Photo via Taringa.

Local outlet Perfil this week reported that President Mauricio Macri’s administration is considering presenting a bill to definitively abolish compulsory military service, or conscription, in the country. You’re probably wondering, “Wait, Argentina has a military service?” The answer is yes, but not really.

Here’s how it works: even though conscription was abolished in 1994 following the scandalous death of private Omar Carrasco, a conscript who was beaten to death by his superiors (we’ll get into that later), Argentines aged 18 to 24 can still be drafted for two reasons:

  • In times of war, crisis or national emergency
  • If the Defense Ministry hasn’t filled all vacancies to keep the army functional

In both cases, the executive branch — with prior congressional approval — is in charge of deciding whether the country is actually in crisis or whether the Defense Ministry has grounds to force Argentines to join the army and effectively reinstate conscription during these potential times of exceptional need.

Although chances of this happening are slim, some members of the Macri administration want to make sure Argentines can’t be drafted, period. The Bubble spoke to Youth Undersecretary Pedro Robledo, one of the people who put the initiative forward, to find out more about it.

According to Robledo, the bill is intended to give peace of mind to young Argentines and assure them they are always free to choose whether they want to be a part of the military or not: “Military service should not be mandatory. 1994 modified it but we believe it has to be an option for citizens,” he began.

Pedro Robledo. Photo via La Nación
Pedro Robledo. Photo via La Nación

Specifically, the bill would take down articles 19 through 29 and article 33 from the so-called Law of Voluntary Military Service (the articles that allow the administration to reinstate conscription in the aforementioned circumstances) in order to rule out “the mere possibility of going back to making mistakes from the past, as it may be violating basic human laws such as physical and psychical freedom and the right to choose one’s own destiny.”

Even though the possibility of going to war is basically nonexistent right now, Robledo explained the bill aims to, “take a step forward, from a legislative point of view, towards the consolidation of a modern democracy that fully respects its citizens.” “It’s better to definitively erase all these things that could sometime lead to wrong interpretations,” he added.

As an example of such a potential “wrong interpretation,” Robledo recalled that in 2014, Mario Ishii, a Buenos Aires Province senator and former mayor of the district of José C. Paz, proposed that the Kirchner administration hold a referendum deciding whether conscription should be reinstated for young men who didn’t study or work. Ishii posited that this would serve as an educational opportunity for these men, who would also provide a service to the State by providing domestic security.

The proposal was immediately ruled out by the defense minister at the time, Agustín Rossi, and several other high-ranking officials, but this new project seeks to put to bed any possibility of this even being brought up again. “We don’t want to contribute to this idea that the military is an educational opportunity. It can be [for people who voluntarily decide to join], but so are schools and universities. We will present the bill following that line of reasoning,” Robledo said.

He added that the initiative already has the approval of Defense Minister Julio Martínez and Social Development Minister Carolina Stanley, whom he reports to. “We already sent it to [Secretary of Parliamentary Relations] Paula Bertol, who will analyze the bill’s details so as to avoid any type of legal problems at the time of presenting it before Congress,” Robledo finished.

Why Was Mandatory Military Service Almost Entirely Abolished?

Mandatory military service was instated in 1901 by General Pablo Riccheri through a law known as the Organic Military Statute. It was popularly known as Colimba, short-hand for correr (“run”), limpiar (“clean”) and barrer (“sweep”), which is what recruits did the most during their time in the army, they said. Approximately four out of 10 Argentines were drafted every year through and had to undergo a two-year service period.

The system was in effect for over 90 years and it was practically abolished (except for the aforementioned extraordinary circumstances) in 1994 following public outrage over the death of conscript Omar Carrasco, who was beaten to death by his superiors in a military base in Neuquén Province three days after he reported for duty.

Omar Carrasco. Photo via La Voz del Interior
Omar Carrasco. Photo via La Voz del Interior

But this outrage didn’t come out of the blue: Carrasco’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a society that was already done with military abus. The horrors of the last military dictatorship were still (and are) very fresh on people’s minds and the political and social turmoil that followed the Carrasco scandal caused then President Carlos Menem to abolish conscription shortly thereafter.

This is what happened: After being drafted, Carrasco joined the 161 artillery unit on June 3, 1994. When his parents went to visit him on his first day off, his superiors informed them that he had been reported “missing” and was considered to be a deserter. Three days after joining the army.

Carrasco’s parents didn’t believe the explanation they were given and began a search of their own. They found their son’s body, which showed signs of having been tortured, a month later in a field far from the base. Despite the military’s attempts to hide the crime, a forensic report determined that Carrasco’s body had been hidden in the barracks for over 20 days and was taken to the field shortly after his superiors reported his disappearance. Menem announced the end of conscription on August 31, 1994.

In January 1996, a Federal Court in Neuquén Province found Deputy Lieutenant Ignacio Cannevaro guilty of Carrasco’s murder and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Conscripts Víctor Salazar and Cristian Suárez were found guilty of covering up the crime and were sentenced to 10 years in prison each. However, Salazar and Suárez were freed in 2000 and Cannevaro was also released in February 2004.