Written by Olivier Guiberteau
Every Thursday they come to the vast cauldron that is the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires. Women of all ages, many carrying grainy black and white photos of smiling faces, others hold signs aloft lambasting the nation’s darkest hour.
Together they assemble and begin circling the square in front of Argentina’s Presidential Palace, demanding justice for those in the photos. Those who never returned. Those now referred to as “El desaparecidos” – the disappeared.
Argentina’s so-called Dirty War ostensively covered the period between 1976 and 1983 – but also should really include the five years before – remains a dark memory in the country to this day. A period that saw, like in many places across South America, a bloody showdown between left and right that played out in an orgy of horrific violence, kidnappings, terrorist attacks and mass murder.
However, nowhere on the continent was this quite as pronounced as in Argentina where a right-wing coup in 1976 was followed by seven years of chaos before the nation’s disastrous attempt to seize the Falkland Islands forced Argentina’s military Junta to accept civilian elections once again.
But this story stretches well outside the borders of South America’s third-largest country. Operation Condor, a semi-clandestine campaign backed by the United States, was a vicious period of political repression where the governments of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia, coordinated efforts to suppress and at times eliminate any left-wing ideological threats. In Argentina, this accounted for the disappearance of as many as 30,000 men and women, and even some young children, during the Dirty War.
Those responsible have long faced trials in Argentina, but every Thursday the ‘Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ convene in the expansive square in Buenos Aires and demand answers. What happened to their loved ones and where are their remains?
Argentina had been on a bumpy ride for some time when the quasi-dictator President Juan Perón died in 1974 and was replaced by his third wife Isabel Perón.
During his first Presidential term, between 1946 and 1952, Perón, with his blockbuster second wife Eva – known around Argentina simply as Evita – by his side, proved to be hugely popular by mixing a delicate balance of right and left-wing politics. He was immensely popular with the working class but ruled with an iron fist in only the way a military man who had come to power thanks to a coup possibly can.
In 1955 he was forced from power and into exile during yet another coup only to return to Argentina in 1973, regain the presidency, and then die the following year. This left Argentina a deeply polarised nation, and it, like many countries around the world, was struggling with its own identity and political ideology.
Juan Perón may have died, but his legacy of attempting to straddle the political divide but drifting much further to the right before his death was deeply apparent. Argentina was a conservative country by nature, and one where the Catholic church still retained enormous power.
But this was also the nation of Che Guevara and while Argentina’s most well known left-wing revolutionary had spent the majority of his adult life outside the country, ideas on Marxism and even Guevarism had well and truly taken root.
As in other areas of South America, conservative governments looked upon these revolutionaries with barely disguised disdain and it wasn’t long until shady orders were being sent out to even shadier groups who didn’t officially have any links to the government and yet managed to arm themselves like a national army, begin hunting down and eliminating those who were considered subversive.
In 1985, the CONADEP human rights commission counted 19 assassinations in 1973, 50 in 1974 and 359 in 1975, carried out by paramilitary groups. Sometimes these were students involved in rallies or trade union leaders often seeking better working conditions, while others were legitimate Peronist guerrillas, often the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). They were responsible for attacks on foreign companies or those that worked with them, such as Goodyear and Firestone distributors, Riker and Eli pharmaceutical laboratories, Xerox Corporation, and Pepsi-Cola bottling companies.
And they didn’t stop at simply targeting physical structures. Numerous high-ranking employees of some major international firms were kidnapped and often murdered, including the Director-general of the Fiat Concord company on 21 March 1972 and John Swint, the American general manager of the Ford Motor Company in November 1973.
In response to the death of Peron, the ERP consolidated their power around the rural location of Tucuman where they planned to launch a full-scale insurgency, but with no more than 100 men and women, this attempt was quickly quelled by the Argentian military.
In 1975, under extreme pressure from within her own government, Isabel Peron appointed Jorge Rafael Videla commander-in-chief of the Argentine Army, a man who made his intentions perfectly clear shortly after his appointment, when he said,
“As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure”
It was a darkly prophetic statement and one which was about to take a step closer to becoming a reality.
Whatever star power Isabel Peron had quickly began to fade after the death of her husband. With vultures circling, even her relatively successful operations to eliminate ERP rebels in Tucuman were not enough.
A coup had been in the pipeline for at least a year when it was launched on 24th March 1976. The American government knew full well what was happening and their only urgings appeared to have been to do it quickly with as little fuss as possible.
Isabel Peron was detained shortly after 1 am, while a state of siege and martial law was implemented across the capital. The first day began with an eerie calm, though by the afternoon and into the evening, the number of political arrests was significantly ramped up.
In the subsequent days, congress was disbanded with senators, deputies and staff members arrested, brutally beaten and thrown out of doors and windows of the Congressional Palace, while General Jorge Rafael Videla was proclaimed president, with Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and General Orlando Agosti completing the Junta.
While names and faces would change over the coming years, this military dictatorship, which came with the almost noble-sounding name ‘National Reorganization Process’, gripped Argentina by the throat and didn’t release until 1983.
When we look at a highly emotive story like Argentina’s Dirty War it can be easy to simply focus on the perceived evil of one side, and ignore or brush under the carpet the actions of the other. So, before we look at the truly repugnant actions of the Junta during this time, let’s look at who they believed to be their opponents during this period.
Numerous left-wing guerilla organisations were operating around this time, most of which emerged from the Dirty War far from clean – if they did emerge at all. This included the ERP as we mentioned earlier, but also the Montoneros, a group that had once been affiliated with Peronism back in the 1960s.
The Montoneros, who began life as a self-described Christian, nationalist, and socialist group, had been responsible for much of the violence in the years leading up to the 1976 Coup, with attacks on the military, and police, but also civilians. Similar to FARC in Colombia in many ways, the Montoneros began with genuine anti-fascist values and dreams of a more utopian Argentina but descended into widespread violence that made them hugely unpopular.
Their fury intensified in the aftermath of the coup, but such was Argentina’s vicious response, the organization was effectively shattered by 1978 – although members carried on fighting until 1981.
If there was any doubt over what route the military Junta would take, it didn’t take long for reality to set in. Military and intelligence links were established with other like-minded governments around South America, and with the approval of the United States, the continent quietly began Operation Condor – a process of state terror, political repression that may have been responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people – around half of those occurring in Argentina.
The goal was “the elimination of Marxist subversion,” initially aimed at left-wing guerillas around the continent, but eventually expanded to include just about anybody who said anything against the government or even remotely supportive of leftist thinking.
In Argentina, now plump with a hefty war chest of $50 million (around $250 million today) shipped south for the United States, the Junta set about cleansing the country with a savage zeal. Much of this was coordinated via the Secretariat of Intelligence (SIDE) – the country’s intelligence agency – but included a whole cast of notorious characters who carried out much of the dirty work. This included the dreaded Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, a death squad that had been formed back in the 1930s, also known as Triple-A.
One of the earliest, and darkest episodes, came over two nights, between the 16th and 17th September 1976, in what has come to be known as ‘the Night of the Pencils’. Following peaceful protests demanding school and political reforms, armed men arrived at houses around La Plata and dragged away 10 people, a mixture of men and women, some as young as 16.
The group were reportedly moved several times and tortured, with only four surviving the ordeal. The fate of the remaining six has never been disclosed, with their names added to the growing list of the disappeared.
This was a process that was replicated countless times in the coming years as the number of those missing steadily grew. Those who survived the kidnappings told of incomprehensible torture but were nonetheless lucky to be alive. Many were not as fortunate and either met their end in quickly dug pits via a firing squad in the middle of nowhere, while others were pushed out of aircraft or helicopters, either sedated or already dead.
It’s thought that 12,000 prisoners were held without proper legal process in one of 340 concentration camps around the country and as many as 500 babies may have been born either in captivity then forcibly given to childless couples or removed when their parents were murdered.
But what made this situation altogether darker was the apparent complicity of foreign companies and international governments. The role of the United States in effectively throwing a ton of money into the powder keg and then turning a blind eye has been often told, but the role of the French government, less so.
Things are very murky here but it would seem that the French, at the very least, advised the Argentine government on how to conduct urban anti-guerilla warfare, something the French had become rather adept at during the Battle of Algiers, part of Algeria’s bloody war for independence. It would also appear that this tactical knowledge and training was not only constrained to Argentina but used in other South American countries also.
If you thought the involvement of foreign governments was uncomfortable, the role that international companies played in the Dirty War is a shameful secret that has never fully been explained. Big names such as Ford and Mercedes-Benz have long been linked with what occurred in Argentina, but how far it went we may never know.
It’s clear that trade unions, their leaders and indeed any support for some kind of economic reorganization were bad news for big business. There were numerous instances of people being dragged from factories, some returned, some did not, and the question has always been, did those large international corporations collude with the Argentine government during Operation Condor? There have been several attempts to bring charges against high-ranking employees of companies like these, which have been consistently rebuffed.
Economic Downfall & The Falklands War
Despite the chaos that was ensuing, Argentina initially saw some economic success. When the Junta had taken control, the nation was facing an economic collapse which was partly staved off thanks to the expansion of the free market, scrapping of price controls, while removing quotes and limitations of imports and exports.
But the good times certainly didn’t last and with the country handed a $1 billion ($4.9 billion) loan from Chase Manhattan Bank and International Monetary Fund, it didn’t take long for foreign debt to skyrocket, while the gap between rich and poor in Argentina grew dramatically. Over six years, real wages dropped 40% lower than during Perón’s presidency, and as the 1980s began, the nation’s economy was in freefall.
One tried and tested method of distracting an already suspicious population over the slow demise of a nation is to start a war, preferably one where plenty of nationalistic propaganda can be blasted from the rooftops. And so began the Falklands War.
The British Falkland Islands, known to the Argentines as Las Malvinas, lies 1521 km (945 miles) from Argentina and has long represented a thorn in the side and a dark reminder of colonisation. The debate of who first claimed the islands is far from clear, but for many in Argentina, it has become obvious that Las Malvinas must be returned to Argentina.
On 2nd April 1982, with Argentina in a pitfall state thanks to the Dirty War, the country launched an invasion of the Falkland Islands, probably assuming that any British reaction would at it most be fairly limited. In fact, the exact opposite was true, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a mighty naval armada to sail southwest and retake the Falklands.
The first British troops landed on the islands on the 21st April and in just shy of six weeks, the Argentines had been comprehensibly defeated. Many British servicemen spoke of their deep admiration for the heroism and tenacity of the Argentine troops, many of which were just young boys, ill-prepared for combat, often in pitiful conditions. The bedraggled men who emerged to surrender had, according to many reports, fought bravely, but British soldiers were frequently horrified by what they found, with Argentine soldiers usually low on food, warm clothing and certainly morale.
What had been designed as a propaganda super-story, turned out to be the exact opposite. The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands had been badly planned, terribly executed and showed a level of disdain for the everyday soldier that many could not possibly tolerate.
The Grandmothers and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
Things moved quickly in Argentina. The Junta voluntarily relinquished power in 1983 and the nation held its first free election in a decade the same year. It was won by Raúl Alfonsín, who bided his time for just three days before announcing his intention to prosecute those responsible for the nation’s dictatorship and the Dirty War that followed.
The Trial of the Juntas began in 1985, and despite plenty of chaos surrounding the proceedings, which even involved several small-scale military uprisings, on 9th December 1985, General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera were sentenced to life imprisonment, with General Roberto Viola sentenced to seventeen years, Admiral Armando Lambruschini to eight years and General Orlando Agosti to four and a half years.
But just to show you how quickly things can swing back and forth, the next president, Carlos Menem, pardoned the men while effectively establishing a law that would shield those who committed crimes during this period from further prosecution, a decree that proved immensely unpopular.
This lasted until 2003 when the Pardon Laws were themselves repealed and between 2003 and 2011, 259 people were convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide for their roles in the Dirty War. This included Navy captain Adolfo Scilingo, who was tried for genocide, 30 counts of murder, 93 of causing injury, 255 of terrorism and 286 of torture and was sentenced to 640 years in prison, later raised to 1084 years.
It has taken some time, but it’s now thought that most of those responsible for the worst atrocities across the Dirty War have been brought to justice. Almost all of those who headed the dreaded Junta between 1976 and 1983 died in prison but for those who make their way to their Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires every Thursday afternoon, this has brought little, if any closure.
For them, with their symbolic white handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads, the question of knowing what really happened to their loved ones and finding out where their remains might lie has brought them to the square every week for the last 40 years. The Dirty War may be slipping into memory for some, but for the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, their search for truth is far from complete.