In the main square of Parque Patricios, a working class neighborhood in south Buenos Aires, the outlines of 121 human bodies are painted in white on the ground. They represent the people from that area who were killed or “disappeared” – along with some 30,000 others – during Argentina’s Dirty War.
The war was perpetrated by the right-wing military dictatorship which ruled in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 and put the country through a National Reorganization Process that constituted seven years of state terrorism and human rights violations. And now the de facto president throughout most of the regime has provoked outrage in Argentina by admitting for the first time that the dictatorship killed “7,000 or 8,000 people” and disappeared the bodies “so as not to provoke protests.”
Jorge Videla headed the coup that brought the military to power and ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1981. He was sentenced to life imprisonment during the Trial of the Juntas in 1985 for crimes against humanity, but was pardoned in 1990 by former President Carlos Menem. However, after the government of Néstor Kirchner overturned Mr. Menem’s impunity laws, Mr. Videla was reconvicted in 2010 and sent to the Campo de Mayo prison for life.
An official report released in 1984 called Nunca Más, Never Again in English, says 9,000 left-wing militants and sympathizers were disappeared by three of the four juntas that held power. That figure, however, is popularly deemed an underestimate and, today, it is recognized that around 30,000 people were murdered by the state.
But Videla, now 86, put the death toll much lower during his comments last week. Revealing details of the human rights violations of which he refused to speak while on trial, he told an Argentine journalist from his cell that “there was no other solution” to the disappearances. “It was the price we had to pay to win the war against [Communist] subversion,” he said.
“We don't care what he says. He’s a murderer,” says Claudia San Martín, one of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of women whose children were disappeared by the dictatorship. Mrs. San Martín’s son, Carlos José, was 19 when he was taken by the state in 1977. His body was never found.
The mothers commemorate the 35th anniversary of their fight for justice next week and, despite their age – Mrs. San Martín is 82 – every Thursday they march in the Plaza de Mayo, the square opposite the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. “We have more strength every day,” says Mrs. San Martín after taking part in the march, a white shawl – the symbol of the mothers – draped around her head.
Videla has been criticized by the mothers in the past for having shown no remorse. “These latest comments are worthy of the doctrine that he’s always advocated:” remorseless justification of his crimes, says Cecilia Medina, a former judge at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and professor at the University of Chile – where similar violations occurred under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Germán Ibáñez, who works as an academic secretary at the small University of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, believes Videla is repeating his attempt to justify his crimes. “Videla was brought to justice, but he always sought to validate what he did,” says Mr. Ibáñez, seated in a room at the university filled with pictures of Latin America’s left-wing icons. “Now, once again, he is trying to justify his actions by saying they were necessary in the triumph against Communism.”
However, Juan Santiago García, the son of a desaparecido – the name in Spanish for those people taken by the state and murdered without their whereabouts ever being revealed – says Videla’s words should not be shunned.
Mr. García, now 36, was kidnapped in 1976 together with his father, a member of the montoneros, a left-wing guerrilla group obliterated by the Dirty War. He was found a month later by his grandmother in the orphanage where the military had left him. His father was never seen again.
Watching the mothers march around the monument at the heart of the Plaza de Mayo, García, whose uncle and aunt were also disappeared, says Videla’s words have a huge educational value. “Some young people in this country can’t comprehend what occurred during the dictatorship,” he explains. “As disgusting as Videla’s comments are, they show it really did happen.”
Mr. García came face-to-face with Videla last year as he was leaving the trial of another military officer. He says he didn’t feel the need to insult or attack him. “Our fight and that of the mothers is a peaceful one," he says. "We fight for justice, memory, and truth and we do it with the law in our hands.”