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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.