Mothers united by pain of loss -- Argentine protest group inspires
New Yorkers in push for changes in strict narcotics crime penalties

By ELIZABETH BENJAMIN, Capitol bureau, Albany Times-Union
First published: Thursday, April 15, 2004
Tati Almeida knows all too well the pain of always wondering about the fate of someone you love. Her 20-year-old son, Alejandro, a student activist, disappeared in 1975 at the hands of the Argentine military. She hasn't seen him since.Norma Arenas, 77, knows where her son Miguel is -- serving his 12th year of a 15-year-to-life sentence in a state prison for selling two ounces of cocaine. But Norma Arenas' health is failing; she has diabetes and a heart condition. Friends worry she won't live to see Miguel, 40, released from prison.
The situations of Tati Almeida, 73, and Norma Arenas seem unrelated. But to Almeida, one of four Argentine women who traveled to Albany Tuesday to lobby state leaders on behalf of mothers who have "lost" children to prison under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the connection is clear. "Their struggle is a struggle for life," translator Alexandra Tejeda explained of Tati and her fellow Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who have demonstrated every Thursday for 28 years in Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo, bearing photos of their lost relatives and demanding to know what happened to them.

"Their children are disappeared permanently, physically, but they can relate to the pain of the mothers in New York," Tejeda said. The persistent activism of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo helped topple the Argentine military dictatorship. But the madres have not stopped their demonstrations. And what began as something very personal has become a movement.

"At first, we were desperate because of the disappearance of our children, but that changed into an active resistance, which transformed us into an organization of human rights," Enriquetta Maroni, 77, explained through Tejeda. "We believe the Rockefeller Drug Laws violate the rights of the people that are affected by them, that's why we're here." A group known as the Mothers of the New York Disappeared, made up of former drug offenders and relatives of offenders serving time under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, was inspired by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The 1973 laws mandate long to life sentences for selling or possessing relatively small amounts of narcotics.

The Argentine madres and several of the New York mothers met Monday with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who professed support for a series of hearings on Rockefeller Drug Law reform, held by the state Senate Democrats, which will begin next Wednesday in Albany. The New York State District Attorneys Association has opposed reform that would return sentencing discretion to judges and lessen sentences for anyone at or below the level of a B felony.

On Tuesday, the madres met with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose Democrat-dominated chamber re-approved the drug law reform bill it passed last year. The madres later returned to New York City, where they were scheduled to meet with state Director of Criminal Justice Services Chauncey Parker. Silver said the Assembly Democrats' bill returns some discretion to judges and allows drug treatment rather than prison for first-time nonviolent offenders. He added, "This separates our meaningful reform from anything else that has been proposed."

The Republican-controlled Senate has not yet taken up the issue of drug law reform. But last year, it passed a bill proposed by Gov. George Pataki that would eradicate life sentences for the highest-level, or Class A, drug offenders, but did not address B-level offenders, who make up the bulk of those in prison on drug charges. Bruno spokesman John McArdle said the Senate will again pass Pataki's legislation this year. He called on the Assembly to do the same, which the Pataki administration says would result in the immediate release of roughly 400 drug offenders -- some of whom are related to the Mothers of the New York Disappeared.

Silver on Tuesday said he's worried about "giving a sound bite of reform, which is no reform at all, and then we will never revisit the real issue." But Randy Credico, spokesman for the Mothers of the New York Disappeared, disagreed."If we could just get something done incrementally, we would be happy," he said. "We've been waiting 27 years."