In the 1970s political violence in Argentina resulted in thousands of deaths, prolonged arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, pervasive torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. At least 15,000 (and possibly up to 25,000) were abducted by security forces, their detention unacknowledged. They were sent to one of 250 secret detention centers, where they were interrogated under barbaric methods of torture. Ultimately, the vast majority of the desaparecidos were systematically, but secretly, murdered. Their bodies were disposed of in clandestine gravesites or dumped from airplanes into the ocean.
In March 1976, as the commanders-in-chief of Argentina’s three armed forces ousted President Isabel Peron and proclaimed a de facto regime designed to eliminate once and for all what they called the Marxist subversive threat. Serious human rights violations had begun at least eighteen months earlier, and the military participated in them. Isabel Peron had been elected vice-president in 1973 and became president after the death of her husband, General Juan Domingo Peron, on July 1, 1974. Elements of her government organized secret death squads such as Triple A (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) and Comando Libertadores de America. Years later it was established that some police and military officers were members of these squads, and that security forces and public institutions covered up their crimes. Their modus operandi included kidnappings, but within hours the victims’ bodies would be found in visible places, often showing gruesome forms of mutilation.
On assuming control of the government, the military junta closed down Argentina’s Congress, replaced members of its Supreme Court and most other judges, and intervened in all local and provincial (state) governments. Many prominent politicians and labor leaders were incarcerated for long prison terms without trial. The military utilized emergency powers to arrest nearly ten thousand persons and hold them indefinitely in administrative detention, pursuant to the state of siege provisions of Argentina’s Constitution. The government refused to comply with the few judicial orders issued by its own judicial appointees, seeking to release some detainees because of the authorities’ failure to establish a clear rationale for their continued detention. Many state of siege detainees spent between four and six years in prison. Others were subjected to military trials without a semblance of due process. A larger number were tried in the federal courts under counterinsurgency legislation of a draconian nature and with evidence largely obtained through torture.
The most terrifying and pervasive practice of the military dictatorship, however, was that of forced disappearances described above. Investigations and prosecutions completed after the return of democracy established without a doubt that disappearances were conducted pursuant to official (albeit secret) policy, and implemented and executed under careful supervision along the chain of command. The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, one of the earliest truth commissions of recent vintage and set in motion by president Raúl Alfonsín as soon as the country reestablished democracy in 1983, determined this critical fact without dispute. It was further proven through rigorous court procedures in 1985, when the heads of the three military juntas that governed between 1976 and 1982 were prosecuted for planning, executing, and supervising the reign of terror. General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera were sentenced to life in prison for their respective roles as commanders of Argentina’s army and navy.
Military leaders variously claimed that their war against subversion was a “dirty war.” The deliberate, widespread, and systematic nature of the practice of disappearances, and the protection of its perpetrators from any investigation, qualifies the phenomenon, as implemented in Argentina, as a crime against humanity. To the extent that the targets were singled out because of ideology or political affiliation and did not belong to a racial or religious minority, the practice does not rise to the level of genocide as defined in international law. Nevertheless, many in Argentina, and significantly the courts of Spain exercising universal jurisdiction, consider it genocide insofar as it targets a distinct national group defined by its ideology and slated for extinction, in whole or in part, through mass murder.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
DO THESE CONSTITUTE WAR CRIMES OR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY?
SHOULD ANYONE BE PROSECUTED FOR THEM?
IF SO, WHO?