This March 24, Argentines commemorated the 30 year anniversary of the nation’s 1976 military coup and the brutal nightmare of state terror that followed. Throughout the week, human rights groups remembered the 30,000 people who were disappeared with a series of rallies and cultural events.
Without a doubt, anniversary commemorations were much larger this year than in the past. Massive crowds could barely squeeze into the Plaza de Mayo and tens of thousands spilled over into the connecting avenues during the demonstration on March 24. Along with the masses that returned to the streets for the first time in decades, polemic debate among human rights groups accompanied this year’s commemorations.
Terror that Ushered in a New Model
The military coup took power at exactly 3:20 a.m. on March 24, 1976. The military dictatorship immediately released an ultimatum warning that if military or civil police witnessed any suspicious subversive activity they would administer the "shoot to kill" policy. In the days leading up to the coup, representatives from the Catholic Church met with leaders of Argentina’s armed forced and witnesses report they left each of these meetings smiling. Two days after the coup then-U.S. Secretary Henry Kissinger ordered his subordinates to "encourage" the new regime by providing financial support, according to newly declassified U.S. cables and transcripts relating to the coup. Washington approved $50 million in military aid to the junta the following month. During Jorge Rafael Videla’s official visit to Washington in 1977 President Jimmy Carter expressed his hope for Argentina’s military government. Kissinger said in a television interview "Videla is an intelligent man doing the best for his nation."
The 1976-1983 military dictatorship ushered in unimaginable methods of terror—drugging dissidents and dropping them from planes into the Atlantic Ocean in the "vuelos del muerte," using electric prods or "picana" on the genitals of men and women who entered the clandestine detention centers, raping women and forcing husbands, wives, parents, brothers, and compañeros to listen to the screams of their loved ones who were being tortured.
According to Manuel Gonzalez, who since the age of 19 suspected that his military parents abducted him as a baby, the dictatorship used disappearances not just to terrorize the opposition but also to put the current neoliberal economic model in place. "I t has been 30 years since a bloody dictatorship took power in our country. Where 30,000 men and women were tortured, shot, killed, and disappeared—and also 500 babies. The military junta used the sinister mechanism of terror to implement the neoliberal economic model in our country. And this is why they needed to disappear our parents. They tortured them in clandestine detention centers. They made our mothers give birth to us in places like this. They gave birth to us in this hospital, a clandestine and illegal detention center."
Rodolfo Walsh wrote the "Open Letter to the Military Junta" on the first anniversary of the military coup in 1977 reporting the tortures, mass killings, and thousands of disappearances. He also reported on the planned misery of the neoliberal model. The political writer was murdered on March 25, just one day after publishing his famous letter. "With its economic policy this government is not only looking to explain its crimes but also the worst atrocity it has committed—punishing millions of human beings with planned misery.
"In a year the real salary of workers has dropped 40%. (They are) freezing salaries with the butts of rifles while prices are going up at the point of a bayonet, destroying any form of collective demands, prohibiting internal labor assemblies or commissions, making work hours longer and raising unemployment to the record level of 9%. When the workers protest, the dictatorship characterizes them as subversive, kidnapping entire delegate commissions. In some cases the bodies turn up dead and in other cases they never turn up."
In factories and workplaces unionists were sorted out and disappeared. At the Ford Motor plant 25 union delegates were detained and disappeared inside the plant’s very own clandestine detention center for days, weeks, or months until they were secretly transferred to the local police precinct transformed into a military cartel. Pedro Troiani was a union delegate for six years in the Ford plant in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Pacheco until the 1976 coup. "The company used the disappearances to get rid of unionism at the factory," said Troiani. The Mercedes-Benz plant was also transformed into a clandestine torture and detention center. The exact number of workers who were disappeared from the Mercedes-Benz plant in Argentina is still unknown. Estimates say at least thirteen, but the number is most likely close to 20. Many times workplaces and government buildings turned into clandestine detention centers were situated in the middle of barrios.
At least 46 workers from the Buenos Aires Provincial Bank offices were disappeared, singled out for their union organizing activity. Workers who today are organizing an internal union commission outside of the traditional union held an act to commemorate the 46 disappeared from the Buenos Aires Provincial Bank. They read the names of the 46 and inaugurated a plaque reaffirming the struggle that the disappeared workers left behind.
Over 1,500 workers from the Rio Santiago Ship Yard in Buenos Aires commemorated the ship yard’s 48 disappeared. "This is the first time in 23 years that the workers have come together to commemorate the 30,000 disappeared. I want to thank the compañeros who in the 70s gave everything, even their lives to defend their ideals that were little more than improving the work and social conditions of workers," remarked a worker during this year’s commemoration. The workers built a massive sculpture and inaugurated a plaque with the names of each of the 48 workers.
Osvaldo Valdez was one of the 48 workers disappeared from the Rio Santiago Ship Yard. "Ten hooded men entered my house. They put us in separate rooms and questioned me. They tore apart everything looking for information. Then they took him away," says Cristina Valdez, Valdez’s wife. "It’s amazing to think 15 days of checking criminal history turned into 30 years. We won’t rest until we know exactly who participated in these crimes and until every last murderer is put in jail."
During the Dirty War in Argentina, much of the population remained silent due to the censorship imposed by the military government. Those who did not stay silent risked being disappeared themselves. This year, in factories, universities, high schools, and barrios, activists organized local events to keep history alive and defend human rights so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Impunity and Escrache Popular
Events to mark the 30 years since Argentina’s military junta kicked off with an escrache or "exposure" protest against the coup’s first dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla. Over 10,000 people participated in the protest in front of Videla’s home, where he is under house arrest in connection with numerous charges of human rights abuse. Human rights group H.I.J.O.S. brought a crane and gave the ending remarks directly in front of Videla’s fifth floor apartment.
Nora Cortiñas, one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said that the same leaders responsible for illegally detaining, torturing, and killing 30,000 activists during the military junta dictatorship from 1976-1983 now benefit from state-sponsored impunity. "We are here because we don’t forget, we don’t forgive, and we don’t reconcile. The struggle will continue for as long as necessary. Until they tell us what happened to each one of the women and men who were disappeared. Until all the children who were snatched from their detained mothers find out their true identity. Until all the killers are put in regular jails with life sentences. Until those murderers responsible for this genocide are truly punished. Until the dreams of the disappeared and everyone who continues to fight today for social justice come true."
In 1996, the group H.I.J.O.S. (Children for Identity Justice and Against Forget and Silence) formed using the escrache as a tool for popular justice and against impunity. During the trial of ex-Navy Captain Alfredo Astiz, also known as the Blond Angel of Death, H.I.J.O.S. attended the trial camouflaged as public. With national television cameras focusing on Astiz, infamous for infiltrating the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and disappearing two of their leaders, the H.I.J.O.S. surprised the nation by yelling "murderer" and throwing rotten tomatoes at Astiz who asked to be excused to go to the bathroom.
Human rights groups H.I.J.O.S. and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have worked for over 10 years to find the whereabouts of the estimated 500 babies born while their mothers were in illegal captivity. Pregnant women were tortured and forced to give birth while blindfolded. In front of the Buenos Aires military hospital, one of the 375 clandestine detention centers used during the dictatorship, sons and daughters who recuperated their identity demanded that military nurses and doctors who participated in the forced confessions be punished.
"A sector of society continues to respect beasts like Jorge Rafael Videla, who led this massacre. And that is why we are going to do the exposure protest at Videla’s house—because we don’t forget and we don’t forgive," said Victoria Donde Perez, daughter of a disappeared woman. Thanks to the work of H.I.J.O.S. they have recuperated the identity of 82 sons and daughters. She also sent a message to her parents. "We want to tell our dear disappeared compañeros and parents not to worry because we are here and we will find your children. Today we are 82 but soon we will find all of them. Along with your children we are recovering the dreams of the disappeared, their dreams of life, their dreams of freedom, because that’s who our parents were, they were builders of courageous dreams."
In front of Videla’s home, at the street address Cabildo 639, Apartment A for Assassin, Marta Vazquez from Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo sent a special message to the crowd of young people. She asked them never to give up the fight for justice and human rights—the legacy that Argentina’s some 30,000 have left behind for future generations. Many of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are now in their 80’s, working to prevent a chapter in the fight for human rights from closing. They have taught their children and grandchildren to never forget, never forgive, and never give up a fight.
Special Report with the IRC-Americas program