Someone researching terrorism might be expected to keep a low profile, but Tom Wright interviewed numerous individuals with questionable connections and attended many public demonstrations in the course of writing State Terrorism in Latin America: Chile, Argentina, and International Human Rights.
His thorough scholarship has earned him the highest award given by the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies, an organization that, despite the geographic narrowness of its name, draws scholars from across the continent.
The recently named UNLV Distinguished Professor describes State Terrorism as the natural outgrowth of his earlier work on Latin America. "I've researched and written primarily about 20th-century political history, so one project normally connects in some way to the next," he says.
However, State Terrorism has a particular connection to his 1998 book, Flight from Chile: Voices of Exile. Many of the people Wright interviewed for it had been jailed and tortured prior to leaving Chile.
"Most had lost friends, family members, or fellow party or union members to the repression," he remembers. "So I learned that exile was just the tip of the iceberg, and I began to contemplate a book on state terrorism and human rights."
His determination to write the book was reinforced by a visit in 2000 to a San Salvador museum where six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter had been maimed and killed by a government-sponsored death squad in the 1980s.
"Seeing this piece of state terrorism in the other geographic extreme of Latin America strengthened my resolve to do a book on that topic," he says. "Originally I imagined comparing the four worst cases -- Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador -- but decided the first two were too different from the second two and the book would be too superficial."
For State Terrorism, Wright's interviews ranged from Madrid to Buenos Aires.
Among the Madrid interviewees was Carlos Slepoy, a man at the forefront of Argentine exile activity in Spain. At the 2001 interview Wright noticed that Slepoy walked with a pronounced limp and used a cane. He later learned that Slepoy had been shot and maimed by the repressors on a Buenos Aires street, but still had managed to escape and eventually go into exile.
Wright says one of the most interesting demonstrations he attended was in 2002 in Buenos Aires by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the most emblematic human rights group in Argentina. Mothers had gathered in the plaza in front of the presidential palace in 1977 to petition for information about their children who had disappeared. They adopted diaperinspired scarves as their symbol and continued to press the government for answers.
By 2002, the mothers were aging and wanted to pass the torch to the next generation in a newer human rights organization, Children for Identity and Justice and against Forgetting and Silence (HIJOS). Wright witnessed the ceremonial taking off of the scarves and tying them around the necks of the younger activists who are children (hijos in Spanish) of disappeared parents. He also talked with a number of parents whose children had disappeared. "I couldn't believe their courage," he says.
Wright became intrigued by Latin America when, as an undergraduate at Pomona College in the early 1960s, he spent his junior year in Peru. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of California, Berkeley in the subject before joining UNLV faculty in 1972, following in the footsteps of his father, history professor John Wright, for whom Wright Hall is named. He previously served as history department chair as well as dean of the former College of Arts and Letters.
The historian has written three other books, numerous articles, book chapters and entries in encyclopedias about Latin America, as well as a local history, The Peoples of Las Vegas: One City Many Faces, co-edited with political science professor Jerry Simich. A sequel covering additional ethnic groups is with a publisher.