Nancy Scheper-Hughes
University of California, Berkeley
West Building Room 337
(609) 734-8266

The Ghosts of Montes de Oca: From Moral Therapy to Moral Collapse at the National Mental Colony, Argentina

The world knows about Argentina’s 30,000 desaparecedos, those ordinary people from all walks of life who were kidnapped, tortured, murdered and "disappeared" during the military dictatorship (1976-1983) known as the "El Proceso" to its supporters and as the "Dirty War" to its victims. But the history of missing patients from the Colonia Montes de Oca, Argentina’s national asylum for the "mentally deficients" (including officially unknown persons, NNs) has never been thoroughly researched or documented. Founded in the early 20th century with the utopian premise of removing the nation’s mentally impaired to the serene and salutary countryside, by the 1970s the progressive model of moral therapy gave way to moral collapse and to an epoch of malignant neglect, medical abuse, medical experimentation and bio-theft of the helpless "depositos." Based on two ethnographic exploratory and documentary field trips in 2000, 2001, followed by an official invitational visit by the Argentine Ministry of Health, in 2008 to review and discuss my preliminary report, and to observe a reform that was officially initiated in 2007, I am writing a book length monograph analyzing the cultural, political, ideological, and bio-psychiatric forces that created and maintained an institution in which it was easy enough for any of the patients to flee, to sicken and to die. I argue that tucked inside the cultural politics of the Argentine "dirty war" was a "petite war," an "invisible genocide" against the population of socially abandoned mental deficients. I explain how this situation came about in a country known as one of the most psychologically sophisticated in the world.