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Memory, truth, and justice as Argentina honours the victims of state terrorism

Memory, truth, and justice as Argentina honours the victims of state terrorism

24 March is a public holiday in Argentina, officially designated as The Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice. The date commemorates the 1976 coup d’état that unleashed seven years of military dictatorship, a period that most Argentinians refer to today as the time of state terrorism.

The legacy of the coup on Wednesday 24 March 1976, continues to echo in Argentina, especially for the tens of thousands of families who lost loved ones during the military’s euphemistically-styled “national re-organization process.”

It has been nearly 45 years since the end of military rule in 1983 but, still, no one knows precisely how many people were killed or disappeared during el Proceso. Argentinian human rights organizations estimate the number to be 30,000, a figure that has occasionally sparked denialist reactions from apologists for the military regime.

The fact is, the reason no one knows the number is the regime’s deliberate strategy of “disappearing” its opponents (the word became an active verb in Argentina during this time). Disappearance of people with dangerous ideas, or even sometimes those connected to them, was one of the most effective tactics in the toolbox of state terrorism. It not only got rid of “subversives” and their sympathizers, it terrorized and neutralized everyone in their environment, from those who feared they could be next to those who feared that something they said or did could endanger someone close to them who disappeared but might still be alive.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1983, there have been waves of reckoning in Argentina. The liberal, centrist government that replaced the generals prosecuted and convicted nine top military leaders in a Nuremberg-style trial in 1985. But the government gave in to pressure not to pursue lower-level perpetrators who carried out the criminal designs of their leaders. 

In 2005, however, Argentina’s supreme court opened the way for new trials for human rights abuses under the dictatorship, designating them as “crimes against humanity committed in the context of the international crime of genocide.”

Since that time, more than 1,000 perpetrators have been convicted and are serving terms up to life in prison for acts including torture, murder, kidnapping, and “a thousand types of humiliation,” in the words of one of the federal prosecutors who has worked on the cases. Many of the convicted are serving their sentences at home, under loosely-supervised conditions of house arrest.

Last December, president Alberto Fernández announced the creation of a new “memory space” at the former Campo de Mayo military base in Buenos Aires, which served as one of the country’s most notorious clandestine detention centres—as well as the take-off point of regular “death flights” of illegally detained prisoners during the dictatorship. 

There are now several memorial sites, at selected symbolically significant locations around the country. New places where atrocities occurred are still being discovered. A government commission identified 341 clandestine detention centres in 1984; the latest count stands at more than 520.

I visited one of these locations in April 2018, on an “alternative walking tour” of Buenos Aires that included a stop outside the Olimpo clandestine detention centre in the residential district of Floresta. A one-time tramway and bus terminal in a quiet neighbour­hood, protected from outside view by high brick walls and accessible through a steel front gate, the location was taken over by the federal police after the coup. Olimpo reminded me of Buchenwald, not because of any physical resemblance but because of the utter banality of its setting. Like Buchenwald, a mere bus ride away from the centre of Weimar, Olimpo is right there in the middle of Buenos Aires and it is inconceivable that neighbours of the camp had no idea that something terrible was going on there.

Unidentified remains of disappeared victims are still being discovered in unmarked graves in Argentina. Using DNA samples collected from family members, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), an NGO established in 1984, has been able to identify 800 people, out of some 1,400 sets of remains that it has recovered.

Children who were appropriated from disappeared parents continue to surface as well. At latest count, around 130 of the 500 appropriated children identified by the human rights organization las Abuelas (grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo have had their identities restored. In 2021, the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with the Abuelas and Argentina’s National Commission for the Right to Identity (or CONADI) launched an international campaign entitled Argentina te busca (literally “Argentina is looking for you” but officially translated as “Help us find you”), inviting anyone in the world who suspects that they might have been an appropriated child to contact their local embassy or consulate. Alongside this government initiative, the EAAF has begun collecting DNA samples from foreign donors to add to their forensic data base.

For Argentine society at large, the trials of perpetrators and other government efforts constitute a semblance of accountability—but they are little solace for the survivors. Perpetrators almost never reveal anything about the fate of their victims, even when they acknowledge their roles, as they sometimes do, justifying their crimes as having been “necessary” for the preservation of “Western, Christian civilization.”

Outside Argentina, remarkably, little attention is being paid to this ongoing drama. Yet, Argentina is making international jurisprudence regarding accountability for state terrorism. At least there’s that.

Feature photo courtesy of the author, Marc Raboy.

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