Argentina's Dirty Warriors

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Argentina's Dirty Warriors

The so-called guerra sucia (dirty war), which took place in Argentina under the various military governments that ruled from 1976 through 1983, resulted in the disappearance of between 9,000 and 30,000 people, and many more victims of torture and prolonged imprisonment. It was one of the worst examples of state terrorism in twentieth-century Latin America. The demand for justice figured prominently in the electoral campaign of the winning candidate, Raúl Alfonsín, during the 1983 presidential elections that restored civilian rule. During Alfonsín's presidency (1983–1989) the human rights issue continued to occupy a prominent place in public discourse. The struggle to bring to justice the perpetrators of the crimes also generated controversy and sowed unrest within the ranks of the military. On assuming office, Alfonsín formed a truth commission, the National Commission on the Disappeared (Comision Nacional sobre la Desparicion de Personas, CONADEP), to investigate alleged human rights abuses by the military. The commission's final report was a damning indictment of the military's crimes and set the stage, as well as providing the body of evidence, for the trials of members of the military juntas that had ruled the country between 1976 and 1983.

Alfsonsín's government always remained wary of provoking unrest in the military through its human rights policies. This explains the first halting steps taken by the administration on the promise of punishment for those guilty of crimes. Alfonsín initially attempted to reform the Code of Military Justice and establish military jurisdiction over the accused and sentencing by military courts, thereby keeping the trials within clearly prescribed institutional boundaries and placating the armed forces. Once it became clear that the military would assume no responsibility in recognizing the guilt of its former leaders and sanctioning punishment or even acknowledging that such commanders had committed crimes, Alfonsín transferred the cases to the civil courts. In April 1985 the public trials of the three military juntas that had ruled the country between 1976 and 1983 began. The trials were to last until the end of the year, and the lead prosecutor, Julio César Strasser, produced dramatic testimony that led to the conviction of former president General Jorge Videla, Admiral Emilio Massera, and other military commanders. The court rejected the defense's claims of immunity from persecution because of an alleged "state of war" existing in the country, and the sentences handed down varied in severity according to the court's interpretation of the degree of involvement each commander had in the crimes.

The convictions, which elicited broad although not unanimous public support, unleashed great unrest within the ranks of the armed forces. Two abortive military uprisings threatened the country's fragile democracy, and Alfonsín faced the dilemma of fulfilling his campaign promise to deliver justice for human rights abuses while safeguarding democracy and civilian rule. He chose the safest path, restricting the scope of the trials through two highly controversial amnesty laws: the Ley de Obediencia Debida (Due Obedience Law) and Ley de Punto Final (Full Stop Law). The Due Obedience Law exempted lower-ranking officers and enlisted men from prosecution on the grounds that they were simply carrying out orders, whereas the Full Stop Law established a statute of limitations on further prosecutions for anyone accused of human rights crimes. The Full Stop Law did little to mollify the military because it triggered a wave of lawsuits to beat the deadline for filing stipulated by the law, although the cumulative effect of both laws was indeed to impose limits on criminal proceedings. The government of Carlos Menem (1989–1999) appeared to definitively seal the process when it issued a pardon in 1989 and released from prison the following year the incarcerated former junta commanders sentenced in 1985.

Though domestic politics had resulted in compromises and even a certain betrayal of human rights issue within Argentina, foreign governments and courts were not so constrained. There were periodic attempts to extradite accused perpetrators of human rights crimes against foreign nationals. Such demands intensified in 2002 and 2003. In January 2002 Sweden asked Argentina to extradite naval officer Alfredo Astiz. Astiz, who had worked as an undercover agent in the most notorious of the detention and torture centers, the Navy Mechanics School, and was sought for his involvement in the disappearance of Argentine-Swedish national Dagmar Hagelin. The French and German governments made similar extradition requests. Most dramatically, in August 2003, Spanish human rights judge Baltasar Garzón issued warrants for the extradition of forty-five former military officers accused of the torture and murder of Spanish nationals during the dictatorship of Argentina. The activities of foreign governments and judges helped to revitalize the human rights issue within Argentina and restored it to a central position in public debate.

The government of Peronist Néstor Kirchner, elected president in May 2003, has been as vigorous in pursuing accountability for the human rights abuses as Menem's Peronist government was indifferent. Kirchner persuaded a congress with Peronist majorities to repeal the two controversial amnesty laws from the Alfonsín years and received delegations from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and other human rights organizations that demanded full accountability for the military's crimes. As of mid-2004, the pending decision of Argentina's Supreme Court on the legality of repealing the amnesty laws means the human rights situation in Argentina was rejuvinated, but remains a controversial and polarizing issue. Human rights organizations have reclaimed the initiative and are pressuring Kirchner to live up to his promises of justice and accountability for the crimes committed. It remains to be seen to what degree domestic political considerations will, as they did under Alfonsín, exercise pressures against a thorough investigation and exemplary justice. For example, although Kirchner annulled a decree preventing the extradition of Argentines to stand trial abroad for human rights crimes—an annulment that led the Spanish government to drop its extradition request—political considerations continued to complicate judicial proceedings. Indeed, Kirchner's decision to press forward with the repeal of the amnesty laws and proceed with trials within Argentina was partly intended to deflect criticisms of his annulment of the decree banning extraditions. Justice for human rights crimes of the last military government therefore continues to be complicated by Argentina's volatile domestic political situation.

SEE ALSO Amnesty; Argentina


Brysk, Alison (1994). The Politics of Human Rights in Argentina: Protest, Change, and Democratization. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Feitlowitz, Marguerite (1998). A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Human Rights Watch. "Yearly Reports, Argentina." Available from

Romero, Luis Alberto (2002). A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century. State College: Penn State University Press.

James Brennan

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Argentina's Dirty Warriors

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