Argentina: 45 years since the genocide coup, the struggle for Memory, Truth and Justice

In almost the entire human rights movement, we usually refer to the last dictatorship as civic-military or civic-ecclesiastical-military. The employers’ parties and the Catholic leadership were their accomplices. But in reality it should be called civic-ecclesiastic-business-imperialist-military, given the active role of these sectors in encouraging and supporting the dictatorship.

By Pablo Vasco (CADHU-MST)

State terrorism did not begin with the coup, but before. Since 1974, the Triple A, an armed ultra-right-wing gang articulated by the Minister of Social Welfare, “el Brujo” José López Rega, right-hand of General Perón and his wife Isabel, began to operate. It grouped fascists from the Peronist right wing, the Federal Police, the trade union bureaucracy and some militiamen. The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) committed bombings, kidnappings and the murder of more than a thousand popular activists, some of them suffered by our party.

Then, in 1975, the “Operativo Independencia” began. With its nefarious Decree 261, the government of Isabel Perón ordered to “neutralize and/or annihilate” a guerrilla focus operating in Tucumán. Under the excuse of the “anti-subversive war”, fighters and activists were murdered. The court case of the operation records almost 300 victims(1), but it is estimated that there were around a thousand. There was torture, forced disappearance and clandestine detention centers. This is how the repressive methods that the dictatorship would later multiply in the genocide emerged.

Responsibility and complicity

U.S. imperialism was a promoter and mainstay of the dictatorship, seeking to extinguish the winds of change blowing through the Southern Cone. Thus, the U.S. government encouraged the coups and the “Condor Plan” (repressive coordination between the dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia), gave them political support, dictated their economic plans and the IMF financed them.

In this sense, our colleague Vilma Ripoll, together with Patricia Walsh and the late Mario Cafiero, filed years ago before the Supreme Court a lawsuit against the Fund and its officials as necessary co-participants in the crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship.

As we said, the PJ from the government orchestrated the Triple A and the Independence Operation. From the other side of the two-party system, Balbín, the maximum leader of the UCR, accused workers’ activism of being factory guerrillas and before the coup declared: “I have no solutions”. With the dictatorship already in power, the PJ and the UCR contributed hundreds of mayors, officials and ambassadors, as did the old gorilla PS. And the CP, given Moscow’s links to the military government, refused for years to condemn the military government(2).

The Curia, but a few honorable exceptions, supported the Military Juntas. Bishops and priests lied to the mothers who desperately asked for their missing daughters and sons. The ambassador of the Vatican, Pio Laghi, played tennis with the genocide Massera. The current Pope, Bergogliom was prosecuted for not protecting and turning two priests in. Also the police chaplain Von Wernich was sentenced for taking part in homicides and tortures.

As for the hegemonic media, its publishers served and uplifted the repressive order imposed by the militaries.

 At the same time, the Judicial Branch aligned itself with the dictatorial power and rejected the habeas corpus presented in favor of the detained-disappeared comrades. Even today, some federal judges appointed by hand during those years are still in office.

In the case of the union bureaucracy, the leader of the CGT, Casildo Herreras, who fled to Uruguay shortly after the coup, confessed “I disappeared” after having abandoned the working class to its fate. Much worse is the case of the bureaucrat Gerardo Martinez, of the Construction union: he was one of the 4,000 civilian agents of the Army Intelligence Battalion 601, a key piece of the repressive machinery. Eternal boss of the UOCRA and the CGT, today he is also a member of the Social Economic Council launched by Alberto Fernández…

The coup of 1976 had an indisputable class content. Its main purpose was to defeat the workers’ and popular ascent that crossed the country, to wipe out all collective organization and thus guarantee capitalist exploitation with blood and fire. Along with the support of the employers’ chambers to the military, big companies like Ford, General Motors, Mercedes Benz and others handed over the internal commissions and fighting delegates to the repression, crimes which to a great extent still continue to go unpunished.

Among the 30,000 detainees-disappeared there are, by the way, Peronist, radical and unionist leaders, priests, journalists and even a couple of businessmen. Others suffered persecution and imprisonment. But none of this negates the clear responsibility and complicity that the PJ, the UCR, the Church, the judiciary and the union bureaucracy as institutions, and the bourgeoisie as a class, had with respect to the genocidal dictatorship.

Building impunity, fighting for justice

The last dictatorship was the cruelest that the country suffered. But a few months after its beginning, the fight in defense of human rights began, with mothers making pilgrimages to police stations, churches and government offices in search of their “disappeared” sons and daughters. In April 1977 they began their rounds around the Pyramid, in front of the Casa Rosada: the beloved Mothers with their white handkerchiefs, the “madwomen of the Plaza de Mayo”. In October of that same year, the Grandmothers organized themselves in search of their granddaughters and grandsons appropriated by the repressors. A few lawyers, among them those of our PST, fought before the justice system. And at the political level, only from the left as a party, plus some referents of the center-left as individuals, took in our hands the flags of the struggle for justice and against impunity.

After the fall of the dictatorship following the Malvinas War, the human rights movement was strengthened and the majority of society, as it became aware of the horror, joined the struggle. On the other hand, the dictatorship and the employers’ governments that succeeded each other in power tried to put obstacles to the trial and punishment in order to preserve the armed forces and the police as much as possible. This building of impunity included the following maneuvers of the regime:

– Before falling, in September 1983, the dictatorship issued Decree-Act 22,924 of “national pacification”: a self-amnesty for all its crimes. The presidential candidate of the PJ, Italo Luder, supported it. But the struggle for justice continued. In December, shortly after Alfonsín took office, Congress abolished the self-amnesty and the CONADEP(3) was created to receive complaints about the disappearances. And in 1984 the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team was created.

In 1985, during Alfonsín’s administration, the trial to the military juntas began in civil courts. As the aberrant crimes committed and human remains came to light, the popular clamor grew. However, the policy of the UCR government was to try only the nine commanders of the three dictatorial juntas. But the struggle for justice continued.

– As the judicial accusations against the military did not cease, at the end of 1986 Alfonsín proposed and the Congress voted Act 23.492 of Punto Final: it gave from 30 to 60 days for the statute of limitations of the criminal action. But the struggle for justice continued.

– During Holy Week 1987, the “carapintada” rebellion led by Aldo Rico demanded impunity for the genocides. To condemn it, hundreds of thousands of us mobilized to the headquarters and Plaza de Mayo, where Alfonsín said “the house is in order”. All the parties of the system, with the PC at the tail end, signed the act of surrender: in June the Congress voted Act 23.521 of Due Obedience, which left unpunished those who “complied with orders from their superiors”. But the struggle for justice continued.

Between 1989 and 1990, Peronist President Menem decreed pardons for some 300 repressors and a couple of guerrilla leaders. But the struggle continued, with huge marches, and, even without criminal effects, the so-called truth trials began in several courts around the country.

– In March 1998, also with Menem as president, the Congress passed a tricky “repeal” of the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws. But repealing is not annulling: the laws would not apply in the future, but everything that had gone before would remain as it was, that is to say, unpunished. But the struggle continued.

December 2001 brought the Argentinazo, which turned everything upside down. Néstor Kirchner knew how to “read” politically that it was no longer possible to continue governing as before. Thus, in August 2003, Congress passed Act 25.779 nullifying both impunity laws. In reality, the PJ had another project: the non-opposability, as deceitful as the tricky repeal of ’98, which only applied to future genocides. The only genuine project of nullity was that of our then national deputy Patricia Walsh (Izquierda Unida). That is the truth: the ruling party asked for it, copied it, presented it and it was passed.

With this great democratic victory, the genocide trials were finally reopened. To date, 250 sentences have been issued, with 1,013 people convicted and 164 acquitted, and there are still 373 cases without a sentence. Even so, 70% of the rulings are appealed and it takes an average of five years from the trial to the final sentence. In addition, 692 repressors died before being sentenced(4).

The last attempt of impunity was in May 2017, when the Supreme Court granted the benefit of “2×1” to a genocide, reducing his prison time. A popular tide repudiated it in the streets and the next day the Congress had to pass the nullity of that ruling through an act.

Significant achievements and pending tasks

In order to evaluate the data, it helps to compare. If it is estimated that some 600 clandestine detention, torture and extermination centers operated in our country, 1,013 convicts means 1.7 for each center, which is not enough. The cases are slowing down and this gives rise to cases of true biological impunity, because not a handful of repressors die without conviction. In addition, 74% of the detainees, that is, 638, instead of being in common prison, enjoy the benefit of house arrest. It is also necessary to recover the identity of about 300 babies stolen by the genocidal perpetrators. There is a need to judge the accomplices. The State must comply with the reparation laws for former political prisoners, exiles, children and relatives of the victims of genocide. The opening of all the archives of State terrorism is missing. The release of political prisoners, such as Milagro Sala and Sebastián Romero, as well as the dismissal of all popular activists and the dismantling of the repressive apparatus, including the AFI, the former SIDE.

But to say only what is missing would be a partial view. At the same time, Argentina is the only country in the world whose courts have condemned a genocide committed by its own State (5). This achievement in terms of democratic rights, expressed in the convictions, as well as the recovery by the Grandmothers of the identities of 116 granddaughters and grandsons appropriated by the repressors, are an undisputed merit of our human rights movement, which is a true example on a worldwide scale.

For the Nazi genocide, the worst in contemporary history, which murdered more than 10 million people and led to the Second World War, there were only 150 genocides condemned: 19 of them by the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg and the rest by the German justice system for 75 long years. In our case, on the other hand, civilian courts, in the same country, sentenced six times more repressors for a genocide 300 times less than the Nazi one. This also shows the magnitude of what has been achieved in Argentina, without denying all that is still pending.

Kirchnerist co-optation and PRO denialism

However, the course of the human rights movement was not and is not straight. From the right, we face two problems: genocide denialism -with Macri at the head- and the attempt to revalidate the theory of the two demons, which wrongly and intentionally equates State terrorism with the wrong actions of the guerrilla. All confusion must be cleared up: there was no war, there was genocide; and the only one who violates human rights is the State, precisely because it is the one who is supposed to protect them. The appearance of black bags simulating corpses and with names of figures linked to the government in recent marches called by the Macrista right wing refers to these repudiatory positions.

But from the Peronist governments, yesterday the Kirchners and today the Fernandez, there are also problems: the attempt to distort history and appropriate the struggle for human rights, the regrettable co-optation of recognized organizations – such as Mothers, Grandmothers and H.I.J.O.S. Capital – and, even without naming the two demons, the attempt to reconcile the people with the Armed Forces, police and security forces. Just as the Pope always proposes this reconciliation, in February 2020 Alberto Fernandez called to “turn the page”. The fact is that all the employers’ politicians, in spite of their differences, seek to recompose the discredited Argentine repressive apparatus because they know well that no adjustment is possible without repression.

For human rights, yesterday and today

Contrary to these policies, in 1996 the Encounter for Remembrance, Truth and Justice was born to coordinate the mobilization for the 20th anniversary of the coup. Between 2006 and 2007, the organizations and sectors co-opted by the Kirchnerist government withdrew from this unitary space which brought together dozens of popular organizations, and in 2020 the PCR also withdrew and joined the Frente de Todos. On the other hand, and beyond the logical debates, in these 25 years of struggle the EMVJ always maintained its independent position from the State and all the administrations in office.

Our political current has been part of the Encounter since its foundation, actively participates in joint initiatives, and at the end of 2007 we also constituted the CADHU: our Center of Lawyers for Human Rights, intervening in cases of crimes against humanity, police repression and arrests, femicides and gender violence, labor conflicts and injunctions, spying by the AFI, housing and other rights.

Among other facts, the strategy of reconciliation with the militias and the forced disappearance followed by death of Facundo Castro and the cases of “easy trigger” and deaths at the hands of the State, the repression of the Guernica housing occupation and other social protests, the repressive deployment and social control with the excuse of quarantine and the budgetary concessions to the military and salaries to the police by President Alberto Fernández, which he also ratified in his opening speech in the Congress, confirm the need to continue the consistent struggle in defense of the human rights of yesterday and today.

1 According to the report of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of the Nation, out of the 296 judicialized victims , 50% were workers, state employees and their families, 15% were union delegates and leaders, 8% were account-keepers and small businessmen, 7% were guerrillas, 5% were professionals, 4% were university students and 2% were militants of the non-guerrilla left.

2 “Already in August 1977, the CP endorsed the course chosen by Videla as ‘the right path to win peace, to avert the danger of Pinochetism and external threats and to find economic, political, social and cultural solutions that the country needs’. The statement, at a time when political parties found it difficult to reach the media, was published by the newspaper La Opinión, in the hands of the military since the kidnapping of its director, Jacobo Timerman, in March” (article by Daniel Gutman in Infobae, 28/1/20).

3 National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, made up of personalities, in only nine months gathered denunciations on some 9,000 cases and issued its final report, entitled Nunca más (Never Again).

4 In 14 years of trials, 250 sentences were issued with 1013 people convicted and 164 acquitted. 30/12/2020, on the web at

5 Even the national Public Prosecutor’s Office has a Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Humanity.