On Wednesday, the trial of no less than 68 former military and civilian officials of the 1976-1983 Argentine military dictatorship began in Buenos Aires. They are accused of a wide variety of crimes against humanity, including as many as 800 instances of murder and torture of the political opposition.
Featured in the trial will be the "death flights," which took place between the dictatorship's "Dirty War" against leftist political dissidents. In these flights, prisoners were drugged and tossed from aircraft into the estuary of the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean. The idea was to make them "disappear" completely, so that nobody could ever be held accountable for their fate. The main organizing center for the death flights and many other atrocities is believed to have been the Navy Petty Officers' School of Mechanics (ESMA), with which several of the accused pilots were associated.
The "Dirty War" began when President Juan Peron died in 1974 and was succeeded by his second wife, Isabel Peron. Fighting between the Montoneros, an armed group coming out of the left wing of the Peronist movement, and security forces gave a pretext for Mrs. Peron to decree special repressive powers for the latter. The military took this as a signal to grab power for itself, deposing Mrs. Peron in 1974 and setting up its own dictatorship under the Orwellian name of "National Reorganization Process". The military, aided by the extreme rightist Argentine Anticommunist Army (AAA) moved savagely to crush not only the Montoneros and other armed groups but all opposition to the Argentine ruling class and political right. Under the military dictatorship headed by General Jorge Videla, as many as 30,000 labor, peasant, student, and human rights activists were hunted down and killed or "disappeared," with many others imprisoned or driven into exile.
The Videla regime cooperated in this with a number of other forces. Allied in "Operation Condor" with like minded dictatorships in neighboring countries, it connived in the murder of many figures of the Latin American left, including former President Juan José Torres of Bolivia and the former head of the Chilean armed forces, General Carlos Prats, who had gone into exile in Argentina when socialist President Salvador Allende died in the military coup of September 11, 1973.
Also into the mix came French advisors, at least one of whom had been part of the Secret Army Organization (OAS) which had tried to stop the independence of Algeria. They are believed to have helped the Argentine military develop the use of torture in interrogations. This knowledge was later used by Argentine advisors to develop similar skills on the part of "Contra" forces in Central America. There were also Italian fascist connections.
The United States under the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations was heavily involved in supporting Operation Condor in Argentina and its neighbors. Then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was revealed in 2004 to have given the green light to the horrors being carried out by the Argentine military regime. Rejecting warnings from U.S. diplomats about what was going on, Kissinger told the Argentine Foreign Minister Augusto Guzzetti in 1976 that the U.S. understood what the Argentines were trying to do but that they should do it quickly so as not to risk a cutoff of U.S. aid to their country. Kissinger has never been prosecuted for these actions.
After the Videla dictatorship was pushed from power in 1983, various attempts were made by its civilian successors to bring the murderers, torturers, and rapists to book. However, opposition within the armed forces on several occasions threatened to bring about new military coups if the prosecutions were not dropped. And in 1986 and 1987 President Carlos Menem, connected with the right wing of the Peronists, got the legislature to issue sweeping amnesties. However, this was reversed by legislative action in 2003 and since then, under left wing President Nestor Kirchner and his wife and successor, incumbent President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, there have been numerous prosecutions of individuals involved with repressive actions of the dictatorship. This year, General Videla himself, along with several other individuals, was found guilty of kidnapping the minor children of people his regime had "disappeared" and sentenced to 50 years in prison, on top of long sentences he is already serving for crimes committed as dictator.
Photo: "The Disappeared," a 2008 film that relives the horror in the lives of 30,000 kidnapped and murdered by Argentine military in the 1970's and 80's. IMDB