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Forty-Two Years Ago

42 years ago, on July 30, 1971, 38 political prisoners escaped from Cabildo prison in Montevideo, Uruguay. The fugitives belonged to Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Tupamaros (MLN-T), a radical leftist group. After a sophisticated plan called “Operación Estrella”, these women managed to escape through a tunnel and the city’s sewers.

The journalist Leonel Martinez narrates “Escape from Cabildo”, the story of his mother, Gricelda Borges Saraiva.

Gricelda recalls the moments before the escape. While her companions were digging the tunnel that would get them out, she and other women sang and laughed louder than normal to cover the noise. But those were not joyous times for Uruguay. The government of Jorge Pacheco was authoritarian. It persecuted leftist parties and any political opposition, manipulated media and forcefully repressed social upheavals. As a result, the numbers of left-leaning prisoners increased, especially in two places: Punta Carretas and Cabildo.

This was not the first escape attempt at Cabildo women’s prison. A year ago, thirteen political prisoners had escaped after mass, through the church’s door. But this time 38 women were willing to take the risk, gaining their freedom at a very high price: a clandestine life. Outside, MLN leaders thought the details and ways to communicate with their partners.

Through an intelligent system of numbers rolled in cigarette papers and pills they established a language that could only be deciphered with a book of Don Quijote. They also performed a close study of the neighborhood’s sewers inspired by “Mila 18″, a novel about Jewish resistance in Warsaw.

The fugitives quietly got ready, in a tense atmosphere. They were ordered to wear pants, a hat or a handkerchief, a skirt tied at the waist and lace-up shoes in order to move faster and avoid delays. In a couple of hours, 38 women had left prison to a neighboring house where they changed clothes and were divided into small groups.

Gricelda Borges was lucky and did not return to prison as most of her colleagues of “Operación Estrella”. However, frightened by the government prosecution she had to change her identity more than once and leave her country for almost ten years.

A few months later, on September 6 1971, more than a hundred men in Punta Carretas prison planned an escape which they called “Operación Abuso”. Among them were some of MLN’s top leaders. Again, they used an elaborate system of tunnels that led many to freedom. One of the fugitives from Punta Carretas is the current president of Uruguay, Jose “Pepe” Mujica.

For more information on the story behind Cabildo and Punta Carretas prison breaks visit these pages:

La fuga de Punta Carretas, una epopeya, Página/12
La carcel del pueblo, YouTube
1971-2011: La fuga de la cárcel de Punto Carretea, 40 años de historia, Colectivo Ex Presos Pol.Y Sobrevivientes
La fuga de La Estrella, Portal 180
Sobre medios y dictaduras, La Jornada
Tupamaros: La fuga de Punta Carretas, YouTube

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