The room was dark, cold and dirty. Rats scurried past her naked body, climbing over her legs, trying to reach the pieces of bread scattered around her.
But she could not move or cry. Otherwise, she was told, the dogs would bite.
They had placed cold water to drip on her head and had left a pack of dogs to attack her if she tried to get up.
The days of electrocution, physical beatings and no food and water eventually tore her down.
“I was convinced I was going to die there, I even decided I was going to die there,” Rosa Mireya Cardenas recalled more than three decades later.
It was the summer of 1984 and Cardenas, on route from Panama to Nicaragua, was captured by what she believes were CIA agents at the Juan Santamaria airport in San Jose, Costa Rica. Taken to a safe house, she was physically and psychologically tortured for eight days straight.
Cardenas, a member of Alfaro Vive Carajo, a former Marxist guerilla group based in Ecuador, was grilled relentlessly by the agents over her involvement with AVC and other leftist movements in Latin America. From there, she was turned over to the Ecuadorean military, where under the regime of Leon Febres-Cordero, she endured more brutality and torture.
Now, 33 years later, the former guerilla revolutionary has been elected to South America’s Andean Parliament, winning one of the highest numbers of votes to secure her new post as legislator.
From guerilla tactics to electoral politics
But how did a militant activist stigmatized as criminal get elected to political office?
The answer lies in the original aims of AVC, as well as the start of the Citizen’s Revolution under President Rafael Correa.
In the spring of 1983, the union of students, workers, campesinos, socialists, communists and others from the revolutionary left sought to fill what they perceived as a void of political leadership, just a year before “the most repressive government in Ecuador’s history” came to power.
“(There) existed in the popular movement … scattered union struggles and guilds, local peasant movements without a national cause,” explained Cardenas, adding that even “during the insurgent struggle we never deviate(d) from a political objective.”
And it was years after the brutality of Febres-Cordero’s rule, that Correa’s government, elected in 2006, set up the Truth Commission, carving out space for AVC members and other torture victims during Ecuador’s most repressive era, to seek some semblance of justice.
CIA torture and Operation Condor
It was after first being tortured in the safe house in Costa Rica, and then by the Ecuadorean military, that Cardenas speculated that the torture tactics she endured were the same used under Operation Condor — the covert but coordinated U.S.-backed regional counterinsurgency strategy that assassinated and disappeared thousands of left-wing activists across multiple countries in the 1970s and 80s in the name of propping up right-wing dictatorships in South America and quashing the threat of communist expansion.
“Undoubtedly and with complete assurance,” Cardenas told teleSUR when asked about the ties, adding that the torture methods were the same in both Costa Rica and Ecuador, and that they fit descriptions of CIA interrogation strategies.
“After eight days, they sent me back to Ecuador, without any legal basis, and they placed me again in the hands of the Ecuador military. And here in the barracks, it was an underground building, they applied the same tactics that they used in Costa Rica — no food, no sleep, putting cold water and electrocuting me, they laughed at me, made fun of me,” she recalled.
“The agents who intervened had foreign accents,” she added, explaining that Costa Rica did not even have a military or police institution at the time, giving her more reason to believe she was tortured by CIA agents.
Indeed, the quarters where Cardenas endured physical and psychological brutality in Quito, Ecuador, was a torture lab built using a CIA manual. While Ecuador has never officially been linked to Operation Condor, evidence alarmingly suggests otherwise.
A report released in 2010 by the Truth Commission found that 68 percent of the 456 victims that endured violent human rights violations between 1984 and 2008 were brutalized under the government of Febres-Cordero, in power from 1984 to 1988. The report also found that torture and illegal detention occurred the most under his rule.
Detained for another five months in Quito and charged with illicit association, Cardenas regained her freedom in January 1985 after being declared innocent by judges.
Reviving “Alfarismo” and the Citizen’s Revolution
In her early years with AVC, Cardenas traveled from Nicaragua, where she worked alongside the Sandinista National Liberation Front, to Libya, where she received political and military training. For, indeed, AVC’s goal was to recover Alfarismo — that is, to revive the legacy of Eloy Alfaro, president of Ecuador from 1895 to 1901 and then again from 1906 to 1911, and his revolutionary spirit.
“What is Alfaro Vive’s contribution? It is precisely to piece together the image of Eloy Alfaro, to show that Alfaro’s struggle was a struggle of the people, not of the elites, to bring back these objectives which we continue to fight for,” Cardenas told teleSUR.
The group worked for years to assimilate back into civilian life, working with human rights and cultural organizations to dispel their reputation of violence that was propagated by the Febres-Cordero regime. But it was through the work of the Truth Commission that Ecuadoreans learned of the brutality its members faced at the hands of the state.
“The space created by the Truth Commission was important to integrate us into the … Citizen Revolution, which opened up large spaces for participation, mobilization and social organization through the Constituent Assembly,” explained Cardenas, referring to the process that rewrote Ecuador’s constitution in 2008.
WATCH: Reparations in Ecuador for state torture
She said the aims of AVC in 1983 were mirrored in Correa’s Citizen Revolution, the program of progressive social and economic transformation launched under the banner of 21st Century Socialism when his government took office in 2007. They were both inspired by Eloy Alfaro’s radical Liberal Revolution and interested in “democracy, social justice, economic independence, national sovereignty and Latin American unity.”
The Truth Commission denounced the crimes committed by the government of Febres-Cordero, taking into account the testimonies of victims and their family. After it was created in May 2007, AVC members, alongside other victims, were given a space in the government’s Support Committee. Over the years, they have poured over confidential state files from that period.
Since then, a reparation process has seen been set up for the victims of Febres-Cordero’s government, consisting of “the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, the dignification of memory and possible economic compensation”, explained Cardenas.
Claiming a struggle against history
In the Andean Parliament now as a member of Alianza Pais, Correa’s left party, Cardenas will be working to promote gender equality, fair trade and the work of social organizations, among other initiatives.
But with Ecuador’s second round of presidential elections slated to take place April 2, the country stands at a critical crossroads. South America’s leftist resurgence — commonly referred to as the Pink Tide — has seen recent blows, with neoliberal governments in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil rolling back progressive gains of recent years. If neoliberal, right-wing former banker Guillermo Lasso is elected as president, Ecuador would be set to course through that same trajectory.
Cardenas, and others who are part of the anti-imperialist left, hope that Ecuador will stay on its left-wing path of the past decade.
For her one message now is to never “repeat the history of the period when violence was established as a state policy.”
That, she said, is “beyond the legitimate desire for justice … not only to heal, but to claim a struggle against history.”