‘A rose and a thousand soldiers’: a first-person account of the network of girls who were held as sex slaves during Paraguay’s dictatorship

Julia Ozorio was 13-years-old when she was kidnapped by soldiers. “The first night was horrible,” the victim recalls. During the regime of Alfredo Stroessner, there were at least 12 illegal detention centers where kidnapped girls were raped

Julia Ozorio Gamecho en su casa en Asunción, en 2016.
Julia Ozorio Gamecho, in her house in Asunción, Paraguay, circa 2016.

A rough-skinned dwarf – who has a penis that wraps around his body several times – is the protagonist of a popular Paraguayan myth. Known as kurupí, he lives in the depths of the jungle. His favorite activity is to invade houses and rape virgin girls during siesta hours.

This myth became the last resort of families, who wanted to scare their daughters to keep them inside during the longest dictatorship in South American history. Few knew then how real the danger was. According to a recent investigation by journalist Andrés Colmán, there were at least twelve detention centers where kidnapped girls were sexually enslaved by dictator Alfredo Stroessner and his relatives.

Julia Ozorio Gamecho was 13-years-old when she was kidnapped. It was February 4, 1968 – a Sunday in Nueva Italia, a tiny town in the Paraguayan countryside that has about 3,000 inhabitants today. General Stroessner had been in power for 14 years when “a fat, pot bellied man” arrived at Julia’s house with two soldiers. They pointed their rifles at her sisters, her and her mother.

The man first looked at Julia’s 16 and 17-year-old sisters, before settling on her. “I’ll take this little one with me,” he told her mother, before putting the girl in a car. Julia didn’t say another word until he locked her up in a house in San Lorenzo, a city near Asunción.

“The first night was horrible. There are no human words that can express my pain that night,” Ozorio recalls in her book, A Rose and a Thousand Soldiers, published in 2008 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She moved there to learn how to live again; she found work cleaning houses and taking care of children, after surviving two years of imprisonment and rape.

“The Wolf, full of food and drunk, continued snoring in his bed. I slept on the floor. I could hardly sleep because of the pain,” she writes in the book. The first print run has sold out, but she doesn’t want to publish her story again, due to all the threats she has received.

Colonel Pedro Julián Miers was the man who kidnapped her. He was in charge of the dictator’s security and also of the network of “harems,” where the regime kept the enslaved girls that Stroessner and his allies tortured throughout the country. Julia was to be handed over to the dictator, but Miers decided to keep her for himself. She lived locked up in a cell for two years, with hardly any food, subject to the abuse of the soldiers who guarded her. Once, the colonel dressed her up and showed her off in public.

The girl hunters

“The girl hunters were soldiers of lesser rank – captains, lieutenants – who spent their time looking at girls, deciding who they were going to kidnap that day, to please the president. In exchange for handing over a virgin girl, [they would be rewarded],” Ozorio notes.

Today, Ozorio is 68-years-old. She has no desire to return to Paraguay. “I spent 40 years crying. And then I got my memory back. Those kidnappers and murderers died like little angels while I was cleaning floors here,” she says. “I don’t want to leave this world without telling people that there were two Spanish girls. I want you to look for them: they were two little Spanish girls. They were drugged, they asked me for help, but how was I going to save them? I would like them to find them, I can [help to identify them],” she claims. Her dream was always to create a shelter for abused girls. She says that she knows there are many more out there.

Rogelio Goiburú – director of reparations and historical memory at Paraguay’s Ministry of Justice – explains that, at the end of the 1960s, Paraguay had two million inhabitants and the control exercised by the Colorado Party over the population was almost total. “There were spies, military and police everywhere. The population was one of the most impoverished in the world – they lived without freedom of expression, nor of movement, nor of religion or political association. Being accused of being a communist by anyone could land you in prison without trial. Torture was the usual treatment for any detainee.”

The jails were filled with innocent opponents. The rivers, meanwhile, were filled with corpses; families cried for the disappeared. This was from the same script that was playing out under the dictatorships of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay. In fact, these regimes worked together on the notorious Operation Condor.

In his book, The general’s orgies, journalist Andrés Colmán chronicles the history of girls who became the sexual victims of the Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989). This work was recently presented at the Asunción Book Fair. He explains that this reality remained semi-hidden for a long time “because witnesses and neighbors maintained a complicit silence about this perverse criminal orgy.” There are women who have offered their testimony to the Truth and Justice Commission of Paraguay, but they have asked to remain anonymous, such as those who appear in the documentary Street of Silence, by José Elizeche. Julia Ozorio is the only victim who has provided both her first and last names to the public.

“I saw the lifeless bodies of three girls”

In 1975, Malena Ashwell and her husband – a lieutenant in the Paraguayan Navy – were having lunch at the home of one of his superiors in Sajonia, a neighborhood in Asunción. Malena heard noises during the meal: she went out into the street and saw that the neighbors were crowding in front of a nearby house. She entered the courtyard.

“I was horrified to see the lifeless bodies of three girls… two of them were about eight-years-old, the other was nine. [They were all] lying naked on a pile of sand behind the house,” Ashwell would later recount in an interview published in The Washington Post, on December 20, 1977. It was the first publication that openly denounced the drug-trafficking network that involved high-ranking Paraguayan military leaders… and Stroessner himself.

This was the first time it was published… but certainly not the first time it was tried. Before the aforementioned incident, for having reported on this network, Ashwell had been kidnapped by Paraguayan police officers in retaliation. She was tortured and raped.

They also kidnapped Miguel Ángel Soler – then-secretary of the Communist Party – for attempting to publish the story in Adelante (“Forward”), the party’s magazine.

Colmán notes that the house in Sajonia was managed by Colonel Leopoldo Perrier – better known as “Popol” – a close friend of the dictator who led his kidnapping and sexual exploitation network. There are many testimonies that certify that Stroessner regularly visited the house.

Colmán’s book includes more testimonies of rapes that were presented to the Truth and Justice Commission, in a documentation of the crimes against humanity committed by those who oversaw the regime. One incident discussed took place in 1980, when hundreds of soldiers invaded the small town of Costa Rosado, looking for a leader of the Christian Agrarian Leagues, or groups of cooperative farmers. Since they couldn’t find him, they locked up the town’s girls and boys in a school. They accused them and their parents of being communists. They tortured them with drowning techniques. Girls between the ages of 10 and 12 were raped in the school’s bathroom.

A legacy of sexual abuse that persists

“In Paraguay, women are not treated as they should be. I know that [this treatment occurs] everywhere… but before and until now, [Paraguay] uses them as rags. It’s because of [Stroessner] and the culture that allows the male to do whatever he wants,” Julia Ozorio laments.

Paraguay is the country with the highest proportion of adolescent pregnancies in South America. 72 of ever 1,000 births are to women between the ages of 15 and 19. There is no comprehensive sexual education in public schools, while the word gender is prohibited and eliminated from textbooks… and even from the recent law that recognizes femicide.

Juan Carlos Ozorio – a former member of Congress from the ruling Colorado Party – resigned from his seat last year, when he was denounced in the largest anti-narcotics and money-laundering operation in recent Paraguayan history. The deputy also had an open case for the alleged abuse of a nine-year-old girl… but that wasn’t why he resigned. And, in the ranks of the opposition Coalition for a New Paraguay, a regional councillor – Luis Fernando Ramos Amarilla – was denounced for sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl. The investigation has been stalled in the courts for two years, while Ramos Amarilla was elected this past April 30. Now, the victim’s family fears that the case will definitely go unpunished.

Senator Rafael Esquivel received the third-highest number of votes of any senator in the elections this past April, despite having been prosecuted and imprisoned for the sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl and for another crime against a 15-year-old girl. The Coordinación de Mujeres del Paraguay – a network of feminist organizations – organized marches against Esquivel before the elections. This coalition is now trying to prevent him from being allowed to take his seat in the Senate.

Every year in Paraguay, about 2,000 reports of sexual abuse against children and adolescents are filed. Around 80% of them occur within the family, with parents, grandparents, uncles or stepparents being the abusers, according to official data. This is around the same number of girls that the dictator sexually enslaved, according to the calculations of Goiburú and his department of historical memory.

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