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50 Years Since the Opening of Libertad Prison
Commemorating the inauspicious opening of one of the regime's most notorious torture chambers
“For example, there is a prison named Liberty
so if they proudly say:
the citizen here lives in Liberty,
it means he is serving a ten-year sentence.”
-Mario Benedetti 
[Photo from el Centro de Fotografía de Montevideo archive]
October 1, 2022 marks fifty years since Libertad prison first opened in 1972. One of the most notorious sites of the nation’s dictatorship, almost 3000 union workers, Tupamaros, student organizers, and other political prisoners would experience horrific treatment within the prison’s walls, which included torture, long periods of solitary confinement, being forbidden from reading newspapers, or even communicating with other prisoners. A 1980 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) about the cárcel, noted that prisoners there were “unceasingly harassed, provoked, and punished.”
That one of the primary sites and symbolic cores of the repression was at a prison called Libertad was an irony not lost on anyone, as evident in Benedetti’s poem above. The ICRC report even noted that the conditions for those imprisoned were characterized by the “excessive deprivation of liberty.” The fact that the prison was actually named after the small town of Libertad, 50km west of Montevideo, where the structure resided, and not for a perverse linguistic joke, mattered little.
Indeed, throughout the dictatorship and after the prison was finally shut on March 10, 1985 upon the nation’s return to democratic rule, it has continued to remain a flash point for historical memory and grappling with the legacy of the dictatorship. As one political prisoner, Walter Phillipps-Treby, wrote, “It was not as simple as turning a page of that book and closing it. Too much of life had happened within [the prison], and too much pain.”
On the fiftieth anniversary of the prison’s inauguration, it’s worth delving briefly into some of this history, as well as how it has been remembered in popular culture as a flashpoint for the brutality of the nation’s dictatorship.
The prison was built specifically for the purpose of holding political prisoners, and its appearance before the official autogolpe is more evidence of how the dictatorship began even prior to June 27, 1973. Indeed, when the first political prisoners arrived on October 1, 1972 at the Penal de Libertad, they arrived by helicopters. These men had been arrested as part of the crackdown against the Left based on Juan María Bordaberry’s Medidas de Seguridad. The men had been at holding centers in Montevideo, but were now flown out to Libertad handcuffed. However, the helicopters did not land. Rather, they hovered over the soccer field in front of the central building and the military personnel tossed them onto the ground, where they were met with the harsh ends of batons at the hands the guards and then led to cells. Before the end of the dictatorship, 2,872 citizens would spend time at the prison.
Throughout the years that the military was in power, human rights groups and former political prisoners that fled into exile highlighted the horrific treatment at the prison. Indeed, in my forthcoming book, I catalog a fact finding trip in April-May 1974 by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)—made by Niall MacDermot and Inger Fahlander. In their report, they explain that “we were also able to visit a prison (Libertad) where political suspect subject to trial are being held, but we were refused permission to visit any military barracks where interrogations are carried out.”
In the appendix to their ten-page report, they offer a detailed description of the prison. Even with the sanitized version that the military presented them, the horror of the prison comes through. At the time, there were 1,140 prisoners at Libertad alone. Of the 860 in the cell block, an entire wing was dedicated to prisoners that were in solidarity confinement that the military explained was the “hard core of the Tupamaro leaders.” In reality, those on the block were not just Tupamaros, but rather anyone that the military deemed a security threat and they could be subject to the physical and psychological torture and unpredictable sanctions meant to break the prisoners. The report noted that some under these conditions had “no reading matter, no cigarettes, no work, no exercise and no recreation. They sleep on a blanket on a concrete floor or bench. There is a lavatory in the cell.”
Handled by the military and only given the opportunity to see part of the prison, the representatives from the NGOs could report on some of the more unsavory practices. Yet, as former political prisoners were eventually released from the prison and fled into exile, they recounted a much more ominous and oppressive experience, where in the “whole system at Libertad [was] aimed at destroying the detainees’ physical and psychological balance.” Indeed, Argentine Miguel Angel Estrella, who was in Uruguay in December 1977, was forcibly taken by the Uruguayan military and eventually landed in Libertad prison. Upon his release several years later, he explained in a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the awful conditions in Libertad.
In an excerpt from the complaint, it recalls:
“The reasons for punishment at Libertad prison are endless (for example, for calling a detainee by his name instead of using the number assigned to each detainee when entering at Libertad prison; for walking without having their hands behind their back; for looking directly at a prison guard; for trying to share food or clothes with a detainee; for drawing, for writing music, for not executing an order quickly enough, for asking for too much, etc.). [Estrada] recalls that he was punished over and over again for saying "hello" with a smile to other detainees while distributing their breakfast. Punishments may consist of withholding permission to go into the open air for one or several weeks, or a ban on receiving correspondence or the suppression of visits. He further states that punishments could be entirely arbitrary. He mentions that once he had to remain in solitary confinement in a punishment cell for one month because "a group of European friends" had come to see him and the prison authorities had decided not to allow the visit. When the author had completed his 30 days' punishment, he was forced to sign a paper stating that the reason for his punishment was that he had tried to assault a guard.”
These types of accounts were told over and over again by different former prisoners and repeated in papers across the globe. Even the New York Times, published articles that explained of Libertad being a maximum security detention where the system “is pushed beyond the usual limits…in the search for every possible means of hurting prisoners.” They all offered the world a view into the brutality of Uruguayan regime that boasted the highest percentage of political prisoners in the entire world.
After the fall of the regime in 1985 and the release of the last prisoners, many wrote memoirs that explained in detail the terror of what occurred within those walls. The prison, already known during the dictatorship as an example and rallying call for activists abroad, became immortalized on the page.
Yet, movies also served to memorialize on the screen the awful conditions at Libertad. The first, The Eyes of Birds (Les Veux des Oiseaux) was released in 1983, before even the end of the dictatorship and served to raise awareness about the human rights violations taking place in Uruguay. In the film, French director Gabriel Auer reproduces the fictional account of the Red Cross visit from 1980, effectively capturing the absolute terror of those who suffered at the prison and the military’s attempt to control foreign inspections. Indeed, the title comes from the dual concepts of a prisoner being punished in solidarity confinement for trying to tame a pigeon because “Birds are forbidden [in the prison], because birds are free.” Similarly, during the rare family visitation, a prisoner’s daughter brings him a picture she drew of trees with birds, which the military confiscated for the same reason. She comes back weeks later with one without any birds but only their eyes, as evidence of a secret subversion of the military inane rules.
A more recent film is the 2018 A Twelve Year Night, directed by Álvaro Brechner. The film follows the experience of three Tuparamos’ experience of twelve years of imprisonment at the hands of the dictatorship. Meant to portray a dramatized version of José “Pepe” Mujica, Mauricio Rosencoff, and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro’s ordeal, the film clocks in at over two hours and is arresting in the brutality of the regime, including their experiences at Libertad for over a decade. Indeed, the film was in part shot at the former prison, giving viewers a realistic view of the putrid conditions that prisoners suffered in. The film is now available on Netflix and won the Golden Pyramid Award at the 40th Cairo International Film Festival, demonstrating its wide distribution.
The documentation about the prison is vast, and I sincerely hope someone writes a book one day about all the ways the prison was used both during and after the dictatorship as a rallying call for stopping the regime’s abuses, as well as a way to push for accountability. The perversity of the notorious jail being located in and called Libertad offered all too poignant a symbol. Four years ago, in 2018, a memorial was inaugurated to commemorate the terror of the penal. Now, fifty years after its initial opening, ex-presos políticos, will gather there to remember the state terror, as well as comrades who perished there under duress of the torture.
 Mario Benedetti, “Otra noción de patria, 1985.”
 William L Wipfler, “In Libertad Prison,” New York Review of Books, 19 November 1981.
 Wiplfer, “In Libertad Prison.”
 Walter Phillipps-Treby and Jorge Tiscornia, Vivir en Libertad (Montevideo: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 2003), 8.
 “Report of Mission to Uruguay,” April/May 1974, Folder 82, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
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