be waiters in restaurants, household servants, taxi drivers, shoe shine boys. Whatever they hear or see, they report to Investigaciones. They get paid even for passing on rumors. You do not have to be a ‘subversive’ to be arrested. Just suspicion can be enough.”

        “What do you have to do to become a suspect?” I asked.

        “There is no clear line,” Filartiga said. “Sometimes just speaking out against the regime is enough. When workers try to form a union, or peasants join together in an agricultural cooperative, that certainly is enough. But lots of times nothing is enough.”

        “Nothing? Nothing is enough?”

        “You never know,” Joel said. “Let me tell you about my old friend Alberto Carles.”

        Filartiga drew closer to the fire. “Alberto is an economist. We grew up together. We went to school together. I am the godfather of his first son. But we do not see much of each other anymore. We do not even celebrate the holidays together. Not because we do not want to. But because it could cause suspicion.

        “If I must see him, I always park my car a few blocks away from his house. He does the same. Otherwise, the pyragues would eventually notice a pattern.”

        In a calm, matter-of-fact tone he went on. “You know I do not belong to any political party. But I am known as a dissident. Maybe someday I will be arrested again. And then Alberto could be arrested too. For nothing. Because we are friends and spend time together. That could be enough.

        “It is a way to terrorize the people. And it works. That is why we say that here in Paraguay, people ‘walk with fear’.”


Stoking the fire, I contemplated life in Paraguay’s police state. Misconstruing my concern for apprehension, Joel tried to allay my anxiety.

        “Oh, you have got nothing to worry about. You are a Yanqui. They do not treat Yanquis like they do Paraguayans. Your Embassy would cause too much trouble. And Stroessner needs United States support to stay in power.

        “The only way that they would take you is if they caught you red handed, working with an armed resistance group. Now that would be a triumph. They would have a foreigner to prove their international communist conspiracy. Then, for sure, you would be a guest of Investigaciones.”

        “No. That’s not what I’m thinking,” I said, perhaps laughing a bit too loudly. “Actually, I was thinking about something we might arrange when I get back to UCLA.”

        Joel did not say anything, but his body language perked up.

        “What do you think?” I suggested. “Maybe we could get you invited to the university as a guest lecturer, give an art exhibition, talk about your work at the clinic?”


Four months later, in January 1976, Joel arrived in Los Angeles. Allyn Sinderbrand, who while visiting me in Paraguay had come to admire Filartiga, had taken charge of the preparations. She had enlisted volunteer students and faculty, putting together a team whose advance work would have done a presidential candidate proud. Leaving the airport, she showed Joel one of the publicity leaflets.


Joel’s visit to California exploded into a whirlwind of activity. The Los Angeles Times and both major Spanish newspapers--Los Angeles Express and La Opinion--ran feature articles. The local NBC television affiliate aired a lengthy news special, “The Albert Schweitzer of Latin America.” And an independent film maker, Jim Richards, took it upon himself to produce a short documentary that portrayed Dr. Filartiga and his work.

        Momentum snowballed. Joel received more invitations to speak and exhibit his art, at private homes, churches and other universities. Meeting with colleagues at UCLA, USC and The City of Hope’s medical complex, he collected donations of medical supplies. And, in a flash of inspiration, he renamed his clinic in Paraguay the SANATORIO LA ESPERANZA--THE CLINIC OF HOPE.

        The attention even enveloped Filartiga personally. A dentist friend sat him down for a marathon six hour overhaul of his mouth, and a professor of medicine at one of the area’s medical centers ran him through an exhaustive physical examination.

        To provide Filartiga and his work continuing support, the informal network of people coalesced into the “Paraguay Project.” We arranged a series of successful fund-raisers; like the art exhibition held at the home of Leonard Nimoy--Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame--who graciously refrained from even raising an eyebrow as we took his Picassos off the walls to hang up the Filartigas.

        Along with the impressive amount of medical supplies, we raised $5,000 to purchase a new Packard Bell cardioscope and defibrillator for the clinic, the first such sophisticated medical technology in Paraguay outside the capital of Asunción.

        On his return trip, Filartiga stopped in Mexico City and Buenos Aires, Argentina--where other friends organized yet more lectures and art exhibitions--and finally arrived home in late February to a hero’s welcome. While we were delighted to learn of the television and newspaper coverage extolling his triumphant international tour, the ABC Color feature article which led off with a photo reproduction of the UCLA leaflet announcing Filartiga’s lecture on Art as Social Criticism in Latin America, caused a pang of apprehension.

        The final results of Joel’s medical examination mailed to his house after the test had come back, to no one’s great surprise, arrived opened. Overall, finding Filartiga’s health satisfactory, it did sternly warn that “the combination of your overweight condition and your incipient coronary artery disease makes you a candidate for serious and possibly fatal heart disease.”

        The medical report went on to say that Filartiga should lose 20 to 30 pounds as soon as possible and, most emphatically, to “avoid all stress, both physical and emotional.”

        In a back handed way, Filartiga felt that the news of his heart disease could prove beneficial. For, together with his rising international prominence, it might serve as a restraint against the police arresting and torturing him again.

        It was a sound assumption. The torturer’s job is not to kill the victim. The purpose of torture is to break the prisoner’s will, perhaps to extract information, certainly to so debase the victims that they abandon their “subversive” activities and cower before the power of the police state. In fact, the inadvertent death of a “client” is the torturer’s worst possible blunder, a professional disgrace.

        To make sure that everyone knew the score, Filartiga all but advertised his heart condition. In keeping with his absent minded reputation, as he hustled through his hectic schedule of interviews and appearances, Joel would often leave behind copies of his California medical report.


In early March we began receiving disturbing press clippings and letters from Filartiga and other Paraguayan friends. The dictatorship, announcing the emergence of an armed resistance group, had launched another of its periodic waves of repression. Because of the anti-Stroessner implications of my book, ABC Color had backed out of our arrangement to serialize it. But then, the Catholic University agreed to publish the entire work in their academic journal. And while I might find a less than heartfelt welcome when I returned to Paraguay in a few months, it was Filartiga’s immediate safety that most concerned everyone.

        As a precaution, I wrote the London Secretariat of Amnesty International. I sent Amnesty biographical information on Filartiga and myself, as well as the names, addresses and phone numbers of several Paraguayan opposition leaders to contact in the event of our arrest or disappearance.

        In early April, I received a reply from Amnesty’s Campaign for the Abolition of Torture department. Dick Oosting, the Joint Campaign Organizer, said, “It goes without saying that if we were to receive word of you or your colleagues/friends having landed into trouble in Paraguay, we will try to do what we can, and as quickly as possible. I hope you realize, though, that one cannot expect wonders from Amnesty interventions, whatever the level or quantity....”

        Oosting’s candor was a bit sobering, though hardly unexpected. What came next, however, was something of a surprise. “I have passed copies of your letters and enclosures to Edy Kaufman, the researcher responsible for Paraguay, and he will write to you separately,” Oosting told me. “I hope all will go well, and hope that it will be possible for you to assist us in our work on Paraguay, as much as your other commitments allow you to do so. I am sure Edy will have a few questions in this respect!”

        I had not expected to be recruited by Amnesty, but that was just fine with me. In fact, more than fine. Anticipating Kaufman’s letter, I wrote him with a few questions of my own and offered to do what I could to help out. Shortly before departing for Paraguay, his reply arrived.

        “Many thanks for your letter of 7 April and the very kind offer of assistance during your stay in Paraguay. This will undoubtedly be invaluable to us,” Kaufman wrote. “The innocuous address to which you can write to us is: 77 Dorchester Place, London N.W.1,” he told me, before offering his “Many best wishes for your forthcoming trip (and safe return).”

        Of course, by the time Kaufman’s letter reached me in Los Angeles, I had received Dr. Filartiga’s letter. Yet, because the circumstances surrounding Joelito’s murder remained so vague, there was little chance of getting Amnesty involved at this early stage. In any event, we had already mobilized the many friends and admirers Dr. Filartiga had made on his visit to California just two months before. Spontaneously, people took up a collection, and gave me the proceeds to deliver to Joel upon my arrival in Paraguay.

        Far more importantly, scores of condolence letters went out to the Filartigas from the Paraguay Project people. We organized a telegram and letter writing campaign to members of Congress, as well as officials in the Ford Administration; and  made certain that General Stroessner received copies of all the correspondence. To provide a measure of protection, it was essential to impress upon the dictator that now, more than ever, Filartiga counted with our unconditional support.

        I still did not understanding what had happened to Joelito, and was equally in the dark about the Filartigas’ situation. On May 13, after spending a few days with friends and family in New England, I boarded the first leg of Braniff’s infamous fifteen-hour milk-run down the spine of South America to Paraguay.

 ©2004 Richard A. White