Historic Justice in Argentina

“The women giving birth, whom I respect as mothers, were militants…in the machine of terror. Many used their unborn children as human shields.”

With these words, Jorge Rafael Videla —convicted on July 5, 2012 for masterminding the “systematic and general practice of child-stealing” during Argentina’s “Dirty War (1976-83)–defended himself, in a federal courtroom packed with the parents, grandparents, and children of desaparecidos. The 34 children at issue in this case were born in one of four of the 600 secret concentration camps that were a hallmark of the last dictatorship, and given or sold to “proper Argentine families.” Only a handful of the children in this trial have been re-united with biological relatives; the rest (if they are alive) probably have no idea who their parents are, that biological relatives are bereft, that a whole part of civilian society has mobilized on their behalf.

They are seeds of the tree of evil, and must be sheared from those roots.” So said Videla, during the dictatorship. He still maintains he acted out of Christian goodness.

What happened to the young mothers? After being kidnapped, tortured, but kept alive in order to give birth, they were given lethal injections, dumped into mass graves, thrown into the sea, incinerated, or… what happened to many of these women’s bodies is still unknown.

The decision in Buenos Aires Federal Court No. 6 is historic on several levels.

For the first time in an Argentine court, Judge María del Carmen Roqueta wrote with precision about every aspect of the crime of child-stealing, from the kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, and disappearance or death of the mother; suppression and falsification of the child’s identity “as part of a general plan for the annihilation of part of the civilian population with the purpose of combatting subversion by means of state terrorism.”

As Videla himself had said, shortly before the coup, during a visit to the United States, “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.”

Stuff happens during war, defense lawyers argued: anyway, the statute of limitations would have run out.

Not so, the judges laid down. Child-stealing is a crime against humanity; and so there is no statute of limitations.

And there was no “war”: the armed left (at its height no more than 2,000, with 400 having access to weapons) was wiped out before the coup, in 1975. “Subversion” was a pretext: the aim of the dictatorship was the economic re-organization of society; to its project for a speculation-based, oligarchic structure, they would brook no dissent. (They also disappeared some industrialists whose fortunes they coveted.) It must be said that after years of economic and political turmoil, the world welcomed the coup with great infusions of cash from sovereign and private banks.

Videla has said that he will serve his historic 50-year sentence “as a form of service” to the country. Indeed he is already performing this service, having been convicted in a number of other crimes in earlier trials having to do with the dictatorship. Videla did not go down alone yesterday: the junta’s attaché to Washington, Antonio Vañek, got forty years; Reynaldo Bignone, who headed the third and final “Dirty War” junta, got thirty; ex-admiral Jorge “Tigre” Acosta—famous for his talents as a torturer—got fifteen, as did the navy physician Jorge Luis Magnacco;; an Acosta protegé called Antonio Azic, got fourteen; and former army general Santiago Riveros got twenty years.

What else is historic about this day in court? Videla and others had already been convicted for child stealing; but those were adjudged as isolated instances, not as part of an overall strategy. Yesterday’s case, first brought in 1996 by six Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, was designed to give the lie to so-called “excesses,” and “random events.” As Estela de Carlotto, the group’s President, has long insisted, “The world must know that this was a constructed, detailed, systematic plan.” How else could some 500 children be born in an intricate world of secret concentration camps to mothers who were disappeared? Corroborated survivor testimony has for decades contradicted the denials of perpetrators, cogs, and defenders. The fidelity of the Grandmothers; the tenacity of their legal team; the conscientious expertise from the bench all send a strong civic message: Argentine courts can handle the challenge of unprecedented crimes.

They have done so before. In 2006, the amnesty laws that protected ex-Dirty Warriors, were annulled. At this writing, 1, 886 military and civilians have been named in at least one of the 374 trials pending. Convictions to date number 250. Legal hurdles remain: sentences must be ratified by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, which can take many months.

Though they can be frustrating, elaborate judicial procedures can be seen as a hallmark of civilian democracy. It bears noting: these perpetrators of state terror for decades crippled and corrupted the judiciary. Not one of their victims had the remotest right to a trial. Yet since the inception of democracy, no one seeking to redress the wrongs of the dictatorship has ever taken the law into his or her own hands.

Instead these ex-Dirty Warriors have tasted the fruit of the tree of justice.