Argentina's Dapper State-Terrorist
by Marta Gurvich
The Consortium magazine, August 19, 1998
Former Argentine president Jorge Rafael Videla, the 73-year-old
dapper dictator who launched the so-called Dirty War in 1976,
was arrested on June 9 for a particularly bizarre crime of state,
one that rips at the heart of human relations.
Videla, known for his English-tailored suits and his ruthless
counterinsurgency theories, stands accused of permitting -- and
concealing -- a scheme to harvest infants from pregnant women
who were kept alive in military prisons only long enough to give
According to the charges, the babies were taken from the new
mothers, sometimes by late-night Caesarean sections, and then
distributed to military families or shipped to orphanages. After
the babies were pulled away, the mothers were removed to another
site for their executions.
Yet, Argentina now is engulfed in a legal debate over whether
Videla can be judged a second time for these grotesque kidnappings.
After democracy was restored in Argentina, Videla was among the
generals convicted of human rights crimes, including "disappearances,"
tortures, murders and kidnappings. In 1985, Videla was sentenced
to life imprisonment at the military prison of Magdalena.
But, on Dec. 29, 1990, amid rumblings of another possible
military coup, President Carlos Menem pardoned Videla and other
convicted generals. Many politicians considered the pardons a
pragmatic decision of national reconciliation that sought to shut
the door on the dark history of the so-called Dirty War when the
military slaughtered from 10,000 to 30,000 Argentineans.
Relatives of the victims, however, continued to uncover evidence
that children taken from their mothers' wombs sometimes were being
raised as the adopted children of their mothers' murderers. For
15 years, a group called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo has
been demanding the return of these kidnapped children, estimated
to number as many as 500.
After years of detective work, the Grandmothers documented
the identities of 256 missing babies. Of those, however, only
56 children were ever located and seven of them had died. Aided
by recent breakthroughs in genetic testing, the Grandmothers succeeded
in returning 31 children to their biological families. Thirteen
were raised jointly by their adoptive and biological families
and the remaining cases are bogged down in court custody battles.
The Baby Harvest
But the baby kidnappings gained a new focus last year with
developments in the case of Silvia Quintela, a leftist doctor
who attended to the sick in shanty towns around Buenos Aires.
On Jan. 17, 1977, Quintela was abducted off a Buenos Aires street
by military authorities because of her political leanings. At
the time, Quintela and her agronomist husband Abel Madariaga were
expecting their first child.
According to witnesses who later testified before a government
truth commission, Quintela was held at a military base called
Campo de Mayo, where she gave birth to a baby boy. As in similar
cases, the infant then was separated from the mother. What happened
to the boy is still not clear, but Quintela reportedly was transferred
to a nearby airfield.
There, victims were stripped naked, shackled in groups and
dragged aboard military planes. The planes then flew out over
the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean, where soldiers pushed
the victims out of the planes and into the water to drown.
After democracy was restored in 1983, Madariaga, who had fled
into exile in Sweden, returned to Argentina and searched for his
wife. He learned about her death and the birth of his son. Madariaga
came to suspect that a military doctor, Norberto Atilio Bianco,
had kidnapped the boy. Bianco had overseen Caesarean sections
performed on captured women, according to witnesses. He then allegedly
drove the new mothers to the airport.
In 1987, Madariaga demanded DNA testing of Bianco's two children,
a boy named Pablo and a girl named Carolina, both of whom were
suspected children of disappeared women. Madariaga thought Pablo
might be his son. But Bianco and his wife, Susana Wehrli, fled
Argentina to Paraguay, where they resettled with the two children.
Argentine judge Roberto Marquevich sought the Biancos' extradition,
but Paraguay balked for 10 years.
Finally, faced with demands from the Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights, Paraguay relented. Bianco and Wehrli were returned
to face kidnapping charges. But the two children -- now young
adults with small children of their own -- refused to return to
Argentina or submit to DNA testing.
Though realizing they were adopted, Pablo and Carolina did
not want to know about the fate of their real mothers and did
not want to jeopardize the middle-class lives they had enjoyed
in the Bianco household. [For more details about this case, see
The Consortium, Oct. 13, 1997, or iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1997.]
As an offshoot of the Bianco case, judge Marquevich ordered
the arrest of Videla. The judge accused the former dictator of
facilitating the snatching of Pablo and Carolina as well as four
other children. Marquevich found that Videla was aware of the
kidnappings and took part in a cover-up of the crimes. The aging
general was placed under house arrest.
In a related case, another judge, Alfredo Bagnasco, began
investigating whether the baby-snatching was part of an organized
operation and thus a premeditated crime of state. According to
a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the
Argentine military viewed the kidnappings as part of a larger
"The anguish generated in the rest of the surviving family
because of the absence of the disappeared would develop, after
a few years, into a new generation of subversive or potentially
subversive elements, thereby not permitting an effective end to
the Dirty War," the commission said in describing the army's
reasoning for kidnapping the infants of murdered women.
The kidnapping strategy conformed with the "science"
of the Argentine counterinsurgency operations. The Dirty War's
clinical anti-communist practitioners refined torture techniques,
sponsored cross-border assassinations and collaborated with organized-crime
According to government investigations, the military's intelligence
officers advanced Nazi-like methods of torture by testing the
limits of how much pain a human being could endure before dying.
The torture methods included experiments with electric shocks,
drowning, asphyxiation and sexual perversions, such as forcing
mice into a woman's vagina. Some of the implicated military officers
had trained at the U.S.-run School of the Americas.
Behind this Dirty War and its excesses stood the slight, well-dressed,
gentlemanly figure of Gen. Videla. Called "bone" or
the "pink panther" because of his slim build, Videla
emerged as a leading theorist for international anti-communist
strategies in the mid-1970s. His tactics were emulated throughout
Latin America and were defended by prominent American right-wing
politicians, including Ronald Reagan.
Videla rose to power amid Argentina's political and economic
unrest in the early-to-mid 1970s. "As many people as necessary
must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure,"
he declared in 1975 in support of a "death squad" known
as the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance. [See A Lexicon of Terror
by Marguerite Feitlowitz.]
On March 24, 1976, Videla led the military coup which ousted
the ineffective president, Isabel Peron. Though armed leftist
groups had been shattered by the time of the coup, the generals
still organized a counterinsurgency campaign to eradicate any
remnants of what they judged political subversion.
Videla called this "the process of national reorganization,"
intended to reestablish order while inculcating a permanent animosity
toward leftist thought. "The aim of the Process is the profound
transformation of consciousness," Videla announced.
Along with selective terror, Videla employed sophisticated
public relations methods. He was fascinated with techniques for
using language to manage popular perceptions of reality.
The general hosted international conferences on P.R. and awarded
a $1 million contract to the giant U.S. firm of Burson Marsteller.
Following the Burson Marsteller blueprint, the Videla government
put special emphasis on cultivating American reporters from elite
publications. "Terrorism is not the only news from Argentina,
nor is it the major news," went the optimistic P.R. message.
Since the jailings and executions of dissidents were rarely
acknowledged, Videla felt he could deny government involvement.
He often suggested that the missing Argentines were not dead,
but had slipped away to live comfortably in other countries.
"I emphatically deny that there are concentration camps
in Argentina, or military establishments in which people are held
longer than is absolutely necessary in this ... fight against
subversion," he told British journalists in 1977.
In a grander context, Videla and the other generals saw their
mission as a crusade to defend Western Civilization against international
communism. They worked closely with the Asian-based World Anti-Communist
League and its Latin American affiliate, the Confederacion Anticomunista
Latin American militaries collaborated on projects such as
the cross-border assassinations of political dissidents. Under
one project, called Operation Condor, political leaders -- centrist
and leftist alike -- were shot or bombed in Buenos Aires, Rome,
Madrid, Santiago and Washington, D.C. Operation Condor often employed
CIA-trained Cuban exiles as assassins.
In 1980, four years after the coup, the Argentine military
exported its terror tactics into neighboring Bolivia. There, Argentine
intelligence operatives helped Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie
and major drug lords mount a brutal putsch, known as the Cocaine
Coup. The bloody operation turned Bolivia into the first modern
drug state and expanded cocaine smuggling into the United States.
Videla's anything-goes anti-communism struck a responsive
chord with the Reagan administration which came to power in 1981.
President Reagan quickly reversed President Carter's condemnation
of the Argentine junta's record on human rights. Reagan's U.N.
Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick even hosted the urbane Argentine
generals at an elegant state dinner.
More substantively, Reagan authorized CIA collaboration with
the Argentine intelligence service for training and arming the
Nicaraguan contras. The contras were soon implicated in human
rights atrocities and drug smuggling of their own. But the contras
benefitted from the Reagan administration's "perception management"
operation which portrayed them as "the moral equivalent of
the Founding Fathers."
In 1982, however, the Argentine military went a step too far.
Possibly deluded by its new coziness with Washington, the army
invaded the British-controlled Falkland Islands. Given the even-closer
Washington-London alliance, the Reagan administration sided with
Margaret Thatcher's government, which crushed the Argentine invaders
in a brief war.
The humiliated generals relinquished power in 1983. Then,
after democratic elections, the new president Raul Alfonsin created
a truth commission to collect evidence about the Dirty War crimes.
The grisly details shocked Argentines and the world.
Some Argentine analysts also believe that repercussions from
that violent era continue to the present, with organized crime
rampant and corruption reaching into the highest levels of the
President Menem's sister-in-law, Amira Yoma, is reportedly
under investigation in Spain for money-laundering. A reporter
investigating mob ties was burned alive. Relatives of a prosecutor
examining gold smuggling were tortured by having their faces mutilated.
Jewish targets have been bombed.
Former star DEA agent Michael Levine, who served in Argentina,
is not surprised by the latest violence. "The same militaries
and police officers that committed human rights crimes during
the coup are holding positions in the same forces," Levine
Elsewhere, foreign governments whose citizens were victims
of the Dirty War are pressing individual cases against Videla
and other former military leaders. These countries include Germany,
Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Honduras.
Yet, in Argentina, Menem's pardon may yet protect Videla and
the others from facing any significant punishment for their acts.
Menem has refused to extradite the former military leaders. He
also has dragged his heels on purging the armed forces of thousands
of officers implicated in Dirty War offenses.
So, the lingering case implicating Videla in harvesting babies
from doomed women might be the last chance for Argentina to hold
the dictator accountable -- and to come to grips with the terrible
crimes of its recent past.
The Consortium magazine
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