Argentina's 'Disappeared': A Painful Chapter Reopens

A new report accounts, for the first time, for a large group of people who disappeared during the political violence of the 1970s

SOME 1,450 people who had been unaccounted for after the political violence in Argentina have suddenly ''reappeared'' in a new report on the disappearances of thousands of prisoners during the 1970s. The report has reopened the controversy about the virtual civil war that shook that country's foundations.

The government's reluctant admission that the list was accurate came at the same time as the statements of a retired Navy officer, Capt. Adolfo Scilingo, who publicly admitted two months ago that the armed forces had ordered secret flights to throw political prisoners, many of them still alive, from the air into the South Atlantic's frigid waters.

Capt. Scilingo's confession, made to Horacio Verbitsky, an investigative reporter of the leftist Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12, has sent chills along the spines of many Argentines. President Carlos S. Menem, in the middle of his electoral campaign, quickly dismissed Scilingo's assertions. Trying to control damage to his reelection bid, he called the captain ''a crook.''

Yet the Menem administration had to admit that it had a list of desaparecidos not included in the 1984 report ''Nunca Mas.'' This acknowledgment has unexpectedly revived the controversy over human rights violations committed during the 1970s, when leftist guerrillas waged all-out war with the Argentine Armed Forces.

The 1984 report was produced by a commission appointed by President Raul Alfonsin, and headed by the renowned Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato, a longtime defender of human rights. Although the document warned that other cases may have gone unreported, many in Argentina had taken its conclusions as definitive.

The official story

The nearly 9,000 cases the commission documented, which were the basis for the 1985 trial of the members of the military juntas that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, had also been manipulated by some political sectors, especially from the extreme right, to try to minimize the magnitude of the atrocities.

Human rights organizations, among them the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales and the famous Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, had been claiming for years that the real number of disappeared people greatly exceeded those official figures and was closer to 30,000. Yet people refused to accept the statistics and, like the main character in Argentine filmmaker Luis Puenzo's Oscar-winning movie ''The Official Story,'' preferred to take the government position at face value as the final truth.

The recent revelation that former President Reynaldo Bignone, the last military ruler of the 1976-1983 juntas, had ordered the destruction of files on the desaparecidos shortly before transferring power to civilian President Alfonsin has given even more credibility to the assertions of human rights groups.

In 1990, scarcely a year and a half after he took office, Menem pardoned the convicted military commanders, among them the notorious dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, under the pretext of ''a need to pacify the country.'' In 1989 there had been yet another rebellion of leftists guerrillas who attacked the military barracks of La Tablada, outside Buenos Aires.

Unprecedented atrocities

Menem's amnesty, strongly criticized by liberals and international human rights groups, was the product more of military pressures than of a firm belief in pacification. Ironically, it also included most of the 1970s guerrilla leaders, a move that clearly displeased military circles. But at the time of the pardon, Argentina had already been under democratic rule for more than seven years, and the military's prestige was at its lowest.

The horrors of tortures, abductions, cold-blooded murders, rapes, and other atrocities committed during the political violence of the 1970s had no precedent in the country's past. They have been frequently compared to the Nazis' ''final solution.''

In fact, many analysts of contemporary Argentine history now agree that, had it not been for the firm intervention of some governments, including the Carter administration in the United States, the repression in Argentina might have equaled or surpassed many aspects of the genocide in Europe during World War II.

But by 1990, things in Argentina had changed. Very few people -- except relatives of the disappeared and human rights activists -- wanted to hear more horror stories about their recent past. There was an almost pathological need to forget. In a clear reflection of that mood, the once spectacular sales of books on the desaparecidos had dropped to negligible amounts.

Menem took advantage of that opportunity to mend fences with the Armed Forces, which had adamantly refused to admit to their methods to eliminate political prisoners.

And at the same time, astute a politician as he is, Menem was trying to fend off the possibility of more leftist attacks like the one at La Tablada. He did so by also granting a pardon to the guerrillas, which was tantamount to an amnesty for their own abuses.

Breaching the silence

Now, the latest developments have again changed the mood in a country where, in the words of a famous writer, political memories ''tend to last no more than 15 minutes.'' Scilingo's confessions, later corroborated by a noncommissioned Army officer's similar statements, have generated considerable turmoil shortly before the general elections.

The revelations, are for one thing, a breach in an unwritten ''silence pact'' among the military, which may have incalculable political and moral repercussions.

One of them, no doubt, will be a renewal of pleas to establish the final truth by reopening investigations -- which, in turn, is more than likely to reopen the country's old wounds.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, it clearly means the healing process is far from finished in Argentina.

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