The deadly legacy of Latin American dictatorships

DIRTY WAR:A worker getting arrested in 1982 during a protest in Buenos Aires; (below) Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his Argentine counterpart Jorge Videla. —FILE PHOTOS: AFP  

In a landmark trial that spanned three years and involved the cases of more than 100 victims, a four-judge panel last Friday convicted and sentenced 14 former Argentine military officers for their roles in Operation Condor, a scheme of kidnappings, torture and killings. Thirteen were from Argentina, and one was from Uruguay.

The guilty verdicts set a powerful precedent: For the first time, a court in the region ruled that the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay had worked together in a region-wide criminal conspiracy against their opponents, some of whom had fled to exile in neighbouring countries, during an era of military dictatorships in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Conviction of a dictator

Judge Oscar R. Amirante on Friday read the verdict to the defendants, including Reynaldo Bignone, Argentina’s last military dictator in 1982 and 1983, who were sentenced to prison terms of eight to 25 years. Most of them, including Bignone, are already serving time for other human rights violations.

South American military governments in the 1970s and 1980s kidnapped and murdered thousands of rebel guerrillas and dissidents. Operation Condor accounted for at least 377, according to a joint report by a unit of UNESCO and the Argentine government in 2015.

“Condor provided the framework,” said Pablo Ouviña, the chief prosecutor on the case.

In other South American countries, efforts to bring violators of human rights to justice have sputtered. But over the past decade, Argentina has carried out scores of trials in which at least 666 people have been convicted so far for crimes carried out during Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Judges received testimony from about 370 witnesses over three years, but some of the defendants died during the trial, annulling the cases of their victims. For their relatives, the convictions on Friday were tinged with frustration.

Sara Rita Méndez (72), a survivor of Operation Condor who was kidnapped and tortured in Argentina in 1976 and then detained for years in her native Uruguay, said: “These trials are fundamental. They generate confidence in society.”

Operation Condor was conceived in November 1975 during meetings hosted by the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who enlisted the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Peru and Ecuador joined later.

At a secret detention centre here, Automotores Orletti, now a chilling memorial site, dissidents were stripped, drenched, hung from iron girders and tortured with an electric prod. Some of the bodies have been found in recent years stuffed into oil drums sealed with concrete in a nearby canal.

With President Barack Obama’s recent order to declassify additional U.S. records that could reveal what the U.S. government knew about Argentina’s “dirty war”, hopes of piercing the shroud of secrecy surrounding other atrocities of the era have been revived.

Some Argentines worry that the new government of President Mauricio Macri will not vigorously support the judiciary’s investigation and prosecution of crimes during past dictatorships.

But Mr. Macri has said such investigations will continue to form part of his human-rights agenda. “I believe we’re on the right path,” he recently told reporters. — New York Times News Service