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Argentina Dirty War - 1976-1983

The Dirty War, from 1976-1983, was a seven-year campaign by the Argentine government against suspected dissidents and subversives. Many people, both opponents of the government as well as innocent people, were "disappeared" in the middle of the night. They were taken to secret government detention centers where they were tortured and eventually killed. These people are known as "los desaparecidos" or "the disappeared."

A military coup overthrew Juan Peron and restored the traditional Argentine oligarchy to power in 1955. During the subsequent 18 years of exile, Peron used the Montonero insurgents as a primary means of breaking the resultant political impasse. He also used them as a political bridge to a worker-based mass movement and as a bridge to rebellious youth movements.

Argentina experienced three failed attempts at rural guerrilla warfare between 1959 and 1969. At that point, the insurgents decided in favor of urban warfare. It seemed obvious that they would be safer and more relevant in crowded urban space than in isolated rural areas.

One final attempt was made at generating a conventional rural-based insurgency. In 1974, Marxist admirers of Che Guevarra (the People’s Revolutionary Army [ERP]) took control of the remote province of Tucuman and actually governed that part of the national territory. In 1975 the Army was ordered to Tucuman to eradicate the insurgents and restore the province to the Argentine state, and did so swiftly and ruthlessly. And 1975 marked the end of any serious rural insurgency effort.

Between the ouster of Peron in 1955 and his return from exile in 1973, a number of urban insurgent organizations emerged. Six major groups - two Marxist-Maoist- Guevarrist-oriented, and four populist-nationalist Peronist-oriented - eventually dispersed or joined either the ERP or the Peronist Montoneros. The Montoneros became the largest and most active of the two revolutionary movements, but maintained close ties with the ERP.

After the death of the controversial President Juan Peron in 1974, his wife and vice president, Isabel Peron, assumed power. However, she was not very strong politically and a military junta led a coup against her and removed her from office. This military junta maintained its grip on power by cracking down on anybody whom they believed was challenging their authority. The new regime under General Jorge Rafael Videla attempted to apply a monetarist solution to economic problems and launched what it called the war against subversion, which came to be widely known to others as the "dirty war", in an attempt to defeat definitively left-wing guerrilla activity that was out of control by early 1976.

With the complicity of silence among all but a handful within the Argentine population, the military regime undertook widespread kidnappings, torture, and murder — not only of the violent guerrilla left but also of the nonviolent leftist political activists, their sympathizers, and their families. The war against subversion was viewed within the military's National Security Doctrine as the beginfling of "World War III," which it defined as a struggle against the efforts of communism for world supremacy. In three years as many as 30,000 Argentines were killed.

The Peronist Montonero insurgency and the Argentine governmental response to it are prime examples of how not to conduct an insurgency and how not not to conduct a counterinsurgency. The Montonero insurgent leadership made a conscious decision to “militarize” the struggle and attack ? directly ? the Argentine armed forces. The political objectives that originally motivated the confrontation were sacrificed to military considerations. The groups that were supposed to bring national and social liberation to the country developed into mirror images of the Argentine armed forces, and legitimizing political-psychological efforts were considered unproductive niceties.

Unlike previous military governments which were generally satisfied to manipulate or disrupt economic or social programs it did not approve of, or end the term of a government with a political ideology counter it its own, these military leaders set out to reform society through its proclaimed Process of National Reorganization (or El Proceso). El Proceso focused on three basic objectives: the elimination of subversion, improvement in the economy, and the creation of a new national framework.

In the view of the new regime, the eradication of subversion meant not only the guerrillas' activities, but also any form of dissenting behavior whether found in the school, the family, the factory, or even the arts or culture. Building a new national framework required eradicating the Peronists, the unions, parliamentary radicals and leftists. To build the economy required eliminating an industrial sector populated by an undisciplined worker class and inefficient managers.

Military governments usually assume one of three different forms: guardians, moderators or rulers. As "rulers," when the generals leave the barracks, they imbue the regime with their own alleged virtues, organization, hierarchy, obedience, discipline, punctuality, and efficiency. They eliminate participatory mechanisms such as legislatures, parties, and political associations, because they see little need to organize consent. They do away with competitive politics and all instrumentalities of representation in order to reduce complex issues to simple, clear-cut issues. In Argentina, the military definitely assumed the role of hard-line rulers.

Everyone fell into the net: union leaders who struggled for a simple increase in wages, adolescents who were members of a student association, newspaper reporters that were not addicted to the dictatorship, psychologists and sociologists who were part of suspect professions, young pacifists, nuns and priests that had carried the teachings of Christ to the miserably poor. And friends of any of them, and friends of those friends; people that had been denounced for reasons of personal vengeance or by kidnap victims under torture.

Victory was achieved after three years of limited open fighting and a stream of kidnappings, "disappearances," bombings, and killings that brought a total breakdown of due process for those suspected of being connected with the guerrillas. By June 1978 the guerrillas were all but eliminated, and the military declared victory. By 1980 the last vestiges of the terrorist groups had died out, and the disappearances had stopped.

Although the military dictatorship carried out its war against suspected domestic subversives throughout its entire existence, it was ironically a foreign foe which brought the regime to an end. In the early 1980s, it became clear to both the world and the Argentine people that the government was behind the tens of thousands of kidnappings. The junta, facing increasing opposition over its human rights record, as well as mounting allegations of corruption, sought to allay domestic criticism by launching a successful campaign to regain Las Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands).

Jesus Fernando Gomez argues that "The military engaged in the "Dirty War" in order to suppress its opposition, principally the Peronists, because the cost - measured in terms of legitimacy - of suppressing them was relatively low at the beginning of the junta's rule. But the cost of suppression increased over time because of the military regime's ruthless suppression of anyone who opposed it, its failed economic policies, and its embarrassing loss of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands War, and thus it had to tolerate its opposition and eventually return power to civilian authority."

The Falkland Islands had been a source of contention between England, which administers them, and Argentina, which claims them, since 1820. The junta had thought that it could reclaim these islands relatively easily, that England wouldn't mind their loss, and that the government would regain its popularity and control over its people. However, the government was wrong in its anticipations when 72 days after the invasion of the Islands, the British military won the war, having captured 9,800 Argentine POWs.

This unexpected loss was the final blow for the military regime, and in 1982, it restored basic civil liberties and retracted its ban on political parties. The Dirty War ended when Raul Alfonsin's civilian government took control of the country on December 10, 1983.

Dirty War - Amnesty and Accountability

Prior to the return of democracy in Argentina, the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983 granted a blanket amnesty for all offenses connected to the "Dirty War". Although President Raul Alfonsin revoked that amnesty, pressure from the military was too great. Alfonsin subsequently passed the "Due Obedience" and "Full Stop" laws in 1986 and 1987, respectively. The former granted amnesty to lower-ranking military and security officials for "Dirty War" crimes on the basis that they were carrying out orders. The latter ended further investigations and prosecutions of military, security, and other officials accused of political violence during the military dictatorship.

Both of these laws did not, however, apply to the senior military establishment whose trials had already resulted in life imprisonment sentences for most of the military's upper brass. Beginning in 1989, Menem issued ten executive decrees, some of which exclusively pardoned specific military officials and others which not only pardoned specific military officials, but also ex-guerillas that carried out political assassinations, kidnappings, torture, and other crimes during the same era.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, democratically elected President Raul Alfonsín passed amnesty laws complicating the prosecution of more than 1,000 military leaders who were suspected of abusing human rights. In 1989, President Carlos Menem pardoned every war criminal who had been convicted and many who were facing trial.

Human Rights Watch took the Argentine government to task in December 2001 for its failure to back trials of those charged with gross human rights violations during the "dirty war" of the late 1970s and early 80s. The rights group, while accusing the government of dragging its feet, praised Argentina's judiciary for doing all it can to speed up long-stalled prosecutions of middle and top-level military officials.

Since taking office in 2003, President Nestor Kirchner made it a government priority to overturn these pardons in the name of pursuing justice for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship. At the time of the dictatorship, both Kirchner and his wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner were Montonero sympathizers. Some members of his administration were ex-Montoneros, and many more were sympathizers.

In July 2003, President Kirchner repealed a decree blocking extraditions of people accused of human rights violations during the military regime, stating that the courts would decide whether to extradite an individual on a case by case basis. In September 2003, with Kirchner's backing, the Argentine Congress repealed the "Due Obedience" and "Full Stop" amnesty laws. In 2004, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled crimes against humanity are not subject to statute of limitations, and in 2005 declared the amnesty laws as unconstitutional.

In 2005, Argentina's Supreme Court overturned amnesty laws protecting military and police officials from prosecution for human-rights abuses during the "Dirty War."

In April 2007 court in Argentina overturned pardons for two leaders of the military dictatorship responsible for atrocities during the so-called "Dirty War" against political opponents. The court said the pardons given to General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera were unconstitutional. Videla and Massera were sentenced in 1985 to life in prison for killings, tortures and illegal arrests while the military was in power from 1976 to 1983. President Carlos Menem pardoned them in 1990, along with seven other former officials.

On 13 July 2007, the Argentine Supreme Court overturned a 1989 presidential pardon granted by then President Carlos Menem to General Santiago Omar Riveros, former military official who is accused of crimes against humanity for heading up clandestine detention centers during Argentina's military dictatorship from 1976-83. The decision opens the door to try hundreds of other police and military officials who were specifically pardoned by President Menem for their roles in human rights violations during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. The Court, in a split decision, justified its decision by citing international law which prohibits the pardoning of crimes against humanity committed by state actors.

While much reaction was positive, local press, civil society, and a few legal scholars expressed concern that the Court's decision applies international law retroactively and did not take into account the pardons granted to members of armed guerrilla groups, such as the Montoneros, who were also accused of committing human rights violations during the same time period. They argue that the pardons of both state and non-state actors should be overturned, and that military and ex-guerillas alike should stand trial for crimes against humanity.

Given that many described the Kirchner administration as the political coming of age of the Montoneros, many sectors in Argentine society found it difficult to see the Court's decision as completely impartial.

In September 2009 the US declassified 4,677 pages of testimony and communications shedding light on military atrocities committed during Argentina's Dirty War. The release of the pile of papers raised expectations the documents will help prosecutors who have been struggling to bring military leaders to justice to establish their case. At the very least, they raised hope the information would help families in the search for their loved ones.

The US documents reveal then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other top Ford administration officials, at first supported what Argentine dictators branded "a war against Communism." But the papers also reveal Washington knew people were being kidnapped, taken to far-away places, drugged, tied up, tortured with electrical prods, and, many of them, murdered. They also reveal the Carter administration tried to crack down on human rights abuses and that the Reagan administration let up in the name of maintaining good relations with Argentina's government.

Few in Argentina believe these documents will help bring the alleged war criminals to justice. The release was supposed to shine light on the darkest period of Argentina's history. But the mothers and grandmothers whose children disappeared during the campaign aimed at wiping out left-wing insurgents, say the 5,000 pages of details are too little and 25 years too late.

Jorge Videla led the first military government following the 1976 coup and held power until 1981. In 2010, he went on trial to face charges stemming from the deaths of more than 30 political prisoners after the coup that unseated President Isabel Peron. Reynaldo Bignone held power from 1982 until 1983, when Argentina returned to democracy. In 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for torture and illegal detentions committed while the country was under military rule.

During a trial in 2012, Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison for being the architect of a systematic plan to steal babies from prisoners at clandestine detention centers. Judicial authorities continued to investigate cases of kidnapping and illegal adoption of children born to detained dissidents by members of the former military dictatorship. In April 2013 a judge sentenced a couple who illegally adopted the son of a disappeared family to six years in prison. The individual who illegally offered the baby to the couple also faced charges for identity theft. The NGO Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo reported the number of persons illegally adopted by former military officials and later identified and made aware of their background increased to 109 of an estimated 500 born to detained and missing dissidents during the former military dictatorship.

Authorities continued to investigate and prosecute individuals implicated in disappearances, killings, and torture committed during the 1976-83 military dictatorship (widely referred to as the “Dirty War”). Investigations into the “systematic plan” of the military dictatorship, including the appropriation of children of detainees and the killing of detainees on “death flights,” continued or began during the year. The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) estimated that 381 judicial investigations were active by May 2013, in which 2,088 persons were charged for crimes against humanity. According to the Attorney General’s Office for Follow-up on Crimes Against Humanity, from January to October the courts convicted 76 individuals for committing human rights abuses during the 1976-83 period and continued trials that were suspended in 1989-90 when the government issued a blanket pardon.

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