Events in Argentina for most of the twentieth century were marked by significant political instability, including the rise of military dictatorships and intense periods of civil unrest in response to political repression.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of intensifying social and political conflict, repression and violence in Argentina. In May 1969, a massive protest, remembered as the Cordobazo, broke out in Córdoba, the second most populous city in Argentina after Buenos Aires. In what started as a general strike, the Cordobazo brought labor unions, student groups, and the general citizenry to the streets. The police responded with violence, leading to bloody confrontations. The result: about 500 wounded, 20 to 30 dead, and some 300 arrested. After this event, protests intensified across the country, leading to brutal crackdowns.
This social climate saw the rise of violence from across the political spectrum. This was matched with increased repression from state security forces, and the construction of a legal framework designed to silence and persecute political dissidents.
Dress rehearsal for the “Dirty War”
In 1971, the Argentine military installed General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse as President. He ruled as a dictator. The Lanusse era intensified increasingly undemocratic and repressive practices to combat so-called “subversives,” in an attempt to quell social protests and emerging armed organizations. The junta attempted to legalize these practices through decrees and emergency laws. By 1972, the military had assembled a scheme of repression that included death squads and paramilitary groups tasked with kidnapping people on government blacklists. Freedom of the press was also nearly extinguished.
This was the backdrop for the events of the 1972 Trelew Massacre, which saw the extrajudicial killing of over a dozen political prisoners by members of the Argentine military. The government’s successful cover-up in the immediate aftermath of the event emboldened the military, and paved the way for the atrocities to come in the “Dirty War”.
Argentina’s Dirty War or “El Proceso”
Following the end of the Lanusse dictatorship, populist leader Juan Perón returned to Argentina, and became President in 1973. Perón aggressively pursued his political opponents. After Perón’s death, his widow and vice president, Isabel Perón, became President and empowered the right-wing military death squad AAA (Argentinean Anticommunist Association).
Mounting state violence coalesced in the 1976 military coup, marking the beginning of the most infamous and tragic period of violence in Argentina’s history. This military dictatorship, led by Jorge Rafaél Videla, called itself the “Process of National Reorganization,” or “El Proceso.” Its activities were dubbed the Dirty War and aided by Operation Condor, a United States-backed campaign of political repression and state terror marked by intense violence and human rights atrocities across the Southern Cone of Latin America.
This was a war waged not on outside forces, but against the Argentinean people. The junta embarked on a campaign of torture and terror, systematically arresting and disappearing political dissidents and others suspected of being aligned with leftist or socialist causes. The disappearances during “El Proceso” were particularly brutal. Infants were taken from political prisoners and “adopted” into military or other regime-aligned families. Political prisoners would be taken on “death flights”, where they would be sedated, stripped, and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean to their deaths. Some 30,000 Argentinean citizens are estimated to have been kidnapped and killed during this time.
During “El Proceso”, the junta censored discussion of the missing and disappeared, ensuring impunity and the invisibility of these stories and tragedies.
Seeking Justice: The Aftermath of “El Proceso”
In 1983, the military junta finally relinquished power and Argentina saw a return to democratic governance. However, amnesties and other legal and political maneuvers impeded access to justice for victims and their families. In 2005, however, the Supreme Court of Argentina ruled that crimes against humanity cannot be amnestied and are not subject to a statute of limitations. Since then, nearly 900 former junta members have been tried and convicted of crimes, many involving human rights abuses. This included ex-military officers Luis Emilio Sosa, Emilio Jorge Del Real, and Carlos Amadeo Marandino, who were found guilty in October 2012 for their roles in the Trelew Massacre. However, one of the military officers responsible, Roberto Guillermo Bravo, has escaped prosecution, resettling in the United States. On October 20, 2020, CJA filed a civil case pursuant to the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) against him. Meanwhile, the Argentine government continues to seek his extradition to stand trial for aggravated homicide and attempted aggravated homicide.
Efforts to hold all of the perpetrators of the Trelew Massacre accountable are part of the ongoing efforts by victims’ families and human rights groups to ensure accountability and justice for the atrocities of the Argentinean military during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Lanusse’s regime, which set the stage for Argentina’s Dirty War.