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Argentina's 'dirty war': an ugly episode that won't die

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo demand to know what happened to their loved ones  

In this story:

March 2, 1998
Web posted at: 10:36 p.m. EST (0336 GMT)

From Correspondent Luis Clemens

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CNN) -- Argentina's "dirty war" ended 15 years ago, but it is an ugly episode that cannot be buried and refuses to be silenced.

Aging mothers and grandmothers march each week as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, carrying banners and chanting, "We will not be stopped. We will not be broken. We have held on for 20 years."

CNN's Luis Clemens reports.
icon 7 min. 03 sec. VXtreme video

They demand to know the whereabouts of sons and daughters and husbands and wives who were detained by the ruling military junta between 1976 and 1983, and then disappeared.

The junta seized power in Argentina in March 1976 and began a systematic campaign to wipe out left-wing terrorism. But the terror it spread exceeded anything the leftists ever dreamed of, claiming the lives of dissidents as well as innocent civilians.

More than 9,000 people disappeared during the dirty war, and some human rights groups say as many as 30,000 may have been tortured and killed.

"We only want to know where our sons and daughters are -- alive or dead," says one woman. "We are anguished because we don't know whether they are sick or hungry or cold. We don't know anything. We are desperate, desperate because we don't know who to turn to.

"Consulates, embassies, government ministries, churches. Every place is closed to us. Everywhere they shut us out. We beg you to help us. We beg you."

A 'public need for justice'

After the dictatorship ended, members of the military junta were tried and convicted, but then were pardoned by a democratically elected president.

Leon Arslanian was one of the presiding judges in the trials and opposed the pardons. He is not surprised that crimes committed more than 15 years ago are again front-page news.

"The gravity of this issue makes it a recurring discussion," Arslanian says. "It comes up again and again, permanently. There are a lot of dead people, and a lot of pain and a great, public need for justice."

The latest cry for justice began with an attempt to revoke what are called the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws. In 1986 and 1987, the military pressured the fragile civilian government to pass the laws, which extended amnesty to more than 1,000 members of the military who faced prosecution.

A recent congressional attempt to debate a bill that would strike down the laws led to shouting matches. But there was no resolution, and the bill faces almost certain defeat.

Alfredo Bravo, a former political prisoner turned opposition legislator, co-sponsored the bill.

"The bill is designed to end our having to live with assassins who now, in some cases, hold important posts."

Voters untroubled by retired general's past

One example is retired Gen. Antonio Bussi, who was military governor of Tucuman for the junta in 1976 and 19 years later was elected governor of the same province.

Voters were apparently undeterred by accusations that Bussi ordered and participated in firing squads. But a recent revelation that he maintained a Swiss bank account stirred them to anger where his dubious past did not.

Bussi did not list the account in financial disclosure statements, and human rights activists say it is filled with money plundered from victims he ordered detained and then shot.

Bussi has admitted that he omitted the information, but says "it was an unintentional error."

He claims his wealth was the product of 50 years of sacrifice augmented by an inheritance from his parents.

News of the account and Bussi's response to the revelation sparked more than a week of protests and heated debate in the provincial legislature. Opposition legislators asked him to resign, but he may be able to keep his job because his supporters are the majority in the legislature.

Alfredo Ignacio Astiz

Former naval captain proud of role in dirty war

If there is one dirty war figure who inspires even more passion than Bussi, it is former naval Capt. Alfredo Ignacio Astiz.

Many Argentines reserve a special hatred for Astiz, who, as a young member of a military death squad, was assigned to infiltrate the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, mothers of those detained and often killed by the military junta.

He fooled the mothers by joining their marches and claiming his brother had been abducted by death squads. Information gathered by Astiz led to the disappearance of Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers group.

After the dictatorship, Astiz was charged with kidnapping and murder, but he was freed under the amnesty laws.

He avoided publicity until recently, when he granted an interview to a local newsmagazine and unashamedly defended the dirty war and his role in it.

Astiz acknowledged participating in kidnappings and assassinations and boasted of being the best-trained man in Argentina to assassinate politicians or a journalist.

Perhaps the most enduring and potent symbol of the past dictatorship is the Naval School of Mechanics, where more than 5,000 people were held and tortured, then disappeared. Former soldiers say many of those who disappeared were drugged and thrown alive from military planes.

The Naval School of Mechanics
The Naval School of Mechanics  

Army chief acknowledges military's role

President Carlos Menem wants the Naval School of Mechanics demolished and the space turned into a national park. The proposed demolition angers the relatives of disappeared who accuse Menem of trying to erase the government's part in the shameful past.

Indeed, last week Menem vowed to defend 10 Argentine navy officers against Spain, which has taken out international arrest warrants against them for their part in the deaths of 300 Spaniards during the dirty war.

The prestige and power of Argentina's armed forces never recovered from the dirty war, and three years ago the head of the army, Gen. Martin Balza, acknowledged the military's culpability for crimes it committed.

Last month, he gave another speech lamenting the dirty war and the "macabre procedures that deprived families of the right to bury their dead."

The inability to bury their dead is clearly part of what moves the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to march each week. They are not universally admired in Argentina and some, Menem among them, criticize them. Others simply ignore them.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are ideological and unforgiving, but there is truth in their warning when they chant that there are "assassins walking the streets of Argentina."


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