Torturers with a Human Face

Torturers, the saying goes, are kind to their wives and children. For most of us who follow Latin America - who have heard the testimonies of men and women broken in secret prisons or hounded by death squads - the torturers are faceless, shadows of evil symbolized by military boots and mirrored sunglasses.

To understand the violence that saturates much of Latin America, we must look into the faces of the violators as well as the victims. In Children of Cain, journalist Tina Rosenberg drags her reader on an unsparing trip through the maze of violence in six Latin American countries, stopping at places that are - literally and figuratively - generally off-limits to progressive writers.

This book is exhaustively researched, and relevant history is woven into the description of each society. But Rosenberg's genius is in getting people to talk. Not only campesinos and priests, but also members of Salvador's oligarchy, Colombian sicarios(hired killers), disciples of Peru's Shining Path, and naval officers who tortured hundreds in Argentina's "dirty war" share with Rosenberg their version of the truth in Latin America. "I found many of them likable," Rosenberg reflects. "I would have preferred them to be monsters."

The likability of terrorists is one of many paradoxes she explores. Rosenberg, whose characters and description are as compelling as any novelist's, has a talent for highlighting tragicomic absurdities in societies that are breaking down. Teen-age hitmen for Medellin's drug lords pray to the Virgin of Carmen to guide their aim. Officers at an Argentine concentration camp take their favorite female inmates to dinner to discuss Marxist literature. Shining Path guerrillas, claiming to represent Peru's Indians, murder priests who organize campesinos and square dance to Maoist hymns at a fund-raiser.

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