Guy Gugliotta
Guy Gugliotta

Fellowship Title:

Argentina’s Dirty War

Guy Gugliotta
August 10, 1985

Fellowship Year

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 degree of autonomy in prosecuting their pieces of the Dirty War. When the military phase ended, however, these commanders retained much of their authority. They used it in a protracted power struggle that lasted from the moment the armed forces took power in a March, 1976 coup d’etat until they exited in disgrace in December, 1983.

At first the power struggle was described simplistically and erroneously as an ideological difference between political “moderates” and “hard-liners” in the military high command. Later it led to putschism and personalism among the top generals. It finished with the disastrous 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands and the collapse of the government.

Taken together, the messianic vision embodied in the crusade and the political free-for-all wrought by the power struggle created an atmosphere of uncertainty and terror that endured for seven years. Thousands of people trapped in this cauldron paid with their lives. Argentina’s current constitutional government documented 8,960 cases of persons who “disappeared” during the military’s tenure in power, most of them last seen being taken into custody by security forces. Thousands of others are believed to have died outright in gunbattles, raids and vendetta murders which may or may not have had something to do with the guerrilla insurgency.

The blueprint for the Dirty War is contained in a secret army directive signed by army commander and then-Brig. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla and dated Oct. 27, 1975–almost six months before the coup that initiated the military’s “Process of National Reorganization” and brought Videla to the presidency. “Directive 404/75 (The Struggle Against Subversion)” is a basic operational order with 10 annexes. It was revised or updated at least four times during the succeeding five years, but the structures outlined in the original remained essentially unchanged throughout the “Process.”

The directive demands an immediate counterinsurgency offensive to “exert constant pressure, in time and space” on Argentina’s leftist guerrillas in order to “achieve permanent instability and progressive deterioration” of their organizations. The desired results: “A significant decline in subversive activity by the end of 1975; transformation of subversion into a police problem by the end of 1976; annihilation of residual elements beginning in 1977.”

It was an ambitious plan, aimed at what appeared to be a formidable enemy. The Marxist-Leninist Peoples Revolutionary Army reportedly had a rural guerrilla army in the northeastern province of Tucuman. The left Peronist Montoneros had considerably larger number of combatants scattered throughout the country in loosely organized “columns” based in urban centers. Police had failed to put a dent in either organization. Worse, the constitutional government of President Isabel Peron, mired in incompetence and corruption, had mismanaged Argentina into a state of advanced institutional deterioration. The army had been in action in Tucuman since February, but it was not until early October that the government gave the armed forces license to operate throughout the country. Directive 404/75 was their battle plan.

The directive set up a counterinsurgency model based on “Zones on Defense” corresponding to the army’s corps commands: I Corps (Buenos Aires); II (Rosario); III (Cordoba); and IV (Bahia Blanca). At first glance, the arrangement seemed cosmetic. Corps commanders–traditionally among the most powerful members of the army general staff–would simply put on a new “Zone Commander’s” hat and hunt guerrillas. The directive required no shifts of troops or alterations in the existing chain of command.

In fact, however, the directive imposed important new obligations on the corps chieftains and at the same time granted them broad new discretionary powers. It would no longer be enough to maintain military installations, train troops and march in parades. Zone Commanders were responsible for security throughout their sectors. They were expected to take control and hold it, dominate a region “in both time and space.” To achieve this, local and federal police, border guards and regional prison authorities were put under Zone Commander supervision. In matters relating to counterinsurgency, the army also held sway over provincial civilian authorities. With these tools, each Zone Commander was expected “to achieve a decline in subversive activity throughout the area under his jurisdiction.” How he accomplished this was his business.

Critics of the armed forces charge that the army never had any credible military reason to set up such an elaborate repressive apparatus. The guerrilla threat was insignificant, this argument holds, and the army knew it. The “struggle against subversion” was simply an excuse for the armed forces to prepare their coup d’etat.

In part the directive supports this view. The document’s intelligence annex estimates that the Peoples’ Revolutionary Army countrywide could count only 430-600 cadres, with 120-160 of them in Tucuman. This hardly accords with government propaganda warning of the guerrillas’ professed intent to create a “liberated zone” and a “parallel government” in Tucuman. Further, informal memos prepared within the army both during and before this period speak of the Revolutionary Army as never having more than 1,000 “effectives.” If this is taken as the starting point when the army began operations in Tucuman in February, it is clear that guerrilla strength had already been halved by the time Directive 404/75 was written. Two months later, on Dec. 23, 1975, security forces trapped and killed more than 100 Revolutionary Army guerrillas during an ill-advised attack on the army’s Monte Chingolo arsenal a few miles south of Buenos Aires. This event marked the group’s last significant show of force. In short, the evidence shows that the Peoples’ Revolutionary Army was obliterated in one ten-month campaign that began in February, 1975 and ended three months before the 1976 coup.

But if the Revolutionary Army was already small potatoes by the time Directive 404/75 was written, the same cannot be said of the Montoneros. The directive suggests that the army knew virtually nothing useful about this group in 1975. There are no estimates of strength and only sketchy and simplistic descriptions of Montonero objectives, these most likely culled from the profusion of magazines and communiqués published by the organization during its aboveground days in 1973-74 as the left wing of the Peronist movement.

Unfortunately for the Montoneros, the army clearly recognized its shortcomings. Directive 404/75 contains a page of instructions on the need for intelligence regarding the degree of support enjoyed by the guerrillas in both cities and the countryside, the guerrilla’s international linkages and the size and organizational character of guerrilla combat units. In 1975, the army apparently knew about as much about the Montoneros as most Argentines, remembering them primarily for their ability to put tens of thousands of demonstrators into the street in 1973-74. This was not a heartening vision. Not surprisingly, the army prepared for the worst.

The Dirty War was fought in the final months of 1975, throughout 1976 and in the first few months of 1977. During this period the Peoples Revolutionary Army was destroyed and the Montoneros, initially an unknown quantity were reduced to a still dangerous but manageable threat. A second secret “Directive 504/77 (Continuation of the Anti-Subversion Offensive),” dated April 20, 1977, estimated the Montoneros’ numbers at 2,843-2,883 cadre, down from a peak 1974-75 strength of some 7,000. This last figure was the one the army didn’t have in 1975. Directive 504/77 listed Peoples’ Revolutionary Army Forces at 345-385 combatants–”virtually annihilated” throughout the country.

The tactics employed during the Dirty War were different for different Zones of Defense, but both former guerrillas and military sources agree that the general pattern of repression was uniform everywhere-and effective.

First, the armed forces sought to “isolate” the guerrillas from the rest of the population, disrupt lines of supply and communications and seize arms, ammunition dumps and safe houses. Bystanders were encouraged to trust the army and disavow the guerrillas. If that didn’t work, they were strong-armed or worse: “People were taught to understand that if they helped the guerrillas they were in a lot of trouble,” said one army officer active in Tucuman.

Once “isolated,” the guerrillas were then “harassed” constantly. Their ID cards were checked at street corners, their cars were searched at roadblocks, known rendezvous were kept under constant observation.

Finally there was “annihilation.” One guerrilla was captured, interrogated, made to identify a friend who was in turn captured, interrogated, etc. Here the weapons were torture and disappearance. Torture was how the armed forces got information. A guerrilla’s disappearance heightened the feelings of insecurity among his comrades. If a prisoner was dead he told no tales; if he was arrested, he could be assumed to have told everything; but if he had “disappeared,” there was no way to know where he was or what he had done.

It was during this “war” phase of the Dirty War that the crusade also began. Directive 404/75 referred to the ideological struggle and the guerrillas’ desire to “take over the world’s population–this to be understood not as material conquest but as victory over the psyche such that man will later surrender himself.” Faced with this challenge, it was the armed forces’ job to “promote and consolidate those values which comprise the Argentine lifestyle.”

In 1975 the crusade involved the armed forces’ efforts to win public support for what was basically a military exercise–neutralizing guerrillas. By 1977, however, the ideological element was beginning to predominate. Unions, educational institutions and neighborhoods were to be studied with a view toward unmasking Marxist influences and taking appropriate action. Directive 504/77 announced a governmental objective of “putting into execution, beginning this year, a series of measures designed to build a coherent educational system with well-defined ends. This will be developed on competent, stable bases identified with national values.” The strategy initially required “the eradication of printed material, textbooks and teaching methods, etc., which contain Marxist concepts or promote subversive ends.”

By 1978 the conversion from Dirty War to crusade was complete. A May 10, 1978 supplement to Directive 504/77 notes that “direct military action has produced the virtual annihilation of the subversive organizations with the loss of approximately 90 percent of cadre.” In 1978 the “National Counter-subversion Strategy will act on the philosophical-ideological bases of subversion.” From this point “direct military action” was virtually ignored in favor of support activities for civilian “sectoral campaigns.” A third secret Directive 604/79, dated May 18, 1979, outlines the purposes of “sectoral campaigns: achieve normalization in all areas, understanding this to mean the affirmation of those values which sustain our ‘National Being,’ and the elimination of all Marxist elements (ideologies, activists, printed material, etc.).”

Throughout these years, whether the top priority was Dirty War or crusade, the structures set up by Directive 404/75 remained in force. It was a system of order without law, controlled by Zone Commanders who decided what was subversive and what was not, what was harmless and what was doing damage to the Argentine “National Being.”

Argentines, of course, quickly identified the Zone Commanders as key players, not only in matters relating to counter insurgency, but also in the political infighting that plagued the military government. From 1976 to 1979 these conflicts were seen for the most part as a power struggle between “moderates” and “hard-liners” in the military high command. The “moderates” were led by Videla, his chief of staff Roberto Viola, and the II Corps (Zone) commander, Leopoldo Galtieri. The “hard-liners” were Navy commander Adm. Emilio Massera and I Corps (Zone) commander Carlos Guillermo Suarez Mason. III Corps (Zone) commander Luciano Menendez was considered a “hard-liner” in the war against subversion and a “moderate” in national politics.

The choice of terms was unfortunate. High-ranking military sources identified with both the rival camps agree that everyone was a “hard-liner” as far as counterinsurgency was concerned. Politically, however, there was a difference in that “moderates” wanted a relatively quick transition to civilian government while the “hard-liners” wanted to wait. Still, this doctrinal conflict took second place to personal jealousies as a focus of discord. Both army and navy sources cite Massera’s political ambitions as a determining factor in the power struggle. Massera neither liked nor respected Videla and sought to succeed him as president. His chief rival was Viola, Videla’s second-in-command, close associate and heir apparent. Massera became a “hard-liner” to promote his own political cause.

Videla associates charge that Massera deliberately tried to sabotage Videla’s economic plan and his standing among influential conservatives by suggesting that the president was a “populist.” This view won sympathy from Suarez Mason, deeply interested in the crusade and distrustful of anything smacking of personalism among his comrades-in-arms. By the end of 1976 Suarez Mason had become Videla’s leading critic within the army high command. Massera fulfilled the same role in the ruling junta.

The capacity of these men to embarrass the government was unlimited. Suarez Mason, as commander of Defense Zone I, controlled all anti-subversion activities in Buenos Aires province. His forces were able to arrest and hold newspaper editor Jacobo Timerman for most of two years despite sustained international clamor for his release. Massera’s special anti-subversion “Task Unit” kidnapped and subsequently “disappeared” two French nuns in late 1977, poisoning relations with France for as long as the generals were in power.

Over time the power struggle began to lose whatever ideological dimension it might once have had, and personalism came to dominate the politics of high command. When Cordoba chieftain Menendez found he had no chance to become army commander he essayed a putsch against Videla and Viola which fizzled after a few days. Massera and Suarez Mason retired, but the navy in particular continued to sabotage the government, taking aim at Viola once he had been named to succeed Videla as president. The navy suggested Galtieri as an alternative, an idea that Galtieri found attractive, according to several sources close to the Videla government, it took Galtieri 8 1/2 months to muster the political support to oust Viola. Less than four months later he invaded the Falkland Islands.

©1985 Guy Gugliotta

Guy Gugliotta, a reporter on leave from The Miami Herald, is investigating the military in power in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.