Argentina seeks justice for 'Dirty' past
The first in a series of trials for perpetrators of the 1973-86 'Dirty War' starts Tuesday.
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What resulted was one of the bloodiest Cold War clampdowns on the Latin American Left. The carnage continued until 1983 when the humiliated military was replaced by a democratic government less than a year after losing the Falklands War with Britain. Even then, there were fears veterans would revolt if placed on trial for the Dirty War, and in 1986 and '87, amnesty was granted under two laws: La Ley de Punto Final (The Full Stop Law) and La Ley de Obediencia Debida (The Law of Due Obedience). [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated when the Falklands War occurred.]Skip to next paragraph
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But activists were not prepared to let the issue fade away. In the late '90s, a series of "truth trials," were convened across the country. Few former military members participated, courts were only allowed to investigate and document human rights abuses, and there was no possibility of punishment. Even so, working with hundreds of witnesses, the judiciary managed to create files on thousands of new cases of kidnapping and murder.
"That kept the issue alive in public debate," says Sebastian Brett, a Chile-based analyst for Human Rights Watch.
The amnesty laws began to receive new levels of scrutiny. According to Juan Méndez, head of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, granting the amnesties for fear of retribution by the military rendered them unconstitutional.
During the 1970s, Mr. Méndez was himself a lawyer who worked under, and was eventually imprisoned by, the military regime.
Amnesty, he says, is not for those "who basically blackmailed society with threats of violence. Should we prioritize peace at all costs without justice in some form?"
Soldiers have also lost the influence – and fear – they once held over this country. After the Falklands War, two decades of budget cuts and the appointment of Defense Minister Nilda Garre, a human rights activist who is outspokenly loyal to the president, have all helped rein in military power.
At an Army Day ceremony on May 29, center-left president Nestor Kirchner practically spat defiance at his own soldiers.
"As the President of Argentina I have no fear, I don't fear you," he said.
The Argentine Supreme Court finally declared the amnesty laws unconstitutional in June of last year, in an action publicly applauded by Mr. Kirchner, who suffered detainment himself in 1976.
Alicia Partnoy, author of "The Little School," a book that describes a concentration camp from the era, believes the end of the amnesties was the product of a maturing political consciousness that helped usher the current president into power.
"The president has validated the voice of the generation of the desaparecidos, and I think this is because the country is moving in a certain direction," she says.
Ms. Partnoy and others say Argentina has taken that tack thanks to the stubborn bravery of women like Baravalle and Nora Cortiñas, another member of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo who lost her son, Carlos, during the Dirty War. Ms. Cortiñas describes her work as maintaining this country's troubled memory.
"It has been a continuing struggle," says Cortiñas. "We are reclaiming, day by day, truth and justice."