Reconciliation and Retribution in Argentina

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 6 2012

Jorge Luis Borges described the Falklands conflict as “two bald men fighting over a comb”. Thirty years later it is still not over, and there is oil to fight for. One positive outcome of the Falklands conflict was that the Argentinean military junta displayed its incompetence and was ousted. One of the junta’s reasons for invading the Falklands was to divert public attention from Argentina’s poor economic performance and growing internal opposition to the junta’s repression.

The Guerra Sucia, Dirty War, was a period of state terrorism that had been going on since 1976 (although some argue that it started in 1973 with targeted assassinations of trade unionists; individual cases can be traced back to the bombing of the Plaza de Mayo in 1955). Human rights organizations dislike the term ‘Dirty War’, as it implies justification for the regime’s crimes through a state of war. The guerrillas did not pose a significant threat to the State.  They had not taken control of any part of the national territory; they were not supported by any foreign power, and they lacked popular support. The repression affected everyone, not just active opponents of the regime.


The state terrorists were supported by foreign powers. On March 27, 1976, the IMF released a $127 million credit for the military junta. The paramilitary death squads directly reported to General Galtieri. In March 1981, Galtieri was warmly received in the US. National Security Advisor Richard V Allen described him as a “majestic general”. His support for the Nicaraguan contras, and participation in Chile’s Operation Condor against left-wing subversives, allowed Galtieri US support in removing rival generals and, in December 1981, a coup won him the Presidency.


The junta’s first leader, General Jorge Rafael Videla, defined a “terrorist” as “not only someone who plants bombs but a person whose ideas are contrary to Western, Christian civilization.” The junta’s security forces exceeded even that broad mandate when defining dissidents. If they captured pregnant women or children, they placed the children with new families – often with families, who had been involved in the murder and torture of the parents. Sometimes the women became pregnant after being raped by their captors. The children of subversives were seen, author Marguerite Feitlowitz explained, as “seeds of the tree of evil.” Perhaps through adoption, those seeds could be replanted in healthy soil.


Francisco Goldman in the March 19 issue of the New Yorker discusses in detail the case of Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera, who were adopted by Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the widow of Roberto Noble, the founder of Argentina’s Clarín media empire.

The dictators used Clandestine Detention Centres to incarcerate the “disappeared”. Most were eventually murdered and their bodies were buried in unmarked graves, incinerated or dumped in the sea from helicopters. Many of the captives were heavily drugged and taken over the Atlantic Ocean, into which they were thrown alive (unlike bin Laden), with heavy weights on their feet.  An Argentinean animal rights activist told me a couple of years ago: “Do not believe all you read, many but many people rather lived in that Argentina than what we have today, and I have the same feeling. Ninety eight percent of the people who disappeared were involved in some obscure thing, most of them were freedom fighters, if you know what I mean… There were some horrible things, but there always are horrible things in a war and that was a war against terrorism. I do remember all this, I am 42 years old, and I spent most of my childhood and adolescence under the military government, and I never felt the fear I feel today that you cannot even go out without thinking if you’ll get back in one piece or will be robbed, shot or raped.”

Terence Roehrig agrees with her, estimating that of the disappeared “at least 10,000 were involved in various ways with the guerrillas”. The Montoneros admitted that 5,000 of its guerrillas were killed, and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP admitted the loss of 5,000 of their armed fighters.

Shortly after his inauguration in 1983, civilian president Raúl Alfonsín created CONADEP, Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. The commission published its findings in the Nunca Más (Never Again) report. CONADEP recorded the forced disappearance of about 9,000 persons from 1976 to 1983. Estimates by human rights organizations usually claim 30,000. The report contains descriptions of individual cases of people being tortured or killed.

Elin Skaar, Senior Researcher and head of the Transitional Justice Research Programme at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway, has written a book, Retributive Justice: The Politics of Prosecution, on the role of courts and other institutional machinery in shaping “trajectories of post-transitional justice”. She argues that in Argentina judicial independence played a key role. In 1985, nine junta members were prosecuted and convicted. It was the first action against a former dictatorship since the Nuremberg trials and the first to be conducted by a civilian court. It largely succeeded in proving the crimes of the junta.

Less publicity was given to the fact that President Carlos Menem released the accused in 1989. In 2003, President Néstor Kirchner obtained a Supreme Court ruling permitting extraditions; a 2005 ruling declared that the 1986 and 1987 laws shielding those accused from prosecution were unconstitutional. Despite delays and ongoing threats against witnesses, over 600 hitherto immune defendants faced criminal proceedings by 2010. A total of 677 affidavits concerning civilians and servicemen killed in leftist terrorist acts were also filed.

Two former Argentine dictators appeared in court last March on charges of kidnapping hundreds of babies seized from political prisoners. The trial has focused on the fate of at least 34 children who were born to mothers being held in the two main prisons used during military rule, the Naval Mechanics School, and the Campo de Mayo military base.
Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, alongside six other former military officers, and Dr. Jorge Luis Magnasco, who attended many of the births, are involved in the case. Videla, now 85, was one of those released by Menem but later sentenced to life imprisonment. Bignone, 83, ruled Argentina during the Falklands conflict and handed over power to Alfonsín. He was sentenced to 25 years in April 2010. The sentence in the baby trial is expected to be delivered  in late May 2012.

“Justice was slow in coming but it has finally arrived,” said Estela de Carlotto, head of the human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Thirty years after the fall of the junta, trials are still taking place.

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