Death Threats in Uruguay

'Your safety always comes first'

I have conducted field research in South America since I was a PhD student at the London School of Economics (2005-2010). I have regularly spent several weeks in Argentina and Uruguay each year since 2007. Colleagues and friends there were so used to me travelling there for fieldwork that, as soon as I told them I was planning my next trip, they would start organising interviews for me!

So, when I embarked in 2016 on my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, which included 24 months conducting extensive field research in Uruguay, I felt I was going back to a place that I knew pretty well. Before arriving to Montevideo, I felt I had a reasonable safety plan in place. I had completed a risk-assessment that had been authorised by the University. I had conducted field research on a related topic and I had already identified the interviewees I wanted to speak to, and the archives to consult. I spoke Spanish like a native, having lived in Argentina for two years prior to moving to Uruguay. Moreover, I had been to the country plenty of times before and I had a wide network of friends there I could count on. Further, I was officially affiliated with the local university in Montevideo, working under the supervision of a local professor, so I was well inter-twined with the local community. Finally, Uruguay is generally considered as one of South America’s safest countries to visit.

But it turned out that only applies to holiday-makers, not researchers working on human rights!

Despite all of these precautions and the risk-assessment conducted, some unforeseen events deeply connected to the topic of my research -- accountability for state terror in 1970s’ South America -- meant that things suddenly changed and what had seemed a safe environment for me turned into exactly the opposite.

Just six months into my 24-month stay in Uruguay, a previously unknown extremist group – called Barneix Commando – taking its name after a dead Uruguayan General, Pedro Barneix, who had killed himself in 2015 upon being indicted for human rights violations committed during Uruguay’s dictatorship (1973-1985), sent death threats via email to a group of 13 individuals, including myself. The people threatened also included Uruguay’s Public Prosecutor, the Minister of Defence, and several human rights lawyers; I was one of the three foreigners in this group.   

By a stroke of luck, I had travelled to nearby Argentina for a short holiday, when a friend told me about the threats after she heard the news on national tv. Thus, fortunately, my safety was never at immediate risk but the ensuing consequences of the death threats profoundly affected not only the smooth running and progress of the research project, but also my emotional wellbeing. Uruguay was no longer the safe place where I had planned to spend 24 months, since a direct and specific threat to myself existed, which rendered my permanence in the country for another 18 months too dangerous.

In close collaboration with colleagues in the University, who supported me during these difficult times, we were able to ensure my personal security, by having my project and myself relocate to nearby Argentina (before eventually returning to Oxford), and also make sure that I could resume the research, under a revised format while still complying with the original project objectives.

After this experience, I would like to share some lessons learnt that can hopefully be of help to students and researchers embarking on future field research:

  • Things can and do go wrong. This can happen even when you travel to your own country or a country you know well. So never underestimate the place you will be going to and be as objective as you can in the risk-assessment process. Try to go through all the possible scenarios in your mind.
  • Can your research put you at risk? Naively, I never imagined that my research project could “turn against in me” and directly jeopardise my physical integrity. This does not mean you have to give up on your project, but do consider whether your research area is politically or socially risky or sensitive, and whether this can trigger unwanted consequences, which you may need to prepare for in advance.
  • Your safety always comes first. I found it very hard to let go of my original research project, for which I had fundraised for years. I was angry with the Commando that threatened me for taking the project away from me. I now appreciate that projects can change and be modified, as long as you are physically safe and secure. You cannot be replaced if something happens to you!
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help. The University has a network of colleagues and specialists, including safety experts and counsellors, that you can rely on. It is okay to ask for help when things suddenly fall apart and these colleagues are well trained to assist you in figuring out the best solution to what is happening. Being on the other side of the planet from Oxford trying to juggle a scary and unplanned crisis will make you feel lonely: but modern technology means that help and support are just a phone or Zoom call away these days!


Dr Francesca Lessa

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow (2016-2019)

Latin American Centre