• Email
  • Print

Terror in Argentina

A few days before I left Argentina a month ago, a friend appeared, too shaken to speak coherently, and told me that the girl he was about to marry had been abducted from her apartment. From witnesses’ accounts and from the refusal of the local police to make any investigation, it was obvious she had been taken away by one of the government security units which has free license to conduct such “operations” against suspected extremists. Neither my friend nor his fiancée had anything at all to do with politics. Her mother, who was also seized, had been active in a leftist party, but she was certainly no terrorist. The girl’s relatives filed a habeas corpus petition and hounded whatever government and military offices they could but were told there was no sign of her or her mother.

You know I have never given a damn about this political mess…. I just don’t care who’s in office, and I don’t follow what is going on,” my friend said, his eyes filling with tears. “But the next time I read that one of those filthy sons of bitches has been killed by a guerrilla, I am going to dance with joy.”

After three years of reporting for The Associated Press in Argentina, I could imagine only too well what might have happened to her. If my friend was lucky, his girlfriend was in what security men call a “safe house,” where she would be undergoing interrogation. This could range from simply rude questioning to torture by electrical shocks, near suffocation, beating, or sexual abuse. She might be released, with no apology but at least without lasting scars, after days, weeks, or perhaps many months. But if the secret inquisition determined she was actually a guerrilla, she could be put aboard a military helicopter and dumped out at sea, still alive, so that her lungs would fill with water causing her to sink like a stone. Her name would not appear on any official record since the men responsible would not make a report on her to their superiors.

According to the well-placed security officials I knew well, this happens frequently. Whatever the ruling generals may be doing to protect human rights and maintain public order, thousands of Argentines have died this year by machine gun fire, bombings, torture, and secret executions.

Still more tragically, many Argentines who have a genuine social conscience, and whom one might expect to protest, remain silent.

I know what is going on…. I hear about them dumping people from aircraft and torturing suspects to death,” said another friend of mine, a rich and powerful business leader who moves in the highest circles. “I know it’s terrible and it sickens me as an Argentine to have to see it. But, honest to God, I look what the terrorists have done and what they threaten and I can’t tell the military they are wrong.”

The guerrillas, as he says, have used brutal methods against security people, businessmen, and innocent bystanders, in some cases for the sole purpose of provoking the very sort of military repression now going on. Leftist ideologues I talked to believed that it is easier to preach revolution among a people under the heel of a jackboot. Last June, for example, the sixteen-year-old best friend of Federal Police Chief Cesario Cardozo’s daughter slipped a bomb under the chief’s bed. He was blown to bits when he lay down to sleep. Just weeks before the girl had been arrested as a suspected guerrilla, but Cardozo had ordered her release when his daughter asked him to help. A few weeks after her release, guerrillas bombed a police dining hall, killing and maiming scores of officers, members of their families, and civilian employees.

The Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army—the ERP—and the neo-Peronist Montoneros have murdered and kidnapped foreigners, retired officers, and businessmen. One commando shot dead a three-year-old girl while trying to kill her father. Both groups have planted bombs in public places where they could randomly kill passerby, not just the “fascist oppressors” or the “foreign imperialists” on whom they have declared war.

One problem, though, is that both guerrilla organizations are tightly shielded by a clandestine labyrinth of hide-outs and escape routes. Since the real guerrillas, working in small cells, are hard to find, the security police and the right-wing “death squads” that collaborate with them frequently settle for students, labor leaders, or former political activists who are not in hiding because they are not guilty of anything. At the same time, vengeful security men abuse their broad authority to hunt down subversives, taking advantage of the confusion in order to kill off their personal enemies or, sometimes, to supplement their low wages by robbing the people they kidnap.

The same tendency to attack the easy, and often innocent, target works in reverse. The worst police and military torturers are carefully protected; they go about in civilian clothes and drive unmarked cars. Hit-and-run raids by guerrillas are often directed against traffic policemen, medical and staff officers, and retired officials, who are easier to spot and kill.

There is a terrible element of vengeance here,” a foreign ambassador said to me. “I went to a funeral recently for an army officer who was killed, and I overheard one of his friends saying as he approached the casket: ‘I will avenge you, I swear it….’ I have no doubt that, in some way, he did. But who is to say that the man who killed the officer was not avenging someone else in the same way? And thus it spreads to an uncontrollable degree.”

Most Argentines are of Spanish and Italian stock, and writers on Argentina often interpret the violence as the result of a twisted machismo, as a kind of Mediterranean madness. The political conflicts in Argentina are far too complex for such facile explanations, but they are nevertheless aggravated by long-standing vendettas, by obsessions with bloody retaliation, by men feeling they must prove themselves by firing their machine guns.

One security officer told me: “I was there five minutes after the blast at the police dining hall, and what I saw turned my stomach…women screaming, pieces of bodies strewn around. You could feel the hate from the survivors. I mean, there were these hard-faced apes whom I wouldn’t want to tangle with under any circumstances, and they were standing there weeping and swearing to get even. I know how they felt.”

Immediately afterward, three Irish priests were shot in cold blood while praying in a Buenos Aires church. Dozens of killings followed, including an execution in broad daylight at the obelisk in the center of Buenos Aires. No one doubted that police officers out of control were taking revenge for the bombing and that appeals to the police authorities themselves would be futile.

When I arrived in Argentina in 1973, it was possible to trace rough patterns in the violence. The ERP was dominated by middle-class young people who were rejecting their parents’ society and turning to armed protest. The militant left-wing Peronists argued that the working classes needed to be aroused and mobilized and defended. The large group of conservative Peronists, including Juan Perón himself, fought against the rebel left wing, fearing they would lose control of their movement—and of the country. The military officers and the police, carefully separated, were used to hunt down leftist agitators and to try to keep the national labor unions in line.

By the time the three-man military junta deposed Isabel Perón in March, Argentina had slipped into a confused but pervasive state of civil war, and the violence grew with each month. Now it is often impossible to tell who is killing whom and why. The military armed forces have merged with the police, and a half dozen separate security organizations operate independently under a general order to wipe out subversion. The guerrilla groups have put aside ideological differences to fight back, but their sporadic attacks lack the planning and defined goals they once had.

The military government has banned political activity, arrested union officials, and controlled the press. Practically any political dissenter, labor leader, or journalist is now fair game for security officers or thugs acting on their own. Although President Jorge Videla and several moderate generals are formally in power, they seem unable if not unwilling to control the official terror taking place around them. The traditional system of justice and the historic protections of human rights have collapsed, while many combatants on all sides seem to be enjoying their almost total freedom to wreak havoc.

Argentina has now reached the point where an “innocent victim” means, for example, a truck driver who happens to pass by when a bomb explodes. If a student is murdered or tortured because his name has appeared in the address book of a captured terrorist, in the view of many Argentines he deserves his fate since he shouldn’t have been “involved” in the first place. It does not matter if the victim is simply the French teacher or squash partner of the captured man.

The best-known unofficial ally of security forces is the Argentina Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA). Its death squads, with apparent impunity, beat, torture, and often kill persons suspected of being soft on leftist extremism. The AAA was set up under the Peróns but has remained active since the coup. In August, the AAA leaders kidnapped the respected Argentine journalist Mariano Grondona for several hours on a Sunday afternoon. At first, they threatened to kill him; then they explained they only wanted to talk to him for a while to get across their point of view. Sitting under large portraits of Hitler and Argentine nationalist figures, they told him their members included many police and military men. Acting on their own, “outside channels,” they moved around Buenos Aires in sedans equipped with radios, without serious fear of being disturbed. A leader of the group said that they were just beginning their campaign to rid Argentina of the guerrilla scourge, once and for all.

As bad as the war is, many Argentines still pass it off as just part of a general outbreak of violence around the world. Some admit they deliberately deceive themselves in order to stay sane or so that their consciences will not be troubled. Those who read only the controlled press know little anyway. And for many people I talked to, the violence is a matter for national shame, not to be mentioned in public, and certainly not to foreigners. Recently, for example, a prominent Argentine told a group in the United States that although excesses were being committed, the anti-subversion campaign was effective and attacked only those who were guerrillas or collaborating with them. When I talked to him after his lecture, he admitted that many innocent victims were also suffering.

I know a dentist who was seized in a case of mistaken identity,” he said. “He was brought back several days later, and was in fairly bad shape. That’s one man who will, for the rest of his life, hate Argentina. Not just the military, but Argentina.”

Guerrilla terrorism began slowly in the late 1960s, but by 1972 it had spread throughout the major cities. The military president, General Alejandro Lanusse, who ruled from 1971 to 1973, cracked down hard and arrested a great many guerrilla leaders. Partly because of increasing terrorist activities, Lanusse decided to turn power over to an elected government, and the Peronists—who had been forbidden to hold office for eighteen years—were installed in May 1973. Instead of diminishing, terrorism increased sharply, and both Perón and his widow Isabel used increasingly harsher measures to deal with it.

General Lanusse was denounced during the early 1970s as a brutal despot. Recently, after a particularly vicious witch hunt of university professors, in which a former cabinet minister was denounced by a general, Lanusse wrote to his brother army officers urging moderation. He was placed under house arrest for five days for interfering.

The antisubversion campaign has spilled across Argentina’s borders and is now directly linked to similar activities in Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. An estimated 25,000 political refugees fled to Argentina from Chile and Uruguay after the military takeovers in those countries during 1973, taking advantage of Perón’s assertions of “Latin-American brother-hood.” Since the coup these refugees have suddenly found themselves caught in the middle.

The police and the military assume that anyone afraid to live under one of the neighboring military governments must have dangerous ideas and might therefore be a threat to Argentine security. Some of the refugees escaped to Argentina to organize violent resistance in their own countries, while others carry on campaigns of propaganda against the dictatorships they had fled from. Most try to live quietly. But all refugees, regardless of who they are, automatically become suspect, and some have been killed. Twenty-four Chileans and Uruguayans were seized from lodging houses sponsored by the United Nations and were tortured. They were freed only because sharp international protests brought the case to the attention of senior army officers, who were forced to order their release.

Intelligence agents from Chile and Uruguay have been allowed to hunt down refugees in Argentina. The three governments have set up computerized information systems, along with other neighboring countries, to find suspects who might have fled across the borders. If a former Chilean politician goes into exile, the Chilean DINA agents in Argentina can get help from the police in locating him—if the police or parapolice groups have not already attacked or harassed him.

Of course we have to cooperate and coordinate across borders,” one Argentine general told me. “The guerrillas do.” Often the collaboration is informal and hard to trace. Last year Chilean authorities claimed that 119 Chilean leftists had been killed in neighboring countries by security forces and by other leftists who considered them traitors. But when relatives of several of the alleged victims went to Argentina to identify the bodies, they found the bodies of strangers with faked identification cards. Some Argentine security men had apparently lent the bodies of unknown guerrilla war casualties to their Chilean colleagues who needed to explain the disappearance of prisoners under their care.

Just a few months ago Argentine security officers seized two well-known Uruguayan politicians and executed them. They left behind false communiqués, purportedly from the ERP, saying that the two men were killed as traitors to the Uruguayan Tupamaros. One of those murdered was Zelmar Michelini, the father of ten children, who had led a quiet life in exile as a foreign affairs writer for the respected daily La Opinion. The last time I spoke with him, months before his murder, he was critical both of violent left-wing extremists and of the Uruguayan dictatorship: his views on politics were serious and carefully argued. But he stayed clear of political activity partly because one of his daughters had already been tortured in a Uruguayan jail. The other victim was Hector Gutierrez Ruiz, former speaker of the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, who had also abandoned political activity.

Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz were found dead in a car along with the bodies of a young Uruguayan couple, both of them known Tupamaros who had been seized—by kidnappers whose identity is still unknown—at about the same time. This couple’s three young children were also kidnapped and were missing for weeks. They were later deposited mysteriously at a clinic after the local English-language paper, The Buenos Aires Herald, kept up a campaign to determine their whereabouts.

The way I learned about these children illustrates the atmosphere in Buenos Aires. In a restaurant one day I asked a police official if he knew anything about the four Uruguayans.

See that table over there?” he said. “I was sitting there having lunch with this government intelligence officer and he asked me if I wanted a kid. I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, a kid. We just knocked off the parents and we have three kids and don’t know what to do with them. You sure you don’t want one?’ Then he described how it happened. The parents were being interrogated in a safe house along with another Tupamaro and the other guy was being tough. He just folded his arms and challenged them to make him talk. It was winter, and they had a heater in the room. One of the officers calmly picked it up, splashed the alcohol on the guy and threw a match on him. He went up like a torch…..”

Some of the higher ranking officers deny that atrocities of this kind take place. They believe they can do so with a clear conscience because the junior men who are directly responsible do not give them the details. Often the security teams take great pains to hide their actions from their superiors. My source said he did not think anyone above the rank of major was fully informed about the kidnapping of the Uruguayan family until it had been publicized in Argentina and abroad. But it was hardly kept secret. A neighbor reported the couple’s kidnapping to police. No one responded even though the abductors stayed around for hours, making several trips in a pickup truck to steal what they could from the apartment. One of the kidnappers showed a bystander some official credentials. No fingerprints were taken in the apartment until weeks later when the publicity forced an investigation, which yielded no visible results.

In Chile, summary execution and torture are widely believed to be a policy approved of by the highest government officials, including President Pinochet. Liberal US congressmen made strong protests against Chilean official terror and Henry Kissinger himself criticized it. During the past year it is possible that more suspected leftists have been killed in Argentina than were killed in Chile during the years since 1973; but it is much harder to say just who among the military leaders is responsible in Argentina. Some of the generals I talked to, for example, insist that they are taking steps to curb police and military excesses, and they maintain they have punished a number of overzealous agents but cannot say so publicly. Is this true? Some of the generals may well be trying to check the terror of the police and the death squads, but others may also be encouraging it. Videla himself is widely believed to be a relatively moderate man who would like to stop the brutal abuse of power, but he is also said to be afraid of risking the anger of his hard-line colleagues, and the military and security forces that support him.

Living in Argentina, I found it hard to avoid a sense of bitterness and ambivalence, and a feeling of hopelessness. The guerrilla groups were not only ruthless and willing to take innocent lives but had nothing more to offer than revolutionary nihilism. The so-called “forces of order” were themselves often savage and lawless, and the dictatorship was not permitting nonviolent political opposition to be heard.

Soon after I arrived in Buenos Aires, some extremist left-wing students kidnapped a respected editor, the father of a close friend of mine and a man I admired intensely for his courage and liberal views. Later, the terrorists shot him in the face, the bullets going through his hands as he tried to protect himself. The editor’s son and daughter-in-law went to California where they had a baby. But they returned to Argentina, against the advice of friends, because the son loved his country and wanted to carry on his father’s work there. Just before I left Buenos Aires I spent the day with my friend, taking pictures of the baby, who at age two was already showing signs of the family’s energy and intelligence. My friend seemed to me one of the few Argentine businessmen who were trying to do more than just hold on to survive the crisis. The day I arrived in New York I heard that some unknown group—probably right-wing terrorists this time—had kidnapped the child, and nothing was known about his fate.

Letters

Argentine Terror February 3, 1977

  • Email
  • Print