The Dirty War (Spanish: Guerra Sucia) refers to the state-sponsored violence against Argentine citizenry from roughly 1976 to 1983 carried out primarily by Jorge Rafael Videla's military government. The exact chronology of the repression is still debated, as trade unionists were targeted for assassination as early as 1973; Isabel Martínez de Perón's "annihilation decrees" of 1975, during Operativo Independencia, have also been suggested as the origin of The Dirty War.
In 1973, as Juan Perón returned from exile, the Ezeiza massacre marked the end of the alliance between left- and right-wing factions of Peronism. Several guerrilla groups emerged, the largest and most active of which was the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP). After Perón's death in 1974, the government was left in the hands of his widow, Isabel Martínez de Perón, who signed a number of decrees empowering the military and the police to "annihilate" left-wing subversion. Martínez de Perón was ousted in 1976. Starting that year, the juntas led by Videla until 1981, and then by Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, were responsible for the illegal arrest, torture, killing or forced disappearance of thousands of people, primarily trade-unionists, students and activists. Videla's dictatorship referred to its systematized persecution of the Argentine citizenry as the "National Reorganization Process".
Up to 30,000 people "disappeared" during this time. Argentine security forces and death squads worked hand in hand with other South American dictatorships in the frame of Operation Condor. An Argentine court would later condemn the government's crimes as crimes against humanity and "genocide".
Although the junta claimed its objective to be the eradication of guerrilla activity, the repression struck mostly the general population, and specifically all political opposition, trade unionists (half of the victims), students, and other civilians. Many others were forced to go into exile, and many remain in exile today (despite the return of democracy in 1983). It was made clear during the Trial of the Juntas that the guerrillas, despite the use of the term "war", were not in a position to pose a real threat, and could not be considered a belligerent: "The subversives had not taken control of any part of the national territory; they had not obtained recognition of interior or anterior belligerency, they were not massively supported by any foreign power, and they lacked the population's support. Thus, crimes committed during this time may not be covered under the laws of war (jus in bello), which shields soldiery of inferior rank from prosecution for acts committed under military or state orders.
The program of extermination of dissidents was termed "genocide" by a court of law, for the first time in the official treatment of illegal crimes of the dictatorship, during the 2006 trial of Miguel Etchecolatz, a former senior official of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police.
Peronism has been difficult to define according to traditional political classifications, and different periods must be distinguished. A populist and nationalist movement, it has sometimes been accused of Fascist tendencies; Perón's admiration for Benito Mussolini is often cited in support of that assertion. Argentina became a popular country of exile for ex-Nazis who entered clandestinity after World War II and fled using various ratlines. However, this has been strongly disputed by others, inside and outside the Peronist movement, and it might as well be compared with Gaullism in France, which at first succeeded in creating in the immediate post-war period a large coalition from the left-wing (excluding only Communists) to the right-wing, before turning itself into a more conservative movement in the 1960s-70s.
The absence of Perón himself, who spent 20 years in exile in Franquist Spain, is central to understanding Peronism, as his name was often invoked nostalgically by Argentines in all walks of life in protest of societal ills. Eva Perón, First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to her death in 1952, was warmly remembered by the working class, although she was despised by the "national bourgeoisie". Thus, the left-wing and Catholic Montoneros supported Perón as well as, at its end, the Fascist-leaning and strongly anti-Semitic Movimiento Nacionalista Tacuara, one of Argentine's first guerrilla movements.
Following nearly two decades of weak civilian governments, economic decline, and military interventionism, Perón returned from exile on 20 June 1973 as the country was becoming engulfed in immense financial, social and political disorder. The months preceding his return were marked by important social movements, as in the rest of South America, and in particular of the Southern Cone before the repression of the 1970s. Thus, during Héctor Cámpora's first months of government (May-July 1973), approximatively 600 social conflicts, strikes and factory occupations had taken place.
Upon Perón's arrival at Buenos Aires Airport, snipers (including members of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, or Triple A) opened fire on the crowds of left-wing Peronist sympathizers. Known as the Ezeiza massacre, this event marked the split between left-wing and right-wing factions of Peronism. Perón was re-elected in 1973, backed by a broad coalition that ranged from trade unionists in the center to fascists on the right (including members of the neofascist Movimiento Nacionalista Tacuara) and socialists like the Montoneros led by Mario Firmenich on the left. Following the Ezeiza massacre, and Perón's denouncing of "bearded immature idealists", Perón sided with the Peronist right-wing, the trade-unionist bureaucracy and Radical Civic Union of Ricardo Balbín, Héctor José Cámpora's unsuccessful rival at the May 1973 elections. The Montoneros were finally expelled from the Justicialist Party by Perón in May 1974. However, the Montoneros waited until after the death of Perón in July 1974 to react, with the exception of the assassination of José Ignacio Rucci, the right-wing Peronist Secretary General of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) on 25 September 1973, and some other military actions. They would then claim the "social revolutionary vision of authentic Peronism" and start guerrilla operations against Isabel Perón's government, who represented the Peronist right-wing. A main aim of the Montoneros was to push authorities into repression, even severe repression, in the belief that in the end it would prove self defeating.
The 1985 CONADEP human rights commission counted 458 assassinations from 1973 to 1975 in its report Nunca Más (Never Again): 19 in 1973, 50 in 1974 and 359 in 1975, carried out by paramilitary groups, who acted mostly under the José López Rega's Triple A death squad (according to Argenpress, at least 25 trade-unionists were assassinated in 1974). The Triple A had been created by José López Rega and Rodolfo Almirón (arrested in Spain in 2006 and extradited to Argentina in 2008). López Rega was successively Minister of Social Welfare under Héctor José Cámpora, Raúl Alberto Lastiri, Perón and Isabel Perón and private secretary of the last two. Furthermore, after the 1980 police arrest of Licio Gelli, head of Propaganda Due (aka P2), a masonesque lodge involved in Italy's strategy of tension, in a villa in the French Côte d'Azur, it was discovered that Isabel Perón's Minister for Social Affairs, López Rega, had also been a member of this lodge.
One of the first terror attacks of the Triple A targeted Hipólito Solari Yrigoyen with a car bomb on 21 November 1973, which seriously injured him. A few days earlier, Solari Yrigoyen had criticized in the Senate the reform of laws concerning workers' trade-unions, which aimed at tightening the control of the trade-union bureaucracy on the workers' movement. A few days before the bombing, a leading representative of the trade-unionist bureaucracy, Lorenzo Miguel, had qualified Solari Yrigoyen as "public enemy number one." The Triple A also assassinated Silvio Frondizi, brother of former president Arturo Frondizi, in September 1974, etc.
However, the repression of the social movements had already started before the attempt on Yrigoyen's life: on 17 July 1973, the CGT section in Salta was closed, while the CGT, SMATA and Luz y Fuerza in Córdoba were victims of armed attacks. Agustín Tosco, Secretary General of Luz y Fuerza, successfully dissimulated him avoiding his arrestation, and entered clandestinity until his death on 5 November 1975.
Trade-unionists were also targeted by the repression in 1973: Carlos Bache was assassinated on 21 August 1973; Enrique Damiano, of the Taxis Trade-Union of Córdoba, on 3 October; Juan Avila, also of Córdoba, the following day; Pablo Fredes, on 30 October in Buenos Aires; Adrián Sánchez, on 8 November 1973 in the Province of Jujuy. Assassinations of trade-unionists, lawyers, etc. continued and increased in 1974 and 1975, while the most combative trade-unions were closed and their leaders arrested. In August 1974, Isabel Peron's government took out the right of trade-unionist representation of the Federación Gráfica Bonaerense, and its Secretary General Raimundo Ongaro arrested in October 1974.
During the same month of August 1974, the SMATA Córdoba trade-union, in conflict with the company Ika Renault, was closed by the national direction of trade-unions, and the majority of its leaders and activists arrested. Most of them, including its Secretary General René Salamanca, were assassinated during the 1976–83 dictatorship. Atilio López, General Secretary of the CGT of Córdoba and former Vice-Governor of the Province, was assassinated in Buenos Aires on 16 September 1974.
The ERP publicly remained in the forefront. ERP guerrilla activity took the form of attacks on military outposts, police stations and convoys. On 19 January 1974 70 ERP men attacked the barracks at Azul, killing the Commanding Officer of the 10th 'Húsares de Pueyrredon' Armoured Cavalry Regiment, Colonel Camilo Arturo Gay and his wife, Hilda Irma Casaux de Gay and capturing the Commanding Officer of the 1st Artillery Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Jorge Roberto Ibarzabal. In another case, the famous ERP "Compañía Ramón Rosa Jiménez" — about 300 strong and a first class unit — struck the 17th Airborne Infantry Regiment at Catamarca. The attack involved some 90 members of the "Compañía Ramón Rosa Jiménez" who on 10 August, dressed in Army fatigues raided the parachute unit at Catamarca in an apparent attempt to kidnap the Commanding Officer. In 10 years of guerrilla operations (1969–79) there were 1,501 killings, 1.748 kidnappings, 5,215 bombings and 45 major attacks on military units blamed on leftist guerrillas.
Meanwhile, the Guevarist People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), led by Roberto Santucho and inspired by Che Guevara's foco theory, began a rural insurgency in the province of Tucumán, in the mountainous northwest of Argentina. It started the campaign with no more than 100 men and women and ended with about 300 in the mountains, which the Argentine Army managed to control. On 5 January 1975, an Airforce C-47 transport plane was downed near the Monteros mountains, apparently shot down by Guerrillas. All thirteen on board were killed. The military believed a SA-7 shoulder-fired missile struck an engine. In response, Ítalo Luder, President of the National Assembly who acted as interim President substituting himself to Isabel Perón who was ill for a short period, signed in February 1975 the secret presidential decree 261, which ordered the army to neutralize and/or annihilate the insurgency in Tucumán, the smallest province of Argentina. In contravention of the Constitution, Operativo Independencia gave power to the Armed Forces to "execute all military operations necessary for the effects of neutralizing or annihilating the action of subversive elements acting in the Province of Tucumán. Santucho had declared a "liberated zone" in Tucuman and demanded Soviet-backed protection for its borders as well as proper treatment of captured guerrillas as prisoners of war. The Fifth Brigade, then consisting of the 19th, 20th and 29th Mountain Infantry Regiments and commanded by Brigadier-General Acdel Vilas received the order to move to Famailla in the foothills of the Monteros mountains on 8 February 1975. While fighting the guerrilla in the jungle, Vilas concentrated on uprooting the ERP support network in the towns, using state terror tactics later adopted nation-wide, as well as a civic action campaign. The Argentine security forces used techniques no different from their US and French counterparts. By July 1975, anti-guerrilla commandos were mounting search-and-destroy missions in the snow-capped mountains. Army forces discovered Santucho's base camp in August, then raided the ERP urban headquarters in September. Most of the Compania del Monte's general staff was killed in October and was dispersed by the end of the year. While the leadership of the movement was mostly eradicated, many of the ERP soldiers and sympathizers were taken into custody as political prisoners. The Argentines have admitted to 43 troops killed in action in Tucuman although this figure does not take into account police and Gendarmerie troops. By December 1975 the Argentine military could, with some justification claim that it was winning the 'Dirty War', but it was dismayed to find no evidence of overall victory. On 23 December 1975 several hundred ERP fighters staged an all-out battle with the 601st Arsenal Battalion nine miles (14 km) from Buenos Aires. 85 guerrillas, seven army troops and three policemen were killed. In addition 20 civilians were killed in the crossfire. It was a development which the army officers, together with certain elements of the airforce, could not tolerate, and one which was to have far-reaching ramnifications. On 30 December a bomb exploded at the headquarters of the Argentine Army in Buenos Aires, injuring at least six officers of senior-rank. The credibility of the government was now destroyed and the strategy of attrition was bankrupt. The Montoneros had even successfully utilized divers in underwater infiltrations and sunk an Argentine destroyer, the ARA Santísima Trinidad on 22 August 1975.
By mid-1975, the country was a stage for widespread violence. Extreme right-wing death squads used their hunt for far-left guerrillas as a pretext to exterminate any and all ideological opponents on the left and as a cover for common crimes. Assassinations and kidnappings by the Peronist Montoneros and the ERP contributed to the general climate of fear. In July, there was a general strike. On 6 July 1975, the government, presided temporarily by Italo Luder from the Peronist party, issued three decrees to combat the guerrillas. The decrees 2770, 2771 and 2772 created a Defense Council headed by the president and including his ministers and the chiefs of the armed forces. It was given the command of the national and provincial police and correctional facilities and its mission was to "annihilate … subversive elements throughout the country". Military control was thus generalized to all of the country. These "annihilation decrees" are the source of the charges against her which led to Isabel Perón's arrest in Madrid more than thirty years later, in January 2007. The country was then divided into five military zones through a 28 October 1975 military directive of "Struggle Against Subversion". As had been done during the 1957 Battle of Algiers (quadrillage), each zone was divided in subzones and areas, with its corresponding military responsibles. General Antonio Domingo Bussi replaced in December 1975 Acdel Vidas as responsible of the military operations.
Isabel Perón's government ordered a raid on 20 March 1975, which involved 4,000 military and police officers, in Villa Constitución, Santa Fe, in response to various trade-unionist conflicts. Many citizens and 150 activists and trade-unionists leaders were arrested, while the Unión Obrera Metalúrgica's subsidiary in Villa Constitución was closed down with the agreement of the trade-unions' national direction, headed by Lorenzo Miguel. Repression affected trade-unionists of large firms, such as Ford, Fiat, Renault, Mercedes Benz, Peugeot, etc., and was sometimes carried on with support from the firm's executives and from the trade-unionist bureaucracy. José Rodríguez, for example, has been accused of being involved in the "disappearance" of Mercedes Benz workers during the dictatorship. He was the same trade-unionist leader who in 1974 closed down SMATA's section in Córdoba — and who is today General Secretary of SMATA.
The junta, which dubbed itself "National Reorganization Process", systematized the repression, in particular through the way of "forced disappearances" (desaparecidos), which made it very difficult, as in Augusto Pinochet's Chile, to depose courtsuits as the bodies were never found. The Generals organized a nation-wide system, from national scale to local scale, to track down so-called "subversives." Physicians and psychiatrists were also used by the state in the interrogation and torture sessions. Argentine newspaper La Opinión, founded by future "desaparecido" Jacobo Timerman, wrote on 31 December 1976 that the Argentine "guerrilla" has suffered losses of 4000, and that the Montoneros had lost 80% of their leaders. The Buenos Aires Herald, on its side, estimated the victims in 1976 to be 1,100 dead. A clandestine newspaper added that "there is one dead each five hours, and one bomb each three hours." According to Argentine journalist Stella Calloni, author of the classic Los años del lobo, all of these numbers may be correct.
This generalization of state terror tactics has been explained in part by the information received by the Argentine militaries in the infamous School of Americas and also by French instructors from the secret services, who taught them "counter-insurgency" tactics first experimented during the Algerian War (1954-62).
In 1976 there was a successful series of Montoneros bomb attacks in which the general commanding the Federal Police, Cesáreo Cardozo was killed. Lieutenant-General Jorge Videla himself narrowly escaped three Montoneros assassination attempts between February 1976 and April 1977. As pressure mounted on the Montoneros, the urban guerrillas struck back. On 2 July 1976 a Claymore shrapnel mine exploded at the headquarters of the Federal Police in west Buenos Aires during a secret meeting of the police leadership, killing 21 and mutilating a further 60. On 12 September 1976 a car bomb destroyed a bus filled with police officers in Rosario, killing 11 policemen and injuring at least 12. On 17 October a bomb blast in an Army Club Cinema in downtown Buenos Aires killed 11 and wounded about 50 officers and their families. On 16 December, another bomb planted in a Defense Ministry movie hall killed at least 14 and injured 30 officers and their families.
Furthermore, by 1976 Operation Condor, which had already centralized information from South American intelligence agencies for years, was at its height. Chilean exiles in Argentina were threatened again, and had to go into hiding or seek refuge in a third country. Chilean General Carlos Prats had already been assassinated by the Chilean DINA in Buenos Aires in 1974, with the help of former CIA agent Michael Townley and DINA agent Enrique Arancibia. Cuban diplomats were also assassinated in Buenos Aires in the infamous Automotores Orletti torture center, one of the 300 clandestine prisons of the dictatorship, managed by the Grupo de Tareas 18, headed by Aníbal Gordon, previously convicted for armed robbery, and answered directly to the General Commandant of the SIDE, Otto Paladino. Automotores Orletti was the main base of foreign intelligence services involved in Operation Condor. One of the survivors, José Luis Bertazzo, who was detained for two months there, identified Chileans, Uruguayans, Paraguayans and Bolivians among the prisoners. These captives were interrogated by agents from their own countries. It is there that 19 year-old daughter-in-law of the poet Juan Gelman was tortured (along with his son), before being transported to Montevideo, where she delivered a baby which was immediately taken from her by the Uruguayan authorities. According to John Dinges's Los años del Cóndor, Chilean MIR prisoners in Orletti center told José Luis Bertazzo that they had seen two Cuban diplomats, 22 years-old Jesús Cejas Arias, and 26 years-old Crescencio Galañega, tortured by Gordon's group and interrogated by a man who specially came one day from Miami to interrogate them. The two Cuban diplomats, charged with the protection of the Cuban embassador to Argentina, Emilio Aragonés, had been kidnapped on 9 August 1976, in the intersection between Calle Arribeños and Virrey del Pino, by 40 armed SIDE agents who blocked off all sides of the street with their Ford Falcons, the cars used by the security forces during the dictatorship. According to John Dinges, the FBI as well as the CIA were informed of their abduction. In his book Dinges published a cable sent by Robert Scherrer, an FBI agent in Buenos Aires on 22 September 1976, where he mentions in passing that former CIA agent Michael Townley, later convicted of the assassination on 21 September 1976 of former Chilean minister Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C., had also taken part to the interrogation of the two Cubans. Former head of the DINA confirmed to Argentine federal judge María Servini de Cubría on 22 December 1999, in Santiago de Chile, the presence of Michael Townley and Cuban Guillermo Novo Sampoll in the Orletti center. The two men travelled from Chile to Argentina on 11 August 1976, and "cooperated in the torture and assassination of the two Cuban diplomats." Anti-Castro Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles also boasted in his autobiography, "Los caminos del guerrero", of the murder of the two young men. According to the "terror archives" discovered in Paraguay in 1992, 50,000 persons were murdered in the frame of Condor, 30,000 "disappeared" (desaparecidos) and 400,000 incarcerated.
During a 1981 interview whose contents were revealed by documents declassified by the CIA in 2000, former CIA and DINA agent Michael Townley explained that Ignacio Novo Sampol, member of CORU anti-Castro organization, had agreed to commit the Cuban Nationalist Movement in the kidnapping, in Buenos Aires, of a president of a Dutch bank. The abduction, organized by civilian SIDE agents, the Argentine intelligence agency, was to obtain a ransom. Townley said that Novo Sampol had provided $6,000 from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, forwarded to the civilian SIDE agents to pay for the preparation expenses of the kidnapping. After returning to the US, Novo Sampol sent Townley a stock of paper, used to print pamphlets in the name of "Grupo Rojo" (Red Group), an imaginary Argentine Marxist terrorist organization, which was to claim credit for the sequestration of the Dutch banker. Townley declared that the pamphlets were distributed in Mendoza and Córdoba in relation with false flag bombings perpetrated by SIDE agents, which had as aim to accredit the existence of the fake Grupo Rojo. However, the SIDE agents procrastinated too much, and the kidnapping finally was not carried out.
In 1976, one of the generals predicted, ";We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes." The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) researched and recorded, case by case, the "disappearance" of about 9,000 persons, though it was made clear that many more could exist; today, the most commonly accepted estimate by human rights organizations places the number at 30,000. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International were gravely concerned by the state's use of 'disappearances' and periodical use of extrajudicial killings against the supposed 'subversives'.
Most victims were not armed guerrilla fighters, whose organizations were virtually liquidated, but anyone believed to be associated with activist groups, including trade-union members, students (including very young students, for example in September 1976 during the Night of the Pencils, an operation directed by Ramón Camps, General and head of the Bonaerense, the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, from April 1976 to December 1977) and people thought to hold left-wing views (for example French nuns Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon, kidnapped by Alfredo Astiz). Ramón Camps told Clarín, in 1984, that he had used torture as a method of interrogation and orchestrated 5,000 forced disappearances, and justified the appropriation of newborns from their imprisoned mothers "because subversive parents will raise subversive children".Many of the "disappeared" were pushed out of planes and into the Río de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean to drown. This form of disappearance, theorized by Luis Maria Mendia, former chief of naval operations in 1976-77 who is today before the court for his role in the ESMA case, was termed vuelos de la muerte ("death flights"). These individuals which suddenly vanished are called los desaparecidos meaning "the missing ones" or "vanishing ones."
Tomás Di Toffino, Deputy Secretary General of Luz y Fuerza de Córdoba, was kidnapped on 28 November 1976 and executed in a military camp in Córdoba on 28 February 1977, in a "military ceremony" presided by General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez.
In December 1976, 22 political prisoners were tortured and executed during the Massacre of Margarita Belén, in the military Chaco Province, for which Videla would be found guilty of homicide during the 1985 Trial of the Juntas, as well as Cristino Nicolaides, junta leader Leopoldo Galtieri and Santa Fe Provincial Police chief Wenceslao Ceniquel. The same year, fifty anonymous persons were illegally executed by a firing-squad in Cordoba
Organizations closely associated with state terrorism included the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A), the Batallón de Inteligencia 601 of the military unit, the Naval Mechanics School (ESMA), and the Secretaría de Inteligencia (SIDE). SIDE cooperated with DINA, its Chilean counter-part, and other South American intelligence units in Operation Condor.
Relatives of the victims uncovered evidence that some children taken from their mothers soon after birth were being raised as the adopted children of military men, as in the case of Silvia Quintela. For three decades, the Grand-Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group founded in 1977, has been demanding the return of these kidnapped children, estimated to number as many as five hundred. 77 of the kidnapped children have been located so far.
In 1977, Videla told British journalists: "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". Yet, there are people such as Alicia Partnoy, who was tortured and has written her story in "The Little School", who claim otherwise.
In 1980, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a Catholic human rights activist who had organized the Servicio de Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Service) and suffered torture while held without trial for 14 months in a Buenos Aires concentration camp, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the defense of human rights in Argentina.
In 1981 Videla retired and General Roberto Eduardo Viola replaced him, but nine months later, Viola stepped down for health reasons, and General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri took the post. Democracy returned with Raúl Alfonsín, who created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) on 15 December 1983. Under Alfonsín, Congress would then pass the Ley de Punto Final and Ley de Obediencia Debida as amnesty laws, overturned in June 2005 by the Supreme Court.
After having been trained by the French military, the Argentine Armed Forces would train their counterparts, in Nicaragua, but also El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, in the frame of Operation Charly. From 1977 to 1984, after the Falklands War, the Argentine Armed Forces exported counter-insurgency tactics, including the systemic use of torture, death squads and disappearances. Special force units, such as Batallón de Inteligencia 601, headed in 1979 by Colonel Jorge Alberto Muzzio, trained the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, in particular in Lepaterique base. Following the release of classified documents and an interview with Duane Clarridge, former CIA responsible for those operations, the Clarín showed that with the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the CIA was blocked from engaging in the special warfare it had previously delivered against opponents. In conformity with the National Security Doctrine, the Argentine militaries then did the work the most conservative North-American elements wanted to achieve, while they pressured the US to be more active in counter-revolutionary activities. And finally, they submitted themselves to Washington's control following the access of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981.
Many Chilean and Uruguayan exiles in Argentina were murdered there by Argentine security forces (including high-profile figures such as General Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires in 1974). Central Intelligence Agency documents released in 2002 show that Argentina's brutal policies were known and tolerated by the United States State Department, led by Henry Kissinger under Gerald Ford's presidency, and that the Argentine military knew the U.S. supported the repression.
Since the end of the dictatorship, some former military, politicians and journalists have tried to justify these crimes as either regrettable or simply inevitable "excesses" brought about by the nature of the enemy (that is, the insurgency), which employed the same tactics. Critics have coined the phrase "theory of the two demons" to qualify the alleged thesis that views the forces of law of the national state and the radical subversive groups as morally comparable entities. Opponents of this theory talk of a deliberate strategy of tension.
According to the National Security Archive, the junta led by Jorge Rafael Videla believed it had US approval for its all-out assault on the left in the name of "national security doctrine". The US Embassy in Buenos Aires complained to Washington that the Argentine officers were "euphoric" over signals from high-ranking US officials, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The Reagan administration whose first term began in 1981, however, asserted that Carter had weakened US diplomatic relationships with Cold War allies, and reversed the previous administration's official condemnation of the junta's human rights practices. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties allowed for CIA collaboration with the Argentine intelligence service in training and arming the Nicaraguan Contras against the Sandinista government. The 601 Intelligence Battalion, for example, trained Contras at Lepaterique base, in Honduras.
French journalist Marie-Monique Robin has found in the archives of the Quai d'Orsay, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, the original document proving that a 1959 agreement between Paris and Buenos Aires instaured a "permanent French military mission," formed of militaries who had fought in the Algerian War, and which was located in the offices of the chief of staff of the Argentine Armed Forces. It was continued until 1981, date of the election of socialist François Mitterrand. She showed how Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's government secretly collaborated with Videla's junta in Argentine and with Augusto Pinochet's regime in Chile.. The first Argentine officers, among whom Alcides Lopez Aufranc, went to Paris to assist to courses during two years at the Ecole de Guerre military school in 1957, two years before the Cuban Revolution and when no Argentine guerrilla existed. "In practice, declared Robin to Página/12, the arrival of the French in Argentina led to a massive extension of intelligence services and of the use of torture as the primary weapon of the anti-subversive war in the concept of modern warfare." The anniquilation decrees signed by Isabel Peron had been inspired by French texts. During the Battle of Algiers, the police forces were put under the authority of the Army, and in particular of the paratroopers, who generalized interrogation sessions, systematically using torture and then disappearances. 30 000 persons disappeared in Algeria. Reynaldo Bignone, named President of the Argentinian junta in July 1982, declared in her film: "The March 1976 order of battle is a copy of the Algerian battle." The same statements were issued by Generals Albano Harguindeguy, Videla's Interior Minister, and Diaz Bessone, former Minister of Planification and ideologue of the junta. The French military would transmit to their Argentine counterparts the notion of "internal enemy" and the use of torture, death squads and "quadrillages".
Green deputies Noël Mamère, Martine Billard and Yves Cochet filed on 10 September 2003 a request for the constitution of a Parliamentary Commission on the "role of France in the support of military regimes in Latin America from 1973 to 1984" before the Foreign Affairs Commission of the National Assembly, presided by Edouard Balladur (UMP). Apart of Le Monde, newspapers remained silent about this request. However, UMP deputy Roland Blum, in charge of the Commission, refused to hear Marie-Monique Robin, and published in December 2003 a 12-page report qualified by Robin as the summum of bad faith. It claimed that no agreement had been signed, despite the agreement found by Robin in the Quai d'Orsay
When Minister of Foreign Affairs Dominique de Villepin traveled to Chile in February 2004, he claimed that no cooperation between France and the military regimes had occurred.
Reporter Marie-Monique Robin thus declared to L'Humanité newspaper: "French have systematized a military technique in urban environment which would be copied and pasted to Latin American dictatorships.". The methods employed during the 1957 Battle of Algiers were systematized and exported to the War School in Buenos Aires. Roger Trinquier's famous book on counter-insurgency had a very strong influence in South America. She declared being shocked to learn that the DST French intelligence agency communicated to the DINA the name of the refugees who returned to Chile (Operation Retorno). All of these Chileans have been killed. "Of course, this puts in cause the French government, and Giscard d'Estaing, then President of the Republic. I was very shocked by the duplicity of the French diplomatic position which, on one hand, received with open arms the political refugees, and, on the other hand, collaborated with the dictatorships."
Marie-Monique Robin also demonstrated ties between the French far right and Argentina since the 1930s, in particular through the Catholic fundamentalist organization Cité catholique, created by Jean Ousset, a former secretary of Charles Maurras, the founder of the royalist Action française movement, who was awarded the Francisque under Vichy (1940–4). La Cité edited a review, Le Verbe, which influenced militaries during the Algerian War, notably by justifying the use of torture. At the end of the 1950s, the Cité catholique installed itself in Argentina and organized their cells in the Army. It greatly expanded itself during the government of General Juan Carlos Onganía, in particular in 1969. The key figure of the Cité catholique was priest Georges Grasset, who became Videla's personal confessor and had been the spiritual guide of the Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS) pro-French Algeria terrorist movement founded in Franquist Spain. This Catholic fundamentalist current in the Argentine Army explains, according to Robin, the importance and length of the French-Argentine cooperation. In Buenos Aires, Georges Grasset maintained links with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of Society of St. Pius X in 1970 and excommunicated in 1988. The Society of Pius-X has four monasteries in Argentina, the largest one in La Reja. There, a French priest declared to Marie-Monique Robin: "To save the soul of a Communist priest, one must kill him." There, she met Luis Roldan, former Under Secretary of Cult under Carlos Menem, President of Argentina from 1989 to 1999, who was presented by Dominique Lagneau, the priest in charge of the monastery, as "Mr. Cité catholique in Argentina". Bruno Genta and Juan Carlos Goyeneche represent this ideology.
Antonio Caggiano, archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1959 to 1975 wrote in 1961 a prologue to Jean Ousset's Spanish version of Le Marxisme-léninisme. Caggiano explained that "Marxism is the negation of Christ and his Church" and spoke of a Marxist conspiracy to take over the world, for which it was necessary to "prepare for the decisive battle". Together with President Arturo Frondizi (Radical Civic Union, UCR), he inaugurated the first course on counter-revolutionary warfare in the Higher Military College (Frondizi was eventually overthrown for being "tolerant of Communism").
By 1963, cadets at the (then infamously well-known) Navy Mechanics School started receiving counter-insurgency classes aided by the film The Battle of Algiers, which showed the methods used by the French Army in Algeria. Caggiano, the military chaplain at the time, introduced the film approvingly and added a religiously oriented commentary to it. On 2 July 1966, four days after President Arturo Umberto Illia was removed from office and replaced by the dictator Juan Carlos Onganía, Caggiano declared: "We are at a sort of dawn, in which, thanks to God, we all sense that the country is again headed for greatness."
Argentine Admiral Luis Maria Mendia, who had theorized the practice of "death flights", testified in January 2007, before the Argentine judges, that a French intelligence "agent," Bertrand de Perseval, had participated in the abduction of the two French nuns, Léonie Duquet and Alice Domont. Perseval, who lives today in Thailand, denied any links with the abduction, but did admit being a former member of the OAS, and having escaped for Argentina after the March 1962 Evian Accords putting an end to the Algerian War (1954-62). Referring to Marie Monique Robin's film documentary titled The Death Squads — the French School (Les escadrons de la mort – l'école française), Luis Maria Mendia asked before the Argentine Court that former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, former French premier Pierre Messmer, former French embassador to Buenos Aires Françoise de la Gosse, and all officials in place in the French embassy in Buenos Aires between 1976 and 1983 be convoked before the court. Besides this "French connection," he has also charged former head of state Isabel Peron and former ministers Carlos Ruckauf and Antonio Cafiero, whom had signed the "anti-subversion decrees" before Videla's 1976 coup d'état. According to ESMA survivor Graciela Dalo, this is another tactic which pretends that these crimes were legitimate as the 1987 Obediencia Debida Act claimed them to be and that they also obeyed to Isabel Peron's "anti-subversion decrees" (which, if true, would give them a formal appearance of legality, despite torture being forbidden by the Argentine Constitution) Alfredo Astiz also referred before the courts to the "French connexion".
When Minister of Foreign Affairs Dominique de Villepin traveled to Chile in February 2004, he claimed that no cooperation between France and the military regimes had occurred.
The junta relinquished power in 1983. After democratic elections, president elect Raúl Alfonsín created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) in December 1983, led by writer Ernesto Sábato, to collect evidence about the Dirty War crimes. The gruesome details, including documentation of the disappearance of nearly 9,000 people, shocked the world. Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the junta, was among the generals convicted of human rights crimes, including forced disappearances, torture, murders and kidnappings. President Alfonsín ordered that the nine members of the military junta be judicially charged, during the 1983 Trial of the Juntas, together with guerrilla leaders Mario Firmenich, Fernando Vaca Narvaja, Rodolfo Galimberti, Roberto Perdía, and Enrique Gorriarán Merlo. Some claimed that Alfonsín's government was positing the "theory of the two demons," morally equating violent political subversion with state terrorism.
In the Prologue to the Nunca Más report ("Never Again"), Ernesto Sábato wrote:
"From the moment of their abduction, the victims lost all rights. Deprived of all communication with the outside world, held in unknown places, subjected to barbaric tortures, kept ignorant of their immediate or ultimate fate, they risked being either thrown into a river or the sea, weighted down with blocks of cement, or burned to ashes. They were not mere objects, however, and still possessed all the human attributes: they could feel pain, could remember a mother, child or spouse, could feel infinite shame at being raped in public. .."
In 1985, Videla was sentenced to life imprisonment at the military prison of Magdalena. However, on 29 December 1990, President Carlos Menem pardoned Videla and other convicted generals. In 1998, Videla received a prison sentence for his role in the kidnapping of eleven children during the regime and for the forgery of the children's identity documents (the "stolen babies", kidnapped from the parents arrested, and raised by military families).
Some viewed the pardons as a pragmatic decision of national reconciliation that sought to please the military and thus prevent further uprisings. Others condemned it as unconstitutional, noting that the constitutionally acknowledged right of the president to pardon does not extend to those who have not yet been convicted — which was the situation in the case of some military officials. Others yet consider that this presidential privilege is inappropriate for modern times, a relic of monarchic rule that should be abolished.
Ironically, dictator Videla was de facto incapable of leaving his house, since every time he went out in public he risked insults or assault. At one time, the street was painted with enormous arrows pointing to his house, and the words: 30,000 disappeared, assassin on the loose.
Foreign governments whose citizens were victims of the Dirty War (which included citizens of Czechoslovakia, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Paraguay, Bolivia, Spain, Chile Uruguay, Peru, and several other nations) are pressing individual cases against the former military regime. France has sought the extradition of Captain Alfredo Astiz for the kidnapping and murder of its nationals, among them nuns Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon. Adolfo Scilingo, a former Argentine naval officer, was convicted in Spain, on 19 April 2005, to 640 years on charges of crimes against humanity.
At the end of 2005, during the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, the Ley de Punto Final and Ley de Obediencia Debida were declared void by congress, but those already pardoned cannot be prosecuted again for the same crimes. Since 2006, 24 March is a public holiday in Argentina, the Day of Memory for Truth and Justice; that year, on the 30th anniversary of the coup, a multitude filled the streets calling to remember what happened during the military government, and pray it never to happen again.
In 2006, the first trials since the repeal of the "Pardon Laws" began. Miguel Etchecolatz, a police officer in the 1970s, was the first to face trial for illegal detention, torture and homicide.
Furthermore, several former Ford Argentine workers have deposed a suit against the U.S.-based company, alleging that the local managers worked with the security forces to detain union members on the premises and torture them. The civil suit against Ford Motor Company and Ford Argentina also calls for four former company executives and a retired military officer to be questioned. According to Pedro Norberto Troiani, one of the plaintiffs, 25 employees were detained in this plant located from Buenos Aires. Ford has been accused since 1998 of involvement in state repression, but has denied the claims. According to several documents, army personnel arrived at the plant on the day of the military coup, 24 March 1976, and disappearances immediately started. In October 2002, DaimlerChrysler had also announced an external investigation into the claims, made by Amnesty International, that 14 union activists had been handed over to Argentina's military during the Dirty War.
There has been a long-running debate in Argentina over the issue of amnesty for officials of the Dirty War. A form of amnesty was controversially adopted as law after the reinstatement of democratic rule and the trials of the top military leaders of the juntas in 1984, during Raúl Alfonsín's presidency (1983–1989), but it has remained unpopular. In June 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the amnesty laws, called Ley de Punto Final ("Full Stop Law") and of Ley de Obediencia Debida ("Law of Due Obedience"), opening the door for prosecutions of former junta officials. The Punto Final law had been voted on 24 December 1986, under Alfonsín's presidency, and extinguished any charges for human rights violations for all acts preceding 12 December 1983.
It should be noted that Bergoglio was a key figure in securing the priests' release following their abduction by an Argentine navy squad, as he pressured Navy Chief of Staff Emilio Eduardo Massera .
Furthermore, the former chaplain of the Buenos Aires Province Police while it was under the command of General Ramón Camps, Christian von Wernich, was first accused of collaborating in the torture of political prisoners during the Trial of the Juntas in 1985 . A judge ordered again his arrest in 2003, and he was indicted on charges of co-authorship of homicide, illegal restraints and acts of torture (including the kidnapping of Jacobo Timerman, the editor of La Opinión). Surviving victims declared that von Wernich questioned them under torture, subjected them to fake executions, and, under the guise of counseling, urged them to confess. On 9 October 2007, the court found him guilty of complicity in seven homicides, 42 kidnappings, and 32 instances of torture, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.