Dirty war (guerra sucia) is the term used in Argentina by supporters of the last military dictatorship to characterize the clandestine terrorist repression carried out by the state between 1976 and 1983. They claim that an unconventional war was waged during those years between two equally matched, armed organizations, and that the military government may have committed occasional "excesses" during that time.
In fact, what occurred was a campaign of clandestine, state-sponsored terrorism. Its nature and scope first came to light in 1982, when the military regime began to fall apart. In 1985 the National Commission for the Disappeared (Comisión Nacional para la Desaparición de las Personas, or CONADEP), created under the democratic government, carried out an in-depth investigation of what had taken place since 1976. The findings of this investigation served as the basis for the prosecution and conviction of those military officers who were chiefly responsible for the repression. It became clear that the "dirty war" was a deliberate and precisely planned program carried out by the armed forces. The modus operandi typically began with the kidnapping of a suspect, who was then tortured to obtain information that would help in the arrest of others, confined in a concentration camp where torture continued, and usually finally killed—this had to be ordered by one of the highest-ranking military officers. Either the body was concealed in a clandestine grave or the prisoner was thrown out of an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean while still alive. In either case, the absence of a body gave victims the status of "disappeared." CONADEP managed to gather evidence in about 10,000 cases; human rights organizations claim that there were at least 30,000 victims. One particularly horrifying aspect of the repression was that babies born to victims in captivity were given new identities and turned over to families with ties to the repressors.
The CONADEP report led many to refer to those who had suffered state-sponsored terrorism as "innocent victims of repression." This label was connected with the demands of building a democracy from 1984. However, since 2000 many of the victims have been acknowledged as militant activists who fought against the dictatorship. Moreover, it became clear that clandestine state terrorism began in 1975, or even in 1974, as part of the conflict between Peronist factions. In any case, from the mid-1960s, Argentine society was engulfed in a growing wave of violence, and virtually all those who participated in any of these conflicts called for violence, justified it, or saw it as natural. The victims of repression included many individuals who had little or nothing to do with the social and political conflicts; some were targets of personal revenge. Trade union members and social activists of all types suffered, along with academics, journalists, students, and members of the clergy. But there were also many who had ties to armed organizations, particularly the People's Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, or ERP) and the Montoneros, or were linked to their related front groups such as the Peronist Youth (Juventud Peronista).
The clandestine repression was deliberately arbitrary, and it combined the open spectacle of the kidnappings with the secret nature of the victims' final destinations. Not only did the repression seek to eliminate all types of dissidents, it also aimed to strike fear into the hearts of the remainder of the population and silence any opposition. It met with great success at the start: Many people parroted military slogans about "wiping out the unpatriotic subversives," and few voices were raised in opposition. The most notable dissident voices came from human rights organizations, particularly the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers of "disappeared" persons who began demonstrating in 1977 on the plaza in front of the presidential palace. These exceptionally courageous women managed to find and exploit tiny cracks in the dense discourse of the oppressors. Their demands for the return of their children touched a core of deeply rooted human values that kept them from being written off by the military dictatorship as "subversives."
Nunca más. Informe de la Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas. Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1984.
Quiroga, Hugo. El tiempo del "Proceso": Conflictos y coincidencias entre políticos y militares, 1976–1983. 2nd edition. Rosario, Argentina: Homo Sapiens, 2004.
Vezzetti, Hugo. Pasado y presente: Guerra, dictadura y sociedad en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores Argentina, 2002.
Luis Alberto Romero