March 24 in Argentina is unlike any other day. It is the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice; a date to remember the up to 30,000 people killed and forcefully disappeared during the right-wing military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.
Argentina’s disappearances were part of a continental, U.S.-backed plan to wipe out any left-wing opposition to dictatorships throughout South America in the 1970s and 1980s. Some 50,000 people are estimated to have been killed or “disappeared.” in the region under this plan.
Under Argentina's military dictatorship, between 7,000 and 30,000 people (the exact number is still unknown) were killed or disappeared, making it one of the most brutal dictatorships in South America.
Unlike some other countries, Argentina today places great emphasis on remembering its victims. Its national day was declared after decades of protests and legal proceedings from social movements and nongovernmental organizations, which pressured the Argentine Congress in 2002, during Eduardo Duhalde's short government (2002-2003), to approve a law mandating March 24 the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.
Further gains toward justice were made under the government of Nestor Kirchner between 2003-2007 when the state assumed an active role in ending the decades-long impunity that had prevented making the former military chiefs in charge of extrajudicial killings and torture during the dictatorship from standing trial.
Kirchner did this by revoking the Obliged Obedience and Full-Stop laws, which granted amnesty to the former military junta and the highest ranking officers suspected of being behind the widespread political assassinations and forced disappearances.
These laws were put in place during the democratic government that followed the dictatorship under President Raul Alfolsin, after sectors within the military – known as the “painted faces” – threatened to stage a new coup. Furthermore, President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) forgave the generals that led the dictatorship – who by now were jailed – granting them amnesty once again.
The right-wing military dictatorship dubbed itself the “National Reorganization Process,” vowing to free the country from communism. In the name of this project, the dictatorship censored a number of artists, closed down all independent media – allowing pro-dictatorship media only – and persecuted anyone who dissented, or those somehow related to dissenters.
Argentine mainstream media avoids mentioning that new president Gen. Videla took power through a coup. | Photo: Archive.
Furthermore, the dictatorship worked together with the Argentine elite. One of the most striking examples of this relationship was a clandestine network run by the military which abducted babies from political prisoners and assassinated activists. The babies were then handed over to wealthy or military families who could not conceive.
Despite the advances made in Argentina, and the importance given to solving the crimes committed by this genocidal dictatorship, the Argentine case was not an exception to what was happening in the region.
However, one major difference is that no other country has a significant national memorial date, which raises the issue of how much has been achieved in raising awareness and demanding justice for this dark period of Latin American history.
Contextualizing the Deaths
After World War II, throughout Latin America popular and nationalist governments came to power whose aim was to industrialize their countries and raise the quality of life for their citizens. However, the world was divided by the Cold War and the U.S. regarded Latin America as its backyard, which meant any policies resembling socialist or communist ones had to be quashed.
In Guatemala, the CIA, together with country's right wing, ousted President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, imposing a bloody military-civilian dictatorship. Arbenz had promoted a popular land reform to balance the appalling inequality in land distribution.
Seven years later (1961) the popular Brazilian nationalist Joao Goulart would be democratically elected as president in Brazil, Latin America's biggest country. The U.S. government and the CIA moved swiftly to delegitimize his government. By 1964, the military staged a coup to “save Brazil from communism” and established a military dictatorship that would last until 1985.
A similar story was unfolding in Argentina and in Chile. Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron, a popular nationalist who took office in 1946, was ousted by the military in 1952. After being re-elected, he was ousted again by the military in 1955. Almost 20 years later, in 1973 when he was again elected by over 50 percent of the population, Peron took office with his wife Maria Estela Martinez as vice president.
Peron died a year later from a heart attack and Maria Estela took over the presidency. By 1976 the military – once again – staged a coup and took over. The military dictatorship was backed by paramilitary groups that had formed during Peron's term in office with the aim of forcing his administration toward the right.
Meanwhile in Chile, the left-wing politician Salvador Allende was democratically elected and became president in 1970. After enduring a fierce economic war launched by the Chilean right-wing and the elite – which included sabotage and hoarding – a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet, took over the country in 1973.
Paraguayan dictator General Alfredo Stroessner (L) and Chilean dictator Gen. Pinochet (R) wave to crowds in Santiago, Chile. | Photo: Reuters
By this time, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay were also ruled by right-wing military dictatorships, all of them sharing the aim of ending with communism in Latin America. The United States discreetly or actively backed all of them.
Operation Condor: A Genocidal Alliance
With these right-wing dictatorships in place, and paranoid anti-communist foreign policy in the U.S. in hand, the context was perfect for Washington to work with Latin American military elites to work together against what they perceived as their common enemy.
Operation Condor, also known as Plan Condor, began in Chile. After the fall of Allende, General Pinochet wanted to guarantee no influential leaders from the Allende administration would stay alive. The main target in 1974 was pro-Allende General Carlos Prats.
Prats was living in exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he thought he would be safe under President Peron's protection. However, the Triple A – one of the Argentine paramilitary anti-communist groups – had pinned Prats down and was helping the Chilean Embassy to locate him. Prats was killed by a Chilean intelligence agent in September 1974.
Shortly before his death, he had warned close collaborators that he had evidence the CIA, the Chilean dictatorship and the Triple A were plotting to kill him. The right-wing media would then present the homicide as carried out by a left-wing group.
This collaborative modus operandi gave birth to the idea of establishing an alliance between the right-wing military dictatorships to chase dissenters and opponents beyond national boundaries.
Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer (L) and Argentine General Videla | Photo: Bolivian Embassy in Argentina.
While it is unclear who in Washington was overseeing these efforts, documents show Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as the key link between the Latin American generals and the White House, and as a defender of the project in general. By the time of Prats' death, the United States was firmly behind the plan to remove opposition leaders in its backyard.
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (C) with Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet (R) | Photo: Archive.
The U.S. collaborated in building a communications network between the South American dictatorships, which would allow them to share information and databases of political leaders, artists and activists that should be eliminated.
Furthermore, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Washington provided military and police advisers to the South American regimes, despite full knowledge of the widespread terror being applied by the state to citizens in those countries.
Preventing the Truth from Coming to Light
Even today, Washington denies requests from governments and organizations urging the U.S. government to declassify all documents related to that period of time.
In countries such as Brazil, despite the efforts made by both Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, the military archives cannot be accessed due to sabotage of the files.
The secrecy surrounding the extrajudicial killings carried out by these military dictatorships, together with the U.S. support in hiding the little evidence that could be retrieved, has made it very difficult – if not impossible – to determine exactly how many people died during this operation.
However, some documented cases survive. One of them, which led to knowledge of the operation leaking into the public domain, was carried out in Washington itself.
In September 1976, Allende's former defense minister, Orlando Letelier, in exile in the United States, was killed by a bomb planted on his car. The Chilean politician had become influential in Washington and had spoken in Congress in March that year to denounce the human rights violations carried by Pinochet's dictatorship. While the politicians, moved by his speech decided to cut off U.S. aid to the Chilean military junta, the CIA proceeded with business as usual.
Michael Townley, CIA agent working with the Chilean intelligence was responsible for Orlando Letelier’s murder. | Photo: Chilean Judicial Archives.
The bomb was planted by two Chilean intelligence agents who entered the U.S. with false Paraguayan passports. The CIA had assigned a group of right-wing Cuban exiles to help the Chileans.
Former Brazilian President Joao Goulart was also targeted by Operation Condor. During his exile in Peron's Argentina, in 1973, the paramilitary group Triple A tried unsuccessfully to kill him. Goulart died years later, which was initially thought to be from a heart attack, but Uruguayan intelligence agent Mario Neira Barreiro revealed in 2008 that Goulart had actually been poisoned by the Brazilian dictatorship.
Other former presidents were also killed by Condor, such as the Chilean Eduardo Frei and the Brazilian Juscelino Kubitschek. Despite the fact that neither of them were Marxists or Socialists, the South American dictatorships regarded their democratic values and influence as a threat nonetheless.
There are suggestions that both Ecuadorean President Jaime Roldos and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos were also killed by Operation Condor.
Roldos, the first president democratically elected after a military dictatorship, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1981, which is still under investigation. Roldos had stopped the Ecuadorean army's collaboration with Operation Condor and was fiercely opposed by the far right.
Torrijos also decided to stop his country's cooperation with the operation. The Panamanian general died in a mysterious airplane crash, also in 1981. One former CIA agent, John Stockwell, claimed in May 1987 that the CIA had killed Torrijos, while U.S. “economic hitman” John Perkins draws a direct line between Torrijos refusing to be bribed into cooperation by him on behalf of the U.S. government and his death in a plane crash. “Sure enough,” Perkins concludes in a Democracy Now! interview, “he was assassinated. I personally was aware of what went on.”
|Country||Estimated Deaths and Disappeared|
|Argentina||7,000 to 30,000|
|Brazil||434 to 2,000|
|Bolivia||116 to 546|
|Chile||3,000 to 10,000|
|Ecuador||26 to 126+|
|Paraguay||200 to 400|
|Uruguay||123 to 215|
Desaparecidos.org, Gobierno de Argentina, Comissão Nacional da Verdade, Comissão Especial de Mortos e Desaparecidos Politicos,Grupo Nizkor, Carlos Soria Galvarro, Martin Sivak, Peter Kornbluh, Gobierno de Chile, Comisión de la Verdad y Justicia, CONADEH, Comisión Para la Paz, Press reports.
Hundreds of left-wing leaders, from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and elsewhere, mysteriously died or went missing, while seeking refuge in different countries. The media reported their deaths as usual, blaming inter-leftist disputes as the motive behind the murders and disappearances, referring to nonexistent left-wing groups and made-up plots.
Condor in Central America
During the 1980s a number of civil wars took place throughout Central America. The region had been mainly governed by military dictatorships or civilian governments controlled by the military, with Costa Rica the only exception. By 1979 the Sandinista Liberation Front rebels took power in Nicaragua, ousting the U. S.- backed dynastic dictator Anastasio Somoza.
The Sandinista government began a socialist project with the support from Cuba. Many South American left-wing leaders in hiding – especially Argentines – saw the Nicaraguan Revolution as a potential home and safe haven.
However, soon after the Sandinista triumph, the U.S. funded and organized counter-revolutionary brigades (the “contras”) made up by mercenaries and Somoza loyalists. U.S. and Argentine advisers then worked closely with the contras, and helped the Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran governments, also fighting local Marxist guerrilla groups, by creating the infamous death squads.
The Central American cooperation between the Argentine dictatorship and the U.S.-backed governments was dubbed “Operation Charlie” in the declassified archives. Many Argentine intelligence agents were also sent throughout the region to hunt down prominent South American leftists, as part of Operation Condor.
Condor's European Links
Operation Condor was not limited to the Americas. Far-right organizations in Europe established contacts with the South American embassies.
The Chilean intelligence agency installed a special operations center in Spain's capital Madrid. Italian fascist groups soon collaborated with the Chileans and Argentines, providing intelligence and helping to conduct operations. The French far-right terrorist group Organization of the Secret Army carried out a wave of attacks in Paris, which were investigated by French publication “Nouvel Observateur,” which traced them back to Spain; it is believed the Chileans were involved.
Former Brazilian President Joao Goulart was almost killed in 1973 during a visit he made to Spain. A Bolivian diplomat opposed to General Banzer – the Bolivian dictator – was mysteriously killed in Paris.
Another case was Bernardo Leighton, a Chilean Social-Christian Party politician. While he was opposed to Allende, he was also strongly opposed to the Pinochet dictatorship, and was in exile in Italy when he was attacked by anonymous armed men. Leighton survived the attack and investigations latter confirmed the shooting had been carried out by Italian fascists. After being detained and questioned, the men admitted they had worked with the Chilean intelligence.
Justice at Last?
Operation Condor in Europe had deeper reaches than just politicians. European citizens with political ties to the left, who had visited South America, were surgically targeted.
Due to these crimes in Europe some former leaders now face justice. Although Argentine military dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla died during his trial for the thousands of assassinations committed under his rule and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died before being tried for his crimes, others could now be jailed.
Former Bolivian dictator Luis Garcia Meza and former Peruvian dictator Francisco Morales Bermudez, who also took part in the Operation Condor, will be tried by an Italian tribunal, after it investigated the mysterious disappearance of several Italian citizens in South America under their watch.
The same Italian tribunal has accused over 30 people – mostly former military men from Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay – for their involvement in the disappearance of the Italian citizens in the wider framework of Operation Condor.
However, impunity continues to be the rule, and hundreds of military and intelligence agents involved in torture and extrajudicial killings are still free.
Argentina's Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice is a permanent reminder of these dark years in the Americas, and the debt that its governments still have with history.