Guy Gugliotta
Guy Gugliotta

Fellowship Title:

Justice and Vengeance in he Dirty War

Guy Gugliotta
November 10, 1986

Fellowship Year

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 and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Former Navy chief Adm. Emilio Massera also received life imprisonment for 91 counts of the same crimes.

Former President Gen. Roberto Viola (100 counts–unlawful arrest, torture, robbery) was sentenced to 17 years in prison; Navy Admiral Armando Lambruschini (45 counts–unlawful arrest, torture) received 8 years; and Air Force Brig. Orlando Agosti (11 counts–torture, robbery), received 4 1/2 years. The remaining four junta members–Army Gen. and former President Leopoldo Galtieri, Navy Adm. Jorge Anaya and Air Force Brigs. Omar Graffigna and Baislio Lami Dozo–were acquitted.

The flat, unsensational way in which the court discharged its obligations contrasted dramatically with the high tension and nervousness which had surrounded the theme of the Dirty War ever since Alfonsin took office Dec. 10, 1983.

His administration was buffeted from both sides. Human rights groups suspected Alfonsin of conniving with the military to whitewash the Dirty War, thus ignoring his campaign pledge to resolve the disappearances and presumed deaths of some 9,000 people believed kidnapped by the military between 1976-83. The Armed Forces, for their part, believed Alfonsin had for political reasons become the implement of international terrorism in a witch hunt which sought to prosecute military officers for acts committed by the Armed Forces in the legitimate defense of Argentina against a guerrilla insurgency.

The December 9 sentencing did not appease either group. Besides the nine former junta members, there were several hundred lower-ranking officers and non-coms accused of crimes whose fates remained undecided. The human rights groups continued to predict a whitewash; the Armed Forces continued to decry the witch hunt.

Both sides reflected a malaise that had afflicted Argentina as a whole for most of its modern history–the failure to distinguish between justice and vengeance. Since 1930, the year of Argentina’s first modern military coup, civilians and Armed Forces had alternated power in a “pendulum” whose movements were governed by military and political leaders’ abilities to make deals with each other and with powerful interest groups: labor unions, industry, agriculture, the Roman Catholic Church and others. These arrangements made little reference to Argentina’s existing institutions or mechanisms for orderly transmission of power.

In fact, political power and respect often accrued to the leader most adept at running roughshod over the system. Each swing of the pendulum was winner-take-all. Institutional development and continuity were ignored in favor of a spoils system that gave everything–wealth, influence, high office–to the victors, and damned the vanquished to exile, imprisonment or disgrace. As long as the Armed Forces held the veto power–a permanent attribute of the system since 1930–Argentine politics were venal, irresponsible and, most of all, vengeful. You took reprisals against your enemies, grabbed what you could and awaited the next swing of the pendulum.

Unremarked at the time by most Argentines, the nature of the game abruptly changed June 14, 1982 when Brig. Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez surrendered his forces to a British expeditionary force at Port Stanley in the wind-blasted Falkland Islands. Menendez’s soldiers–most of them terrified teen-aged conscripts with little or no training–had arrived in the Falklands April 2 to put teeth in Argentina’s historic claims to the islands it called the Malvinas. With the end of this ill-advised adventure 2 1/2 months later the Process of National Reorganization–the military governments that had ruled Argentina since March 1976–were doomed.

On its face, the Falklands debacle simply looked like another swing of the pendulum–from the Armed Forces back to the civilians. But there was a crucial difference. Whoever replaced the juntas would have an advantage over past Argentine civilian leaders unprecedented in modern times. Unless the new man failed badly and for a prolonged period, there existed no possibility that the Armed Forces would overthrow him. The Falklands War had disgraced Argentina’s military establishment to an irrevocable degree. At the Falklands the Armed Forces had not simply lost a military confrontation; they had committed political suicide.

The public, as had been its wont for decades, began howling for vengeance. For the first time in the more than six years that the Process of National Reorganization had held sway, human rights became fashionable. In demonstration after demonstration, political parties, unions, church and youth organizations joined with human rights groups in condemning the Armed Forces for murdering and kidnapping thousands of people during the Dirty War.

The sudden concern for state terrorism did not reflect credit on the Argentine people. The public that clamored for a return to democracy and demanded military heads on a platter was the same public that had cheered General Videla at the World Cup Soccer Championships in 1978, had damned international human rights investigations as unwarranted interference in Argentine domestic affairs and had given the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and other human rights groups the cold shoulder during their long years of stubborn resistance. Until the Falklands disaster, the public had demonstrated a pronounced indifference toward human rights. The Armed Forces was departing the scene not because Argentina had become fed up with military omnipotence, suppression of free thought and state terrorism. They were leaving because the Process had blown it all in a 2 1/2 month adventure in the South Atlantic. “If it hadn’t been for the Malvinas,” said Mothers Vice President Adela Antokoletz. “the damned military would have been there forever.” No one in Argentina’s eight human rights groups disputed her.

In short, in post-Falklands Argentina there existed no natural impulse to right the wrongs of the Process. Instead, there was a desire-made customary during five decades of Argentine muscle politics to get rid of the losers and kick them while they were down. A desire for vengeance. Human rights was the tool that came readily to hand.

In this context, Argentina would largely view the prosecution of the nine junta members as a vengeful contest of wills between the newly risen star (Alfonsin) and his vanquished but still formidable enemies (the Armed Forces). Alfonsin’s strength or weakness would be rated in his effectiveness at wreaking vengeance on the Armed Forces.

To break the pattern, Alfonsin needed to demonstrate that Argentine institutions–in this case the justice system–could, and, indeed, must function effectively above and beyond any individual’s ability to manipulate them. In this sense any junta trial would be a learning experience for Argentina. History abounded with examples of political revenge, but justice was a new experience.

Argentina’s initial concern for human rights may have been hypocritical, but its Oct. 1983 election of Alfonsin as president was inspired. He was a lawyer of modest means, a founding member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and a faction chieftain in the middle-of-the-road Radical Civic Union party. He won 52 per cent of the popular vote, crushing Peronist rival Italo Luder and nearly a dozen other rivals in Argentina’s first general election since 1973.

Alfonsin had made “reconstitution of the rule of law” one of the watchwords of his campaign, and had promised justice in resolving the crimes of the Dirty War. He was charismatic and immensely popular, credentials that had transformed more than one beloved Argentine leader into a demagogue, but Alfonsin eschewed these tools. Instead, he designed a carefully paced, conservative human rights strategy that would make maximum use of Argentine institutions and, insofar as possible, dilute the political implications of any prosecutions that might arise. It was a courageous policy, satisfying neither the human rights groups, who wanted an open congressional investigation of the Dirty War, nor the Armed Forces, who wanted an amnesty. Nonetheless, Alfonsin stuck with it, and Argentina stuck with Alfonsin. Throughout 1984 and 1985, polls, votes and referenda unequivocally reinforced Alfonsin’s popularity. Argentina, against the odds, had finally found a statesman, and once they had him, they wanted to keep him.

Alfonsin needed only four pieces of legislation to bring the Dirty War to an accounting. Decree 157 of Dec. 13, 1983 named seven Argentine guerrilla leaders as liable to prosecution on charges of homicide, conspiracy, public incitement to commit felonies and “the rest of those crimes for which they are the perpetrators, instigators or accomplices.” Decree 158, also of Dec. 13, ordered summary courts martial for the nine members of the Process’s first three juntas on charges of homicide, kidnapping and torture. Early in 1984 Congress amended the military code of justice so that the court martial findings could be appealed in a civilian court. Finally, on Dec. 15, 1983, Decree 187 created the blue-ribbon National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons and charged it with investigating disappearances during the Process “as well as any other related circumstance.”

Human rights groups denounced the package for several reasons. They disliked the pairing of Decrees 157 and 158, believing that it implied that the Armed Forces and leftist guerrillas held equal responsibility for a pogrom whose biggest sinners were clearly military. Nonetheless Alfonsin’s government did not want to be seen as condoning terrorism. It would continue to balance left and right in its discussion of human rights. This posture would come to be known as the “theory of the two demons.”

Human rights groups also detested Decree 158 because it passed the junta trials to a military forum, thus, they felt, virtually assuring a whitewash. The groups lobbied fiercely against passage of the military justice code amendment–the enabling legislation for Decree 158–and were furious when the Radical-dominated Congress rammed it past the opposition.

Finally, the groups viewed the creation of the Commission, which came to be known by its Spanish abbreviation CONADEP, as an effort by the executive to control–and therefore whitewash–the basic investigation of the Dirty War. The Alfonsin government, however, was categorically opposed to the congressional bipartisan commission favored by the human rights groups. Alfonsin advisers felt that such a panel would immediately transform the investigation into a three-ring circus.

The Armed Forces, for their part, objected to any legislation that would involve military leaders past or present in a human rights proceeding. They were content at first, however, to keep their own counsel as long as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces–Argentina’s highest military tribunal–was in charge of the case. Alfonsin had paid an immense political price in allowing the Armed Forces to judge its own.

Despite the widespread suspicion and distrust of those on both sides most directly concerned with human rights, the Alfonsin plan worked. The result was a series of shocks that brought the Dirty War and its consequences into the public consciousness irrevocably and for all time. The first occurred July 4, 1984 when CONADEP previewed its final report in a television program entitled Nunca Mas–”Never Again.” The montage was simple and direct, consisting of brief and largely inoffensive bits of documentary footage interspersed with testimonials by individual witnesses who related direct, personal experiences either as relatives searching for disappeared loved ones or as kidnap victims trapped in the Process’s secret gulag.

Testimony was straightforward and devastating. CONADEP member Eduardo Rabossi estimated at least 50 per cent of Argentina eventually saw the program, either live or in tapes distributed by the commission around the country. There would be no whitewash, it seemed, in CONADEP.

The next shock came in November 1984 when CONADEP’s summary, also entitled Nunca Mas, was published by the University of Buenos Aires. The first edition of 40,000 copies sold out in two weeks. More than 200,000 copies were sold in the first year. Nunca Mas named names, chronicled the histories of some 340 secret prisons and listed the names of nearly 9,000 disappeared people, the vast majority of them believed kidnapped by the Process’s security forces and subsequently killed in captivity. Nunca Mas, awkwardly and hurriedly written, lay like a stone in the path of the Argentine government. If Alfonsin wanted to whitewash the Process, he would find himself tripping over his own report.

The final and most severe shock was the appellate court trial, made possible when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was unable to complete its investigation in the time allotted by the government.

For six months, from April 22-Oct. 21, 1985, Argentina read about and attended the trial of the nine junta members at Buenos Aires’ Palace of Justice. The trial was Nunca Mas in flesh and blood. Witness after witness related the atrocities of the Process to a hushed and incredulous courtroom. High school civics students sat in the gallery, jaws agape, imagining what it must have been like to be 16 years old, stark naked and strapped to a metal table while torturers shocked you with an electric cattle prod and pulled out your toenails with pliers.

And then the verdict. It was not the sweeping condemnation that the human rights groups would have wished, nor was it the amnesty that the Armed Forces wanted. For Videla and Massera, the punishment was unequivocal and complete; for Viola, Lambruschini and Agosti, the penalties were lighter, but still severe; the other four went free. Alfonsin had contended that his government did not wish to try the Argentine Armed Forces as an institution. Instead, the courts would try individuals for specific crimes. The result was that some defendants were found guilty of more offenses than others and thus would pay a higher price. Other defendants were found innocent and walked. That was the way the system was supposed to work. Justice, not vengeance.

©1987 Guy Gugliotta


Guy Gugliotta, a reporter on leave from  The Miami Herald, concludes his investigation of the military in power in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.