Argentina's Dirty War

excerpted from the book

State Terrorism and the United States

From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terrorism

by Frederick H. Gareau

Clarity Press, 2004, paper


The dirty war in Argentina started in 1976 after a military coup on March 25 of that year brought General Jorge Videla to power. The coup was the military's response to the disorder and deteriorating economic conditions that preceded it. The disorder was marked by strikes and terrorism from the left and the right. The president of the country was Isabel Peron, who assumed office the year before upon the death of her husband. The first female president in Latin America, she had served as her husband's vice-president. He had been elected with over 61 percent of the vote. Many Argentinians were relieved by the prospect of a military government putting down the violence and restoring order and stability. The period preceding the coup was one of violence, but nothing approaching the retaliatory and repressive violence of the dirty war to be unleashed by the new regime. In late 1980 Videla stepped down in favor of Army General Roberto Viola. The dirty war was going well for the army, but the Argentine economy was doing badly. Under military management/mismanagement, the country fell deeply in debt, the currency depreciated, wages fell, inflation rose, and the labor unions started to regain their militancy. An early casualty was General Viola. After serving less than a year of his supposed four-year term and after suffering from a mild heart attack, he was pushed aside in a palace coup in favor of the Army Commander in Chief, General Leopoldo Galtieri.

Dr. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a noted apologist for supporting rightwing dictators, arrived in Buenos Aires on August 1, 1981 on the second leg of her tour of Latin America. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo-a domestically notorious human rights group of brave women who demonstrated publicly for information on the disappearance of their loved ones-had prepared a long letter for her, and they asked for an interview. They were not accorded an interview by Kirkpatrick, nor did they receive a response to their letter.

In November of 1981 General Galtieri visited Washington. A luncheon he hosted at the Argentinian embassy was attended by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Richard Allen, and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders. The general promised his distinguished guests that Argentina would join the United States in its crusade against communism in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Central America. Weinberger and Allen were impressed and called him "magnificent." Knowledge that he was an alumnus of the School of the Americas must have fueled their enthusiasm.

After returning to Buenos Aires, the general followed through by implementing his promise. Argentina proceeded to distance itself from the NonAligned Movement. Its ambassadors were withdrawn from Cuba and Nicaragua. Its instructors launched programs to train the Contras and Salvadoran security forces in the techniques of counterinsurgency warfare. It trained a thousand Contras in Honduras, preparing them for the war to be waged against the Sandinistas. Argentinian trainers thus substituted for American instructors, who were forbidden by Congress from continuing with such instruction.


The Commission [CONADEP] was charged with the duty of investigating and submitting a report to the president on the fate and the whereabouts of the disappeared, the desaparecidos, a word left in Spanish by the world press in its reports on Argentina. It worked initially from a list of six thousand desaparecidos provided by the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights. With no power to subpoena witnesses as human rights advocates wanted, its evidence came overwhelmingly from the victims. Forty-four of the torturers and their commanding officers were invited to testify. None of them accepted. The Commission spent nine months on the project, and then submitted its report to the president in September 1984. Its findings were summarized in a book entitled Nunca Mas (Never Again) which immediately became a best seller in Argentina.

The report found a contradiction between the military's constant disrespect for human beings and its advocacy of what it called a Western, Christian life style. A month after the military coup, Colonel Juan Bautista Sasiain, who later became Chief of the Federal Police, affirmed that "the army values a man as such, because the army is Christian." The Commission charged that the army practiced state terrorism, made possible by the power and the impunity of a military dictatorship "which they misused to abduct, torture, and kill thousands of human beings."

The Commission found that the vast majority of the 8,960 victims were not only innocent of acts of terrorism, but even of belonging to guerrilla organizations. They were trade union leaders struggling for higher wages for workers; youngsters who belonged to student organizations; journalists who did not support the military regime; professionals who belonged to suspicious organizations; young pacifists, nuns, and priests who were inspired by the teachings of Christ and who took this message to the poor; friends of these people; or others whose names were given to the security forces out of vengeance or by the kidnapped under torture.

As impressive as the combined size of the groups targeted for direct attack may seem, the reader is reminded that state terrorism in Argentina sought to intimidate and coerce a much larger audience, namely those sectors of society that longed for social change. Furthermore, a quantitative breakdown of the victims points to the class nature of this case of state terrorism and to the prominence of students as victims. The largest percentage (30.2 percent) were blue collar workers; the third largest (17.9 percent) white collar workers; and the seventh largest (3.8 percent) maids. Students were second, accounting for 21 percent of the victims and one-third of these were also employed.

Despite the fact that Jews constitute only one percent of the population of Argentina, an estimated ten percent of the victims of the dirty war were Jews. That this war had an anti-Semitic side is attested to by CONADEP, which devoted a section to illustrate this point. It is illustrated, to quote the report, by the "particular brutality in the treatment of prisoners of Jewish origin .1117 Jews were not only tortured, but the torture often took on an anti-Semitic form. The torturers painted swastikas on one Jewish prisoner's back with a sharp pointed marker. Another torturer who called himself the "great fuehrer" made Jewish prisoners shout "Hell Hitler." A Jewish woman on her way to an excursion in Israel was called by her abductors "a Yid," and subjected to the cattle prod. They wanted information from her and from her files on Jews. She was told that the Jewish problem was second only to the problem of subversion. Later, they told her that her abduction was a mistake and to forget it. In one torture center Jews were made to raise one hand and to shout "I love Hitler." One prisoner remembered the ordeal of another prisoner, a Jew nicknamed "Chango," at the hands of his torturer called "Julian the Turk." Julian always carried a key ring with a swastika and wore a crucifix around his neck. He made Chango bark like a dog, wag as though he were a dog wagging his tail, and lick his boots. Chango did very well at this. If he didn't, Julian would beat him. CONADEP concluded that:

All kinds of torture would be applied to Jews, especially one which was extremely sadistic and cruel: "the rectoscope," which consisted of inserting a tube into the victim's anus, or into a woman's vagina, then letting a rat into the tube. The rodent would try to get out by gnawing at the victim's internal organs.

Class War

A CIA analysis of the situation in 1976 concluded that the labor movement and Peronism were the major targets of this early stage of the dirty war. It was also impressed with the brutality with which the army and the police waged the dirty war. It declared:

... Labor strife and the specter of uncontrollable agitation is causing a hardening of attitudes towards unionized workers among the military and security services, both of which have recently been involved in breaking strikes declared "illegal and subversive" by the government. Generally opposed to Peronism as a political movement, a growing number of officers are beginning to perceive workers and even their "normal" economic demands as a threat to national security which must be suppressed. One Argentine general is quoted as having said that "in order to save 20 million Argentines from socialism, it ay be necessary to sacrifice 50,000 lives."

The first sentence of the report challenges the reader with the sentence, "Many of the events described in this report will be hard to believe .1125 It explains. The reason for this is that Argentinians have heard of such horror only in reports from different places. I would find it hard to believe had I not done the research for the other parts of this study. The authors of the report found it hard, after their long and difficult search for disappeared persons, to accept the fact that they were dead and that their bodies could not be found. They found it to be incredible that the victims were tortured, and then after being killed or while still alive, thrown into the sea. They also concluded that torture was an important element in the methodology of government oppression.

In almost every case that came to the Commission's attention, the victim spoke of torture. Granting that the government's way of disappearing victims was scarcely believable, the authors asserted that it was mentioned by many witnesses ' some because they heard about it, others because of direct reference by their captors. In addition, there were bodies that washed up on shore.


Aid Replacement and Increased Trade

... the attempt of the Reagan administration to repair the diplomatic damage inflicted on the junta by the world communitias recorded.) What was presented was mainly the comings and goings of junta members and of Ambassador Kirkpatrick as they were feted and honored in each others' capitals. This was a type of diplomatic support given by the Reagan administration to the junta as it engaged in state terrorism. The Carter administration did not engage in this activity, and thus did not support state terrorism in this way.

In 1976, backing the Humphrey-Kennedy amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1976, the Carter administration placed an embargo on the sale of arms and spare parts to Argentina and on the training of its military personnel. This resulted in the absence of military aid contracted by Washington in the period of the dirty war, including the Reagan years. Upon assuming office, the Reagan administration did not think the political climate was such that it could resume military aid. It did reverse the negative voting policy in multinational development banks of the Carter administration. And it continued with the "symbolic gestures" that helped to lessen the junta's diplomatic isolation

Before too much is made of Washington's cutting off military aid and maintaining nonmilitary aid at modest levels during the dirty war, aid replacement by its allies must be considered. The absence of aid from Washington was compensated for by its allies, no doubt at least in the Reagan years with encouragement from that administration. From 1978 to the early eighties these allies sold an estimated two billion in arms to Argentina. Notable among the suppliers was Israel. Argentina became Israel's largest South American customer, accounting for over 30 percent of Israeli weapons.

Four thousand and seventeen military personnel from Argentina were trained by the United States in the period from 1950 to 1979 38 Actually, Argentina ranked ninth among Latin American countries. By 1975, 600 had graduated from the School of the Americas where they received training in counterinsurgency warfare. Since that year Argentine attendance dropped off dramatically. Notable among the School's graduates were Generals Viola and Galtieri, two of three Argentine dictators during the dirty war.

On December 15, 1983 just five days after his inauguration as president of Argentina, Raul Alfonsin announced the creation of the National Commission on Disappeared Persons (CONADEP). He was the winner in a race in which he ran on a platform of human rights in the first free election since the military coup of March 24, 1976-the last of the coups in the Southern Cone of South America. Preceded by coups in Brazil (1964) and in Chile and Uruguay (both in 1973), the 1976 coup in Argentina deposed President Isabel Peron and ushered in the "dirty that lasted for eight years. In his inaugural address, Alfonsin promised to prosecute both military and guerrilla leaders who had "sowed terror, pain, and death throughout Argentine society.')

Three days after his inauguration, he ordered the trial of seven guerrilla leaders and of nine members of the three juntas that had ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Some two years later the verdicts were handed down on the nine members of the juntas. Two of them (including General Videla) received life imprisonment; General Viola 17 years; one eight years; one four and one half years; and four were exonerated.

In April 1987 Colonel Aldo Rico staged an insurrection and demanded a total amnesty. President Alfonsin met with the rebels, and he claimed that he made no concessions. Two months later, however, he effectively yielded by proposing a law that was essentially a total amnesty. Once passed, this proposal became a law which virtually exonerated all military personnel, because it exempted all but the most senior officers from prosecution on the grounds that those under these senior officers were merely carrying out orders-contrary to the Nuremburg Principles of international law which explicitly refuted similar arguments put forward by German generals at the close of World War II. In 1989 President Menem granted pardons to 39 military officers and more than 200 leftists guerrillas and other military personnel. The following year he pardoned the convicted leaders of the juntas. In 2003 both houses of the Argentine congress repealed the amnesty laws that prevented the prosecution of the military officers who terrorized the population during the dirty war. It is up to the Supreme Court to decide if these officers can now be tried.

Washington's military and economic aid to Buenos Aires prior to the dirty war was substantial, military aid alone amounting to $810 million between 1960 and 1975. Moreover, it trained 4,017 Argentine military personnel during several administrations in the period 1950 to 1979; many of the personnel were trained in counterinsurgency warfare. The evidence indicates that the training given was intended for such an eventuality as the dirty war and that Washington is guilty of being an accessory before the fact. With the onset of the dirty war, military aid dropped dramatically and then no more of this type of aid was offered by Washington. This was the work of the Carter administration, which provides additional grounds for believing that Democrats were more supportive of human rights than Republicans. The Reagan administration sought to provide military aid to the junta, supported it diplomatically, and covered over its atrocities. It was thus an accessory to state terrorism during and after the fact. The Carter administration did not engage in these activities, and thus did not support state terrorism in these ways. However, neither the Reaganites nor the Carterites were so taken with human rights that they resolved to punish the dirty warriors by trade boycotts or by the refusal to buy from, or to sell to, these state terrorists. Imports from, and exports to Argentina increased during both administrations.

Moreover, the absence of military aid from Washington was made up for by its allies, no doubt, at least in the Reagan years, with encouragement from that administration. Friendly countries and allies rushed in to provide the weapons needed. From 1978 to the early eighties these allies sold an estimated two billion in arms to Argentina. Notable among the suppliers was Israel. Israeli sales are hard to understand, or to justify, given the fact that the dirty war was in part antiSemitic, as evidenced above. The stark realism of Israeli policy may help in understanding Washington's policy: at least this commitment to the realism of the Old Testament puts Washington's approach in a comparative perspective.

Bits of information continue to surface. While valuable, they are not sufficient to provide the whole story, nor are they widely publicized. For example, in December 2003 the National Security Archive, acting in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, received two memoranda of the conversations between former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the visiting Argentine Foreign Minister indicating Kissinger gave his approval to the forthcoming "dirty war." The secretary urged his guest to act before Congress resumed session, but assured him that Washington would not cause "unnecessary difficulties.

State Terrorism and the United States

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