On Dec. 9, 1985 an Argentine Federal Appeals Court sentenced five retired generals and admirals to prison terms for human rights abuses committed during the so-called “Dirty War.” It was a landmark ruling, the first time any civilian administration in Latin America had held its military leaders responsible for criminal acts committed during a de facto government. It was also a victory for Argentine President Raul Alfonsin’s belief that the rule of law must be upheld by the institutions charged with enforcing it. In this respect the Argentine case was also unprecedented. Nuremberg and the Greek “colonels” trials–the only roughly comparable precedents–had featured extraordinary tribunals convened for a single, special purpose. In Argentina, nine members of three military juntas were tried by existing courts for common crimes. The Argentine justice system was made to do its duty. For this reason, the Appeals court sentencings were neither uniform nor prophetic. Instead they were particular and mundane. The court deemed former military President Gen. Jorge Videla responsible for 495 counts of homicide, unlawful arrest, torture and robbery
On Nov. 2, 1981, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri offered a toast to the power brokers of the newly arrived Reagan Administration, gathered at the Argentine Embassy in Washington for a gala luncheon. It was an auspicious occasion. After four years of unpleasant and often bitter exchanges with Jimmy Carter and his human-rights-conscious government, Argentina was trying to mend fences with the United States. He had found a receptive audience among Reagan conservatives, who liked the Argentine Army commander’s easy bonhomie and tough anti-communism. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, the first to lift a glass, remarked that Argentina and the United States had “entered a phase of reconstruction in their friendship.” Argentine Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri. In reply, Galtieri sounded a favorite theme: “The First World War,” he said, “was a confrontation of armies. The second was a confrontation of nations. The third is a confrontation of ideologies.” The United States and Argentina, he continued, “must march together, united in their anxieties and their common interest.” Galtieri had spoken in a code only partially understood by his Yankee audience.
To outsiders, the military juntas that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 presented an image of austere, almost frightening efficiency and unity of purpose. The “Process of National Reorganization,” as the juntas called themselves, sought to impose and maintain order where there had been none. On March 24, 1976, when the “Process” overthrew constitutional President Isabel Peron, Argentina had 700 percent annual inflation, negative economic growth and dwindling international reserves. For three years political violence–involving the Army and police, a variety of freelance right-wing gunmen and two separate leftist guerrilla groups–had spread terror across the nation. By early 1976 not a day passed in Argentina without a dozen political murders and disappearances of people, who for reasons generally unknown, suddenly vanished from their homes and jobs. It was the disappearances–nearly 9,000 documented cases–and their accompanying horrors that defined the 7 1/2 years of the Process, a history of state terrorism documented by survivors from more than 300 secret detention camps organized and controlled by the Argentine armed forces and the state security apparatus. The Process
The Argentine armed forces’ so-called “Dirty War” began as a carefully crafted strategy for the military annihilation of several thousand leftist guerrillas. The original goal was achieved in approximately 18 months, an astonishing success for a nation that had endured years of uninterrupted terrorism and political violence. As time passed, however, it became apparent that the structures created to hunt guerrillas had other uses that had little to do with the battlefield. These served to redefine the Dirty War–with disastrous consequences for the Argentine nation. First, the strategy of the Dirty War served as a convenient mechanism for prosecuting the armed forces’ self-styled crusade to reaffirm and preserve Argentina’s “National Being” against the encroachments of international Marxism-Leninism. The crusade was developed during the initial stages of the Dirty War, but it continued long after the military threat had ended. Those who supported the crusade described it as a necessary purge of elements foreign to the Argentine spirit. Its victims called it systematic state terrorism. Second, the counterinsurgency model gave regional and local commanders a broad