The leader of the Argentine human rights organization Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Hebe de Bonafini, was indicted Monday for alleged fraud in a project to build social housing, to which she responded by speaking truth to power, accusing the South American country’s justice system of not serving the people.
Argentine Judge Marcelo Martinez de Giorgi called for the prosecution of Bonafini and Sergio Schocklender, a trusted coworker, as pat of a case that accuses the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo of siphoning off public funds from a social housing program known as “Shared Dreams” between 2005 and 2011.
Prosecutors allege the accused misappropriated up to US$13 million in funds intended for building medical centers, schools and houses. Bonafini dismissed the latest accusations, inviting authorities can review her assets, saying that she has always lived in the same house and doesn’t even own a bicycle.
“I have a very calm conscience, very calm, they can check what they want,” Bonafini said in a video published Monday, sarcastically “thanking” the President Mauricio Macri for making her face prosecution.
The iconic human rights leader said the Mothers have always faced persecution, including being jailed for up to 15 days at a time for their activism, while others were robbed in their homes. “The Mothers decided to risk their lives for freedom in the same way that our children risked it,” she said, referring to the young people disappeared and murdered under the dictatorship for resisting the military regime.
Bonafini went on to criticize the use of the judicial power under Macri’s conservative government, stressing that it constitutes “power” and not “justice” and vowing to continue to organize for the well-being of Argentine people in the streets.
“We are willing to continue doing what we do, we are clear that this is the price we have to pay for saying what we say and doing what we do,” Bonafini said. “We will continue denouncing those in this government who are the most sadistic, thieves and the worst we could ever imagine. We are going to continue defending those who have least.”
“I am honored to be prosecuted by this power and by this government. Thank you, Macri, for giving me this honor of being processed,” she said sarcastically.
“I fight for freedom, life, children have a price and this is it: that the judicial power prosecutes me,” she added.
Judge Martinez de Giorgi issued a detention order against Bonafini last August after she failed to appear in court to testify in the same case. In a letter to the judge, Bonafini wrote that she and others have already answered multiple calls to testify. She added that the organization has made a “huge effort” to voluntarily provide “60 boxes of evidence, together with 40 back-ups, and other elements” for the case, but accused court authorities of not even reading what was provided.
The arrest warrant was later canceled after police failed to detain her due to a human chain of supporters who blocked off the area in were she was residing.
Last year’s detention order came months after a federal attorney had accused Bonafini of “inciting mob violence” when she called for mobilizations against the then newly-elected conservative President Macri and called him “the enemy.”
Bonafini is the head of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an organization that has searched for 40 years for disappeared children from Argentina’s military dictatorship era. The women behind the organization have met every Thursday at the Plaza square in Buenos Aires in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace since 1977.
The women wear a signature white handkerchief in a traditional protest to demand justice for more than 30,000 people who were disappeared by the military regime in the U.S.-backed Dirty War.
Macri has criticized Bonafini, calling her “crazy” and alleging there were only 6,000 victims under the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s. But Bonafini has remained adament in her resistance and struggle for justice.
“Fighting for freedom, for life, for children has a price and the price is this: that the judicial power prosecutes me,” she said in response to the judge’s latest order.
Two of Bonafini’s children and her daughter-in-law were disappeared during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. She has been widely recognized for her activism, including as a recipient of Unesco’s Prize for Peace Education in 1999 and Ecuador’s Nation Order of Merit in 2006, among others.
Hebe de Bonafini, Latin America’s Most Famous Mother
Kika, as she was called in a small village in Buenos Aires, had a quiet and reserved childhood. When she was 14, she got married and later had three children.
She was born in the outskirts of Ensenada, nearby the city of La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, on December 4, 1928.
As Argentina sank into a brutal dictatorship in the 1970s, the small-town girl saw her life turned upside down as two of her children and a daughter-in-law were kidnapped, tortured and killed for opposing the military government.
“Before my son was kidnapped, I was just another woman, another housewife,” Bonafini said during an interview.
“I didn’t know many things, I wasn’t interested. The economic, the political situation of my country were totally foreign to me, indifferent. But since my son disappeared, the love I felt for him, the eagerness to seek him until I found him, to pray, to ask, to demand that they deliver it to me, the encounter and the anxiety shared with other mothers who felt the same yearning as mine, have put me in a new world.”
Hebe Maria Pastor de Bonafini, now 88 years old, continues fighting for human rights against impunity as head of one of the most important human rights organizations: the association of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.
Since 1977, Hebe and other women who had disappeared or murdered children meet every Thursday at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace.
The women wear a signature white handkerchief over their heads and demand justice for more than 30,000 people who were disappeared by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.
Protests at the time were met with armed suppression by military police. Despite the threat of injury and death, the Argentine mothers moved forward with speaking out against government violence.
When British musician Sting visited Argentina in 1987, he invited the organization to accompany him to the stage at the River Plate soccer stadium during the song “They Dance Alone,” which was inspired by their struggle. Hebe also gave her white handkerchief to singer Bono, when the band U2 visited the country in 1998.
De Bonafini and her organization have suffered insults, death threats, attacks and even torture. She was wounded in the head by police in a university demonstration. Years ago, two people entered her home, and since Hebe was not found, they tortured her daughter Alejandra, beating her and burning her with cigarettes.
She also reported death threats after sending an open letter to Pope Francis asking the Argentina-born Catholic leader to help her country face “hunger” and “institutional violence.”
After Macri took office, she was charged by a federal prosecutor on charges of “incitement to collective violence” and “attempt against public order” and a court ordered her arrest after she refused to give continuous testimonies in a case of alleged embezzlement of public funds. The case, however, was dismissed after tens of thousands of Argentines poured into the streets to protest and defend Bonafini.
Macri has criticized the human rights activist, calling her “crazy” and saying there are only 8,000 cases of disappeared people during the country’s Dirty War. The Dirty War was an offshoot of Operation Condor, a Cold War-era campaign of violence across Latin America backed by the U.S. to extinguish leftist movements.
She has also been an outspoken supporter of leftist leaders such as Che Guevara, Augusto Sandino, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.