The Disappeared


The Disappeared

Remnants of a Dirty War

Sam Ferguson

352 pages
12 photographs, index


July 2023


$39.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
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July 2023


$39.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

July 2023


$39.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

The Disappeared tells the extraordinary saga of Argentina’s attempt to right the wrongs of an unspeakably dark past. Using a recent human rights trial as his lens, Sam Ferguson addresses two central questions of our age: How is mass atrocity possible, and What should be done in its wake?

From 1976 to 1983 thousands of people were the victims of state terrorism during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War. Ferguson recounts a twenty-two-month trial of the most notorious perpetrators of this atrocity, who ran a secret prison from the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires. The navy executed as many as five thousand political “subversives,” most of whom were sedated and thrown alive out of airplanes into the South Atlantic. The victims of these secret death flights and others who went missing during the regime are known as los desaparecidos—“the disappeared.”

Ferguson explores Argentina’s novel response to mass atrocity: the country’s remarkable and controversial decisions in 2003 to repeal a series of amnesty laws passed in the 1980s and to prosecute anew the perpetrators of the Dirty War a generation after the collapse of the country's last dictatorship. As of 2022 more than one thousand aging military officers have been indicted for their involvement in the Dirty War and hundreds of trials have commenced in the country’s civilian courts. Among the many facets of the book, Ferguson takes an in-depth look at allegations that Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was involved in the disappearance of two Jesuit priests under his supervision in 1976. Bergoglio was called to testify in a closed-chambers session. Ferguson reviewed those secret proceedings and uses them as a springboard to explore the Argentine Catholic Church and its broader role in the Dirty War.

The lingering but acute trauma of the victims who testified at the trial underscores the moral urgency of accountability. When a state strips its citizens of all their rights, the only response that approximates reparation is to restore the rule of law and punish the perpetrators. Yet the trial also revealed the limits of using criminal law to respond to mass atrocity. Justice demands a laser-like focus on evidence relevant to a crime, but atrocity begs for social understanding. Can the law ever bring full justice?

Author Bio

Sam Ferguson is an attorney in Berkeley, California and the principal of Ferguson Law PC. He previously served as a law clerk to the Honorable Judge William Fletcher on the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. He was a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights, as well as a Fulbright fellow in Argentina. His articles on Argentina’s Dirty War have appeared in The New Republic, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Boston Review.


“With the eye of a novelist and the brilliance of a lawyer, Sam Ferguson has given us a gripping and world-illuminating account of Argentina’s relentless and almost heroic attempt to confront the horrors of its past.”—Owen Fiss, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law, Yale Law School

“Sam Ferguson’s book tells the remarkable saga of this twenty-two-month trial and the larger story of how and why Argentina is prosecuting its aging Dirty Warriors. It wrestles with the deepest questions of whether law can do justice for the past. This is an important and timely book that should be read by all of those who are interested in fostering international human rights and promoting democracy—and a reminder that societies never really turn the page on the past.”—Tina Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author of The Haunted: Facing Europe’s Ghosts after Communism

“In The Disappeared Sam Ferguson asks an urgent moral question: what does justice look like in the aftermath of atrocity? If that question remains an abstraction in too many places around the world, Ferguson addresses it concretely—and unforgettably—in this riveting new account. . . . In Ferguson’s hands you’ll feel as if you, too, are sitting in the repurposed movie theater with the faded pink drapes in 2009, watching an important political spectacle commence. But The Disappeared also offers a clear-eyed assessment of the limits of the law and the kinds of collective heartbreak it is not equipped to heal.”—Sarah Stillman, staff writer for the New Yorker

“The true birth of the contemporary human rights movement can be traced not to Nuremberg or even to Auschwitz but to the dark recesses of the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires. . . . [The Disappeared] is a gripping narrative; Sam Ferguson has written a fascinating, painstaking, and necessary book. Anyone who cares about human rights—or indeed the human condition—must read it.”—Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mozote

“Can there ever be justice for Latin America’s disappeared? This remarkable book analyzes the question through the prism of Argentina’s contemporary crimes against humanity trials for atrocities committed during its so-called ‘Dirty War’ of the 1970s and the possibility of delayed justice. As a lawyer and observer, Ferguson presents a keen understanding in this nuanced and highly readable account. . . . Through [Ferguson’s] interviews, comprehensive research, and first-hand observations, a lucid narrative emerges here: Argentina has imagined and created a better future through the trials by opening up its dark past. Argentina has achieved a level of self-reflection and judgment that tragically remains largely exceptional among nations. Given the rise of authoritarianism around the world, this is hugely necessary and riveting reading for students, academics, and political analysts alike.”—Ruti G. Teitel, Ernst C. Stiefel Professor of Comparative Law at New York Law School and author of Globalizing Transitional Justice

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
One: A Beginning of Sorts
Two: The Argentine Enigma
Three: The Prosecution's Case
Four: Opening Silence
Five: Trials Before the Trial
Six: The Brutality of the ESMA
Seven: Rodolfo Walsh
Eight: The Santa Cruz Raid
Nine: Between Memory, Truth and Justice
Ten: The Jesuits
Eleven: Closing Arguments and Verdict

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