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The Ballad of Billy Lee: The Untold Story of An American ‘Desaparecido’ in Argentina

Joseph Huff-Hannon Oct 1

Billy Lee Hunt was the frontman for Los Caravelles, a rock band he founded in Argentina. PHOTO: JOSEPH HUFF-HANNONMENDOZA, Argentina — On a sun-drenched afternoon this May, Evie Lou Hunt welcomes me in to her third-floor apartment in downtown Mendoza, a city of under a million in western Argentina at the foot of the Andes. An attractive woman in her early 60s, Evie has blond hair and looks fit. After talking for hours and drinking too much coffee, we sit in the living room and listen to songs recorded by her brother Billy Lee in 1972, on a CD re-mastered from a cassette, just Billy Lee and his guitar. The opening number is a beautifully sung cover, in English, of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Evie shows me photos of Billy and herself standing in front of a small house with a white picket fence in Leblon, Tenn., where they were born and lived as children. In 1954, their mother, an Italian immigrant, moved them to Argentina to be closer to relatives who had settled there. Besides old family photos, spread out before us on the dining room table are a tangle of documents: newspaper clippings; pictures of Billy Lee with his band, Los Caravelles; and copies of Evie’s original habeus corpus complaint, filed a week after her brother was picked up in April 1977 in downtown Mendoza by several plain-clothed armed men and never heard from again.

“They killed all the artists, the musicians, writers. Young people, old people, everybody.” Evie Lou tells me. “We were so close, the two of us. When we came here we had to stick together. Even now I never thought of going back to the U.S., I couldn’t. I had to stay here and find out what happened to him.”

Billy Lee Hunt, a U.S. citizen, was just one of the 30,000 people kidnapped, tortured, and “disappeared” by a fascist dictatorship that seized power in the spring of 1976. When not dreaming of rock stardom, Billy studied journalism at the local university and was the head of the student union. During those years of blood and fire, this was more than enough to be marked for death. The regime “vanished” student leaders, journalists, labor organizers, activist nuns and priest, and pretty much anyone who posed a threat to its brutal “process of national reorganization” to purge the country of leftist guerillas and “subversion” in general (and restore power to the landed oligarchs who historically controlled much of the country’s wealth). Police or military officers often told the parents of the disappeared that their children must have run off to the mountains to join the guerillas, or in the case of young women, that they left to work as prostitutes in Europe.

Hundreds of skeletons unearthed from mass graves, packed in boxes, remain unidentified at the forensic anthropology office in Buenos Aires. PHOTO: JOSEPH HUFF-HANNONNow over 30 years later, they are being unvanished. Advances in forensic science and the tenacity of an indefatigable and organized grassroots movement for human rights and justice have been, literally and figuratively, unearthing the bones of the country’s violent past. This spring a federal judge ordered the exhumation of a mass grave in the Mendoza’s municipal cemetery, in an area where uncovered police and morgue records have shown an unusually high percentage of “John and Jane Does” buried during the early years of the dictatorship. In the first month of digging investigators from an organization called the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), in collaboration with the federal government, found a shallow grave filled with up to 20 unidentified skeletons. One had its hands tied behind its back with a belt.

“We think he’s there in the cemetery somewhere, but they haven’t told me anything yet,” says Evie, who gave a blood sample in 2005 to the Anthropology Team, part of a nationwide program to create a DNA bank of family members of the disappeared in order to match DNA with found remains. “They asked me to come to the cemetery when they started digging, but I couldn’t, it was too much. It’s been 32 years, and all I really want is to give him a proper burial.”

* * *

A yellowed skeleton is laid out on a long table on the third floor of a rowhouse in central Buenos Aires, above an administrative office and a call center.

“This looks like it was a young guy, maybe 18 years old,” Gabriela Ghidini tells me, a junior investigator with the EAAF. After establishing the approximate age and the sex, Ghidini measures the teenager’s height and tries to determine if he was right- or left-handed by searching for slight differences in the development of the arm and hand bones. In the torso section, Ghidini has laid out a number of red arrows on the table that point to fractures in the bone, places where bullets entered and shattered the young man’s ribs.

“These are the clearest indicators of the cause of death, what we call peri-mortem lesions,” Ghidini tells me, taking meticulous notes in the case file attached to the young man’s remains. “Here in Argentina they mostly used bullets.”

Eventually Ghidini will choose a cut of bone or a tooth to send to a genetic laboratory a few hundred miles to the west in Cordoba. There lab technicians will grind the bone down, and attempt to extract a DNA profile to test against the national genetic database to which over 8,000 family members have donated blood samples in the last few years. This DNA bank, funded by the federal government, enabled the forensic anthropologists to identify more than 120 people and has allowed for the prosecution of hundreds of high-ranking members of the security forces since 2005, when the Argentine Supreme Court swept away a set of amnesty laws that had long protected the killers. This past May a federal judge brought new murder charges against former Argentine dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla, citing positive identifications made in the last two years by EAAF investigators from skeletons exhumed from unmarked graves in 10 cemeteries in or around Buenos Aires.

“For us it means — I can’t say happiness — but satisfaction,” Luis Fondebrider, co-founder of the EAAF, told me the day after the new charges against Videla were announced. “In our part of the world perpetrators of state terrorism often aren’t charged, or often there’s not enough information to bring them to justice. It’s one of the few times that our work helps to break through that impunity.”

Red arrows indicate where bullets entered the young man’s torso, the likely cause of his death. PHOTO: JOSEPH HUFF-HANNONFondebrider, a harried man with wavy salt-and- pepper hair, walks me through a series of storage rooms in the second floor of the office, where hundreds of unidentified and boxed-up skeletons sit on shelves that go up to the ceiling. The boxes are numbered and labeled with the place they were found, some labels giving more detail than others. “Bones found burnt together,” says one.

In August, the federal government gave a million-dollar grant to the Forensic Anthropology Team to continue its work, which includes attempting to analyze DNA samples from the over 700 skeletons in these rooms. Another part of the work entails identifying the genetic profiles from the latest batch of a thousand blood samples donated by family members to the national database. But while a definitive match is made in the laboratory first, it is not quite final until a parent, grandparent, sister or brother is able to see the bones with their own eyes, and know, finally, the truth.

Back upstairs I ask Gabriela Ghidini what it feels like to do this work. “In general I try not to think about the details when I’m working, but I always keep in mind why we’re doing this, to help families close a circle,” she tells me. “To do something like this, you have to do it knowing the end result.”

* * *

The former and current military men in Argentina who know where the bodies are buried have maintained an impressive pact of silence. Only a handful of whistleblowers have emerged in the last 20 years, the most famous being Adolfo Scilingo. Scilingo, a pilot, was unable to tell where the bodies were buried though — mostly because the people he helped murder were drugged and thrown, alive, into the River Plate or the sea during regular “death flights,” another macabre invention of the dictatorship. Scilingo, who confessed to participating in at least two such flights in which 30 people were “disposed of,” was convicted of crimes against humanity and torture in a Spanish courtroom in 2005. Courts in Spain, Italy, France and Germany continue to seek to extradite and try suspected Argentine war criminals for their role in the disappearance of their nation’s citizens. Despite the fact that a number of U.S. citizens, Billy Lee Hunt among them, disappeared during the bloodbath, no judicial authority in this country has taken up the case or pursued an independent investigation.

Evie Lou Hunt, of Leblon, Tennessee, looks at old pictures of her brother in her apartment in Mendoza, Argentina. PHOTO: JOSEPH HUFF-HANNONWhile many of the more recently declassified State Department documents illuminate the U.S. government’s support for the regime — even as the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires reported on its indiscriminate brutality — these files have revealed little by way of specifics on where, when and how victims of state repression met their fate.

That could change this year. An amendment to the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill, sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), would compel the CIA to declassify any documents related to intelligence sharing or potential collaboration with the Argentine junta in the 1970s and ’80s. The bill has passed both the House and Senate, but remains in limbo because President Obama has threatened to veto it, objecting to language that would oblige the executive branch to share more information with Congress about current “sensitive intelligence operations.”

“By passing this measure today, Congress is helping to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the terrible human rights abuses committed by the despotic Argentinean regime of the 1970s and 1980s,” said Rep. Hinchey after the amendment was passed in the House. “This amendment will finally require the director of national intelligence to provide the relevant information that the intelligence community has regarding this dark period in Argentina.”

This “dark period” was marked by intimate collusion with the U.S. government. While the regime was busy setting up hundreds of concentration camps across the country, and disappearing tens of thousands of political dissidents, the Ford Administration was busy providing diplomatic cover. In the calculus of the Cold War, Argentina was just one of a number of right-wing “national security states,” bulwarks against “international communism,” generously propped up with U.S. military aid and International Monetary Fund loans. The year of the coup, the U.S. Congress approved then-President Gerald Ford’s request for $80 million in military aid to the regime.

“If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly,” then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Argentina’s foreign minister shortly after the coup, according to declassified documentsreleased by the National Security Archive, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit investigative journalism institute. “We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties.”

“The vision we have from the South is of the U.S. as custodians of a horrific order,” Ramon Abalo, a retired journalist, tells me in his office in downtown Mendoza. I ask Ramon why it’s important to look at the past, when present-day Argentina has plenty of other daunting problems — unemployment, poverty, capital flight and brain drain.

“When we talk about 30,000 people, we’re not talking about an imaginary number. We’re talking about how they got rid of a whole class of people who thought a certain way. All of this happened to install a socio-economic plan.” Ramon says he usually doesn’t smoke, but he lights a cigarette as he talks, saying he has to when he discusses those times.

“Look at the Pope [John Paul II]. Somebody shot him, and he pardoned the guy, but a judge still tried him. The constant fight of the human rights movements here has led to an understanding among a large majority of Argentines that here a genocide happened. There’s a consensus. But here nobody has ever asked for forgiveness. Let’s look forward, too, but when you have an open wound, it doesn’t close by itself.”

Evie Lou Hunt and her younger brother Billy Lee, as children. Billy Lee was kidnapped and disappeared by agents of the dictatorship in April 1977.  PHOTO: JOSEPH HUFF-HANNONBesides justice, truth is the other salve that the human rights movement in Argentina has been demanding for decades now, and among the myriad unsolved crimes, one thing those declassified intelligence documents might be able to clear up is what happened to a young U.S. citizen named Billy Lee Hunt, whose bones may or may not be buried in a cemetery in Mendoza. After her brother’s disappearance Evie Lou visited the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires a number of times and was told each time that they had no knowledge of his whereabouts. Her U.S. passport, and that of her brother, offered little protection at the time. The American intelligence apparatus, which had close ties with the junta, and the embassies, run by the State Department, operate on notoriously different tracks.

These distinctions don’t matter much to Evie, who spends the last Thursday of every month at a vigil with other human rights activists and families of the disappeared in front of the federal courthouse in Mendoza. “I want to know what happened. I want to know who took him. I want to know who buried him.”

One afternoon Evie shows me the plaque with hundreds of names on it, mounted on a monument to the disappeared across from the courthouse. She rubs the dust from her brother’s name. “You poor thing,” she says. “He was such a happy guy, always telling jokes. That’s why nobody could believe it when they took him.”

After a walk around a downtown park, we eat a late lunch at Evie’s house, vegetarian lasagna with a glass of red wine. Evie proposes a toast: “Here’s to seeing those military bastards finally facing justice.”