Juan José Gómez Centurión on "Debo Decir", via Clarin

Juan José Gómez Centurión, Head of the Argentine Customs Agency (DGA), has raised the ire of human rights organizations, the political opposition and many Argentines, by claiming that the disappearance of thousands of people during the military dictatorship of 1976-83 was not part of a “genocidal plan”.

In conversation with others on late-night television program, Debo Decir, Gómez Centurión agreed the dictatorship was “terrible” and a “disgrace,” but disagreed that the disappearances were part of a systematic State plan. Rather, they were the “chaos” resulting from a “ham-fisted coup to take power and deal with an enemy that they [the dictatorship] didn’t know how to manage.”

To the surprise of other invitees, Gómez Centurión contrasted the military dictatorship with the ‘Final Solution’, the Nazi’s effort to exterminate Jews during the Second World War: “Auschwitz was systematic… What happened in the 70s was a chaotic model”, said Gómez Centurión: “it was exactly the opposite [of Auschwitz].” 

Even more controversial, perhaps, were his claims about the number of people disappeared. Echoing the hotly contentious 2016 statements of City Culture Minister, Darío Lopérfido, he rejected the society-wide accepted figure of 30,000 people disappeared.

“8,000 truths are not the same as 22,000 lies,” said Gómez Centurión, implying the number of disappeared is less than agreed upon. The figure of 8,000 is in reference to a report by Conadep (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons), released in 1984, in which the Commission accounts for 8,960 desaparecidos, while stressing that the figure is not “exhaustive”.

Gómez Centurión attempted to sketch a distinction between politics and truth, positioning himself on the side of “historical truth.” He disagreed with the idea that the precise number of people who disappeared is unimportant. “Numbers aren’t symbolic,” he retorted to former senator Chiche Duhalde, who said that quibbling about the number of people murdered diminished the horror of events and disrespected the victims: “We need to give historic precision to what we are telling our children. If we don’t do it – if we teach with slogans – we are promoting a certain discourse,” he said.

The Government was quick to distance itself from Gómez Centurión. Though it did not name him, a press release from the Secretary of Human Rights emphasised that “some declarations about what happened during the military dictatorship” were “personal” and not “official”. The press release also reiterated that the Government’s official view was that the disappearances of thousands of people during the dictatorship was, in fact, part of a systematic plan. “The State Terrorism installed through the military coupe was based on a systematic plan of disappearances, stealing babies, assassinations, explanations and arbitrary detentions.”

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Government press release

 

Human Rights groups condemned Gómez Centurión’s comments. Estela de Carlotto, head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, described his comments as “aberrant” and called for his resignation: “they’ve got to get rid of him,” she said on C5N radio.

Her demand was echoed by two Victory Front Senators. Héctor Recalde, head of the Kirchnerite-bloc in Congress, opined “I suppose this will be Gómez Centurión’s last public act, he’s offensive.” While Parlasur legislator, Agustín Rossi, said “If Macri believes in democracy in Argentina, he should remove him.”

Meanwhile, in dialogue with Radio El Mundo, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, went further, describing Gómez Centurión’s comments as part of a government-wide attempt to “demolish bit by bit everything to do with human rights policy,” drawing a connection between Gómez Centurión’s denial and the Government’s recent (failed) attempt to make March 24th, the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, a ‘flexible’ public holiday.

It seems unlikely that Gómez Centurión will be removed from his post, but the Government has certainly been put on notice: don’t talk about truth, memory and justice lightly.