Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-pjpqr Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-25T11:41:46.434Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The Ghosts of Montes de Oca: Buried Subtext of Argentina's Dirty War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 April 2015

Nancy Scheper-Hughes*
University of California, Berkeley Berkeley,


No rhetorical flourishes: this work-in-progress is intended to provoke a long-overdue public dialogue on an ugly topic that refuses to stay disappeared. It treats a hidden battleground of Argentina's Dirty War (1976–1983), a ‘petite war,’ a war within the war, directed by a military-appointed doctor against the mentally deficient inmates concentrated at the national psychiatric hospital, the Colonia Nacional Dr. Manuel A. Montes de Oca in Torres, and its sister institution, the Colonia Psiquiátrica Domingo Cabred, in Lujan, both in Buenos Aires province. Buried in the historical, statistical, legal, and archival records, along with the key informant interviews, ethnographic observations, and photos is shattering evidence of medical human rights abuses committed under the necropolitics of the Dirty War against an abandoned population of mental “defectives” who were condemned to gratuitous suffering and early deaths at the psychiatric colony (see Figure 1). In the worst instances, the abuses were crimes against humanity.

The New School Lecture
Copyright © Academy of American Franciscan History 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1. “Malheur a toi si tu nous trompes, et si parmi tes fous tu caches des ennemis du peuple”. Semelaigne, René, Philippe Pinel et son oeuvre au point de vue de la medécine mentale (Paris: Imprimeries Reunites, 1888)Google Scholar. Also quoted in Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Lovell, Anne M., “Breaking the Circuit of Social Control: Lessons in Public Psychiatry from Italy and Franco Basaglia,” Social Science & Medicine 23:2 (1986), pp. 159178 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. With these harsh words the President of the Paris Commune rejected Philippe Pinel's radical proposal to free the ‘lunatics’ of Bicetre asylum during the aftermath of the French Revolution.

2. Liliana Magrini and Mario Ganora, Informe sobre violaciones graves de los derechos humanos (Tratos y Penas Crueles Inhumanas y Degradantes) a presos y minusválidos psíquicos en los establecimientos psiquiátricos “Colonia Nacional Montes de Oca” y “Hospital Neuropsiquiátrico Domingo Cabred,”, posted November 2000, accessed February 4, 2015.

3. Ethan Watters, “The Organ Detective: A Career Spent Uncovering a Hidden Global Market in Human Flesh,” Pacific Standard Magazine, July 7, 2014,, accessed February 4, 2015.

4. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, “Parts Unknown: Undercover Ethnography of the Organs-Trafficking Underworld,” Ethnography 5 (2004), pp. 2973 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5. All quotes attributed to Sánchez, Florencio are from his prison diary. El desnudo de la inocencia. La verdad sobre la Colonia Montes de Oca (Buenos Aires: Editorial Galerna, 1992)Google Scholar.

6. Juan Ignacio Provéndola, 2010, “El misterio Giubileo. Pagina/12, Domingo, 13 de junio.” <>.

7. Organs Watch is a medical human rights project registered at the University of California, Berkeley. I cofounded it in 1999 with Professor Lawrence Cohen. Originally funded by a multiyear grant from the Soros Foundation, Organs Watch is a research and documentation project that has contributed to the prosecutions of human organ and tissue trafficking schemes in Brazil, Turkey, Israel, Moldova, the United States, Kosovo, and South Africa. Several years ago, its website was hacked by human traffickers and had to be shut down. Nancy Scheper-Hughes was guest editor of the special issue of the New Internationalist titled Human Traffic: Exposing the Brutal Organ Trade, published in May 2014.

8. Vivek Chaudhary, “Argentina Uncovers Mental Patients Killed for Organs,” British Medical Journal (International Edition) 304:6834 (April 25,1992), pp. 1073–1074.

9. The numbers of “missing” inmates in the official 1986 judicial inquest court records do not match those reported in the hospital census I was given. The summary of the first inquest into the decomposed bodies that turned up in a blocked cistern at the Colonia is titled Hallazgo de restos humanos [Discovery of Human Remains], Sumario #62468. Mercedes, Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, (Colonia Montes de Oca Torres), dated September 22,1986, photocopy held at Organs Watch, University of California, Berkeley.

10. In various books and articles, the French folklorist Véronique Campion-Vincent has attributed the cornea theft allegations at the Argentine psychiatric colony as an instance of the classic folkloric genre involving eye thieves. She has also attested that the alleged theft of kidneys was an heir to the liver-eating monster stories widespread in the Andes. Campion-Vincent was a primary source for a 1994 US State Department report titled The Child Organ Trafficking Rumor: A Modern-Day Legend, written by Todd Leventhal, then chief counter-information officer for the US Information Service (USIS). Leventhal attributed the ‘hysteria’ over organs and baby-trafficking at Colonia Montes de Oca and elsewhere in Argentina to a Marxist disinformation campaign conducted in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s to stir up anti-American and anti capitalist sentiments. Leventhal's report reflected US policy toward Argentina during the Dirty War, when both the Ford and Reagan administrations provided military aid to the junta, supported the regime diplomatically, and covered up its atrocities against civilians.

11. In this section I draw on Marguerite Feitlowitz's brilliant analysis of the corruption of language in the service of the Dirty War. Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

12.La identidad en los neuropsiquiátricos,” photocopy of an anonymous newspaper clipping dated August 26, 1986, Lujan.

13. The three human rights reports were Magrini and Ganora, Informe sobre violaciones graves de los derechos humanos; Mental Disability Rights International CELS, Vidas arrasadas. La segregación de las personas en los asilos psiquiátricos argentinos. Un informe sobre derechos humanos y salud mental en Argentina (Buenos Aires: CELS, 2007); and Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, The Ghosts of Montes de Oca: A Report on Medical Human Rights Abuses at the National Colony for the Mentally Deficient, Organs Watch, University of California Berkeley, California, 2007)Google Scholar. The last-named was hand-delivered to the Ministry of Health and the administrative staff of the Colonia.

14. Rees, Thomas P., “The Unlocked Door,” The Lancet 2:953–954, (November 1954), pp. 12291230 Google Scholar; Clarke, Liam, The Time of the Therapeutic Community: People, Places and Events (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004)Google Scholar.

15. The Dirty War (guerra sucia) was the name given by those who resisted the state-sponsored terror and eliminationist repression against Argentina's citizens from 1976 to 1983 under General Videla's military dictatorship. Videla's goal was a complete reorganization of the state, the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (or simply the Proceso), mounted in response to revolutionary guerrillas but then extended to any sectors associated with popular unrest: labor, students who mobilized, and any other individuals or groups seen as spreading ideas contrary to Argentina's fascist-inflected views of Christian values. The most thorough anthropological treatment of the Dirty War is found in Robben, Antonius, Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Another essential source is Finchelstein, Federico, The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which traces the gradual evolution of political fascism, populism, and military dictatorship in twentieth-century Argentina.

16. Miguel Bonasso, “Videla desapareció a su propio hijo,” May 18, 2013,, accessed February 4, 2015.

17. See Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: (Stanford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; and Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002).

18. Enrique Sdrech, Giubileo: un caso abierto. This book and several interviews with the crime-page journalist in his office are the primary source of my narrative on the missing doctor.

19. Lujan is the largest town between Torres and La Plata, the provincial capital.

20. Six months later, it was discovered by José Marín, the detective hired by Giubileo's family, that another pair of the doctor's shoes fit exactly into those footprints.

21. To this day legal guardians are appointed to any adult who has been declared incapable of administering his or her property. This status also applies to “deaf-mutes,” a category still in use at the national mental colonies and carrying a very heavy inference that such persons are incompetent. Since virtually all the inmates of the two national mental colonies have been committed without their consent by their parents, police or the justice system, a public defender may initiate a hearing with a judge to declare a patient incompetent and to appoint a guardian—thereby legalizing the commitment.

22. Clarín, “Crónica de una vergüenza: la trágica historia de la Colonia Montes de Oca,” Gente, March 12, 1992, pp. 5–8, 94–96; Miguel Bonasso, “Viaje a la Colonia del terror: la Montes de Oca también fue centro clandestino de detención,” El País, June 28, 1998, p. 8; “La historia secreta sobre ‘los muertos en vida’ en la Colonia Montes de Oca,” Tiempo Argentino, September 19, 1986, pp. 16–17; “La historia sobre el comercio de órganos en la Colonia Montes de Oca,” Tiempo Argentino, September 26, 1989, pp. 16–17; “Las denuncias sobre tráfico de órganos preocupan al embajador Argentino en Inglaterra,” Clarín, 1986, p. 14; “Robo de órganos: hay 66 casos comprobados,” Diario Popular, November 24, 1993, p. 12; “Certificados de defunción falsos en la Colonia Montes de Oca,” Clarín, February 13, 1992, p. 36; and “Cadáver en la Colonia Montes de Oca,” Clarín, April 5, 1989, p. 27.

23. “Papacito Sánchez” was the name used by some of the inmates for the director and was often quoted as such by the Argentine media.

24. “El presentimiento de un hombre,” interview with Pablo Chabrol, Gente, March 12, 1992, p. 95.

25. Sdrech, Giubileo: un caso abierto, p. 20.

26. In addition to her profession of psychiatry, the young doctor was described in some media reports and medical files as a specialist in “hemoterapia,” that is, in the treatment of disease with the use of blood or blood derivatives, as in transfusion. If this is true, Cecilia Giubileo would certainly have known about the mysterious and regular blood extractions from inmates of the Colonia and the stockpiling and possible selling of that blood, as was alleged by some medical staff.

27. In fact, Florencio Eliseo Sánchez had an impressive resume. Born in 1927, he received his MD in 1952 and he began his career as a surgeon in private practice. In 1961 he added a degree in physical therapy; in 1968 a diploma in anthropological science; in 1975 a diploma in public health/sanitary medicine; and in 1985 a final degree in forensic medicine. In addition to his medical specializations, Sánchez was an anthropologist, a forensic pathologist, and a criminologist.

28. Biehl, João, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

29. Basaglia, Franco, “Destroying the Institution,” in Psychiatry Inside Out: Selected Writings of Franco Basaglia, edited and with introductions by Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Lovell, Anne M. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987)Google Scholar.

30. Many other staff felt that any extreme abuse perpetrated at the Colonia merely followed on the legacy of abuse the inmates had earlier experienced at the hands of the relatives who had abandoned them. “Abuse and neglect is all that they know. They expect to be abused,” one staff member commented. Many arrived at the Colonia as basket cases, “unable to talk, not knowing how or what to eat, or how to comport themselves.” One nurse told of the beating to death of an inmate by a male nurse. The inmate refused to get out of a shower stall and threatened the nurse with his penis, provoking the nurse's rage. The death was registered as a legitimate ‘intervention.’ Today's reform administrators feel that many abandoned inmates suffer from social retardation rather than from an organic mental incapacity.

31. Taussig, Michael, I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldnote Notebooks, Mostly My Own (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32. Hitler implemented the systematic killing of the mentally ill and mentally impaired in Germany during World War II. In 1939, he issued a decree allowing doctors to ‘euthanize’ mental patients who were considered incurable. The term “mercy killing” was a euphemism used to eliminate by extermination the population of the mentally deficient and handicapped in the interests of creating a superior Aryan race. A primary source is Lifton, Robert Jay, The Nazi Doctor: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986)Google Scholar. A more recent example, one that bears more resemblance to the history of the Colonia Montes de Oca, is the study of the Brazilian psychiatric asylum, Hospital Colônia de Barbacena, which investigative journalist Daniela Arbex described as genocidal institution in her book Holocausto Brasileiro: genocídio e 60 mil mortes no maior hospício do Brasil, (São Paulo: Geração Editorial, 2013). Fortunately, Barbacena was recognized by Brazilian psychiatrists as an aberration and closed down in the early 1980s when the fascist Brazilian military dictatorship was winding down. The late Franco Basaglia was the first to call the hospital a “concentration camp,” on his visit to Brazil in 1980, just before he died.

33. Central to Agamben's thesis (note 15) is the figure of bare life (the barely alive), the homo sacer, the person who can be sacrificed, reduced to ex-human status, placed in a state of starvation, stupefaction, and life-in-death, reduced to silence, awaiting death with no other destiny.