Tag Archive | "military dictatorship"

Operation Condor: Justice for Transnational Crimes in South America

The Operation Condor trial in Buenos Aires has implications for justice and accountability in Argentina but also for the rest of South America.

“Could you please tell us your date and place of birth?” the president of Federal Criminal Court 1 in Buenos Aires asked the young woman testifying at the court hearing. Macarena Gelman replied that she was probably born on 1st November, 1976, in Montevideo, Uruguay, after her mother had been illegally transferred there from Argentina weeks earlier. Mystified by how her mother, María Claudia Garcia de Gelman, originally detained in Buenos Aires had ended up in Uruguay, Macarena suggested that Operation Condor (Plan Cóndor) offered the “only explanation” for what had happened.

Macarena Gelman (Still from TV Publica)

Macarena Gelman (Still from TV Publica)

Macarena’s testimony before the tribunal in November 2013 exposes some of the challenges and difficulties that victims of human rights violations have had to face since the return of democracy. Numerous South American countries experiencing similar violations share this legacy. The question of date and place of birth is one that many of us answer frequently and we do so without the blink of an eye. In the case of Macarena, as well as other victims of identity theft and illegal adoption, answering that question is anything but easy.

For Macarena, it required solving a puzzle; rejoining all the component pieces scattered across Argentina and Uruguay, but also within the entire South America region. Reconstructing her life story took over 30 years and included a grandfather who incessantly looked for her. It was also the journey of two countries in the aftermath of the shadow of dictatorship, struggling to come to terms with the brutality of the crimes that had been perpetrated.

Macarena’s identification in Montevideo in 2000 proved even further the existence of the transnational coordination of terror known as Operation Condor. Over ten years later, on March 5, 2013, in a packed Buenos Aires courthouse, two former Argentine military dictators, together with other 19 defendants, were finally put on trial for their alleged role in Operation Condor, including the atrocities committed against Macarena’s parents.

Operation Condor was a continent-wide operation set up during the Cold War by the military dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to hunt down political opponents across borders, murdering and disappearing hundreds of left-wing activists outside their home countries’ borders in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America.

Responding to Human Rights Violations

The rapidly growing field of transitional justice studies “strategies employed by states and international institutions to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses and to effect social reconstruction in the wake of widespread violence.” In the past 30 years, countries have developed innovative ways to confront atrocities committed during political violence or conflict. Latin America has pioneered many tools such as truth commissions, trials and reparations that have been adopted subsequently throughout the world. Yet, up until recently, the main focus has been on offences perpetrated by national actors within individual states, thus neglecting consideration of how to respond to transnational crimes such as those of Operation Condor.

Nonetheless, since the late 1990s and early 2000s, investigations into Operation Condor crimes have gradually come to play a crucial role in the struggle for accountability in South America. The strategic litigation of instances of transnational crimes, together with a parallel strategy focusing on the illegal appropriation of children born to women held in clandestine detention, turned into key tools in the struggle against impunity and in questioning the validity of broad amnesty laws that were approved soon after the dictatorships.

These ground-breaking strategies and legal tools developed by human rights activists and lawyers purposefully circumvented amnesty laws and began chipping away at the wall of impunity: the first judgment issued in March 2009 against military and police officers in Uruguay related for instance to the murder of 28 Uruguayan citizens in Buenos Aires in 1976. Likewise, in Chile, after decades of absolute impunity, Augusto Pinochet was eventually indicted by Judge Juan Guzmán for crimes relating to “Operation Condor” in December 2004.

The current trial in Buenos Aires is the first prosecution to tackle the whole terror network and its operations to persecute opponents across borders in all its six member states. This prosecution is exceptional internationally and even in Argentina. Kathryn Sikkink labelled Argentina a “global protagonist” in the struggle for international human rights, where 121 criminal trials for dictatorship crimes have already been completed in recent years. Yet the ongoing Operation Condor trial is still a seminal moment. Even the landmark investigations by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón in the late 1990s only focused on atrocities perpetrated inside state borders of Argentina and Chile.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (left) and his Argentine counterpart Jorge Videla, in 1976. Both were active members of Operation Condor.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his Argentine counterpart Jorge Videla, in 1976.

Opportunities for Justice

The criminal investigation into the case of Operation Condor began in the late 1990s when the relatives of five victims from Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay presented their case to the judiciary in Buenos Aires. The amnesties that existed at the time could be circumvented because the defendants were either foreign individuals or Argentine military commanders. In the early 2000s, the federal judge charged former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and also requested the extradition of several other former dictators, including Augusto Pinochet and the former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner. There were delays in the judicial and investigative process in Argentina, due to the context of impunity until the amnesty laws were overturned in 2005. Then the deferrals, due to the large numbers of trials for dictatorship crimes that resumed in 2006, and the trial only began in 2013.

The trial advances justice in new respects by tackling national and transnational human rights violations against 106 victims. The judges are investigating atrocities and perpetrators across multiple and overlapping jurisdictions: crimes perpetrated in Argentina by foreign operatives and Argentine agents, atrocities committed abroad by Argentine forces and their local counterparts as well as the transnational conspiracy of terror by South America’s dictatorships to perpetrate human rights violations. While other criminal prosecutions have established criminal responsibility for specific crimes, this trial, by examining illegal kidnappings and the circumstances surrounding them, aims to prove the actual existence of the Operation Condor network.

The trial is innovative in four respects vis-à-vis previous prosecutions in Argentina: it is the only one to have amongst its 21 defendants a foreigner, retired Uruguayan military officer Manuel Cordero. It addresses atrocities committed in the six countries that composed the Operation Condor network. It has a large number of foreign victims, including 48 Uruguayans and 22 Chileans. It uses the criminal charge of asociación ilicita (the establishment of a joint criminal conspiracy) to prosecute the transnational enterprise created to perpetrate crimes against humanity across borders. This specific charge is commonly utilised by domestic courts investigating cases relating to local criminal gangs or mafia groups; it has never been used for crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Automotores Orletti, the garage used as a clandestine detention centre during the dictatorship is closely connected to the Operation Condor trial (Photo via wikipedia)

Automotores Orletti, the garage used as a clandestine detention centre during the dictatorship is closely connected to the Operation Condor trial (Photo via wikipedia)

The Road Ahead

In less than a year’s time, the sentence in the trial will be known. It is too early to speculate on a sentence yet to come, but some preliminary evaluations can be attempted. Whatever the final verdict, the strategic importance of this trial cannot be underestimated.

This prosecution has played a key role in undermining the structure of impunity that existed in Argentina. The trial is truly unprecedented in its attempt to capture the complexity of repression in South America. It tackles domestic human rights violations but also transnational ones: it includes both Argentine and foreign victims, and there are Argentine perpetrators and foreign counterparts. It is the first time that a criminal court is probing the whole transnational terror network that existed in the region to enable cross-border repression of exiles and activists. The 106 cases are representative of the coordination of terror. Defendants are being prosecuted according to the criminal code not for establishing a domestic criminal conspiracy but an international one.

Activists and lawyers remain hopeful that the trial will have an impact on other countries in the region, especially those that lag behind in accountability for dictatorship crimes, such as Brazil and Uruguay. It is noteworthy that the Operation Condor trial began in Argentina just a few days after the Supreme Court of Justice in Uruguay released a very controversial and internationally criticised sentence regarding past human rights violations. In this context, a condemnatory verdict in the Operation Condor trial, where the majority of victims are Uruguayan citizens, may become a tool for local activists to mobilise on this issue and put pressure on the judiciary and the government to respond to myriad past crimes.

Dr Francesca Lessa is a specialist in issues of justice and human rights in Argentina and Uruguay based at the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford.

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Swedish Football Player Reveals Detention by Argentine Military

Ralf Edström (photo: Wikipedia)

Ralf Edström (photo: Wikipedia)

Ralf Edström, a football player who was part of the Swedish national team in the 1970s, revealed he was detained and questioned by the Argentine military while he was in Buenos Aires for the 1978 World Cup.

Edström told Swedish radio yesterday that he had gone out for a walk before a match against Austria when he was picked up by two armed men whom he suspected were military personnel. He was then taken to an office where he was questioned by a man sitting behind a desk, wearing sunglasses.

After answering some questions about his nationality and showing his accreditation to the World Cup, he was released. “My heart was beating fast, though at the same time I was sure they wouldn’t dare do anything to a World Cup player. But I can’t even imagine what would have happened had I not had my ID on me,” said Edström.

The player believes the incident could have been related to a chance encounter he had had with a stranger a couple of days before, when he was sitting at a café on his own. The man turned out to be a lawyer, who told him about the situation the country was going through with tears in his eyes, and the two men ended up hugging.

“I think that’s why those men, who I understand belonged tot he military junta, kidnapped me a couple of days later, because they had seen me with that person.”

Asked about the reason why he is making these revelations now, Edström said he thought the moment was “right”. After the incident, he talked about it with some of his fellow players, but did not tell his coach. “I thought about telling the media, but I thought it was a sensitive issue, keeping in mind we were halfway through the World Cup and that we were in Argentina,” said Edström.


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Government Publishes Dictatorship-Era Blacklists

Files from the Military Dictatorship uncovered last week. (photo: Télam)

Files from the Military Dictatorship uncovered last week. (photo: Télam)

The Ministry of Defence has revealed details of the military dictatorship’s criteria and methodology used to compile ‘blacklists’ after they were discovered in the basement of the Condor Building last Thursday. Three of the lists have been made available to the public.

The documents show the junta in power from 1976-83 classified individuals from Formula 1 to Formula 4, depending on their alleged links with Marxist ideology. ‘F1’ concerned people “without Marxist ideological background”, while ‘F4’ was applied to people with “recorded Marxist ideological backgrounds that makes it advisable to not allow entry/stay in public administration so they do not collaborate, under the auspices of the state, etc.”

Formula 2 referred to people whose background “failed to qualify them unfavourably from the Marxist ideological viewpoint” and Formula 3 was applied to individuals who recorded “some Marxist ideological background but not sufficient to constitute an insurmountable element for appointment, promotion, granting of a scholarship, etc.”

The Defence Ministry said in a statement that “it is false” that names of artists, intellectuals, and journalists – among others – considered “dangerous” by the military dictatorship were only blacklisted from employment in state agencies. Among the files uncovered is a provision that says that “it is clear that the private media have no limitations on it”, but the Ministry noted that, “in practice, this did not work well: private media were discouraged from hiring someone designated as ‘Formula 4’ by the dictatorship.”

According the the documents discovered, an agency tasked with compiling the lists was called the Inter-Force Compatiblizing Team (ECI) which “defined the criteria for qualifying individuals… analysed their ongoing updates, and decided who was in and out of the highest level of ban,” the Defence Ministry stated.

The first black list found is dated 6th April, 1979 and contains 12 pages grouping a total of 285 names, all with the classification Formula 4, and details of the profession of each person. It contains the names of speakers, painters, writers, journalists, performers, actors, theatre directors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, sculptors, art critics, publicists, set designers, composers, filmmakers, cartoonists, puppeteers, pediatricians, and psychologists.

The second list found was from 31st January 1980 and includes 331 names under the classification of Formula 4. At the top of the document are various instructions, including that the document “should be incinerated”.

A third list was published in September 1982 after the Falklands/Malvinas War, which marked a change in direction for the dictatorship. A note from the Secretariat of Public Information dated 21st September 1982 highlights the regime’s policy to “mark a transition to full institutional life of the country”.

To achieve this goal an order was issued to “to avoid official actions and attitudes that undermine that image in the media” and recommends to people categorised as F4 be “allowed work in the media managed by the State.”

During Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship, around 30,000 people are believed to have been killed or disappeared by the junta, and many more were kidnapped and submitted to torture.

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‘Secret’ Military Dictatorship Documents Discovered in Basement

Argentine Defence Minister Agustín Rossi and the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo at Monday's press conference. (photo: Télam)

Argentine Defence Minister Agustín Rossi and the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo at Monday’s press conference. (photo: Télam)

Argentine Defence Minister Agustín Rossi announced on Monday the discovery of 1,500 documents that had been hidden in the basement of the Condor building, the headquarters of the Argentine Air Force, shedding new light on the activities of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983.

Among the documents, discovered last Thursday thanks to information supplied by Air Force chief Mario Miguel Callejo, were the minutes of 280 secret meetings held by the Armed Forces, ‘black lists’, and a government plan until the year 2000.

“We found six original folders of the records of the military junta, all the secret minutes from the 24th March, 1976 until 10th December, 1983, with a chronology of each and the originals signed by the general secretaries of each force,” said the Minister.

“It is the first time we have had access” to this type of records, Rossi added, signalling they could have future legal repurcussions.

Rossi focussed part of his Monday press conference on Papel Prensa, the main supplier of news printing paper which was sold to Clarin, La Nación and La Razón in 1976. In 2010, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner accused the buyers of “extorting” the family to sell them the company shares, after owner David Graiver died in an accident in Mexico.

Rossi asserted that the new documents proved that: “For the junta, the detention of [former Papel Prensa owners] the Graiver family was directly related to its sale.”

“The Justice will decide whether these documents that we have found have not only historical value, but legal value for the various lawsuits that are being carried in the various courts of Argentina,” said Rossi.

Files from the Military Dictatorship uncovered last week. (photo: Télam)

Files from the Military Dictatorship uncovered last week. (photo: Télam)

Also contained in the documents were black lists with the names of 331 intellectuals, journalists, artists, musicians, and actors, ranked according to how “dangerous” they were, which depended on their “Marxist ideological background.” Many of the names on the list were in exile, and included Norma Aleandro, Hector Alterio, Osvaldo Bayer, Norman Briski, Julio Cortázar, Rogelio García Lupo, Horacio Guarani, Victor Heredia, Federico Luppi, Osvaldo Pugliese, Rodolfo Puiggrós; Marilina Ross, Mercedes Sosa and Maria Elena Walsh.

Also uncovered were records of requests for information from the relatives of desaparecidos (missing persons) and directions to avoid using the term ‘personas desaparecidas’ (missing persons) in public, and instead refer to ‘pedidos de paraderos de personas’ (requests for whereabouts of people).

The files also show the military dictatorship had plans for the country until the year 2000. An Action Plan devised by the then-Planning Chief General Díaz Bessone divided the government’s plans into two phases: the first, “foundation stage”, until the 1990s, and the second stage, or “new republic”, until the year 2000.

The minister also showed a letter from the Association of Argentine Banks (ADEBA) concerning contributions to the government’s project schedule. “Therefore, as the president says, the coup was not just military but civilian-military, in these documents there is evidence to that effect,” concluded Rossi.


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Ford Factory Managers Prosecuted for Role in Dictatorship Kidnappings

A Ford Falcon in Argentina (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A Ford Falcon in Argentina (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The former Chief of Security and two managers at Ford’s General Pacheco factory in Tigre have been prosecuted by a federal judge for allegedly participating in the kidnapping of 24 workers during Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Ex-Chief of Security, Héctor Sibilla, Pedro Müller, and Guillermo Galárraga are reported to have revealed personal information, including addresses and photographs of the workers, to the military between 24th March and 20th August, 1976.

Judge Alicia Vence also stated that the role Nicolás Enrique Julián Courard, President of Ford for Argentina at the time, was under investigation, though he died in Chile in 1989.

The three men are also accused of having allowed the military to use the factory as a detention center where they carried out the interrogation of the workers. According to Vence, the workers were “tied up with their faces covered and beaten by staff.”

“The violation of humans rights in this case was not only by the military, but also by members of private companies,” said the ruling. Sibilla, a retired army officer, was later hired by the Embassy of the United States until he retired in 2004.

The victims included Pedro Norberto Troiani, Carlos Rosendo Gareis, Jorge Enrique Constanzo, Marcelino Víctor Reposi, Adolfo Omar Sánchez, Francisco Guillermo Perrotta, Juan Carlos Ballestero, Pastor Jose Murua, Rubén Manzano, Juan Carlos Amoroso.

The ruling follows the resumption of a trial in Jujuy last week against the former president of sugar company Ledesma, Carlos Blaquier, for his alleged role in the disappearance of workers during the dictatorship.

More than 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed between 1976 and 1983. During that period, the Ford Falcon become known as a vehicle commonly used by kidnappers. Jorge Rafael Videla, ex-military dictator and de facto president of Argentina from 1976 to 1981, died last week at the age of 87 while serving a 50 year sentence for crimes against humanity committed during his command of the last military government.

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Plan Cóndor: The Search for Justice

Earlier this month, a trial of monumental historic significance commenced in Argentina. A trial that will see a group of military leaders prosecuted for their involvement in the ‘Plan Cóndor’ campaign; an agreement between the right-wing dictatorships of South America which led to the disappearance and murder of up to 80,000 people during the 1970s and 1980s.

Nunca Más

Nunca Más by blmurch, on Flickr

In what is expected to last two years, and call upon over 500 witnesses, the trial represents a significant step towards achieving justice for crimes against humanity committed at the hands of the Southern Cone’s brutal collusion.

The History

The brutal right-wing military dictatorships that raged terror and political oppression across the continent defined the 1970s and 1980s in South America. The exact number of victims is disagreed upon, but it is estimated that the era saw the ‘disappearance’ of over 60,000 people in the fight to eradicate communist influence on the continent.

The sprawling dictatorships across the continent led to the clandestine kidnapping, torture, and murder of thousands of Latin Americans, with the aim of “eliminating Marxist subversion”, from Argentina, to the Augusto Pinochet-ruled Chile.

Targets of the eradication were officially stated as members of left-wing armed groups such as the MIR (Chile), the Montoneros (Argentina), and the Tupamaros (Uruguay), although the operation targeted trade unionists, family members, and anyone remotely considered a ‘political opponent’.

The formation of ‘Plan Cóndor’ – or ‘Operation Condor’ in English– was paramount to the continuation and reach of the dictatorships. The collusion of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil (and later Ecuador and Peru) enabled leaders to obtain resources and allies, thus continuing their left-wing eradication.

Set in the context of the Cold War, there was a palpable communist fear felt across the globe; something that enabled the dictatorships to garner significant funding and assistance from the United States. Declassified CIA documents –thousands of which were released in 1999 (here, here, here, and here)- show the key role the US played in the proliferation of the dictatorships. Politicians such as former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger have been heavily implicated as having been fundamental in the realisation of the kidnapping, torture, and murder of political enemies.

Argentina in particular saw one of the highest cases of ‘disappearances’ during the period of mass military dictatorships, with human rights’ organisations estimating the figure to stand at 30,000. Justice for the crimes against humanity committed during this period of state terrorism arguably began with the Juicio a las Juntas in 1985. The trial proved the crimes of the dictatorship for the first time, and led to the imprisonment of key figures such as Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera, both of whom received life imprisonment sentences, along with numerous others.

Madres and supporters of the trial against Operation Condor crimes (Photo courtesy: Argentine Government)

Madres and supporters of the trial against Operation Condor crimes (Photo courtesy of Argentine Government)

However, the work of the historic trial was largely undone, or at least heavily marred, by the amnesty laws passed during Raul Alfonsin’s government, which protected military officers from allegations and prosecution for crimes against humanity. This was followed by President Carlos Menem’s pardoning of the junta leaders in 1989. Protests and campaigning by organisations such as the Madres of Plaza de Mayo were fundamental in the repeal of the amnesty laws by the Argentine Supreme Court in 2005 under the government of Néstor Kirchner.

The Trial

For the first time, the collusion between governments and dictators under the ‘Plan Cóndor’ campaign will be investigated. Twenty five defendants are on trial in Buenos Aires in what has been described as a ‘mega-trial’, expected to last two years and scheduled to hear 500 witness statements. Lawyer Carolina Varsky described the trial as: “historic as it’s the first to deal with the repression coordinated between Latin American dictatorships.”

All suspects being tried are Argentine, with the exception of Uruguayan Manuel Cordero, who is accused of participating in death squads and torture at the Orletti clandestine detention centre in the city. Cordero was extradited by Brazil, where he was living prior to the trial. The list of defendants features 22 Argentine military intelligence officers and agents, including former de facto presidents Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, both of whom are already serving life imprisonment sentences, which they will most likely not outlive.

Argentine political scientist Ariel Raidan spoke with The Argentina Independent about the significance of the commencement of the trial, and said how it signifies the government’s focus on “building a more just society, where truth and justice come first, overcoming years of impunity.”

“The countries of the continent are beginning to revise its tragic past. Both advances and setbacks have occurred in the fight for justice over the years, but this trial has a clear conviction to expose as many facts as possible” continued Raidan.

The trial will investigate the cases of over 170 victims, including 65 who were imprisoned at the infamous Orletti torture centre in Buenos Aires. Victims were often kidnapped from their home country and transported to the facilities of a neighbouring country; a practice made possible by the collusion of governments in the Southern Cone. Much evidence to be examined in the trial, and what prosecutors are heavily basing their case upon, comes from the now declassified US documents, obtained by the non-governmental organisation National Security Archive. Released under the Freedom of Information Act, the documents detail how Henry Kissinger and many other high-ranking officials in the US not only gave full support and funding to the Argentine military junta, but also urged the country to accelerate protocol and finish their operations before the US Congress cut aid. The documents, featuring signatures of many high-ranking officials, have led to accusations that the US was a secret collaborator, partner, and sponsor of the operation.

Argentina - Bariloche 006 - white shawl protest graffiti

Argentina – Bariloche 006 – white shawl protest graffiti by mckaysavage, on Flickr

Additionally, documents identified as the ‘Archives of Terror’, discovered in a police station in 1992, were significant in the uncovering of the role of Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. These countries provided intelligence information that had been requested by ‘Plan Cóndor’ participating countries.

The victims are comprised of approximately 80 Uruguayans, 50 Argentines, 20 Chileans, and a dozen from Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. The disappearance of two Cuban consulate officials will also form part of the proceedings. Out of the 170 victims, 42 survived the dictatorship’s brutal treatment and many of them are expected to give first hand accounts during their testimonies in court. The remaining victims were murdered or ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the Cóndor agreement.

John Dinges, author of ‘The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents’, said that, “this is historic in the sense that we’re going to hear from 500 witnesses. And really, in the Latin American legal system, it’s unusual. It’s really only coming to the fore now that you hear witnesses, as opposed to just seeing them give their testimony to judges in a closed room, and then later on people like me might go and read those testimonies, but really it doesn’t become public. This is all public. And apparently, a lot of it is being videotaped. So this is the first time that the general public is going to hear the details of this horrible, horrible list of atrocities that killed so many people.”

Alcira Ríos, the lawyer representing a Paraguayan victim whose case is to be tried in the coming months, said “we’re delighted that after years of struggle this has finally come to trial… the ‘disappeared’ deserve justice.”

The Future

Raidan spoke of his hope that “the trial will shed light on the specific articulation and coordination of the military juntas that ruled the countries of the Southern Cone”. The hope of many is to see clandestine details released that have for so long been shrouded in secrecy and cover-ups. The culmination of new documents, evidence, and witness statements has created a strong sense of hope that further justice will be achieved over the course of the trial. “The documents are very useful in establishing a comprehensive analytical framework of what Operation Condor was,” said Pablo Enrique Ouvina, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Miguel Angel Osorio, federal prosecutor in the case, has said that he is convinced of the existence of Operation Condor and that he believes it will be clearly proved, as well as “the actions of those implicated [in the plan] which prove that there was a illicit agreement to move people from one country to another”.

Perhaps closure will not be fully achieved over the brutal repression and crimes against humanity committed during this era, but there is a palpable sense surrounding the case that some semblance of a resolution will be achieved; that justice will be reached.


Click here to find out Argentines’ opinions on the ‘Plan Cóndor’ mega-trial.

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Habemus Papam: An Argentine in the Vatican

Ever since the surprising news of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s appointment as Pope Francis broke yesterday, Argentina has been a whirlwind of speculation.

Pope Francis at his first public appearance after the conclave (photo by Agência Brasil)

Pope Francis at his first public appearance after the conclave (photo by Agência Brasil)

The streets are full of rumours about his past, estimates about his future, and debates over the political significance of his papacy for the continent and the Catholic Church. There is even speculation about the future of his football team, San Lorenzo, now that it has a powerful supporter in the Vatican. It is without a doubt a historical moment that caught everyone by surprise, and everyone has something to say about it.

The Past

The issue causing the greatest controversy is Bergoglio’s alleged relationship with the last military dictatorship. In general terms, the whole Argentine catholic church has been questioned for its silence, if not outright complicity, regarding the crimes of the dictatorship. Furthermore, when priests were found out to be involved in crimes against humanity and convicted for it, the church has been too lenient with them. When former chaplain Christian Von Wernich was found guilty of kidnappings, torture, and murder, the church released a lukewarm statement, signed by Bergoglio, declaring that he had acted of his own accord, thus avoiding any kind of institutional responsibility. Meanwhile, Von Wernich is still a part of the church and has not been sanctioned.

Bergoglio himself has been accused of being directly involved in the kidnapping of four Jesuit priests and a group of catechists in 1976. In May of that year, the priests were kidnapped and tortured. Two of them, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were released five months later, while the other ones were disappeared. Bergoglio maintains that he warned the priests to leave the neighbourhood where they were doing social work as a raid was imminent, and that he even tried to intercede before Admiral Emilio Massera to secure their freedom.

Yorio, however, contests the pope’s version. “Bergoglio didn’t warn us of the danger we were in” he told journalist Horacio Verbitsky. “I also don’t have any reason to think he did anything for our freedom, quite the opposite.” According to Angélica Sosa de Mignone, the mother of one of the catechists that were kidnapped together with priests, they “were freed thanks to the intervention of [her husband] Emilio Mignone and the Vatican and not thanks to Bergoglio, who was the one that turned them in.”

The controversy surrounding Bergoglio’s activities during the dictatorship is a long standing one. Verbitsky has written several articles about it for Página 12, and in the highly polarised reality we live in, many accuse him of waging a political war against the former Archbishop. However his sources are the testimonies of survivors such as Yorio, and the book ‘Church and dictatorship’ by Emilio Mignone (co-founder of the Centre for Social and Legal Studies, or CELS, and father of one of the disappeared catechists), where he talks about the “sinister complicity” between the church and the military, who “did the dirty work of cleaning up the inside of the Church, with the acquiesce of the priests.”

Cardinal Bergoglio holding mass in 2008 (photo courtesy of Casa Rosada)

Cardinal Bergoglio holding mass in 2008 (photo courtesy of Casa Rosada)

The revival of the controversy in light of Bergoglio’s election as pope has prompted many to express their opinion for and against him. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who received the award for his commitment to the fight for human rights during the dictatorship, told the BBC that “Bergoglio had no links to the dictatorship.” However, he later added on Twitter that “We can’t ignore that a large part of the Argentine church hierarchy was complicit with the dictatorship” and that “Bergoglio was not a direct accomplice of the dictatorship, but he lacked the courage to support our struggle for human rights.”

A Progressive Pope?

In Vatican terms, and compared to his contenders during the conclave, Francis is considered something of a reformer. Many catholics hope the new pope will be able to solve some of the pressing issues that the Holy See is facing. Widespread allegations of sexual abuse within the church, corruption scandals in the Vatican involving money laundering and fraud by the Vatican Bank, the sustained growth of secularism and increasing lack of faith in the world, the rise of alternative Christian religions, among others.

Although his social sensitivity and his work with the poor and sick are widely recognised, in Argentina, he is broadly considered as a conservative in social matters. It would not be realistic to expect a catholic leader to support progressive social causes such as the legalisation of abortion (which Bergoglio opposed even in cases of rape) or euthanasia. However, the virulent campaign the church led against gay marriage in 2010 and his homophobic declarations on the matter place him on the far right of contemporary Argentine politics.

In a letter he wrote to a congregation of nuns as the gay marriage bill was being debated in Congress, he stated that “[gay marriage] is a move by the devil”. “At stake here is the life of so many children who will be discriminated against by denying them the human development that God intended be provided by a father and a mother,” he said, adding that “this is not simply a political struggle; it’s the aspiration to destroy God’s plan.” His appointment has been strongly criticised by the LGBT community.

Less extreme, especially compared to those of his predecessor Benedict XVI, are his views regarding contraception. While he accepts the use of condoms to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, he has been criticised for opposing government plans to distribute free contraceptives.

Francis and Cristina

During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and head of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Bergoglio had a tense relationship with the governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

While the confrontation perhaps reached its highest point during the debate for the gay marriage law during President Fernández’s term, the government had looked at Bergoglio with suspicion since day one. The Archbishop has been highly critical of the Kirchner and Fernández administrations, both for their leadership style and for specific issues such as the persistence of poverty. The government began to consider him as part of the political opposition, especially when he met with then-vicepresident Julio Cobos after his “no” vote during the campo crisis.

Jorge Bergoglio and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (photo courtesy of Casa Rosada)

Jorge Bergoglio and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (photo courtesy of Casa Rosada)

Yesterday, after Bergoglio’s appointment, eyes quickly turned to President Fernández and her reaction to the announcement. In the afternoon, the president sent a brief letter to the new pope, which was published in her official Twitter and Facebook accounts. The very formal letter congratulated Francis on his appointment and expressed her hope that he would produce “fruitful pastoral work” towards “justice, equality, fraternity, and peace for humanity.”

Later on the same day, she again congratulated Bergoglio and celebrated the election of a Latin American pope. She added that “We hope he will carry a message to the great powers, for them to engage in dialogue. That he can convince the powerful of the world – those with arms, financial power- to take a look at the emerging countries and encourage a civilising dialogue.”

This statement was interpreted as a request for the pope to lend his influence to the Falklands/Malvinas sovereignty dispute with the UK, and more broadly, as an indication that the government might try to benefit from the Argentine papacy to boost the country’s international standing.

President Fernández’s spokesman also confirmed yesterday that she will attend the pope’s inauguration on Tuesday 19th March.

What Does It Mean For Us?

One of the biggest questions circulating since yesterday is what influence the new pope will have on Latin America, as well as the international projection the region will gain thanks to Francis’ papacy.

While Latin America holds the largest concentration of the world’s catholics (483 million), many wonder why the church decided to elect a Latin American pope now, after centuries of European primacy.

The more pessimistic theory suggests that the aim of the Catholic Church is to increase its presence in the region in order to slow down the progressive reforms sweeping across the continent. Many have compared his appointment to that of Polish pope John Paul II during the cold war, interpreting the latter as an attempt to counterbalance the influence of Soviet communism. However, some analysts point out that this end could have been better met by Brazilian hopeful Odilo Scherer, considered more conservative than Bergoglio.

Catholics celebrate Francis' appointment outside the Buenos Aires Cathedral (photo by Beatrice Murch)

Catholics celebrate Francis’ appointment outside the Buenos Aires Cathedral (photo by Beatrice Murch)

Those who support and celebrate the new pope, think that the church is simply giving the continent the long overdue representation it deserves, and hope that his papacy will bring a renewed message of hope and unity and will focus its efforts in the fight against poverty.

Whichever way it goes, Francis can expect to be met by the challenges of a church in crisis, in a world in crisis. As a pope, he will have a significant amount of power over the lives of millions of people around the world. Those people expect, and hope, that he will use that power sensibly.

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Monumental ESMA Trial Begins

In the largest trial yet to address state terrorism committed during the last dictatorship, 68 individuals were officially charged this morning with 789 crimes committed in the Navy Mechanical School (ESMA) secret detention centre. Charges include torture, kidnappings, enslavement, and murder, including so-called ‘death flights’.

The judicial clerk began hearings by reading the names of the accused military officials, pilots, and a few civilians and prosecution’s charges against them. Phrases such as “was violently detained” and “was driven in secrecy to the ESMA site, where he remained in inhumane conditions deprived of suitable food, hygiene, and housing conditions,” were repeated often. In many cases, victims remain missing.

Defendants include eight pilots charged with executing ‘death flights’, in which victims were stripped, hooded, tied up, and drugged before being flung from planes, still alive, into the sea or the Río de la Plata river to their deaths. The list of charges includes the deaths of French nuns Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon and founding member of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo Azucena Villaflor by ‘death flight’. Duquet and Domons’ bodies washed up on shore and remained unidentified for decades. The assassination technique surfaced after the dictatorship following survivor testimony and the 1995 confession of Captain Adolfo Scilingo, currently serving 1,084 years in prison in Spain.

Other notable crimes undergoing trial include the murder of Swedish teenager Dagmar Hagelin and the ‘disappearance’ of Montanero leader Norma Arrostito.

On the defendant’s bench sat former marines Alfredo Astiz and Eduardo “El Tigre” Acosta, members of the Task Force 3.3.2 (16 of which were convicted of other crimes in October 2010), and former housing secretary Juan Alemann.

The unusually large number of defendants exceeded their designated seating area at the Comodoro Py 2002 chamber and had to be seated on the ground floor, usually reserved for the general public. Family members of the victims and human rights organizations were separated from defendants’ families in different audience galleries. The latter, headed by Cecilia Pando, held signs calling for “complete memory”. Pando, wife of a military officer and head of the Friends and Family of Imprisoned Argentine Politicians Association (AFyAPPA) raised a stir when she attempted to encourage Astiz during the proceedings. Outside, about 50 pro-government activists sang anthems denouncing the defendants and waving flags reading, “La Cámpora”.

During the proceedings, defendant Carlos Orlando Generoso, a marine known by the alias “Fragote”, fell ill. An ambulance was called and the judges allowed an hour and a half in a private room for recuperation. One defendant, Alejandro Domingo D’Agostino, head of the War Veterans’ Prefect Division, was not present. He is being tried by a separate process for health reasons.

Over the course of the trial, which is expected to last two full years, public prosecutor Eduardo Friele will bring 830 witnesses to testify before Daniel Obligado, Leopoldo Bruglia, and Adriana Palliotti, the team of judges presiding over the case. The first case involving crimes committed at ESMA ended inconclusively when defendant Héctor Febres was discovered dead in his cell by cyanide poisoning in December of 2007. The second trial took place in 2009 and ended with the condemnation of various well-known names of the dictatorship era. Financial offences against ESMA prisoners, such as the confiscation of goods and property, still await trial.

The ESMA campus stands on the northeast border of Buenos Aires. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Argentine Marine Corps used it to operate the largest secret detention centre in the country and detain an estimated 5,000 victims. In 2004, it was converted into a museum, the “Space for Memory and the Promotion of Human Rights”.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Argentina, News Round Ups, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (0)

Jorge Julio López: Search For Justice Continues Six Years On

Today marks the six year anniversary of the disappearance of Jorge Julio López. On 18th September 2006, López was due to appear in court to act as a key witness in the case against Miguel Etchecolatz, the ex-director general of police investigations for Buenos Aires province during the last military dictatorship. He never arrived and remains missing to this day, with the case still unsolved.

López personally suffered torture at the hands of Etchecoltaz during the last military dictatorship, and witnessed him commit murder. However, despite the disappearance of the 76 year old bricklayer in 2006, there was still substantial evidence to sentence Etchecolatz, who received a life sentence for the murder of six people and a further eight convictions for kidnap.

López’s son, Ruben, today admitted that he is aware that his father is unlikely to be alive after six years, but that he is still awaiting answers.  In a press conference, he stressed that “the only thing we want is for him to be found, in whatever state that may be.”

“Ever since that day, we have been in hell, searching, with no information,” he added. He went on to apportion blame to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, claiming that “she never spoke about my father,” who’s disappearance occurred during the time that her husband, Nestor Kirchner, was in power.

Various social and political groups will gather later to express their remorse for López and anger towards the government who continue to make little headway in solving the case. One such group is the Provincial Commission for Memory (CPM) which has organised to offer discussions and debates at the Museum of Art and Memory in La Plata at 7.00pm.

In Buenos Aires, the human rights organisation Encuentro Memoria, Verdad y Justicia will march at 5.30pm from Congreso to the Plaza de Mayo in order to demand “justice and punishment for those responsible”. In La Plata a march will also take place at the same time.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (0)

Sentences for Crimes Against Humanity in Bahía Blanca

Today, at 6pm at the University in Bahía Blanca, sentences for those of the Fifth Military Unit who performed crimes against humanity during the military dictatorship will be announced. Torture victims and relatives of the disappeared, as well as their supporters, are planning to rally outside the facility calling for justice.

The presiding judge to pass the first round of sentences, Jorge Ferro, was joined with colleagues to evaluate evidence over the past 14 months. Evidence spanned kidnappings, torture, killings, and other heinous crimes performed by 17 members of the military group during the military dictatorship of 1976-83.

The federal prosecutor, Abel Córdoba, called for life sentences for 14 of the 17 defendants.

The day begins at 9am with a final testament from Colonel Jorge Granada, the former leader of the Secret Intelligence Unit for Psychological Activity, and his colleague, Luis Patti. During the afternoon, there will be a live and open radio program, as well there will be a demonstration of 30,000 mini-paintings of faces. At 6pm, the court will make the final announcement of the sentences for those involved in Case 982.

Today, those charged have also been given a moment for final words by Ferro.

“I am innocent. Nothing more,” said Osvaldo Páez, labelled as the main actor in accusations of torture. Walter Tejada insisted that he had prevented war with Chile, saying that his actions were against “subversive terrorists”.

Mario Méndez insisted that he was following orders, whilst his companion, Jorge Masson, agreed, saying that “you don’t think about them nor contradict them: you follow them”.

Case 982, known as ‘Bayon, Juan Manuel et al.’, began in May 2011 with the aim of addressing crimes against humanity performed by the government during a time of “State Terrorism”.

Within the document, it states that there are 807 people who have been registered and are being processed for their crimes. Of the 807, 454 of these are in the process of being brought to justice or at least are being evaluated at the judicial level.

Apart from those in Case 982, there are another 389 that have been sentenced at a higher level and 65 who have other judicial cases against them.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (2)

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24th March marks the anniversary of the 1976 coup that brought Argentina's last dictatorship to power, a bloody seven year period in which thousands of citizens were disappeared and killed. Many of the victims passed through ESMA, a clandestine detention centre turned human rights museum

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