Walking across Plaza de Mayo, the iconic heart of the microcentro in Buenos Aires, you find yourself surrounded by living history: The Casa Rosada, Argentina’s pink Presidential palace, the National Bank, the Piramide de Mayo column celebrating the revolution. But, if instead of gazing up at the loftier landmarks, you turn your eyes downwards and on to the cobbles of the plaza, you notice a strange, uniform circle of white headscarves painted across the ground and embracing the square in a large loop.
Hang around until Thursday afternoon, and you’ll see the real thing. Mothers wearing the white headscarves, holding pictures of children: their children. During the military dictatorship, thousands of children were abducted from their families by the regime and incarcerated, to be tortured or killed or raised away from their parents. During the late 70s and early 80s, the mothers of these lost boys and girls began protesting in Plaza de Mayo and eventually in plazas all over the country against the military regime. Unarmed women facing down a military dictatorship.
It was a unique moment when dissent against the regime stunned it into a non-violent response. During the seven years of military rule opposition had been crushed freely, a State terrorism campaign that included concentration camps, the mass murder of students and targeted assassinations of intellectuals. Despite this catalog of horrors, it drew the line at gunning down unarmed mothers in the heart of the capital. They had gained a foothold on the military’s turf, and helped foster the great swell of public pressure that eventually forced the Generals out of power in 1983.
They weren’t usually so passive when it came to matters of “security”. It’s estimated over 30,000 Argentines were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983. During ‘The Process of National Re-organization’ or El Proceso as military rule euphemistically called itself. Political freedom was strangled. It was an attempt to assert martial order on a country still reeling from the death of Perón.
Holding a view or ideology deemed “leftist” became a potential death-sentence. Thoughtcrime, in other words, was a capital offense. We know this by looking at who the military chose to disappear. Thousands of students and public intellectuals like union leaders or journalists merely suspected of left of center beliefs were abducted, often snatched off the street and bundled into the back of a green or blue Ford Falcon, the car which became the bat-mobile of the regime’s hired thugs.
After that, they were routinely tortured and many were killed in concentration camps set up across the country. A further favorite tactic of the navy towards the disappeared was to drug them and bundle them onto airplanes, which were sent on flights high above the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean before dumping the doped victims out. These “death flights” were long suspected after unnamed bodies began to wash up across the Atlantic coast, and were later admitted to by participants put to trial years later.
The military hoped that the arbitrary nature of the abductions would crush what they perceived as communist ideology across Argentina by ensuring few people felt safe.
A state terror campaign that lasted seven years. It mirrored what was happening in Chile, under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, and this was no coincidence.
It was part of the continent-wide campaign to “eliminate Marxist subversion” called Operation Condor. Conducted by the military dictatorships across Latin America in the 70s and early 80s, it was promoted and then overseen by the US government and CIA in a zealous bout of Cold War paranoia.
Communism became the great rival of US imperialism in the 20th Century, and each new President who sat in the White House did what he could to stamp it out wherever it was or might conceivably be blooming. This, especially after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, meant Latin America; “Our backyard” as Washington condescendingly regarded the region after Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase. Operation Condor was a logical progression: Let’s get the brutal military regimes we’ve helped install in Latin America to help us put down the Red Menace once and for all.
The knock-on effect for Argentina from 1976 was the surveillance and regular disappearing of individuals suspected of Left sympathies, however pale or vague the association actually was. It was an ideological campaign of repression, but also a tactical one as it was invariably the Left that stood up to the military throughout the dictatorship; from peacefully demonstrating students to the underground urban guerrillas Los Monteneros.
Despite only being few in number, the military’s fear of an armed enemy within led them on in attempts to stamp out any supposed links or sympathizers with Los Monteneros. The infamous Night of the Pencils, depicted in the powerful 1986 film of the same name was perhaps the most shocking single event of El Proceso. A group of teenage students from La Plata who had been involved with peaceful protests for student bus fares were kidnapped at night by the military police. They were blindfolded and driven to one of the many ‘detention centers’ set up by the regime.
Emilice Moler, one of only four survivors from the group, later described what happened next
“They tortured us with profound sadism. I remember being naked. I was just a fragile small girl of about 1.5 m and weighed about 47 kg, and I was beaten senseless by what I judged was a huge man…after about a week at our first detention center, we were all taken to another place in a truck. At some point we stopped and some of my friends were taken out. Those are the ones that disappeared.”
This atrocity happened within the first few months of the dictatorship (September 1976), but set the tone for the terror that hung over political life in Argentina for the next 7 years. Eventually a needlessly bloody war and social and economic pressures helped topple the military junta, and paved the way for representative democracy to return in 1983. The new President Raúl Alfonsín immediately set up the National Commission for the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), which began the long and painful task of cataloging the crimes that had only now come to an end. Congress also voted for the state to pay compensation to families of the victims, and over 11,000 families have received this so far.
The report was published in 1984 and documented the sweeping brutality and repression imposed by the military during its seven year rule. It was fittingly nicknamed Nunca Más (Never Again), a slogan that can still be found on walls and lips across Argentina. Nunca Más cleared the way for the trials of many of the chief criminal perpetrators of the regime, including the Generals Videla and Galtieri and Admiral Massera. They were brought to trial in 1985 and eventually condemned to life imprisonment, found guilty of crimes against humanity.
However only a few years later the top criminals of El Proceso managed to slither away from justice. It was mainly due to President Raúl Alfonsín. Like a decision made in Spain after Franco’s fascist dictatorship gave way to democracy, he decided to introduce an amnesty law or pardon called the “Full Stop Law”. The idea was to help with reconciliation. But letting the Generals off the hook re-opened old wounds for thousands of affected Argentines who now saw the tyrants of yesterday roam free again.
It was only after years of activism from groups like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and the election of a new President, Nestor Kirchner, that all amnesty was revoked and trials of military figures could begin again. No imposition of justice like this has ever happened in Spain.
Here in Argentina, it continues to this day as more ex-military figures are hunted down by the courts. This process all started with Alfonsín and the CONADEP. But as vital and just as the commission was, most now believe it to be a gross underestimate. It documented the forced disappearances of 8,961 Argentines under the dictatorship, but most people know that this number is too small and believe the genuine figure to be much closer to 30,000. And so despite the justice finally metered out to the criminals of the military junta, tens of thousands of Argentines are still unaccounted for since the dark days of El Proceso. That is why every Thursday the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still meet and protest for answers. The complete truth about the years of the military dictatorship remains elusive.