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Argentina’s Dirty War Exposed

By: 
JP Leary
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Under a program begun by the Clinton administration, a selection of US government documents on Argentina’s 1976-83 military regime were recently released by the State Department. The papers document Washington’s relations with the Argentine dictatorship during its internal war on “subversives,” when tens of thousands of real or suspected political dissidents were arrested, tortured, and often killed by security services.

Batallion 601, the documents show, was the branch of state intelligence that reported directly to the junta leadership and directed the “dirty war” on internal dissidents, often “disappearing” people by publicly kidnapping them and transporting them to secret detention centers, from which few ever returned.

The released papers depict a US administration prepared to accommodate the Argentine dictators, and indicate the junta’s strong belief in the support of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other top officials in the Gerald Ford administration. The documents also shed light on the fate of some disappeared persons and clarify the organization and methods of the Argentine killing bureaucracy, both within and outside its borders.

When a military junta led by General Jorge Videla seized power in March 1976, press criticism of the government was declared illegal and the independent judiciary, trade unions, and the political opposition were suppressed. Nevertheless, early dispatches from US Ambassador Robert Hill describe Videla as a “moderate” capable of “fending off the hawks” in the regime.

Hill reports making repeated admonishments to the general on human-rights concerns. But another important reason to keep the “hawks” in line, according to the ambassador, was their extreme economic and political nationalism, which might not only hamper the market liberalization that military rule had produced in Chile, but reproduce the bad press of the Pinochet regime’s abysmal human-rights record.

Hill wrote his superiors in Washington that Videla “has promised to solve quickly our various investment problems (Exxon, Chase Manhattan, Standard Electric, etc.) and to bring about a better climate in general for foreign investment. Thus, while we should move discreetly and keep our distance, we should also, so long as the Videla govt. sticks to a moderate course, look sympathetically on any requests for assistance it may direct to us.”

Moderate view

Videla had by then made the public pronouncement that “as many people will die in Argentina as is necessary to restore order.” The first months of dictatorship appeared to satisy the general’s ultimatum. By mid-1976, as the disappearances increased even Hill was becoming disillusioned: “what started off so well now seems in danger of going sour,” he wrote in a report. It was “puzzling,” Hill went on, that Videla had failed to assert his authority over the purportedly more extreme elements in the junta. News of the government’s repression began to spread, and international criticism of the dictatorship increased.

Other documents suggest that Secretary of State Kissinger had a more apt appraisal of the situation in Argentina, even if his subordinate in Buenos Aires was occasionally left out of the loop. Some of the more significant documents in the collection refer to a September 1976 meeting between Foreign Minister Cesar Augusto Guzzetti and Kissinger in Santiago, Chile.

The meeting apparently reassured Argentine officials of US government support for their campaign against “subversives.” Guzzetti reacted with surprise when asked by Hill about a recent mass execution in Buenos Aires, saying that Kissinger simply “hoped the Argentine Govt could get the terrorist problem under control as quickly as possible.”

Hill later described Guzzetti as “ecstatic” after an October visit to Washington where, the general said, Kissinger reiterated his earlier assurances and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller similarly urged him to “diminish the terrorist problem quickly.” With perhaps unintended irony, Hill complained to Washington that Guzzetti’s remarks were “not those of a man who has been impressed with the gravity of the human rights problem as seen from the US.” No direct documentation of either of these meetings was included with the newly declassified files.

Early in 1976, several high-profile events attracted the US embassy’s attention: Chilean guerrilla leader Edgardo Enriquez was captured in Argentina and turned over to Chile for execution, and former Bolivian president Juan Jose Torres was found shot to death under a bridge in Buenos Aires. Throughout that summer, Uruguayan and Chilean refugees were disappearing in Argentina.

In one case, 50 Uruguayans vanished in the Argentine capital and resurfaced a month later, when they were publicly accused of planning a terrorist campaign in Uruguay. An embassy cable reveals that Uruguayan state security kidnapped the refugees with the assistance of Argentine forces and forced them to stage a mock attack on Uruguay—during which the “guerrillas” all perished.

Another document includes an Argentine official’s detailed account of how two disappeared Montonero militants, Horacio Campiglia and Susana Binstock, were captured in 1980 in Rio de Janeiro by Argentine forces acting with Brazilian assistance. They were taken to the Campo de Mayo detention camp in Buenos Aires and were never heard from again.

Operation Condor

In August 1976, Kissinger cabled the ambassadors to the southern cone dictatorships—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay—about Operation Condor, the secret program of collaboration between the six countries’ security services. Kissinger’s missive notes that “The [US Government] is aware from various sources that there is a degree of information exchange and coordination among various countries of the southern cone with regard to subversive activities within the area. This we consider useful.”

The Secretary went on to suggest “periodic exchanges with the Government of Argentina of information on the general level and mode of Communist and other terrorist activity in the hemisphere and elsewhere, if the [Government of Argentina] would be interested,” while carefully insisting that information that might facilitate individual assassinations was not to be shared.

Ambassador Hill met Videla once again in September 1976, shortly after the Kissinger-Guzzetti meeting in Chile, and sent Washington an account of the meeting. The Argentine president responded sharply to Hill’s questions on human-rights issues, defending the government’s actions and expressing his belief that senior members of the US government—Kissinger in particular—“understood [the] situation his government faces,” even if some junior bureaucrats did not.

Assuring him that “this was not the case,” Hill asked that the regime avoid “extralegal” security methods, an exceedingly useless claim in a context where the torturers had become, in the government’s own terminology, “Legal Forces.” These kinds of reversals—whereby all dissidents became “subversives,” every disappeared person became a “package,” and Videla became a “moderate”—made up the perverse, everyday lexicon of the dirty war as it emerges in the thousands of pages of released US documents.

When Hill’s oddly named successor Raul Castro wrote Washington about Army chief Roberto Viola’s remarks on an upcoming human-rights inquiry, the unusually precise analysis would seem macabre were it not so dully bureaucratic: “Summing up, Viola said that by the time of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission visit he expected that ‘a great deal of progress will have been made toward clearing out the jails. With regard to disappearances however he admitted that there was no way of bringing back to life all the dead’” [sic].

Coming after a similar release of US documents on the Chilean dictatorship, the Argentina papers may aid in the country’s still-ongoing historical reckoning with its seven-year dictatorship. The declassification coincides with new legal initiatives to punish the aging generals who have thus far been protected by amnesty laws passed when they relinquished power. Former junta president Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri is one of several ex-military officers under house arrest for the killings of 20 Montonero guerrillas, among them Campiglia and Binstock.

Videla is also under house arrest while a judge investigates charges that he participated in the kidnapping and illegal adoption of the children of disappeared people. Aging secretaries of state, however, have thus far avoided legal consequences, despite a lawsuit against former Secretary Kissinger currently active in Chilean courts. It remains unclear whether the generals will ever face formal charges for their actions.

The Argentine human-rights group Madres de la Plaza de Mayo has called on the CIA and the Pentagon to release their documents on Argentina. In the meantime, the Washington, DC National Security Archive has petitioned for the release of the remaining documents on Kissinger’s contact with the Argentine junta, including the September meeting in Santiago.