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The Dirty War

In the early 1970’s, Argentina was an extremely unstable place. Marxist revolutionaries, inspired by the example of Cuba, were organizing in several South American nations, including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. The most dangerous of the Argentine groups was the ERP, or People’s Revolutionary Army. In the early 1970’s, the ERP was actively working to raise funds, mostly by kidnappings for ransom and robberies. Several of their kidnap victims died and the people of Argentina lived in fear of them.

Populist Juan Perón returned from exile to lead Argentina in 1973 but died a year later, leaving his ineffective widow Isabel in charge. She gave the military great freedom to eradicate the rebels and several successful operations occurred during her term which severely weakened the ERP. In March 1976, the Argentine military decided a firmer hand was needed on the controls of power and overthrew Isabel Martinez de Perón’s government. It was replaced by a military dictatorship under the leadership of Jorge Rafael Videla. Also in 1976, the military dealt a crippling blow to the ERP when they killed Mario Roberto Santucho, its leader. The military continued to crack down, and by 1977 the ERP, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist. Many of its members fled to Nicaragua.

Although the ERP was defunct and Argentina was no longer in any realistic danger from Marxist subversives, the repression and suspicion continued. Thousands of average citizens who were suspected of thought crimes or communist beliefs were detained by the military. These detentions were not done under the supervision of any sort of court and the accused were tortured with no access to any sort of legal counsel. Many were simply never heard from and are presumed dead: they are known as “desaparecidos” (“disappeared”). Some were buried in mass graves, some of which have been discovered. Other suspects were flown over the ocean and dropped, sometimes while still alive.

The detentions, torture and murder continued for the remainder of Videla’s administration, which lasted until 1981. He was replaced by a series of other officers and the killings continued, although not as many as there had been under Videla. Finally in 1983 the military stepped aside and allowed democratic elections.

During the dictatorship, an estimated 10,000-30,000 ordinary Argentine citizens “disappeared.” One of the most heinous casualties of the Dirty War, as it has come to be known, is the adopted children. It was a common practice during the Dirty War that pregnant mothers who “disappeared” were allowed to live until giving birth. Then the mother was executed and the child given up for adoption, generally to well-connected families. There are between 200 and 300 documented cases of these adoptions, and it is suspected that there may be more. DNA tests have identified the biological parents of some of the adopted children. In a well-publicized case in early 2008, a 30-year old woman who had been adopted after her parents “disappeared” brought a case against her adoptive parents for kidnapping and complicity in murder. The parents were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Although the generals passed laws exempting themselves from any sort of prosecution before allowing elections in 1983, incoming president Raúl Alfonsín imitated an investigation anyway, declaring that the immunities were illegal. The investigation, led by respected writer Ernesto Sábato, found sufficient evidence of crimes to convict Videla and several other high-ranking military officers. They served several years in prison before being pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1990, a gesture which was meant to heal the wounds of the Dirty War.

The citizens of Argentina weren’t ready to move on, however, and Menem’s pardon was widely reviled by the general population. Since then, the officers have been brought up on other charges. Videla remains under house arrest, which is a moot point because he cannot go out in public in Argentina anyway without running the risk of being attacked.

The most dogged of the victim groups is without a doubt the “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” The Grandmothers is a group of relatives of those who disappeared who began protesting in the Plaza de Mayo, located in Buenos Aires in front of the presidential residence, soon after the disappearances began. They have been demanding answers and justice for decades now and show no signs of slowing down. Some have traded in their placards and dog-eared photos for the internet and the international press, but the message is the same: they demand the guilty be held accountable for the pain and anguish of innocent Argentine families.

Argentines are still trying to come to terms with the horrors inflicted upon them by their own government. Even defenders of the military regime who claim that the crackdown was necessary to prevent a Cuban-style Marxist revolution in the country concede that he abuses went on long after the threat represented by the ERP and others had passed. It is encouraging that Argentines are finally talking about those years, which is the first step to putting them in the past.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Argentina: Las Cautivas, History, History, History, Molino Forclaz, The History of Argentina, Evita, Julio Cortazar, Mesopotamia and The Northeast History and History.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
14 May 2008

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