Argentine military officers feel they are victims of an ungrateful society, reports Shirley Christian in the New York Times (6/7/87). They feel their role in “putting down leftist subversion during the 1970s” is unappreciated—but not by Christian, who quoted unnamed army officers at length, with no comments from human rights activists or victims of the dirty war. Extra! asked Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who was imprisoned and tortured by the military junta, to respond to the Times article.
The armed forces returned to their barracks in late 1983, marginalized and defeated by their ignominious venture in the
Malvinas Islands and by the rising tide of public opposition to the policies of the national security state. The Argentine people have not forgotten the crimes of the dictatorship: the kidnapping, disappearance and torture of thousands; the destruction of the economy and the slashing of real wages and job security; the export of their “methodologies” to other repressive regimes in Latin America, as well as to the Contra mercenaries fighting against the government and people of Nicaragua.
Military officials interviewed by the New York Times “expressed difficulty in accepting that the toll from the counterinsurgency” was as high as 9,000. Yet the figure of 9,500 victims (identified by first and last name, date of disappearance, etc.) has been documented by the 1984 Argentine Presidential Commission on the Disappeared [published in Nunca Mas (Never Again) by Farrar Straus Giroux]. In fact, the Commission indicates that the actual number of victims was probably much greater; human rights organizations estimate it may be as high as 30,000.
The Times quotes unidentified army officers who maintain that their counterinsurgency campaign was directed only against leftists “engaged in violence.” What about the 150 children who disappeared, as the Presidential Commission has documented? Or those who were kidnapped from their homes when they slept at night? The Commission established that the military pursued a premeditated policy of state terrorism aimed at quelling any kind of resistance—including nonviolent protest—against the junta’s economic and social policies. These findings were confirmed by the courts during the trial of nine leading military officers who were convicted of human rights abuses.
In their statements to the Argentine press, military officials do not deny killing as many people as the Commission reported. On the contrary, they are proud of what they did, and they say they would do it again. Many officers are even opposed to the “due obedience” law, recently pushed through Congress by the Alfonsin government, which stipulates that military personnel can’t be held accountable for crimes committed while acting under orders from their superiors. They don’t feel that they committed any crimes; they claim they were defending Western Christian civilization, and they want the public to thank them for this. “Next they’ll want a monument to the picana [an electric cattle prod widely used for torture],” said one federal attorney.
The Times has given the officers a platform to complain that they are so underbudgeted they would not be prepared if “needed for an operation, such against drug traffickers.” This is a strange assertion, given the fact that the Argentine junta was the principal backer of the cocaine coup in Bolivia in 1980 and the Argentine dictators themselves were involved in drug trafficking.
But the real story missing from the article is that three-and-a-half years after the Argentine military turned the government back to a constitutionally elected President, the specter of their return to power has provoked an intense civilian outpouring. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets and plazas across the country in an unprecedented repudiation of the military uprisings that paralyzed Argentina during Holy Week. Across political and social lines, people mobilized in defense of the constitutional order. Their message was clear: “Never again” to a military dictatorship and its crimes against humanity.
(Translated by Beverly Keene, Perez Esquivel’s colleague at SERPAJ, a Buenos Aires-based human rights organization.)
Shirley Christian’s penchant for rewriting history surfaced again in the New York Times (6/21/87) when she wrote about the abduction and murder of Dan Mitrione, a US police adviser, by Tupamaro guerrillas in Uruguay. Christian reported that Mitrione taught Uruguayan police a benign form of riot control, not the torture techniques claimed by his kidnappers. One of Christian’s predecessors who covered South America for the Times, A. J. Langguth, described Mitrione’s activities in his book Hidden Terrors:
US advisors, especially Mitrione, had introduced scientific methods of torture…. When Mitrione arrived in Montevideo, the police were torturing prisoners with a rudimentary electric needle that had come from Argentina. Mitrione arranged for the police to get newer electric needles of varying thickness…. In the case of a labor leader, Mitrione said: Undress him completely…. Put him into a cell and hold him there for three days with nothing to drink. On the third day, pass him a pot of water mixed with urine.