First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then…their sympathizers. Then…those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid.
General Iberico Saint-Jean, governor of Buenos Aires (1977)

Here I can do with you whatever I want because I am the lord of life and death.
Colonel Roberto Roualdes, First Command, Army Corps

On October 23, 1975, at the Eleventh Conference of Latin American Armies in Montevideo, Uruguay, journalists asked Lieutenant General, Jorge Rafael Videla, commander in chief of the Argentine military forces, about the fight against subversion. "In order to guarantee the security of the state," General Videla replied, "all the necessary people will die." And when asked to define a subversive, he answered, "Anyone who opposes the Argentine way of life. "

Five months later, on March 24, 1976-for the sixth time since 1930-the military seized power in Argentina. Lieutenant General Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, and Brigadier General Orlando Ramon Agosti toppled the constitutional government of Maria Estela (Isabel) Martinez de Peron and proclaimed themselves the new rulers of the country, with General Videla as the new president. This was not just one more coup; the bloodiest and most shameful period in Argentine history was about to begin, during which Argentina became infamous for the atrocities of its government and its striking similarities with the Nazi regime. This period brought the word desaparecido (disappeared) into common parlance, forever associating it with the mere mention of Argentina. As a chilling preview of what was to come, Bernardo Alberte, a prominent Peronista leader, was visited in the early hours of the day of the coup by a joint army-federal police unit. As his terrorized family watched, he was thrown out of his sixth- floor apartment window. With this, the first of many acts of terror, the new government took hold.

General chaos and political instability under the government of Isabel Peron had prepared the ground for the takeover. Assassinations, inflation, and deep divisions within the political parties made the coup seem inevitable to large segments of society. A carefully orchestrated campaign by conservative segments of the media, the support of the Argentine landowners and industrialists, and pressure from international financial circles created an image of the generals as reasonable and honest men willing to shoulder the heavy burden of "saving" Argentina. The media presented General Videla and company as "doves" who would prevent the bloodshed that might take place if the other faction, the "hardliners"-like the followers of Augusto Pinochet in Chile-gained power.4 Prominent intellectuals such as writer Jorge Luis Borges commented, "Now we are governed by gentlemen. '

The highest levels of the military had approved the coup in September 1975, shortly after Isabel Peron named General Videla commander in chief of the army; it was to be staged within six months. As the details were planned, the military consulted on economic matters with a member of the landowning Argentine oligarchy-Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, future finance minister-and on cultural matters with Ricardo Pedro Bruera, future minister of education and culture. They would be among the few civilian members of the new regime.

Almost immediately after the coup the military replaced the constitution with the Statute for the Process of National Reorganization (popularly known as El Proceso) giving themselves the authority to exercise all judicial, legislative, and executive powers. Habeas corpus was undermined, censorship was extended to all spheres of life, and trade unions, political parties, and universities fell under the control of the military. The state of siege that had been imposed by Isabel Peron's government was extended indefinitely, and all constitutional guarantees were suspended; 80 percent of the judges were replaced. The military, presenting itself as the defender of "tradition, family. and property,'. considered any criticism of its rule as a sign of anti-Argentine, subversive behavior that it needed to crush in order to protect the nation. Again. General Videla put it clearly: "The repression is against a minority which we do not consider Argentine."

The "Right of Option," which had allowed prisoners at the disposal of the president to choose between jail and exile, was immediately abolished. A host of newly promulgated decrees and laws both increased the powers of the police and the military and introduced the death penalty for political crimes. Taking over all branches of government, the junta launched one of the Western Hemisphere's most brutal campaigns of repression. Four juntas ruled the country for almost eight years. Only after the debacle of the Malvinas/Falklands war was democracy restored with the election in 1983 of Raul Alfonsin.


After the military toppled the government of Juan Domingo Peron in 1955, Argentina's economic, social, and political problems continued to grow unabated. Peron and his enormously popular wife, Evita, had instituted extensive social reforms on behalf of the poor and ignited their hopes and their imagination, thus raising their self-esteem and expectations. After his fall, Peron was still very popular among workers who had benefited from his programs and who would not readily accept the rule of his opponents. Although military and civilian administrations succeeded each other, they were unable to stop the country's increasing unemployment, inflation, sociopolitical divisions, and institutional decay.

When General Juan Carlos Ongania took power in June 1966, the coup was heralded as a "new beginning." Presenting himself as a friend of the working class, Ongania launched the idea of a "Peronismo with- out Peron " to gain the support of workers. However, it quickly became clear that Ongania's goal was to manipulate the labor unions and quell their resistance. He installed a military regime and created an autocracy: changes in society would come from above. He banned all political parties and activities, intervened in the national universities, sent the military to repress workers' protests, and announced his intention to remain in power indefinitely.

In May 1969 the city of Cordoba erupted in what became known as El Cordobazo, one of the largest popular protests of that period. Led by university students and automobile workers, it presaged the down- fall of the Ongania regime. By 1970 two guerrilla groups appeared on the scene: the Montoneros, which identified with left-wing Peronismo, and the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), the armed branch of the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT). The Montoneros kidnapped and subsequently executed former president Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, one of the leaders of the coup against Peron in 1955.10 At the same time, clandestine right-wing organizations emerged; they kidnapped students and union militants, who vanished without a trace. In early 1971, one such "disappearance" was occurring every eighteen days.

In 1970, after four years in power, Ongania was overthrown. His successor, General Roberto M. Livingston, lasted only nine months before being replaced by yet another general, Alejandro Lanusse. Lanusse promised elections and tried to isolate the extremists, allowing the labor unions to assume leadership on wage issues. His most important conciliatory gesture-lifting the eighteen-year ban on Peronismo-eventually led to the return of Peron to Argentina in 1973. Per6n's homecoming was marked by violence: at the Ezeiza International Airport where his plane was to land, right-wing forces attacked the left-wing factions of the Peronista movement, leaving scores of people wounded or dead. Dissociating himself from the left-wing groups within Peronismo, Peron created alliances with the most reactionary groups and in October 1973 he began his third term as president. Seventy-eight years old and in ill health, he died before his first year in office ended; he was succeeded by his wife, Isabel Peron, who had been his running mate.

During Isabel Peron's government, right-wing death squads launched a campaign of terror against workers, students, and anyone vaguely suspected of leftist tendencies. Declaring a state of siege in November 1974, she gave carte blanche to the military, thus authorizing a bloody campaign to squelch guerrilla activities in province. Organized by Jose Lopez Rega, who was Isabel Peron's right- hand man and minister of social welfare, the sinister Argentine Anti- communist Alliance (or Triple A, as it was commonly called) murdered some seventy of its opponents in the latter half of 1974; byearly 1975 the alliance was eliminating leftists at the rate of fifty per week.12 Among those assassinated were prominent figures like exiled General Carlos Prats, commander in chief of the Chilean army during Salvador Allende's presidency, and his wife, who were killed by a car bomb; lawyer and academician Silvio Frondizi, brother of former president Arturo Frondizi, was kidnapped in midday in the center of Buenos Aires and gunned down in the outskirts of the capital.

When the first junta came to power in 1976, the guerrilla groups in Argentina had been all but wiped out. General Videl himself had declared in January 1976 that the guerrilla groups were no longer a danger. The total insurgent forces probably did not amount to more than 2,000 people, of whom perhaps only 20 percent were armed, while the modern and powerful armed forces numbered about 200,000. The threat of left-wing terrorism was an excuse to take complete control and impose the junta's own brand of state terrorism. The military leaders intended to modify, by any means necessary, the social, political, economic, and cultural structure of the country and to establish themselves as the final unchallenged authority.


The Doctrine of National Security, the political cornerstone of the regime, was not a new idea. Under the right-wing rule of General Ongania, the army was already teaching its soldiers that the real threat to Argentina came from within, from "subversives" who sought to destroy the traditional values of Argentine society. Who were these subversives? Anyone who did not adhere to the Christian and military virtues that were supposed to save the world from communism.

Like many other military men in Argentina, Ongania was heavily influenced by U.S. counterinsurgency courses, which had helped spread this doctrine throughout Latin America; indeed, he called it the "West Point Doctrine" in honor of the institution that had given birth to its central tenets. Under the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, in 1951 the U .S. Defense Department set up its Military Assistance Program to arm and train Latin American armies. The Latin American officers were trained at centers in the United States such as the Inter-American Defense College at Washington's Fort McNair. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara praised the programs: "These students are hand-picked by their countries to become instructors when they return home. They are the coming leaders, the men who will have the know-how and impart it to their forces." In 1969, after a tour of Latin America on President Nixon's behalf, Nelson Rockefeller announced that the military was "the essential force of constructive social change."

In Argentina, French officers who had participated in Vietnam and Algeria were instrumental in training the army. General Ramon Juan Camps, the chief of police of the Buenos Aires province from 1976 to 1979, admired the French approach toward repression; he considered it more effective and complete than the American approach, which relied almost exclusively on sheer force and a militaristic perspective. He prided himself on synthesizing both perspectives and, in the process, creating Argentina's unique brand of repression.

The Doctrine of National Security was a loose set of concepts, some contradictory and poorly delineated; its cohesive power rested in its definition of "the enemy" as communism. A remnant of the cold war, it was designed to protect the economic hegemony of the United States in Latin America. The fear of "another Cuba" drove the United States to fund and train the Latin American armies to obliterate the "menace" of Marx- ism.18 The doctrine held that a "third world war" was being waged between the "free world" and communism, a war in which Argentina was a key battleground. As General Luciano Benjamin Menendez, commander of the Third Army Corps in Cordoba, explained: "On one side were the subversives that wanted to destroy the national state to convert it into a communist state, a satellite in the red orbit, and on the other side, us, the legal forces, which by [the authority of] two decrees of the then-constitutional powers participated in that struggle."

On this account, the internal enemy was more dangerous than enemies from abroad because it threatened the fundamental Western and Christian values of Argentine society. National boundaries became subordinated to "ideological frontiers": the armed forces were to protect the country's ideological purity, not just its geographical borders. The state began to intervene in other countries' internal affairs and joined the Southern Cone's military regimes in fighting "subversion." At the same time, the repressive model was exported to other countries-particularly to Central America, where the Argentine military took an active role in training government forces in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

To coordinate military activities among neighboring countries, General Roberto Viola, a member of the second junta and Argentina 's president, proposed the doctrine of Continental Security (Seguridad Continental), which created a veritable underground network for the repression. It was open season on political refugees from Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Brazil. Foreigners were told by the authorities that they would be expelled if their presence in any way "affected national security." Recognizing the danger, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a worldwide appeal to help resettle the refugees in other countries.

In the view of the military, communism's global strategy required that the state respond with a global approach. It followed that the militarization of Argentine society was needed to fight the Marxist "menace. " That is how the junta justified launching an undeclared war-a "dirty war," as they called it-against its own people. The inevitability of a third world war was carefully drilled into the minds of the men who ran the day-to- day operations needed to keep the repressive regime in power. Writing of his experiences in the clandestine detention camp where he was held prisoner, Jacobo Timerman, editor of La Opinion, recalls weekly courses given by the army on such a war. Timerman reports that "attendance was obligatory for the entire staff of torturers, interrogators, and kidnap- pers."Z3 The message conveyed by this "academy" was simple: Communism needed to be stopped, and Nazi tactics and methods were the only effective tools for fighting subversion. After the classes, Timerman's guards would discuss their lessons with him while he took the opportunity to correct them about their misconceptions regarding Zionism.

Trade union workers were among the main targets of the repression. Argentina's labor movement was the backbone of the Peronista Party, and the workers' demands for social reform and economic justice were seen as part of a "communist plot." Economic policies that disenfranchised the workers were imposed by Finance Minister Martinez de Hoz, who was also president of the board of directors of Acindar (one of Argentina's three steel companies, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel), member of the board of directors of Pan American Airways and ITT, and a personal friend of David Rockefeller.z4 His actions obliged those business interests: freezing workers' salaries while increasing military wages, annulling progressive labor laws, and strongly favoring foreign investors at the expense of local industry. "Deindustrialization" was the result, as enormous credits by foreign banks propped up the econ- omy. Martinez de Hoz made strikes punishable by a ten-year prison term and borrowed over one billion dollars in less than one year. Enchanted with his policies, the International Monetary Fund labeled him the "Wizard of Hoz," while President Ronald Reagan proclaimed him "the architect of what may turn out to be one of the most remark- able economic recoveries in modern history."

In the short run money flowed, and Argentines who could afford it traveled around the world, their pockets full of plata dulce (sweet money), but rampant inflation and unemployment soon drove down incomes. As journalist lain Guest aptly described the result of Martinez de Hoz's right-wing economic policies, "Down came the barriers, up went the peso and in came the loans."


The military put in practice a new methodology of repression to enforce the Doctrine of National Security: the kidnapping, torture, and murder of tens of thousands of people. The junta did not invent this particular brand of terror. In 1941 Hitler himself had crafted the Nacht und Nebel Erlass (Night and Fog Decree), aimed at persons "endangering German security": because their public execution might create martyrs, the decree was designed to "make them vanish without a trace into the night and fog of the unknown in Germany." In Latin America disappearances first emerged on a massive scale after 1966 in Guatemala, where paramilitary groups and death squads provided cover for military and police activities against peasants, rural workers, and political organizers.

In Argentina, former policeman Rodolfo Peregrino Fernoindez has testified that shortly after the 1976 coup, at a meeting of the commanders of the army, a detailed discussion of the doctrine took place. Physical elimination of "unpatriotic subversion" and an all-out "defense of tradition, family, and property" were high on the agenda. They believed that by spreading general terror in the population, the Doctrine of National Security would make it impossible for the guerrilla groups to gain support. Rooted in such politics, the disappearances started to be carried out systematically.

Though there had been disappearances before the coup, the number began to increase dramatically in March 1976. For two murdered bodies found, there were nine disappearances. Nobody was immune. Male and female; young and old, babies and teenagers; pregnant women, students, workers, lawyers, journalists, scientists, artists, and teachers; Argentine citizens and citizens of other countries; nuns and priests, progressive members of religious orders-all swelled the ranks of the disappeared. The term detenidos-desaparecidos (detained-disappeared) more accurately describes the methodology of repression than does desaparecidos. People did not simply vanish into thin air, or leave the country without alerting their relatives, as the authorities implied. Nor were they kidnapped by fringe groups lacking any direct connection to the government. Use of the former term would directly incriminate the state, ascribing responsibility for the disappearances and reflecting what was really happening: people being detained by armed groups acting on orders from the authorities and disappearing into the night and fog of the regime.

The government had learned well the lessons that Hitler had taught. In the absence of physical evidence, it was difficult to organize protests against the regime. The vanishing created terror within the population, but without bodies no one could be blamed. Families were afraid to denounce the abductions, thinking that such actions could endanger the victim and eliminate any chances of their relatives being returned. The silence increased the atmosphere of terror and hopelessness, thereby placing an especially cruel burden on the families of the disappeared. Even worse, they were made to feel in some sense responsible. As Dr. Vicente Angel Galli, director of mental health of the Argentine government, has explained: "To presume the death of people you have not seen dead, without knowing the conditions of their death, implies that one has to kill them oneself. I believe that is one of the more subtle and complex mechanisms of torture for the relatives and for all the members of the community. ...To accept their deaths we have to kill them ourselves."

The military proclaimed its innocence, stating that it had no knowledge of these events. Emilio Mignone, a founder of the Center of Legal and Social Studies, who met with many members of the military as he sought to learn the fate of his daughter, heard repeatedly: "We are not going to shoot them, like Franco and Pinochet did, because then even the pope is going to ask us to stop it. " It was a diabolical plan, and it succeeded for almost eight years in creating a reign of terror unparalleled in Argentine history.

Judicial acquiescence was necessary for the repression to fully take hold. Though not officially suspended, the writ of habeas corpus was rendered ineffective by the complicity of most judges. In Argentina, when a person is detained, a writ of habeas corpus to obtain information about the person's whereabouts may be presented to a judge. The judge is then supposed to make inquiries of the authorities. Refusing to challenge the silence of the military and security forces, the judges rejected almost all the habeas corpus requests presented to them. Mignone estimated that as many as 80,000 writs had been sought, because some families made multiple vain attempts to gain information about their relatives. Division General Tomas Sanchez de Bustamante candidly commented, "In this type of struggle, the secret that must be part of the operations makes it impossible to make it known who has been taken prisoner and who still remains to be captured: There must be a cloud of silence that surrounds everything." Lawyers who presented writs of habeas corpus on behalf of the victims' relatives were themselves at high risk of disappearing. No fewer than 109 lawyers disappeared-90 percent of them between March and December 1976. Twenty-three were assassinated for political reasons, over one hundred ended up in prison, and a countless number went into exile to save their lives.

The repression was the result of a systematic, deliberate plan, centrally organized and directed from above. It was not haphazard and random violence, or simple "excesses" of a war, as the junta pro- claimed. A methodology of terror had been developed and it was faith- fully followed. The violations of human rights, even in distant parts of the country, followed a set pattern: the same forms of torture, similar kidnappings, even the same grills used to chain the prisoners. In the words of General Santiago Omar Riveros, head of the Argentine delegation to the Inter-American Defense Junta: "We waged this war with the doctrine in our hands, with the written order of each high command; we never needed to have, as we have been accused, paramilitary organizations. ...This war was conducted by the generals, the admirals, and the brigadiers. ...The war was conducted by the military junta of my country through its high commanders."

The fundamental instrument of the repression was the Task Forces constituted by the different branches of the military and the security forces. Task Forces I and 2 were staffed by the army, Task Force 3 by the navy, Task Force 4 by the air force, and Task Force 5 by the State Intelligence Service (SIDE). Members of the Task Forces were used at different times in different combinations for a variety of special missions. " Often, the participants did not know one another when they met in predeter- mined places to receive instructions for a specific mission of terror. Once the task was accomplished, the individuals returned to their original groups. A blood pact" kept the members of the Task Forces bound and loyal to each other. They all engaged in the different parts of the repressive operation-kidnapping, interrogation, torture, and murder- rotating the various activities to ensure silence and complicity.

Most of the kidnappings took place at night or at dawn-primarily in private homes, though sometimes in the streets or at workplaces- usually toward the end of the week. The timing helped delay whatever action relatives might wish to initiate. Heavily armed men dressed in civilian clothes would appear and threaten the victims and their families, and frequently their neighbors. By prior arrangement, the police would make the area near the home safe for the kidnappers. Often it would be sealed," with several cars blocking access. The number of men involved varied, from six to fifty. Private cars without license plates (often blue-green Falcons), or trucks or vans from the military, would take the blindfolded and handcuffed victims to a secret detention center. Sometimes, before the gang arrived, the electricity would be cut off in the neighborhood where the raid was taking place. Occasionally, a helicopter would circle over the area. The gangs involved in the operations usually looted the homes of their victims.

The kidnappers would throw their prey on the floor of a car or into the trunk and take them to one of the 340 secret detention centers located throughout the country. These centers were small houses, cellars in large buildings, auto repair plants, or military bases adapted for the purpose and complete with double barbed-wire fencing, guards with dogs, helicopter strips, and lookout towers. Financed by the state, they were the foundation of the military's operation. On arrival at a center, each prisoner was carefully identified and registered. The guards filled out forms in quadruplicate and sent copies to the Ministry of the Interior and the Security Services. The forms also recorded which guards were responsible for each prisoner. At these centers, the repressors applied mental and physical torture and deliberately attempted to strip the victims of their identity and their history, to break down their humanity, and to annihilate their sense of themselves as human beings. Prisoners were given a letter and assigned a number in sequence (e.g., MI, M2) and would be brutally punished if they used their names. This system fulfilled two purposes: it heightened their sense of alienation and loss of identity and it kept them from knowing the identity of the other prisoners.

By making every effort to lead the prisoners to feel that their disappearances had wiped them from the world of the living, the repressors left them without hope. A survivor of one of the camps testified:

The normal attitude of the torturers and guards toward us was to consider us less than slaves. We were objects. And useless, troublesome objects at that. They would say: "You're dirt." "Since we 'disappeared' you, you're nothing. Anyway, nobody remembers you." "You don't exist." "If anyone were looking for you (which they aren't), do you imagine they'd look for you here?" "We are everything for you." "We are justice." "We are God."

Other odious techniques aimed at bringing about the psychic collapse of the victim involved inducing the prisoners to collaborate with their repressors. Once in the camps, the "subversives" who cooperated were offered improved living conditions, the possibility of contacting their families, and, in some cases, the promise of eventual release. Turning a person into an informant was another way of destroying him or her. The repressors chose as targets mostly prisoners who had a certain level of responsibility in their political organizations-much as the Nazis did in their concentration camps. In a few cases, prisoners were even allowed to leave the camps and visit their families. The guards made clear to them that any attempt to escape would cause the death of their family members and other prisoners. Some, after being released from the camps, were forced to engage in slave labor. However, collaboration did not necessarily guarantee their survival.

Physical and mental tortures were designed to humiliate and degrade the victims. Testimonies of survivors of the torture sessions provide detailed information on the methods used. Two prisoners who spent fifteen months in the camps and were able to escape described their experiences vividly:

As regards physical torture, we were all treated alike, the only differences being in intensity and duration. Naked, we were bound hand and foot with thick chains or straps to a metal table. Then an earthing cable was attached to one of our toes and the torture began.

For the first hour they would apply the picana (cattle prod) to us, without asking any questions. The purpose of this was, as they put it, "to soften you up, and so that we'll understand one another." They went on like this for hours. They applied it to the head, armpits, sexual organs, anus, groin, mouth, and all the sensitive parts of the body. From time to time they threw water over us or washed us, "to cool your body down so that you'll be sensitive again."

Between sessions of the picana, they would use the submarino (holding our heads under water), hang us up by our feet, hit us on the sexual organs, beat us with chains, put salt on our wounds, and use any other method that occurred to them. They would also apply 220-volt direct current to us, and we know that sometimes-as in the case of Irma Necich-they used what they called the piripipi, a type of noise torture.

There was no limit to the torture. It could last for one, two, five, or ten days. Everything was done under the supervision of a doctor, who checked our blood pressure and reflexes: "We're not going to let you die before time. We've got all the time in the world, and this will go on indefinitely." That is exactly how it was because, when we were on the verge of death, they would stop and let us be revived. The doctor injected serum and vitamins, and when we had more or less recovered they began to torture us again.

Many of the prisoners could not endure this terrible treatment and fell into a coma. When this happened. they either left them to die or else "took them off to the military hospital." We never heard of any of these prisoners again.

Entire families, too, became targets of the repression. The gangs kidnapped whole families, including small children, youngsters, and adults, and often used relatives as hostages for people who were being sought. The relatives of "subversives" were punished because of their blood ties. Their torture was one way to force the prisoners "to talk." Jacobo Timerman, who was kidnapped in April 1977 and held prisoner for thirty months, comments on the torture of families:

Of all the dramatic situations I witnessed in clandestine prisons, nothing can compare to those family groups who were tortured, often together, sometimes separately but in view of one another, or in different cells, while one was aware of the other being tortured. The entire affective world, constructed over the years with utmost difficulty. collapses with a kick in the father's genitals, a smack on the mother's face. an obscene insult to the sister. or the sexual violation of a daughter. Suddenly an entire culture based on familial love, devotion, the capacity for mutual sacrifice collapses. Nothing is possible in such a universe, and that is precisely what the torturers know.

Defying the imagination in its horror were the systematic practices of torture of children in front of their parents. A prisoner at one of the camps reported that one torturer wanted to know: "how much should a child weigh before we can torture him? Vidal {the Doctor) responded 'after 25 kilos you can run electrical charges through their bodies.' "Children were also often made to witness the torture sessions of their parents. Some could not stand the horrors they had to endure. Five-year- old Josefina Sanchez de Vargas was forced to watch the torture of her father so that he would talk. When she was returned to her grandparents' home, she took a gun from her grandfather's drawer and shot herself.

"Transfer" was a euphemism for killing. The physical extermination of the prisoners took a variety of forms. Some prisoners died after their torture sessions or were shot; some committed suicide. Others were drugged, carried into airplanes, and thrown into the sea.51 Bodies started to show up along the shore of the Rio de la Plata. Unmarked NN {Nacht und Nebel) graves proliferated in cemeteries. When some of these mass graves were opened after the fall of the dictatorship, another obscene aspect of the torturers' madness was revealed: they contained only pieces of bodies, decapitated and dismembered before burial. They were fragmented, atomized, and spread throughout different parts of the cemetery to ensure not only the disappearance of a per- son but, after death, the disappearance of his or her corpse.
As one witness recalls:

On the day of the transfer the atmosphere was very tense. We didn't know whether it would be our turn that day or not. ...[T]hey began calling prisoners by number. ...They were taken to the first-aid room in the basement, where a nurse was waiting to give them an injection to send them to sleep, but not kill them. They were taken out by the side door of the basement like that. alive, and put in a lorry. They were driven to Buenos Aires Municipal Air- port half-asleep. put into a plane which flew southward out to sea, and thrown in alive.

The mass executions by firing squads also created a problem: bodies requiring disposal. Another witness recounts that the bodies would be put inside pits, sprinkled with gasoline, and burned to ashes.. For some prisoners the guards invented "reasons" for their murder, including "armed confrontations" and "escape at tempts. ".

The methodology of repression did not spare women. Women were kidnapped alone or with friends or family members, held prisoner and tortured in the secret detention centers, and eventually murdered. Some forms of torture, such as hanging naked while the guards' dogs were incited to attack, seems to have been used primarily against women; Added to the already intolerable conditions facing all prisoners, women prisoners suffered an extra dimension of sexual violence and rape. Their sexual integrity and physical and mental dignity were directly attacked. The repressors aimed the torture toward the most vulnerable and intimate parts of the female body, the sources of life itself: "With women, they would insert the wire in the vagina and then apply it to the breasts, which caused great pain. Many of them would menstruate in mid-torture."

Martha Garcia Candeloro recalls that after she was kidnapped, she was told: "Oh, so, you are a psychologist? A whore, like all shrinks. Here you'll learn what is good for you." And they started to torture her in front of her husband, so that he would talk. Brutalizing a child in front of his or her mother and torturing a man in front of his wife were favorite ways of trying to make the women talk. Women prisoners were also used as sexual slaves. At the El Vesubio, one of the clandestine detention centers, the chief of the camp used the women-even those who were pregnant-for his sexual gratification. That did not stop him from eventually ordering them killed. On the weekends, when Major Pedro Duran Saenz left the camp, this "family man " would go home to his wife and five children.

A variety of forms of rape and the constant threat of its occurrence served to humiliate women and to shatter their dignity and sense of self- respect. Children and teenagers as well as adults were raped. Twelve- year-old Zulema Chester, who was tortured and raped in her home when her father was kidnapped, describes her ordeal:

They stood me up and leaning against the wall they raped me, I do not know with what, because I was blindfolded and they told me I could go and look for my father in the ditch. .After stealing everything they could, they went away.

On September 16,1976, the repressors kidnapped a group of teenagers from their homes in the city of La Plata, in a tragic episode that became known as the Night of the Pencils (both because the students were taken at night and perhaps because the name evoked the Night of the Long Knives under the Third Reich). The young people were high school student leaders who had been actively campaigning to have student transportation fares reduced. The authorities saw them as "subversives "in the classroom." Among those kidnapped was sixteen- year-old Maria Claudia Falcone, who remains disappeared. Only three students were eventually set free; Pablo Alejandro Diaz was one of them. The night before his liberation he saw Maria Claudia briefly and he reported the following dialogue:

Maria Claudia: Thank you for the strength that you give me, Pablo.
Pablo: No, No. You will get out. ...You will get out soon. When we are out we will see each other.
Maria Claudia: I cannot give you anything, nothing. They raped me from behind, in front.


The treatment and torture of pregnant women reveals an almost unimaginable level of hatred and cruelty. After the repression was over, a former official of one of the Task Forces, who had been in charge of the largest concentration camp in Buenos Aires, the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), recalled that "One of the lovely systems Mengele [the nickname given to the camp doctor] invented to torture pregnant women was with a spoon. They put a spoon or a metallic instrument in the vagina until it touched the fetus. Then they give it 220. They shock the fetus. "

Often such torture of pregnant women resulted in miscarriages. Isabel Gamba de Negrotti, a twenty-seven-year-old nursery school teacher, was pregnant when she was abducted:

They took me to another room where they kicked me and punched me in the head. Then they undressed me and beat me on the legs. buttocks and shoulders with something made of rubber. This lasted a long time; I fell down several times and they made me get up and stand by supporting myself on a table. They carried on beating me. While all this was going on they talked to me, insulted me and asked me about people I didn't know and things I didn't understand. I pleaded with them to leave me alone, or else I would lose my baby.1 hadn't the strength to speak, the pain was so bad.

They started to give me electric shocks on my breasts. the side of my body and under my arms. They kept questioning me. They gave me electric shocks in the vagina and put a pillow over my mouth to stop me screaming. Someone they called the "colonel'. came and said they were going to increase the voltage until I talked. They kept throwing water over my body and applying electric shocks all over.

Two days later she miscarried.

Monica Brull de Guillen, a blind pregnant woman who was active in the Socioeconomic Union of Disabled People, was kidnapped off the street and taken to El Olimpo, a secret detention center:

Then, "Julian" said that he would take me to the "machine" and two thugs appeared who took me to a room and began to beat me as I refused to get undressed. One tore off my blouse and threw me on to a metal table where they tied my hands and feet. I told them that I was two months pregnant, and "Julian the Turk" replied. "If so-and-so can endure the machine being six months pregnant, you can stand it, and be raped too." Then the torturers became more and more incensed with me, for two reasons: because I belonged to a Jewish family. and because I did not cry. which exasperated them.

She also miscarried after being released. Ana Maria Careaga was sixteen years old when she was kidnapped in midday off the streets of Buenos Aires. She was two months pregnant and was one of the few women released who did not miscarry. Her story is particularly gripping because of her youth, because of the amount of torture she endured, and because of the fate of her mother, who had been actively searching for her:

Everything happened very quickly. Two men forced me into a car. I managed to scream; passersby were in shock. At first, I did not tell them that I was pregnant. Only afterward, when it started to show. Once they knew that I was pregnant they tortured me in all sorts of ways. We could not speak or move; we were blindfolded and grilled. They would not take us to the bath- room when we needed, and, if we urinated in the cell, they would torture us. Torture was permanent. They used the electric prod for many hours. They inserted it and threw kerosene and gas in my vagina, in my eyes, in my ears. They hung me down a trestle with my wrists tied to my ankles, head down, and rocked me. I still have the marks on my arm, because of the abscess that resulted from it.

They had a physician that would take my blood pressure and kept an eye on me. They would say, "We are not going to let you die:' They knew that that was what one wanted, to die. During the torture sessions, they gave me pills for the heart. While I was tied to a metal table with my arms backward and my legs open.
In the camps, we were totally isolated in very small cells. It is terrible to be pregnant in a camp, but it also was a privilege. Because I was not alone, I learned to speak with the baby, I put my hands over her, I caressed her all the time. The moment that she moved for the first time was very important because somehow I felt that together we had triumphed over the horror. I was tied to the torture table and I started to cry from joy. What better company can one have than a life growing inside oneself? When I got out of the camp I wrote a poem to her saying: "My blood was your life. Your blood was my strength:' She survived because my blood nurtured her and, in turn, she nurtured me in a different way.

After I was released I went to Europe. The Europeans could not understand why I had not immediately told to my kidnappers that I was pregnant. They thought it might have helped me.1 had to explain to them that in the Argentine camps, they would have used that information to make things worse for me. The Swedish government offered asylum to my parents. My mother refused it. After 1 was released my mother decided to keep working with the mothers of other disappeared young people. She wanted to continue until "until every- body's children reappeared:' My mother was kidnapped in December 1977, while I was in Sweden. When I called to tell her of the birth of my child, I learned the bad news. She never knew that I had delivered safely.

Most of the time pregnant women were not "transferred. " Those who did not miscarry under torture gave birth in captivity and were killed afterward. At least three clandestine centers-the ESMA, Campo de Mayo, and Pozo de Beinfield-are known to have had "facilities" for pregnant women. In some cases, physicians and nurses attended to them. The doctors often performed cesarean sections to speed up the births, violating the most basic principles of the Hippocratic oath. In the throes of labor, pregnant women were held down, tied to the beds by their hands and feet, and given a serum to accelerate the birth.

Two survivors from the ESMA described how the pregnant women were misled into thinking that their children would be given to their families:

On our arrival at the Navy Mechanics School we saw many women laid out on the floor on cushions awaiting the birth of their children. ...Once the child was born the mother was .'invited" to write a letter to her relatives where the child was allegedly going to be taken. The then director of the School, navy Captain Ruben Jacinto Chamorro, personally accompanied visitors, generally senior navy officers, to the place where the pregnant women were being held, boasting that conditions established in the prison were as good as those in the Sarda (the best-known maternity hospital in Buenos Aires). [F]rom the comments made we learnt that in the Navy Hospital there was a list of married couples in the navy who could not have children of their own, and who were prepared to adopt one of the children of people who had disappeared. The man who drew up the list was a gynecologist attached to the Navy Mechanics School.

Medical personnel at the Campo de Mayo Military Hospital later revealed that there were prisoners whose admission to the hospital had not been officially registered; that the prisoners were women in an advanced state of pregnancy who were kept blindfolded or with their eyes covered with black sunglasses; that they were heavily guarded; that, in most cases, they were subjected to cesarean sections; and that after the operation the mothers were separated from their babies. The destiny of the children was unknown. At least one military physician-Dr. Norberto Atilio Bianco, who worked in that hospital-is known to have kept two of the children born from women prisoners and registered them as his own. After many years as a fugitive living in Paraguay he was finally extradited to Argentina in early 1997.

Sometimes pregnant women were taken to regular, civilian hospitals where, heavily guarded by the police, they were not allowed to communicate with the hospital staff. The names of the women would be listed in the birth registry simply as NN. Silvia Isabella Valenzi, seven and a half months pregnant, was taken to a municipal hospital. She managed to cry out her name and that of her relatives, hoping that somebody would alert them to her plight. But the military was not taking any chances: a midwife and a nurse who informed the family of the plight of the young woman were both kidnapped and disappeared shortly afterward. They were reportedly last seen at one of the secret detention centers. The secret of the fate of the pregnant women and their children had to be kept at all costs.

Adriana Calvo de Laborde was one of the few exceptions, a pregnant woman who gave birth in captivity and survived. She was kid- napped when she was six and half months pregnant:

On April 15 I began to go into labor. After three or four hours of being on the floor with contractions that were coming faster and faster, and thanks to the shouts of the other women, I was taken away in an army patrol car with two men in front and one woman behind (the woman was called "Lucrecia" and she used to take part in the torture sessions).

We drove in the direction of Buenos Aires, but my child wouldn't wait and at the crossroads of Alpargatas, opposite the Abbott Laboratory, the woman shrieked that they should stop the car on the verge and there Teresa was born. Thanks to the forces of nature, the birth was normal. The only assistance I received was when "Lucrecia" tied the umbilical cord, which was still linking me with the child as there was nothing to cut it with. No more than five minutes later we drove on, supposedly in the direction of the hospital. I was blindfolded and my child was on the seat. After many twists and turns we arrived at what I later learnt was the building of the Detective Squad of Bcinfield (the Pozo de Bcinfield). There I saw the same doctor that assisted Ines Ortega de Fossatti. He cut the umbilical cord in the car and took me up two or three floors to a place where they removed the pla- centa. He made me undress in front of an officer on duty. I had to wash the bed, the floor and my dress, and clear away the placenta. Then, finally, they left me to wash my baby. while they continued their insults and threats.

Her torturers dropped her, ten days after giving birth, near her parents' home in the middle of the night. In a nightgown and slippers, with both herself and her baby covered with fleas, laborde was a "lucky" woman, one who survived and kept her child.

Far more common is the case of Graciela Alicia Romero de Metz, described by Alicia Partnoy in The Little School. Graciela, age twenty- four, was kidnapped when she was five months pregnant and forced to remain

prone, blindfolded and handcuffed like the rest. In the last month of her pregnancy. she was permitted .'exercise"-blindfolded walks around a table. holding on to the edge. A few days before giving birth they took her to a trailer on the patio. On April 17 she had a son-normally. but without medical assistance. I persistently asked the guards to let me help her or keep her company. but they didn't allow me. She was helped by the guards. On April 23 she was removed from the Little School and I never heard of her again. She is on Amnesty International's list of disappeared people. Her son, according to the guards, was given to one of the interrogators!


In a country like Argentina that is 90 percent Catholic, the church has enormous power to influence politics and all aspects of life. Moreover, since the military regime presented itself as a defender of Christian values, criticisms from religious leaders would have created serious problems for the junta. Regrettably, the Catholic hierarchy became an accomplice to the junta.

The night before the March 26 coup, two of the commanders in chief, General Videla and Admiral Massera, met with the leadership of the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), the main body of the Argentine Catholic Church. The day of the coup, the junta had a long meeting with Archbishop Adolfo Servando Tortolo, president of the CEA and head of the military vicariate who, as he left the meeting, encouraged the population to "cooperate in a positive way" with the new government. Out of the more than eighty priests who belonged to the CEA, only four stood up and supported the human rights organizations: The Executive Commission of the CEA characterized them as "communist and subversive."

The declarations and comments of some members of the church hierarchy regarding the government bordered on the surreal. After the coup Bishop Victorio Bonamin, provicar for the army, asserted "that when a military man is carrying out his repressive duty, 'Christ has entered with truth and goodness,' " and he foresaw a time when "The members of the military junta will be glorified by generations to come." Father Felipe Perlanda Lopez, chaplain of the prison system, told one prisoner who complained about the tortures he had endured: "Son, what do you expect, if you are not willing to cooperate with the authorities who are interrogating you?" During a trip to Italy in 1982, one of the leading members of the CEA, Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu, archbishop of Buenos Aires, responded to a question about the disappearances by saying, "I don't understand how this question of guerrillas and terrorism has come up again; it's been over for a long time." Furthermore, in line with the views of the CEA, Argentine Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, who held a very influential post in the Roman curia, never had the time to meet with representatives of the human rights organizations during his frequent visits to the country, although he did meet with Videla and other members of the junta. Similarly, when John Paul II came to Argentina in 1982, human rights organizations were unable to meet with him.

Two of the strongest supporters of the regime were Monsignor Antonio Jose Plaza, the powerful archbishop of La Plata, and Father Christian von Wernich. Monsignor Plaza identified with the dictatorship at every possible occasion, brought accusations against students (including his own nephew), and accepted the post of chief chaplain of police in the province of Buenos Aires. While receiving as police chaplain a second salary and a second automobile, he visited the secret detention centers where prisoners were tortured and murdered. Father von Wernich, who was well known for his cooperation with the repression, was "something of a paradigm of a fascist priest." He was chaplain to the police in the province of Buenos Aires and a personal friend of General Camps. Testimonies from camp survivors and from a former police agent in the province of Buenos Aires described von Wernich's involvement in several kidnappings and in torture sessions.

A controversial figure within the church hierarchy was Archbishop Pio Laghi, Argentina's papal nuncio. In 1976 Pio Laghi received an invitation from the governor of Tucuman, General Antonio Domingo Bussi, whose repressive activities were notorious; he visited the province's zone of operations and gave the papal blessing to the troops. He saw the church as being part of the "process of national reorganization," cooperating with the armed forces "not only with words but with actions." When his name appeared on a 1984 list of 1,351 persons involved in repressive activities, a heated debate ensued. Although a camp survivor claimed that he had met the archbishop on a helicopter pad when he was illegally imprisoned by the army, his testimony could not be confirmed. Prominent members of the new democratic government from President Alfonsin to Interior Minister Antonio Troccoli, progressive members of the church, and well-known intellectuals defended the archbishop.

While the church hierarchy justified and spoke approvingly of the junta's actions, the junta persecuted those members of the church who identified with the progressive ideas of Vatican II and the 1968 Medellin conference-those who envisioned the church as a community of equals. Priests, nuns, and seminary students cast their lot with the oppressed: working in the slums, creating peasant organizations and agricultural cooperatives, holding literacy classes, and challenging the traditional alliance between the Argentine oligarchy and the church. They brought hope and a sense of empowerment to the poorest of the poor. Consequently, the junta treated them as subversives. While imprisoned at the ESMA, one of them was told by the officer interrogating him: "You aren't a guerrilla, you're not involved in violence, but you don't realize that when you go to live there [a shantytown] you are bringing people together, you are uniting the poor, and uniting the poor is subversion."

Many of these clergy paid with their lives for their commitment to social justice. Between 1974 and 1983, nineteen ordained Catholic priests {including two bishops) were murdered or disappeared, and about one hundred members of religious orders suffered torture, went into exile, or were detained. The most prominent was Enrique Angel Angelelli, bishop of La Rioja, a northern province where racism and economic exploitation, with the church's blessing, kept the indigenous population practically enslaved. Angelelli allied himself uncompromisingly with the poor, challenging the wealthy landowners and the local government. A charismatic and inspirational figure, he was killed in August 1976 in a "car accident." In 1986, as the investigation of the case finally moved ahead, the appointed judge formally declared that his death "was not due to a traffic accident, but rather to a coldly premeditated homicide, which the victim was expecting": the label of the file was changed from "accident" to "undeniable murder. "


In Argentina, anti-Semitism runs deep in the fabric of national consciousness. From the colonial times, when Conversos and Jews were a favorite target of the Inquisition, to the 1919 pogrom of the Semana Trdgica {Tragic Week), Jews have been seen by the dominant culture as "unassimilable aliens," as foreigners whose loyalty to society was always questioned.83 The extreme right in Argentina is notoriously anti-Semitic and has consistently fostered the image of a "hebraic and communistic infiltration " of the country.84 Xenophobia, racism, and rabid attacks from members of the Catholic Church have helped keep this image alive.

At the beginning of World War II, the Argentine Nazi Party had 60,000 members. Only in 1944, and at the last moment, did Argentina reluctantly declare war against Germany. Argentina soon became a well-known haven for Nazi criminals, who fitted easily into the large and prosperous German community. Joseph Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, and many others found refuge in Argentina.

During the Ongania regime the Jewish community had been assailed mainly by a notorious anti-Semite, Enrique Horacio Green, chief of police and brother-in-law of the president.86 Under the Per6ns' presidencies and the junta, the anti-Jewish campaign continued to grow unopposed. Attacks on the predominantly Jewish quarter in Buenos Aires and bombs in synagogues, cultural centers, schools, and banks became commonplace. In June 1976 the body of a physician, Dr. Salvador Ackerman, was found gunned down on the street, as vengeance for his alleged role in the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann. Thoughout this time anti-Semitic literature circulated freely, appearing in virtually all newsstands and bookstores. One publisher, Editorial Milicia, proudly announced that it had produced ten Nazi books, all of which were selling in "impressive numbers." In 1977, after twenty-nine years in Argentina, the American Jewish Committee was forced to close its doors because of repeated threats and acts of intimidation. Its representative returned to the United States, stating: "It is apparent to us that the Argentine government has not cleansed itself of subversive and anti-democratic forces within its own structure. "

Having a religious and cultural background different from the majority of the population put the Jews in a "high risk" category; they became likely scapegoats. The accusations against the Jews were varied and contradictory: they were part of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy, or capitalists exploiting the workers, or members of an international Zionist plot. The common thread running through these scenarios was a view of Jews as outsiders, a menace to the economic, social, and political life of the country.

Under the junta's rule anti-Semitism reached new heights. When Jews were kidnapped they were often interrogated about the " Andinia Plan," which supposedly was guiding an attempt by Jews to take over a part of Patagonia in order to colonize it with Jewish immigrants. Jewish prisoners received special treatments: the guards painted swastikas on their bodies, made them raise their hands and shout "I love Hitler!" and threatened that they would "become soap." One form of torture was particularly aimed toward Jews: the "rectoscope," which consisted of a tube with a rat inside it inserted into the anus of the victim or the vagina of the women. As the animal looked for an exit, it would try to get away by gnawing the victims' internal organs. The camps' atmosphere is vividly conveyed by a survivor who describes the case of a Jewish man nicknamed "Chango," whom the guard would take out of his cell and force into the yard:

He would make him wag his tail, bark like a dog, lick his boots. It was impressive how well he did it, he imitated a dog as if he really were one, because if he didn't satisfy the guard, he would carryon beating him. ...Later he would change and make him be a cat.

In 1985 Jewish survivors of the camps described their experiences to the National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP). Nora Strejilevich was kidnapped as she finished packing for a trip to Israel:

They threatened me for having uttered Jewish words in the street (my surname) and for being a bloody Yid, whom they would make soap out of. ...

They took me straight away to the torture room where I was subjected to the electric prod. ...

They kept asking me for the names of the people traveling with me to Israel. ..they centered the interrogation around Jewish matters. One of them could speak Hebrew. ...He tried to find out if there was any military training in the kibbutzim. They asked for a physical description of the organizers of the study tours, like the one I was on (Sherut Laam). a description of the building of the Jewish Agency (which I knew very well). etc.

Another Jewish survivor, Miriam Lewin de Garcia, remembers:

The general attitude was of deep-rooted anti-Semitism. On one occasion they asked me if I understood Yiddish. I replied that I did not. that I only knew a few words. They nevertheless made me listen to a cassette they had obtained by tapping telephones. The speakers were apparently Argentine businessmen of Jewish origin. talking in Yiddish. My captors were most interested in finding out what the conversation was about. ...The only good Jew is a dead Jew. the guards would say.

Though it is difficult to obtain reliable quantitative data, there is general agreement that the percentage of Jews who disappeared during the repression to 10 percent-far exceeds their representation in the general population-about I percent. The Israel-based Committee of Relatives of the Victims of the Repression estimates the number of disappeared Jews at 1,500.

Argentine writer and philosopher Marcos Aguinis states: "When the security forces arrest a Jew, be he innocent or guilty, they make him suffer more insult and torture not only because anti-Semitism excites them, but because this anti-Semitism has the noble justification to be at the ser- vice of the Western and Christian victory. " In the mind of the regime, Jews were "outsiders," foreigners, who would not fully identify with Argentine society: as such, they were seen as suspects, dangerously close to the "subversives" whom the junta also considered non-Argentine and whom it was determined to annihilate.