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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sara Reales admits she wasn't sure how visitors to an exhibit on Anne Frank would react to having security and police cadets as guides.
After all, noted Reales, a 20-year-old from the outskirts of Buenos Aires, police had caused great suffering in Argentine history, and still are sometimes implicated in abuses.
"I saw people's faces when they saw us at the exhibition - they were disoriented," said Reales, one of 28 cadets who served as guides to an exhibit titled "Anne Frank: A History for Today" in the main hall of the AMIA Jewish center, the capital's central Jewish institution. "But we explained it was a specific program, and they let us lead them through the World War II and Argentine dictatorship government histories."
The cadets from the Air and Port Security Police, Argentine Federal Police, Naval Command and National Gendarmerie also guided visitors through an exhibit titled "From Dictatorship to Democracy: The Validity of Human Rights 1976-2006."
With Argentina trying to build confidence in its security forces, the program was part of the Police Training in Public Security and Human Rights Project being carried out by the National Interior Security Council. The Anne Frank exhibit, which drew hundreds of vistors over 10 days in April, was developed by the council and the Anne Frank Foundation.
The guides - most of whom had little or no previous contact with Jews or Judaism, knew nothing of Anne Frank and were visiting a Jewish institution for the first time - trained for three days for their roles, watching videos and attending lessons on Nazi history.
They also received visits from two Holocaust survivors, as well as the father of a victim in the 1994 terrorist bombing of the AMIA center. The blast killed 85 people and wounded 300. The case has not been solved.
"I became emotional when I heard the Holocaust survivors and AMIA bombing victim's father," Reales, a third-year Naval Command student, told JTA.
Hector Shalom, the Anne Frank Foundation's local representative, said he saw some of the trainees crying.
"It was very educational for them," he said.
Violence and anti-Semitism plagued the Argentine security forces during the last military dictatorship, from March 1976 to December 1983. Security forces abducted and tortured thousands of people, with some 30,000 people "disappearing." Some managed to return alive from the ordeal but many were never seen again, while other bodies came back as corpses.
Jews who were kidnapped were subjected to even greater torture than other Argentines because of their religion. Some 1,900 Jews, about 6.3 percent of the country's Jewish population, are believed to have "disappeared" under the dictatorship.
Even with the return of democracy, violence has continued.
The nongovernmental Center for Legal and Social Studies (www.cels.org.ar) said that from 1996 to 2005, 2,585 people died in Buenos Aires and its outskirts in violence perpetrated by police and security officials. The dead included 640 police or security officers.
Police officers from Buenos Aires Province were charged with abetting the AMIA bombing, but were acquitted in a trial that was seen as political and biased.
Discrimination against Jews in the security forces remains today, Hector Masquelet, executive secretary of the National Internal Security Council, told JTA.
"It's quite a big transformation to have police security forces working with human-rights organizations to eliminate prejudice," Shalom said.
On April 30, the cadets received diplomas for their efforts as guides.
"This was a very symbolic event," Masquelet said at the ceremony. "We live with a contradiction: People want more police, but also look down on them."
At the ceremony, AMIA President Luis Grynwald stressed "the importance of study and education for these cadets, who might be heads of their forces in 20 years."
Reales was among the cadets with no previous connection to Jews.
"It was the first time I was in touch with Judaism and with Jewish people. I felt it's really a strong community," she said.
Reales' family and friends came to AMIA from her neighborhood - more than 100 miles away - to see the Anne Frank exhibition.
"All my schoolmates are asking if the exhibition is going on next year because they want to be guides too," she said.
As for the Argentine police forces, she said, "We need to show a change, so society can start to trust us."