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.

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

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.

Last week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was detained and tortured during Brazil's military dictatorship, inaugurated that country's truth commission. The commission seeks to investigate human rights abuses, but because of amnesty laws still in place, there will be no criminal convictions.

The question of how individuals and societies come to terms with a violent past involves a “deeply personal process,” says José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas region at Human Rights Watch, in Washington. “But in order to bring basic closure to any society that went through what Argentina went through, you have to ensure justice.”

The civilian trials are likely to be accompanied by investigations of the dictatorship’s economic crimes, according to Daniel Arroyo, executive director of Poder Ciudadano, the Argentine branch of Transparency International.

The Office of Economic Crimes was set up in 2010 within the Secretariat of Human Rights, and will examine a long list of local and multinational companies for their actions during the dictatorship. But, the project has been denounced by some as a political tool.

It is currently under the direction of a national youth organization, La Campora, known for its vehement support of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and the previous administration of her husband, Nestor. Others say those sympathetic to the military dictatorship in the '70s and '80s are not the only ones who should be held accountable for their actions: Equal efforts should be made to bring to justice leftist dissidents responsible for deadly attacks as well, they say.

Mr. Vivanco says the only test should be “if there is sufficient criminal evidence presented in court to convict somebody." Vivanco adds, "Nothing should be developed as part of an ideological agenda – these are universal values.”

Long time coming

Many see Argentina on the front line of seeking justice for dictatorship-era crimes, but for the victims and their families, civilian and military convictions have been a long time coming. Amnesty laws passed in the mid 1980s under President Raul Alfonsin put an end to the trials of Junta commanders. Then in 1990, in an effort to heal the nation, commanders who were already convicted were pardoned by then President Carlos Menem.

But human rights groups, most notably the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, continued to seek justice for what they estimate are 30,000 killed or disappeared Argentines. The official number is 13,000.

A 2001 federal court case that nullified the amnesty laws built momentum for President Nestor Kirchner to make human rights a part of his governing platform when he came to office in 2003. Congress overturned the Alfonsin amnesty laws shortly after, leading to the first standing conviction for crimes committed under the military dictatorship in 2006.
Since then, Argentina’s judiciary was given carte blanche to go after the perpetrators of atrocities in what has been a “healthy and important defense of fundamental values” for Argentine society, according to Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.

“I wish other Latin American judiciaries could follow their example,” he says.

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