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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 Peoples 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.

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