March 24 marked 47 years since the US-backed military coup overthrew the left-wing government of President Isabel Martínez de Perón in Argentina (July 1974-March 1976), and triggered off the bloodiest dictatorship in the history of the country. During the seven years and nine months of military dictatorship (March 1976-December 1983), Argentine security forces, along with right-wing death squads, executed anyone believed to be confronting the military junta, or associated with socialism, left-wing Peronism, the Montoneros movement, or against the neoliberal economic policies imposed by the military junta.
From 1976 to 1983, Argentina faced the tyranny of a military dictatorship that committed horrific human rights crimes, including torture, extrajudicial executions, and the imprisonment of thousands without trial. The degree of repression marked a chapter or scaled heights virtually unparalleled in the history of Latin America .The principal of feature of political repression in Argentina, , was the routine practice of enforced disappearance. Military task forces in unmarked cars, mercilessly seized defenceless men and women (sometimes with their children) from their homes or places of work, took them to clandestine camps, tortured them mercilessly, murdered them, and secretly disposed of their bodies. On March 24, 2001, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1976 military coup, tens of thousands of Argentines flooded streets to protest these atrocities. The size of the turn-out manifested the sheer disgust about this tragic period of Argentinian history.
It is estimated that over 30,000 students, activists, trade unionists, writers, journalists, artists and any citizens suspected of being left-wing activists were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared. The profuse investigation to research into the period and testimonies from survivors indicate that those tens of thousands of detainees were murdered in cold blood. Several thousands were executed in the “planes of deaths” wherein they were sedated, loaded into aircrafts, and then flung into the Atlantic Ocean or La Plata River. Additionally, the armed forces seized their property and their babies. According to available data, around 500 children, who were detained with their militant parents or born in captivity, were absorbed as war trophies by the forces and handed over to military families, sold or abandoned in state institutions. So far, the true identities of 132 grandchildren have been recovered through the resilient work of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
For over three decades, every year, on March 24, hundreds of thousands of citizens, relatives of the disappeared people, members of social movements, human rights organizations and left-wing political parties march to the Plaza de Mayo in the capital Buenos Aires to commemorate the victims of the last dictatorship and demand justice for the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the State during that period.
Last Friday, under the banner of “47 years after the genocidal coup, Memory, Truth and Justice to defend Democracy, Judicial Corporation never again,” hundreds of thousands of Argentines flooded the streets across the country to pay homage to the victims of unparalleled brutality.
In Buenos Aires, members and sympathizers of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the human rights organizations that have spearheaded the struggle to justice for and truth about their disappeared relatives, marched from Mayo Avenue to Plaza de Mayo, fluttering the flag of the photos of the 30,000 victims.
The demonstrators also paid homage to the co-founder and former president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo association, Hebe de Bonafini, who died on November 20, 2022.
Likewise, they also expressed their support for Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the face of judicial and political persecution against her, raising slogans and waving flags and banners with her photos.
Massive demonstrations and marches demanding justice for the dictatorship’s victims were held in the cities such as Mar del Plata, Choco, Córdoba, Mendoza, Rosario, Jujuy, Entre Ríos, Río Negro, Neuquén, Salta, and Tucumán, among others.
The demonstrators across the country vociferously demanded that the perpetrators of those horrendous human rights crimes, be brought to the book regardless of their old age.
President Alberto Fernández declared he construction of a new Space for Memory and the Promotion of Human Rights in Campo de Mayo, a military base and one of the secret detention centres used by the military regime, as a step forward in “valuing collective memory.”
Perpetrators of Crimes still unpunished or exonerated
In its report Nunca Más (“Never Again”), the National Commission on Disappeared Persons (Comisión Nacional Sobre la Desaparición de Personas, CONADEP), set up by elected President Raúl Alfonsín in December 1983, listed 8,960 victims of “disappearance.”
Five days after being sworn in on December 10, 1983, President Alfonsín ordered the prosecution of all the members of the first three military juntas for the human rights atrocities committed since the 1976 coup. His courageous initiative, unprecedented before or since in a country emerging from authoritarian rule in the region, was largely due to the unpopularity of the regime in the eyes of the people, because their recent debacle in the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. In a twin decree, Alfonsín ordered that the leaders of the left-wing guerrilla organizations whose violent activities the military had cited to justify its intervention in 1976, the Peronist Montoneros and the Revolutionary Peoples’ Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo, ERP), also be brought to trial. By doing so, Alfonsín hoped to signal to the armed forces that his government did not embark on giving a mortal blow to the military..
Alfonsín’s strategy to neutralize military opposition to human rights trials included two other elements: trial by military court and exemption on grounds of “due obedience.” First, he determined that the trial of the military juntas should be conducted, at least in the first instance, by a military tribunal, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, using procedures established in the Code of Military Justice. In theory, this strategy would give military courts an avenue to persecute the armed forces without civilian intervention, while avoiding the appearance of a “political trial.” As a precaution, however, decisions by the Supreme Council could be appealed to Federal Courts of Appeal, and if the Supreme Council failed to complete each trial within six months, the Courts of Appeal were empowered to take over jurisdiction. As it turned out, the Supreme Council refused to cooperate, and the trial was eventually transferred to civilian jurisdiction. The trial, known as “Case 13,” was held in oral proceedings by the Federal Court of Appeals for Buenos Aires, starting in April 1985.
At the conclusion of the historic eight-month hearings, the Federal Court unanimously sentenced Videla and Massera to life imprisonment. Agosti received a prison sentence of four-and-a-half years; Viola, seventeen years; Lambruschini, eight years. Their crimes included aggravated homicide, torture, unlawful arrest, robbery, violence, and threats. Graffigna, the air force commander of the second junta, was acquitted, as were all three members of the third military junta. The trial was based on only 700 of the thousands of cases to which the court had access.
The second chapter in the government’s strategy related to the concept of “due obedience.”Alfonsín categorised three levels of responsibility for human rights violations: those who delivered the orders, those who obeyed them, and those who violated the orders, committing inhuman acts for personal gain. Alfonsín’s position was that those who merely followed orders had less criminal culpability than those who gave the orders, and those who committed excesses. Although international human rights law explicitly rejects the doctrine of “due obedience,” the policy appeared to have some practical advantages. By favouring middle and lower-ranking officers on active duty, it reduced the possibility that the military would close ranks to protect itself from what could be perceived as an anti-military purge.
Under Item 30, hundreds of officers were endangered of being held on trial. When the trial of the juntas ended, some two thousand criminal complaints were already pending against members of the military and police forces, involving up to 650 defendants, one third of who were estimated to be on active duty. Particularly important were the trials involving those responsible for the illegal detention, torture, and murder of prisoners in the notorious Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), where an estimated 5,000 “disappeared” prisoners had been held. Another emblematic case was “Case 44,” concerning crimes committed by Gen. Ramón Camps, chief of police of the province of Buenos Aires. On December 2, 1986, the Federal Court sentenced Camps to twenty-five years in prison; his successor, Ovidio Ricchieri, to fourteen years; Miguel Etchecolatz (ex-director general of the police investigations branch) to twenty-three years; and Jorge Bergés, a police doctor, to six years. Apart from Case 13, this was the only human rights trial that resulted in convictions. Meanwhile, Gen. Carlos Guillermo Suárez Mason, commander of the First Army Corps and chief of Security Zone 1 during the “dirty war,” faced trial for thirty-nine murders.
However, action by the Defense Ministry in April 1986 precipitated a series of events that would soon bring a standstill to prosecutions.. The ministry’s controversial “instructions” to the military prosecutor required the dropping of charges in all cases where “due obedience” was invoked. The “instructions” stipulated that officers should be held responsible for aberrant acts only if they exceeded orders, greatly reducing the number of possible defendants. Applying the “instructions,” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces acquitted two well-known defendants, Alfredo Astiz, a notorious undercover agent who operated from ESMA, and Luciano Menéndez, former commander of the Third Army Corps. The controversial new rules provoked dissent and resignations both in the judiciary and in the ruling Radical Party, forcing the government to restate its commitment to human rights trials.
As pressure from the military intensified, Alfonsín decided to effect by law what attempts to influence the trials had failed to achieve. At his insistence, two laws were rushed through Congress on December 24, 1986, and June 5, 1987. The first of these, the so-called full stop law (Law No. 23,492), set a sixty-day deadline for the initiation of new prosecutions, and required the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to submit cases to the Federal Appeals Courts within forty-eight hours for a decision to be made on whether to press charges. Undaunted, the courts and Argentine human rights groups embarked on the task to meet the deadline. By the time it expired more than three hundred officers, including more than forty generals and eight admirals, were facing charges. Many others on whom information was incomplete, however, escaped justice.
Because it notably failed to halt the trials, the law failed to appease the military. Over the Easter weekend in 1987, middle-level officers led by Col. Aldo Rico revolted in Córdoba and Buenos Aires demanding a full-scale amnesty law. Although Alfonsín was opposed to an amnesty, he resolved the crisis by conceding essential points to the rebels. On June 5, 1987, Congress enacted a “due obedience” law (Law No. 23,521).
Under the rules proscribing the trials of the junta, as noted above, “due obedience” only constituted a presumption of innocence, and courts had discretion over its application. However, under the terms of the due obedience law, this assumption was treated as unforgivable, with no exception for atrocious and aberrant acts. The law granted pardon to all ranks of the armed forces and police below that of colonel, and applied also to more senior officers, unless it could be shown that they had decision-making powers. The law went into effect immediately. Courts had five days to absolve the accused and cancel summonses to testify. On June 22, 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the due obedience law was constitutional, rejecting an appeal lodged by human rights groups that it violated article 16 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law.
Among the hundreds of military and police officers exonerated under the due obedience law were many who were accused of participating directly in torture and murder, as well as others who had run the clandestine detention centers. The officers in the task force responsible for day-to-day operations at ESMA, Captains Jorge Raúl Vildoza, Jorge Acosta (alias, “El Tigre”), and Luis D’Imperio, as well as many junior officers stationed at the camp, were released from prosecution. The courts dropped charges against navy Capt. Alfredo Astiz, implicated in the “disappearance” of two French nuns, Sister Alice Domon and Sister Leonie Duquet, who were last seen alive at ESMA by others who survived incarceration there. The prison sentences of Etchecolatz, Bergés, and Cpl. Norberto Cozzani for multiple counts of torture were vacated, and they regained their freedom. Many lower level officers accused for human rights atrocities committed by units under the orders of Gen. Carlos Suárez Mason also escaped trial. Other beneficiaries were Colonels Roque Presti, Guillermo Minicucci and police agent Juan Antonio del Cerro(alias “Colores”). Capt. Ernesto Barreiro, the principal interrogator at the clandestine detention center La Perla, whose arrest order provoked the Easter crisis, also gained his freedom.
This narration is a classic illustration of how even Bourgeois democracies exonerate crimes perpetrated by dictatorships, particularly in the third world, which is patronised by globalisation. Alfonsin literally gave shelter to many culprits of crimes or been apologists for the genocide, giving scant respect to human rights organisations. An organised democratic movement was lacking. The 1976-83 period was classical example of how forces of neo-colonialism or economic crisis could enable neo-liberal bourgeois democracy to sporadically turn into a military dictatorship .US Imperialism conspired with the military Junta. Dangers of neo-fascism still simmer in Argentina today.
Quoting the protesting organisations “We have managed to have 1,115 perpetrators of the genocide convicted, whose sentences are final in less than 40% of the cases, not due to the judicial complicity to sustain impunity. But of the total detainees, in preventive detention or serving a sentence, almost 80% have the benefit of house arrest…with practically no one having health problems that justify this benefit…We say to the Judiciary that so easily sends them home with house arrest, grants parole or releases for two-thirds of the sentence, that it does not comply with the victims…We want to hold a profound debate on parolees for genocides. We also demand the opening of all intelligence files.”
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has researched on human rights .Thanks information from Peoples Dispatch and Human Rights Watch.