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Argentina officially indicts civilians for role in 'dirty war'

This spring, the conviction of two brothers for crimes against humanity in Argentina's 'dirty war' highlighted the role civilians played in the military’s systematic repression between 1976 and 1983.

By Kyle YounkerContributor / May 23, 2012



Buenos Aires, Argentina

A rural Buenos Aires farmhouse used as a clandestine prison during Argentina's eight-year military dictatorship is now part of history.

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This spring owners of the farmhouse, a pair of brothers, became the first civilians convicted of crimes against humanity committed during the country's "dirty war," during which thousands of the Junta’s suspected political opponents were killed.

Almost 35 years after lawyer Carlos Moreno was tortured and killed on their property, brothers Emilio and Julio Mendez were sentenced to 15 and 11 years in jail, respectively. The sentence spoke unconventionally of a “civil-military” dictatorship, reflecting a shift toward a "matured” model of justice that distributes blame for dictatorship-era crimes beyond those in uniform, experts say.

“As the justice process becomes more sophisticated, we’ll see more civilian trials,” including former judges, government ministers, and businesspeople, such as the Mendez brothers, says Pablo Parenti, the coordinator of the prosecutor’s office that oversees Argentina’s human rights proceedings. 

Civilian support was necessary to sustain the military’s systematic campaign of repression between 1976 and 1983, experts say, and unearthing their involvement is important as Argentina continues to come to terms with the full scope of its violent past.

“The big, obvious cases came up first because there was more evidence and they were easier to try in court,”  says Mr. Parenti referring to former military and police officials who have been convicted since trials were re-opened in 2005.

In total, 254 convictions for crimes against humanity have been handed down by Argentine courts, including 23 civilians, according to Argentina's Center for Legal and Social Studies, an organization at the center of the push for human rights trials. A Catholic priest who worked as a chaplain for the Buenos Aires police force, members of Argentina’s spy agency, and doctors in the prison system – all civilians – have been convicted previously. But the case of the Mendez brothers is unique because they did not form part of the state apparatus, according to Luis Alén, Argentina’s undersecretary of human rights.

The Carlos Moreno murder, which led to the conviction of three police officers along with the Mendez brothers, represents the “full range” of civilian complicity with the dictatorship, says Mr. Alén.

At the time of his death, Mr. Moreno, a labor rights attorney, was investigating the working conditions in factories that belonged to cement company Loma Negra, then one of Argentina’s largest companies. He was kidnapped on April 29, 1977, and held at the Mendez farm, where he was subjected to electric shock by a cattle prod. Moreno managed to escape twice, but was recaptured and shot, according to court testimony.

The link between the Mendez brothers and Loma Negra is unclear – neither brother worked directly for the company – but as the case unfolded this year, evidence showed that directors of the company may have “induced” the killing, and government officials at the time complied with a coverup. Former Buenos Aires government minister Jaime Smart was implicated for writing a report that indicated Moreno had been killed in a standoff.

In their final sentencing, the judges ordered that the first investigation into an Argentine business’s role in crimes against humanity be opened against Loma Negra. In Argentina, those under investigation or even convicted of crimes against humanity maintain the presumption of innocence until their cases are given final validation by the Supreme Court.

Ensuring justice

Military dictatorships swept the region in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, with countries like Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay subject to brutal campaigns of violence.  With the return of democracy in the 1980s, these countries have pursued justice in different ways.

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