Firsthand account of the aftermath of the "Dirty War" in Argentina*

*authored by a former HI 216 online student [edited for length]

I lived in Argentina from 1991-1996, less than 10 years after the "conclusion" of the "Dirty War". I have first-hand knowledge of the impact this conflict had over the general population and offer these observations. This is the opinion of a then-young-24-year-old who worked at the American Embassy (Buenos Aires) in the military attaché's office. I traveled throughout the major Argentine cities and to Chile on numerous occasions.

I think many Americans think of "terrorism" as an unseen entity like Al-Qaida, Hamas. Nobody knows who's in charge, where they are, or what the goals are. In Argentina, terrorism was completely different. It was a state-sponsored military dictatorship, also called "white terrorism" by political scientists. There was no equivocation on the part of the government about what they thought they had to do. Kill "communists" and other "subversives" who undermined the country. But who were these "terrorists"?

The Argentine military junta, comprised of three officers (Videla; Army, Massera; Navy, and Agosti; Air Force) directed military and police forces against "members" of the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP), the military arm of the communist Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT). (ERP = People's Revolutionary Army; PRT = Worker's Revolutionary Party). That seems a straightforward fight against terrorism--but wait.

Herein lies the problem. This conflict was a guerrilla warfare. Nobody in Argentina knew who exactly who the ERP members were! They wore no uniforms and carried no overt identification. So, the military rounded up "suspects," tortured them, got a name or two, then killed them. This brutal process snared some 30,000 people, and the military dictators effectively killed off a generation of their own people.

Imagine yourself, eating dinner with your family or maybe a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. Soldiers break your door down, take your mother and are gone in 30 seconds--and you will never see the "suspect" again. Ever. A lifetime of love, wisdom, friendship, gone. There is no police department you can call, no judicial court that will listen to you. You have no idea where they are, who took them, or why they took them. A family member has just been removed from your life permanently in 30 seconds or less. The desaparicidos (disappeared) were tortured, and, if female, raped, then the bodies dumped in the ocean or buried under cover of darkness.

This is hard to imagine such horror in a democratic society such as our own. No such thing as a right to privacy. Search and seizure protection, like our 4th amendment? Non-existent. You prayed a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor would not be picked up and speak your name up. This "Dirty War" lasted for a total of seven years!

Not surprisingly, such brutality had a profound psychological impact on the country and it citizenry, so trust issues with the government/police forces remain. The police are corrupt, not well liked at all--commonly called "La Juta," slang for "The Killers." General Videla lived two buildings down from me. He always had armed police bodyguards with him, but people would still spit at him, call him names, throw apples at him, etc. The Argentine Army is just a shell of what it used to be, especially after their loss in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) campaign of 1982. A pack of Girl Scouts could probably take the country now.

Even worse, these dictators got amnesty for all crimes and could not be prosecuted legally while I was there. The amnesty was eventually overturned, and families of the disappeared got their day in court.

Videla was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, and, for many years, denied that "abductions" took place. However. in a biography published in April 2012, he has finally admitted that abductions took place and babies were stolen. "Let's say there were 7,000 or 8,000 people who had to die to win the war against subversion," the book quotes Videla as saying. He decided on "the disappearance of the bodies to avoid provoking protests inside and outside the country." "Each disappearance must certainly be understood as a way to hide, to conceal a death." "There was no other alternative," Videla said. Military leaders "were in agreement that it was the price that must be paid to win the war against subversion and we needed that it not be obvious so society would not realize it. It was necessary to eliminate a large group of people who could not be brought to justice nor shot either."

I had lunch with many mothers whose sons and daughters disappeared during this time, and it is heartbreaking to hear the anguish in their voices. There are no grave sites to visit and receive closure. Records were destroyed or not kept; names forgotten. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) march every Thursday in front of the Casa Rosada (Argentine version of the White House, but it's pink) to remind the current administration they will never forget. A popular slogan in Argentina is: Nunca Jamas! (Never again!)

Because the Reagan administration supported the Argentine generals, the US is generally not well viewed in Argentina. Recently released diplomatic cables attest to the US attitude about the Dirty War in general. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Argentine generals: "Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed the better… The human rights problem is a growing one. Your Ambassador can apprise you. We want a stable situation. We won't cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help." The US also took the side of the British during the Falklands/Malvinas War. That didn't help either.

Epilogue: Where are the perpetrators today?

  • General Jorge Videla – Life in prison and still there. 89 years old. Government does not recognize him as ever being a “legal” president of Argentina. He did fully confess to all his crimes.
  • Admiral Emiliano Massera – Died 2010. Secret grave site for prevention of body desecration. At funeral, no military, police or government presence, just immediate family.
  • General Orlando Agosti – Died 1997. Pardoned in 1990. Lived in hiding on a farm on Chile/Argentina border. Same funeral ceremony as Massera. Rumor of only his brother attending funeral.
  • Alfredo Astiz – He killed two nuns. Received the death sentence (in absentia) by a French Court. Is assaulted monthly when recognized by pedestrians. Ran a torture center for the Navy. I had lunch with this guy once. Personification of evil imho.
  • Aldofo Scalinga – Top navy aide in charge of the actual killing and dumping bodies. Sentenced to 640 years, (yes, 640!) in prison.
  • General Roberto Viola. Died in 1997. President of Argentina after Videla for six months. Sentenced to 17 years in prison.
  • General Leopoldo Galiteri – Died of heart attack. President after Viola. Army General who led the failed Falkland Islands campaign. A fall-down drunk who came to military planning meetings intoxicated. Sentenced 12 years in prison.