Dirty Deeds

Spain wants to extradite Argentina's former dictators

by Travis Lea

In These Times magazine, May 2000


Ever since Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon began investigating crimes against humanity committed by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, human rights laws across Latin America have been subject to new scrutiny.

From 1976 to 1983, a brutal military regime ruled Argentina with the stated goal of eliminating subversives. Secret forces kidnapped and imprisoned unionists and leftist intellectuals, and subjected them to torture, rape and extermination. Human rights groups estimate that 30,000 people disappeared, some drugged and tossed from airplanes into the sea on infamous "death flights."

Most of the victims were Argentines, but many foreign nationals living in Argentina also suffered the wrath of the "Dirty War." It is for crimes against Spanish citizens living in Argentina that Garzon is now able to extend the hand of Spanish justice into the Southern Cone.

In November, Garzon issued extradition requests for nearly 100 military leaders. Then President Carlos Menem rejected them outright. Argentine politicians and judges claim their justice system-unlike Chile's-is a strengthening institution, gaining new respect from the public.

Garzon sent a second round of extradition requests to Argentina's newly elected president, Fernando De la Rua, in January. This time, the complaint was more detailed, including specific information on disappearances and corroborated evidence pertaining to 48 members of the military regime. De la Rua sent the requests to the courts, where a federal judge rejected them once again, claiming they did not meet the requirements of the existing extradition treaty between Spain and Argentina. Still, De la Rua says he's delighted that the Spanish judge is carrying out his investigation into human rights abuses, though he adds, "I understand and share Chile's claims to sovereignty."

Like many Argentines, De la Rua resents the meddling of an old colonial power and claims that justice here works. Argentina is the only country in the region that has carried out trials against its former military leaders.

Today, nearly a dozen former military leaders are serving life sentences. But politicians didn't make that happen. Justice has moved this far thanks to the relentless work of human rights groups that have pushed for new trials concerning the organized kidnapping and adoption of babies born to political prisoners during the Dirty War.

Yet even human rights advocates, like Maria Cristina Caiati of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, recognize that in terms of human rights, "the main difference between the two countries is that in Argentina there has been some degree of justice, whereas in Chile, no."

Still, Caiati supports Garzon's requests. If South American dictators are tried in Europe for crimes against humanity, she says, "it would reinforce a lost concept of judicial independence in democratic governments and dictatorships."

There are now efforts underway by Italy, Israel and other countries to prosecute members of the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships. Since disappeared foreign nationals are still not considered officially deceased, and since no other country has granted amnesty to Argentina's ex-dictators, their cases are still considered open. That provides a legal pathway for those countries to pursue justice.

Meanwhile, Argentine judges slowly continue to investigate the systematic kidnapping and adoption of babies born to the Dirty War's victims. Federal Prosecutor Adolfo Bagnasco is heading up these new investigations, and has faith in his country's judiciary. "I hope Argentina can send the message to the world that despite its flaws, my country has a serious and effective justice system," he says.

But Caiati notes, "In Argentina, even under a constitutional government, the judiciary has always been susceptible to politics."

International War Crimes