Last Friday, after 13 months and 400 witness testimonies, the mega-lawsuit in Federal Court of Tucumán found 37 of 41 defendants guilty of crimes against humanity during the 1976-83 dictatorship in Argentina. In the historic trial, known as Jefatura II-Arsenales II, four civilians were among the accused: two were pardoned and two were convicted for their involvement in the dictatorship.
María Elena Guerra, a civilian and ex-police officer, and Guillermo Francisco Lopez Guerrero, a civil intelligence agent, joined a select few civilians who have been found guilty of crimes committed during the brutal seven-year military regime, in which some 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed or ‘disappeared’.
Since the trials were reopened in 2006, hundreds of members of the military have been sentenced to prison for crimes committed during the dictatorship. However, it was only in December last year that James Smart, a former government minister of the Province of Buenos Aires, became the first civilian to be convicted of crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship. He was sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed in six clandestine detention centres.
These landmark rulings demonstrate how, after 30 years of democratic rule, the way Argentines, politicians, and the legal system examine crimes from this period has evolved, with the focus turning more recently to the role of businesses and civilians in the human rights atrocities of that period.
Human rights groups have long used the term ‘civic-military dictatorship’ to acknowledge the complicity and support of some civilian sectors. But the title has become increasingly common in recent years under the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration, opening the door for a number of emblematic trials investigating the role of these civilians, with the aim of bringing the impunity of the powerful to an end.
Causes of the Coup: A New Economic Model
Human rights groups argue that economic motives were behind the 24th March 1976 coup, saying it can no longer be argued that the objective was only to combat “subversion”. They believe so-called “captains of industry” collaborated with military leaders to perpetrate crimes against humanity for economic gain.
Last week, Banco de la Nación Argentina officially recognised Roberto Hugo Barrera as the 31st employee still missing – disappeared – after being kidnapped during the dictatorship. The institution has been an important player in the drive to highlight the economic motives behind the so-called ‘National Reorganisation Process’ implemented by the military junta.
Graciela Navarro, President of the Commission of the Banco de la Nación Personnel for Memory, Truth and Justice told The Argentina Independent that when identifying what occurred in 1976, it is first important to understand that there was no “war”.
“There were operations of some armed groups, but these were isolated. There was never a war here. It was always state terrorism,” she said, alluding to the still oft-used term ‘Dirty War’ by foreign press.
According to Navarro, certain civilian sectors used the military to implement a neo-liberal economic model. “It was necessary to implement an economic model of exclusion to benefit economic groups that utilised the Armed Forces as a instrument of social discipline – for repression, for fear, to deal with any resistance movement.
“The true causes of the coup were economic, because of this we say civic-military dictatorship,” she added.
Marta Santos, a former Central Bank employee and friend of one of the five known desaparecidos (missing) who worked at the institution, echoes this view.
“This dictatorship, this military force, needed the support of civilians in key parts of the state and in the private economy… In this sense we say that dictatorship was civic-military because it pursued neo-liberal economic interests of private [business] and the state,” says Santos, who today is part of a team working with the Central Bank to investigate if there are more unknown desaparecidos who worked there.
Civilians in Government
Santos says it is important to denounce civilian collusion with the military junta in the defence of democracy, to ensure these institutions can never again prop up a dictatorship. She names José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz as the prime example of civilian involvement.
Former president of the steel company Acindar – which operated one of the country’s first clandestine torture and detention centres on its premises in 1975 – José Martínez de Hoz was economy minister from 1976 to 1981, in charge of ushering in a new economic paradigm based on the principles of free market capitalism. During this period, it was common for businessmen close to the economy minister to assume key government roles, helping to fuse civil society to the military junta. His policies sowed the seeds for financial collapse, providing a brief period of prosperity but leading to a deep recession in 1981 and saddling the nation with a burdensome external debt that would cause problems long after the return to democracy.
Martínez de Hoz was under house arrest when he died in March this year, being investigated for his alleged role in the kidnap of father and son, Federico and Miguel Gutheim. The family owned the cotton export company Sadeco, and were allegedly coerced into making business deals that favoured the dictatorship.
He was also linked to the kidnap of René Carlos Alberto Grassi, director de Industrias Siderúrgicas Grassi (a rival company of Acindar) and president of the Bank of Hurlingham, in September 1978. Grassi was held in Campo de Mayo for a year after his abduction, and eventually Industrias Siderúrgicas Grassi was absorbed by Acindar. One month before the abduction, Martínez de Hoz had asked to buy the Bank of Hurlingham and was declined.
From the early days of the dictatorship there was a strong repression of workers, but the kidnap of Grassi was significant; he did not pose a threat as an opposition force to the regime, his value was economic.
Martínez de Hoz was pardoned by Menem in 1990, though this was annulled 16 years later when the Gutheim case was reopened. Up until his death, he denied any involvement in the kidnappings and was a remorseless defender of the dictatorship-era economic policies.
The investigation of Martínez de Hoz is an early example of a civilian investigated for abuses committed during the rein of the military junta. In recent years, many more legal battles concerning civilian’s roles in the dictatorship have come to the surface.
Thirty Years of Reconstruction
Horacio Verbitsky, president of CELS and co-author of the 2013 book ‘Cuentas pendientes: los cómplices económicos de la dictadura’, which examines the links between economic powers and state repression, argues the economic influence of civilians who were complicit in the dictatorship continued throughout the first two decades of democracy. Verbitsky argues that economic powers could have endangered the stability of democracy, which limited the possibility of pursuing justice for their responsibility during the dictatorship.
Argentina’s first president after the return of democracy, Raúl Alfonsín, had the complex task of addressing human rights abuses in the face of a weak economy and massive external debt, which had ballooned from US$7.87bn in 1975 to US$43bn in 1982.
“It is not easy to build democracy in a setting where political culture and civic habits have been degraded by authoritarianism. Nor is it easy to build democracy in the midst of a deep economic crisis exacerbated by the need to repay a huge foreign debt that the old dictatorial regime had contracted and irresponsibly misspent,” Alfonsín said in 1992, after his term had ended prematurely in 1989.
The neo-liberal economic paradigm that dominated the nineties – a time that corresponded with the amnesty offered to those responsible in the dictatorship – deepened the economic model launched in 1976, taking it to the economic and political crisis of 2001.
Graciela Navarro believes that since Néstor Kirchner took office in 2003 there has been two distinct periods relating to the last civic-military dictatorship, the first being the recovery of the memory of those who had been tortured or disappeared, and the end of impunity for military leaders. “When Cristina was elected,” Navarro believes, “it was possible to begin to examine the true causes of the coup, which were economic, and charge those who are responsible.
“The military has been judged,” adds Navarro, “but many civilians, if not them then their children, are owners of the large economic groups… this is difficult. These are the interests that Cristina is dealing with.”
After years of impunity, Argentina’s legal system has begun to investigate the role of officials, powerful businessmen, and mulitnationals who may have collaborated with the military in state terrorism. According to the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), as of September 2013 there were a total of 261 civilians accused of involvement in the human rights abuses of the era.
Several high profile and emblematic cases involving civilians, and their business interests, are currently making their way through the legal system.
Papel Prensa: On 2nd November, 1976, three newspapers – Clarín, La Nación, and La Razón – obtained the majority shares in Papel Prensa, the company which produces newsprint for the industry, soon after owner, businessman and banker David Graiver, died in a plane crash in Mexico in August 1976. Graiver’s widow, Lidia Papaleo testified in 2010 that at that time she was stripped of the factory after receiving death threats against her and her young daughter. In March 1977, Papaleo was abducted and tortured until she was released on July 24, 1982.
The case concerning the sale of Papel Prensa was opened in August 2010 after President Fernández presented a report in the Casa Rosada titled “Papel Prensa: The Truth” denouncing the “illegal appropriation” of the business. Most recently, the case has been in the headlines after the discovery of official minutes from the dictatorship that mention Papel Prensa 13 times between September 1976 and November 1977.
According to Defence Minister Agustín Rossi, the minutes make it “clear that for the Junta, Papel Prensa was a part of the same theme as the detention of [ex-owners] the Graiver family… this appears clearly in the minutes.” Copies of the documents are now in the hands of Federal Judge Julián Ercolini, who has jurisdiction over the case.
Ledesma: Also working its way through the legal system is a case involving president of sugar company Ledesma, one of Argentina’s most powerful businesses, for his involvement in kidnappings during the ‘blackout night’, when over 400 people were kidnapped in the province of Jujuy following an electricity outage on 20th July, 1976.
President of Ledesma Carlos Blaquier and former general manager Alberto Lemos are accused of providing the vehicles that were used for transporting the victims. This month, the Federal Court of Salta confirmed that there is sufficient evidence that the company Ledesma collaborated in the kidnapping of their workers to dismantle the labour union. As a result, Blaquier and Lemos will be put on trial, which is set to begin in April 2014. The court upheld that Blaquier will be prosecuted as a “necessary participant” in twenty cases of illegal deprivation of liberty and Lemos is accused of being a “secondary participant” to the kidnappings.
Ford: During the dictatorship, the Ford Falcon became known as a vehicle commonly used by kidnappers. But the company is also accused of more direct involvement in the human rights abuses of the time.
In May, charges were laid against three ex-directors of Ford Motors Argentina for their role in the disappearance of 24 workers from the plant. Former plant manager Pedro Müller, ex-leader of labour relations Guillermo Galarraga, and ex-security chief Héctor Sibilla are accused of having given to military commanders in the area “personal data, photographs, and addresses” of workers at the factory between 24th March and 20th August, 1976.
The three men are also accused of having allowed the military to use the factory as a detention centre where they carried out the interrogation of the workers. According to Judge Alicia Vence, the workers were “tied up with their faces covered and beaten.”
Although 24 workers survived the kidnapping and torture, only 12 are still alive today. The formal legal process began in 2001 but the first reports of the events date back to 1984.
Mercedes Benz: The families of 17 workers from the Mercedes Benz plant who were kidnapped and tortured have bought a civil case against the parent company of the carmaker, Daimler Chrysler, in the US. Mercedes-Benz Argentina is alleged to have identified workers who were kidnapped and sent to the clandestine torture centre, Campo de Mayo, during the dictatorship.
The investigation began in 2004 and has been rejected by US courts on previous occasions, with the US Supreme Court currently determining if the case falls under its jurisdiction. A decision is expected in the coming months on whether multinational corporations can be sued in US courts for alleged human rights abuses abroad.
In Argentina, the lawsuit for kidnapping and torture of the 17 workers, 14 of whom are still missing, was initiated by journalist Gabriela Weber in 2002 and in 2006 was transferred to Federal Court in San Martín under the charge of Judge Alicia Vence. So far noone has been formally charged or arrested.
The carmaker is also accused of the appropriation of three children, and the adoption and substitution of identity of Paula Logares, the first grandchildren reclaimed by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in 1987.