The Case That Changed
the Face of Human Rights

Georgetown University Press
 Washington, D.C.


Breaking Silence, The Case That Changed The Face of Human Rights, by Richard Alan White,  (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press,  2004), 320 pp.

  "Breaking Silence reads like a novel, the kind that is difficult to put down because it is well written and kindles the hope of freedom...."—Human Rights Quarterly.

"…a true story by an historian who witnessed the development of the landmark case from its tragic beginning to triumphant ending; and a book that puts the human into the study of human rights."
                                                            —Richard Pierre Claude, founding editor of Human Rights Quarterly and professor emeritus of government and politics, University of Maryland.

“Ultimately, this important book shows that anything can happen when you combine the power of law and the power of people.  It is a must read…”—Katie Redford, codirector of EarthRights International.


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Dr. Joel Filartiga and I met through our mutual friend Roberto Thomson, the editor of ABC Color, Paraguay’s largest newspaper. Roberto had agreed to publish an article of mine about the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay, in four consecutive Sunday Supplements. After reading the first installment, Filartiga stopped by the office in Asuncion to check out the rest of the essay. And, in a burst of generosity and creativity, on the spot he drew pen and ink drawings for the remaining three episodes.

        But it was not until two years later that I first saw Filartigas artistic contributions, when in 1975 I returned to Paraguay to continue my dissertation research on Dr. Francia, the controversial George Washington figure of Paraguayan independence. Through our long discussions of world events, Paraguayan politics and history, Joel and I discovered a shared philosophy of life and grew to become close friends. He drew illustrations for each chapter of my book, graphically capturing their central themes. At his rural clinic in Ybycui, I came to admire his philanthropic work with the peasants. There I grew to love the whole Filartiga family, and developed an independent friendship with Joelito, Joel’s sixteen year old son.

        During this time, we set into motion plans for Filartiga to come to UCLA, to show his art and draw attention to conditions in Paraguay. Joel’s January 1976 trip was a great success, his speeches and exhibitions expanding to other institutions throughout southern California.

        Just six weeks after Filartiga’s return to Paraguay, Joelito was tortured to death by the police of General Alfredo Stroessner. By then, I had received my Ph.D. degree in Latin American history from UCLA and was preparing to return to Paraguay as an Organization of American States post doctoral fellow to conduct further historical research.

        At the behest of my friends, I arrived in Paraguay to live in the Filartigas’ home. For the next seven months I shared their terror, agonies and degradation. As a trained historian, I happened to be on the scene before, during and after what turned out to be an historical event. As Dr. Filartiga years later ironically observed: “It was almost like you won the lottery--backwards.” It is only because of these improbable circumstances that it has been possible to write Breaking Silence from the vantage point of a participant-observer.

        Following Joelito’s murder, the Filartigas did not buckle under to the fear and misdirected shame that is characteristic of human rights victims, not unlike those of child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Contrary to the reasonable expectations of the dictatorship, they refused to go along with the official cover up and discreetly bury Joelito. Instead, breaking the silence of human rights victims, the Filartigas did everything in their power to reveal the truth.

        Upon arriving in Paraguay in 1976, I joined the Filartigas in their cause, tapping into the network of media, political and other influential people I had built as a graduate student researching my doctoral dissertation in Paraguay. My semi-official status at the U.S. Embassy as a Fulbright-Hays scholar had accorded me wide ranging access, both within the American community as well as among Paraguayan intellectuals and politicians.

        Also, my historical work on Dr. Francia attracted quite a bit of attention. The Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas Dr. José Gaspar de Francia gave me the honor of becoming its only non-Paraguayan member. Even before I had completed the final version of Paraguay’s Autonomous Revolution 1810-1840, it had been translated and published in three lengthy installments in Estudios Paraguayos, the academic journal of the Catholic University. Its first Spanish edition came out a few months later.

        Because of this I was regularly invited to give newspaper interviews and lectures on Paraguayan history. The public exposure created the opportunity to form personal relationships with a number of influential people, some of whom later greatly contributed to the Filartigas’ struggle; from Congressman Domingo Laino, the leader of Paraguay’s largest opposition political party, to Colonel Robert LaSala, the disaffected Green Beret Vietnam veteran serving as a U.S. military advisor to the Paraguayan Army.

        As I helped investigate the murky circumstances of Joelito’s death, I began collecting primary and secondary source materials on the Caso Filartiga, an undertaking I continued after returning to the States, throughout the following years of organizing, and again later during the late 1980’s and 1990’s as I conducted the research for Breaking Silence.

        Over these years I maintained contact with the Filártigas, and worked with human rights activists and Non Governmental Organizations supporting the family’s pursuit of justice in Paraguay and the United States. Along the way I conducted scores of interviews and follow-ups with the principals, amounting to well over one hundred hours of taped recordings. All were transcribed, and when necessary translated into English. This material was then catalogued, according to subject matter, and transferred onto computerized note cards. Finally, the information was printed onto thousands of cross-referenced note cards.

        Other primary source information integrated into this data base includes private correspondence, diaries, journals, and contemporary chronicles of events, both written and tape recorded; documentation from various human rights, legal advocacy and Latin American support organizations; internal documents from the files of the Anti-Smuggling Unit of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; previously classified U.S. Department of State cables, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act; Congressional letters of support and inquiry to the Government of Paraguay, the INS, the Department of State, and the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Paraguay; as well as official court documents and trial transcripts from the legal proceedings in both Paraguay and the United States.

        This archive will become publicly accessible in a university law library or other appropriate institution, as well as the Paraguayan Archivos de Horror, as the formerly secret records of General Stroessner’s police state have come to be known.

        The Breaking Silence research archive amounts to some 12,000 pages of documentation, from which 87 Thematic Chronologies were compiled and, in turn, distilled into a 178 page Master Chronology.

        In citations from secondary sources--such as newspaper and magazine articles--I have used exact quotations for all references.

        In writing the dialogue I have employed primary sources, relying upon the recorded interviews or contemporary records of at least one of the participants, and as often as possible used their exact words.

        Because a tape recorder was not running at all times, the dialogues are necessarily neither literal nor precise verbatim exchanges, but rather substantively reliable reconstructions.

        In a few cases I have disguised the identities of people who--even today--could be harmed should their participation become known, by changing names and other identifying facts; and to this end, in one instance I melded two people into a composite character.

        By the methodological standard of the professional historian, Breaking Silence is an unusual documentary presentation. I feel secure characterizing it as a work of dramatic nonfiction.

        The personal, moral, political and legal significance of Breaking Silence should be gauged from the point of view of the Filartiga family’s tragedy, as it grew from yet another routine torture murder by a tin horn dictator in the middle of South America to acquire the landmark status of U.S. legal precedent, and from which hundreds of torture survivors have benefited. The overall historical integrity of this saga should be judged from the perspective of a painstakingly documented account of  that family’s defiance to oppression, resulting in what Dr. Filartiga calls, “a touch of justice.”

 ©2004 Richard A. White