Argentina's Dirty War, 1976-1983
The darkest period of Argentina's modern history came during the "dirty
war" (guerra sucia) waged by the nation's military dictatorship against
its own people. From 1976 until their resounding defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas
War of 1983, the military and its associated "death squads" harrassed, tortured,
murdered, and "disappeared" thousands of real or suspected dissidents. Estimates
of the number of people murdered or "disappeared" range from 6,000 to 23,000.
Henry Kissinger Encourages Human Rights Violations: A newly declassified document obtained by the
National Security Archive shows that amidst vast human rights violations by
Argentina's security forces in June 1976, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger [under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford]
told Argentine Foreign Minister Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti: "If there
are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should
get back quickly to normal procedures." At a time when the international
community, the U.S. media, universities, and scientific institutions, the
U.S. Congress, and even the U.S. Embassy in Argentina were clamoring about
the indiscriminate human rights violations by the Argentine military,
Secretary Kissinger told Guzzetti: "We are aware you are in a difficult
period. It is a curious time, when political, criminal, and terrorist
activities tend to merge without any clear separation. We understand you
must establish authority." Obviously, some US officials encouraged torture long before the abuses against Afghan and Iraqi prisoners.
Below, Raúl David Vilarino, a navy officer, relates some of the military's
techniques and actions. [From Lucia Luna, "Un actor de la 'guerra sucia'
revela los crimenes de los militates," Proceso, no. 376, January 16, 1984).
See also Jonathan
Mann's CNN News Report on the Dirty War," 1996 and the BBC
News Story on the arrest of one of the "Dirty War" military officers.
While most people remained silent about the many human rights abuses, the
courageous "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" [two shown at right] publically
marched and protested the disappearances and torture of their children and
other loved ones.
- The Argentine military repression did not even respect life in embryo.
"With pregnant women they introduced a small spoon or some
other metal instrument until it touched the fetus. Then they gave
the woman an electric shock of 220 volts. In a word, they electrocuted
- "What did you do when you witnessed such atrocities?"
"I vomited. What would you have had me do?"
- Raúl David Vilarino, junior navy officer and a member of the so
called Group of Tasks, actively participated in the military's "dirty war"
against subversion, but now says that he feels nausea. He says that he still
has some sense of shame, but he is not going to weep or say that he
repented too late.
- He confesses, denounces, gives names, and describes atrocities in a
very long interview published in the Buenos Aires journal La Semana
with the title, "I Kidnapped, Killed, and Saw Tortures in the Navy School
- "You never tortured anybody?"
"I never tortured anybody, thank God."
Vilarino defends himself. He insists that he is against torture, that
torture is never justified, under any conditions. He also tries to minimize
the killings. "If an assassin is one who kills another person, I am an
assassin. If an assassin is one who kills in cold blood, treacherously, in a
cowardly way, I'm not an assassin. If I can sadly brag of anything, it's that
I always would rather have them shoot me than do such a thing."
He is disillusioned with his superiors. "I can't tell you how one feels
when he knows that the people who gave the orders, having decided they
didn't need us anymore, tried to get rid of us. Right now, as I give this
account, I feel persecuted, and I'm going to do something that will displease
many colleagues who are still alive."
- He insists that his confession is spontaneous and that he is ready to
pay for his offenses. But he warns, "I'm not going alone, we're all going
together." And he begins to name names: Rear Admiral Rubén Jacinto
Chamorro, director of the Navy School of Mechanics; Captain Arduino,
head of studies at the school; Lieutenant Guerrello, his secretary; navy
captain Vildoza, chief of the Group of Tasks; corvette captain Jorge Eduardo
Acosta, chief of intelligence and torturer; Captain Francis Whamond,
torturer; navy lieutenant Garcia Velasco, alias Dante, torturer; the now
famous Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz, torturer.
- The list is endless. Vilarino puts special emphasis on the names of
the doctors. "The principal one was Dr. Alberto, who liked to be called
Mengele. He was in charge of all the tortures and displayed the greatest
zeal of all in carrying them out. Sometimes he wore black gloves; he also
ordered that a black eagle be painted on the walls of the officers' club.
There was Dr. Magnasco, gynecologist, who together with Mengele had
thought up the torture for pregnant women. José Luis, the odontologist,
in charge of extracting molars from the dead--and from some who were
not completely dead--in order to conceal their identities.
- Vilarino also tells in some detail about Father Sosa, chaplain of the
School of Mechanics. "He didn't wear a frock. He was a sort of cabaret
priest. Once I asked him if he thought that what we were doing was right,
and he said that one must think about these things like a surgeon. If
you're going to amputate the evil you can't worry about the aesthetics of
- But he assigns the greatest responsibility to Admiral Jos6 Emilio
Massera, commander in chief of the navy. "Chamorro's only boss was
Admiral Massera. It was Massera who signed the order to turn over a
certain amount of money for the expenses of the Group of Tasks, which
means that he approved of the methods it used."
- Vilarino describes these methods, step by step. First the trailing of
suspects, the break?ins, the arrests, the kidnappings. Then the jailings, the
interrogations, the tortures. And, finally, the manner of disposing of the
- In the beginning, he says, there were simple patrols, interceptions of
mail and guerrilla missions, arrests of specific individuals. Later came the
clean-up operations. A city block was cordoned off, traffic stopped, and a
house?to?house search was made. Inside the houses they looked for subversive
material. They also demanded documentary proof of ownership of everything
of value?TV sets, radios, jewels, even money?and if a person could not
prove ownership he was arrested. "You know, once the warranty has expired
nobody feels obliged to keep a bill of sale. Then police would say those
things were illegally acquired and would embargo them. I don't know where
all those things went, but some turned up in the homes of officers or
junior officers who needed a TV or a radio.
"When the operation was aimed at the arrest of some specific person
or group, they would be more discreet. No more than four persons went
along, in order not to arouse the whole ward. One man remained in the
car and another on the street. Then they rang the door bell. If the door
was not opened they would knock out the lock. They tried to work as
discreetly as possible. In the case of farms or houses away from town,
where they did not have to act with such propriety, they would enter
shooting, having thrown a grenade to knock the door down. In the city
they didn't do this, for why massacre people, especially if you've come to
the wrong door."
- "Were there many mistakes made?"
Vilarino admits that sometimes they came to the wrong address but
did not stop to see if the occupant was really a guerrilla before killing or
arresting him. In other cases, fear caused confusion. "A man would shut
himself in or try to flee because he didn't know what it was all about.
Then the commando decided that it was meeting resistance and killed or
- Other persons were shot down because they happened to be passing
by at that moment or ran up in alarm to learn what was going on. "When
bullets are flying they bear no name or address,"
The ex?navy corporal tries to justify himself. They were psychologically
conditioned to see an armed guerrilla behind each door and window. They
were often received with fire. "There also were situations staged by the
guerrillas to make us kill innocent people and prove that we were mur
derers." . . .
- Guilty or not, the worst off were the people they took alive. Vilarino
tells what he saw in the Navy School of Mechanics. There was a door on
which someone had written: "Road to Happiness." Behind it was the torture
chamber: electric prods, the iron wirework of a bed connected to an outlet
of 220 volts, an electrode of 0 to 70 volts, chairs, presses, pointed or cutting
instruments, bicycle tires filled with sand that could be used to give blows
without leaving a mark?and everything imaginable that could be used for
- He gives details of one of the tortures. "Did you ever receive an
electric shock from a refrigerator, a bath faucet, or some electrical appliance?
Multiply that by a hundred and then by a thousand. Add the cries of pain,
and you will know what it feels like to be tortured. Then, conscious or
unconscious, the prisoner was thrown into a cell and given a bucket of
water with which to stuff himself, and the next day he suffered worse
torments than when they left him."
- With women especially, the corporal remembers, "they used techniques
used by thugs in a gangster movie: burning with cigarette stubs, pulling
or pinching the skin, beatings." Every kind of sexual abuse and torture,
rapes, and the technique especially designed for pregnant women described
above. Although he does not clearly say so, he suggests that many men
were also sexually abused?more precisely, castrated.
- Soon he recalls another very special torture that was inflicted in the
submarine base of the naval station. "They made many prisoners dive
without diving equipment or tube. They submerged them and then brought
them up to see if they would talk. Below was a man in a diving suit or
a frogman who struck and tortured them. When a prisoner came up he
would lack a finger so that the others might see what would happen if
they didn't talk. Or the prisoner might simply disappear. A launch with
an outboard motor would be sent out to drag the corpse far enough away
so that the public or people at the base could not see it.
- Yet all this danse macabre managed to elicit very little true information.
"After a torture session the majority of prisoners were ready to sign that
they had killed President Kennedy or had taken part in the battle of
Waterloo. That is why I say that the greater part of the data obtained by
torture was unreliable; most often they were used to justify the arrest of
- Vilarino continues trying to justify his own actions. He never kidnapped
people. He just carried out the orders of higher?ups. "We believed in the
policies we carried out because it had been charged that the Federal Police
were involved both in guerrilla activity and law enforcement. Later I realized
this was just an attempt to provide legal justification for the Group of
- The junior naval officer becomes confused and entangles himself He
accuses, denounces, and tries to shift responsibility to others. He admits
mistakes and brutalities. He insists that he feels nausea and is ready to
pay for his offenses. But in the end he is unrepentant and insists that he
would do it all over again.
- "You base your defense on the fact that you had no option, that you had
to carry out your orders, because otherwise you would have suffered the same
fate as the people you arrested. Are you aware that it was a matter of sacrificing
many lives, many innocent lives, in exchange for your own?"
- "Sure, but my life and the lives of my family come first. I had a wife
and daughters, and would exchange many lives for the lives of those three.
Even though I no longer live with my wife and daughters, their lives mean
more to me than those of many "disappeared" persons. You've never had
people paint signs on the wall of your house; it's not a pretty thing. In a
word, though I have left my wife and daughters, for the sake of their
security I would do it all over again."