Argentina: Prosecution for child-thefts during dictatorship begins

The trial in Buenos Aires, Argentina, of two former dictators and some of their henchmen, on charges of concocting a scheme to kidnap the babies of political opponents they murdered, began on February 28.

The former dictators, now both elderly, are Jorge Videla (ruler from 1976 to 1981) and Reynaldo Bignone (1982 to 1983), both ex army generals. The chain of events that brings them to the dock is rooted in left-right conflicts within Argentina’s Justicialist (Peronist) Party going back to the 1950s, and the military’s traditional hatred of left-wing Peronism.

In 1976, the military took power in a coup d’etat against the floundering government of President Isabel Martinez de Peron in the context of a vicious street war involving the left-wing Peronists called Montoneros, the extreme right-wing Argentine Anti-Communist Army, and the authorities.

In power, the generals and admirals went after the left with a ruthless “Dirty War” of arrests, disappearances and murders. Under “Operation Condor”, the Argentine military coordinated this repressive campaign with dictators in neighboring countries including Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, and with the U.S. administrations of Presidents Ford and Reagan.

The United States provided training in “interrogation techniques” through the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.

As many as 30,000 people may have been murdered in Argentina alone. The bases of operations for this campaign of blood were the Navy Mechanics School and the Campo de Mayo army base, both in the Buenos Aires area; however, there were as many as 340 secret detention camps also. Some of the few survivors of these camps have described horrifying acts of torture as well as gruesome medical experiments, including the removal of a live person’s teeth and implantation of those of a dog. Young left-wing activists were taken up in military aircraft and pushed out into the sea or the estuary of the Rio de la Plata river.

Victims included thousands of trade unionists, Communists, students and intellectuals but also Cuban diplomats, Jesuit priests and anybody who could be accused of having “ideological ideas.” The result included a sharp decline in the working and living standards of Argentine workers, which had once been comparatively high.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo organization, which has advocated for the disappeared children and their families since the time of the dictatorship, estimates that as many as 500 women were killed by the regime right after giving birth, in addition to many parents of minor children. But then the question arose as to what to do with all the surviving children.

Prosecutors allege that Generals Bignone and Videla and their co-conspirators devised a scheme whereby the children of murdered leftists would be distributed among supporters of the military regime, who would adopt the orphans. Consequently, thousands of small children were raised by their parents’ murderers, or by their close collaborators.

The dictatorship negotiated an exit from political power in 1983, after which there were trials and convictions of its leading members. However, the very real threat of a new coup d’etat caused President Raul Alfonsin to back off most prosecutions, and legislation was passed letting the former coup members off the hook.

Subsequently, President Carlos Menem pardoned all the convicted individuals. However, since that time, the pardon has been declared illegal and void by the Argentine courts, and not only top leaders of the dictatorship such as Videla and Bignone, but a number of their henchmen have been hauled into court, found guilty and given long sentences. In Videla’s case it was life imprisonment, imposed in December of 2010, and in Bignone’s case it is 25 years.

Argentina’s current president, left-wing Peronist Cristina Fernandez, is determined that there shall be no impunity for the acts committed under the dictatorship. So the trial on charges of kidnapping the children of murdered dissidents and subsequent distribution to coup supporters will continue. The government prosecutors have identified 34 cases out of a great many to prosecute. This trial took 14 years to prepare, but last week the prosecution made its initial presentation of the complaint against Videla, Bignone and 6 underlings.

The trial will resume on March 15.

The 1985 Argentina film drama, The Official Story (La Historia Oficial), deals with the kidnappings from the point of view of an honest mother who begins to suspect that her adopted child is actually the daughter of dissidents murdered by her husband.

Image: Member of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo by Andrew // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.