It was nicknamed the caperucita roja — “Little Red Riding Hood” — and during the 1954 to 1989 dictatorship of the late General Alfredo Stroessner, the appearance of a red Chevrolet Custom 10 in the streets of Asunción was cause for fear. For political dissidents it could mean a short ride to a torture chamber, but for girls of a certain age it held a particular threat.
“The word at school was that the caperucita roja would snatch young girls from the street,” Gilda Ferreira, a language teacher who grew up in the poor Asunción neighborhood of La Chacarita in the 1960s, told AQ. “The pretty ones had the most to fear.”
Many women of Ferreira’s generation remember hearing similar accounts. The existence of a pedophile ring operating at the highest reaches of Stroessner’s government was long rumored, and even the subject of an exposé by the Washington Post during the dictatorship’s heyday. But no official probe ever took place — until July 2016, when Paraguay’s Ministry of Justice finally opened an investigation.
The probe comes amid a renewed push to prosecute human rights abuses and other crimes under right-wing military dictatorships that ruled Southern Cone countries during the 1970s and 1980s. In May 2016, 14 former military officers in the Argentine army were convicted for their role in Operation Condor, a joint strategy of repression involving numerous governments. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil have convened truth commissions or tried former officers in court in recent years.
Paraguay, a landlocked nation of 6.8 million people, has lagged behind its neighbors in accounting for that era’s horrors. Stroessner, who died in 2006, was accused of overseeing the systematic torture of political opponents during his 35-year rule. An association representing relatives of victims estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 Paraguayans were murdered by the state. His government also harbored smugglers and former Nazis, including Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s notorious Angel of Death, who lived in plain sight in Paraguay during the 1960s and even held a local passport. After being ousted by a 1989 coup, Stroessner lived in exile in Brazil, which ignored requests for his extradition to Paraguay on homicide charges.
Today, Stroessner’s supporters remain influential within parts of the ruling Colorado Party as well as Paraguay’s armed forces. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the probe into systematic sexual abuse under Stroessner is off to an uneven start. As AQ went to press, only one victim, Julia Ozorio, had come forward to give her story. Two other witnesses have told investigators they saw abuses.
Nevertheless, Rogelio Goiburú, director of reparations and historical memory at Paraguay’s Ministry of Justice, told AQ the contours of the case are clear. As many as 1,000 girls “may have been groomed and then systematically raped” during the dictatorship, he said. They tended to be between the ages of 12 to 14 and from poor families in the countryside, he said. They were taken from their homes to houses in Asunción and elsewhere, where they were held captive and subjected to abuse by senior officers in Stroessner’s government, Goiburú said.
“Some may never have survived their ordeals, but many others may be too scared or ashamed to come forward,” Goiburú said as he stood outside one house where captives were allegedly kept in Asunción.
The military personnel accused of abuses have since died, but Goiburú says it is important to put them on trial posthumously, in order to establish the truth. “To talk about these crimes remains a taboo. The legacy of state terrorism is a continued fear of speaking out. We need to break this cycle and bring the dictatorship’s crimes against humanity to light.”
The house, which belonged at the time to an army colonel, was at the center of a 1977 Washington Post investigation that told “an ugly story of sexual depravity among high government officials in Paraguay.” The story quoted a Paraguayan woman who, speaking under a pseudonym, said she entered the house in 1975 and “saw the unconscious bodies of three little girls … lying naked on a pile of sand at the rear of the house,” bleeding from their genital area. The woman told the Washington Post she called the police, but when they arrived and learned who owned the house, they quickly disappeared.
The source was later revealed to be Malena Ashwell, a member of an influential family in Asunción. Ashwell told the Washington Post that when she tried to go to the Paraguayan press, she was picked up by the secret police, tortured, and had her wounds dunked in sewage to cause infection. She believes only her family’s connections spared her life, and she has since lived in exile in the United States. Goiburú said he hopes that Ashwell will testify in this new investigation, but understands the difficulties in rehashing a painful past.
The lynchpin of the case so far is Ozorio. In April 1968, shortly after her 12th birthday, Ozorio was playing in front of her family home in Nueva Italia, a small town about 25 miles from Asunción. A general entered with two soldiers. They looked at her two older sisters, but the general said he wanted the youngest, Ozorio recalled.
“My mother handed me over without resistance,” Ozorio told AQ. “He took me to a house, he got drunk, and then what had to happen, happened.”
Ozorio said the general held her and four other girls captive in a house in the Asunción suburb of Laurelty. He released her after her 15th birthday, when she moved to Argentina. She described the abuse she suffered in her 2008 book, A Rose and a Thousand Soldiers.
Dr. Santiago González Bibolini, the public prosecutor leading the new investigation, said that many victims from that era have passed away in years since. Still, he expects more like Ozorio to come forward in coming months.
“It is important to discover the truth about the extent of these abuses,” Bibolini told AQ. “The next stage will be to bring in forensic teams to study the places where the abuses took place.”
Some doubt the investigation will be successful in a country with a long history of brutal dictators, but little culture of discussing past abuses, much less prosecuting them. In Asunción’s Plaza of the Disappeared, a dismembered statue of Stroessner sits encased in a concrete block. But a 2009 poll showed that 41 percent of Paraguayans thought the country would have been better off if Stroessner were still in power. José Carlos Rodríguez, a leading sociologist, told AQ that his rule is still “associated with economic growth, low crime and social conservatism.”
Ozorio said a proper investigation would provide a degree of closure for crimes that left her traumatized. Although the Colorado Party has never commented publicly on the accusations of sexual abuse, Ozorio said that she received threats from prominent Colorado Party leaders following the publication of her book. “They say I dirty the name of the party, but for 35 years the dictatorship traumatized a submissive population,” she said. On social media sites Ozorio has received some criticism for seeking financial compensation from the state and details of her account have been questioned — yet these views are in the minority.
“In this century we need to be prepared to defend our dignity,” she concluded. “(The men) who play with our childhood are animals.”
Youkee is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @matyoukee.