Your Honours, I shall renounce any pretensions to originality, by using an expression which is not mine. but which belongs to the Argentine people. Your Honours: Never Again.
Julio Strossero, prosecutor in the trial of the juntos ( 1985 )

During the 1976-83 dictatorship, Argentine society was largely paralyzed by fear. The leaders of the political parties and the civic, cultural, labor, and religious organizations kept silent, in spite of the massive human rights violations directed against many of their members. But at the grassroots level, there were attempts at resistance. Trade union workers in particular opposed the systematic dismantling of the rights they had gained through long years of struggle.
The repression of workers was crucial to enforcing the economic policies of the juntas. As real wages for workers dropped by 50 percent, weakening the power of unions was a government priority. The Statute for the Process of National Reorganization suspended all union activities. It prohibited strikes, annulled collective bargaining, authorized the firing of workers without giving a reason, and revoked occupational health legislation. Production in factories was placed under the control of the military.

Six months after the coup, workers in several automotive factories went on strike, protesting the reduction of the workweek and the freezing of salaries. Electrical workers from the powerful union Luz y Fuerza {Light and Power), who were leading proponents of workers' self- management practices and of the nationalization of power companies, challenged the massive firings and the plans of the military to privatize the industry. The supply of electricity to the capital fell sharply. One of the disappeared, held at the Navy Mechanics School, recalls the torture sessions being interrupted because there was no power for the electric prod. Around the same time, longshoremen in Buenos Aires and Rosario paralyzed both ports to protest new work regulations. Telephone workers organized slowdowns and acts of sabotage, resulting in 75,000 phone lines going dead. Railroad workers mobilized to oppose the announced firing of 15,000 workers and the elimination of thou- sands of kilometers of railway lines, both actions demanded by the World Bank as a condition for its financial "help" to Argentina.

Defiant workers took their protest to the international workers' organizations. In Geneva, the governing body of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which oversees the right to form independent unions, took up the case of Argentina. Moreover, six months after the coup it published a list of disappeared trade unionists and accused the junta of violating the right to freedom of association. In May 1978 it asked the junta to explain the large number of disappeared and detained trade unionists.

Most important to ensuring the reign of terror was control of the media; the population had to be kept ignorant of the real course of events, so that no public protests could develop. Even before the coup, the mainstream press had been brought into line: newspapers and magazines presented only a positive image of the junta and exaggerated the guerrilla threat. But Videla and his allies were not taking any chances. As soon as they took power, they announced prison terms of up to ten years for anyone who used the press to "publish, divulge or propagate news, communiques or images with the purpose of perturbing, damaging, or impairing the reputation of the activities of the armed forces, security forces or the police. " The retaliation against journalists who dared express views opposing the government was ferocious. Foreign journalists critical of the official version of events were threatened and forced to leave the country.

Only the Buenos Aires Herald, a daily English-language newspaper, and occasionally La Opinion mentioned the petitions for habeas corpus and other appeals made by relatives of the disappeared. In the midst of this depressing situation, Rodolfo Walsh, a highly respected investigative journalist, started an underground communications network to inform people of the daily abuses taking place. A member of the Montoneros, Walsh used his journalistic skills to organize the Agencia de Noticias Clandestinas (ANCLA) and to disseminate its reports to local and international newspapers and other media outlets. In October 1976 he wrote and distributed a document providing detailed information about the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) and analyzing the events leading to the coup and the repressive actions of the junta.

Walsh also started an underground newsletter, Cadena Informativa (Information Network). Its first issue ended with a strong call to action:

CADENA INFORMATIVA (CI) is one of the instruments that the Argentine people are creating to break the blockage of information. CI can be yourself, an instrument to liberate yourself from the terror and to liberate others. You can reproduce this information with the resources within your reach: by hand, by typewriter, with a mimeo machine. Send copies to your friends: nine out of ten will be waiting for them. Millions are waiting to be informed. Terror is based in the lack of communication. Break the isolation. Feel again the moral satisfaction of an act of freedom. DEFEAT TERROR. CIRCULATE THIS INFORMATION.

One year after the coup and one day after he sent an open letter to the junta denouncing its multiple abuses, a Task Force of the ESMA machine-gunned Walsh down in the streets of Buenos Aires. He was taken to the ESMA where a prisoner saw his corpse, riddled with bullets.

The relatives of the disappeared became the regime's most outspoken and visible critics. In their endless searches for their loved ones-visiting police stations, hospitals, ministries, military barracks, morgues, and churches-they started to recognize each other. The same faces appeared in the endless lines in the Ministry of the Interior where, incredibly, the government had opened an office to register the denunciations of the disappearances. On the few occasions when authorities received them, the relatives were dismissed peremptorily or reprimanded for raising "subversives." One of the few places where the relatives received a measure of support was the Liga Argentina por los Derechos del Hombre {Argentine League for the Rights of Man). Founded in 1937, the Liga was the oldest human rights organization in Argentina and was traditionally linked to the Communist Party; it familiarized the relatives with the habeas corpus process and suggested sources for information and help.

By August 1977 the relatives had their own organization, the Comision de Familiares de Desaparecidos y Detenidos por Motivos Politicos (Commission of Relatives of Disappeared and Detained for Political Reasons). By October the group had drafted a petition listing the names of hundreds of disappeared and detained individuals; it organized its first demonstration, where hundreds of people were beaten and arrested.


Among the relatives of the disappeared a group of mothers emerged, galvanized by a woman in her fifties, Azucena Villaflor de DeVincenti, whose son and daughter-in-law had been abducted.lo Azucena had worked in a factory as a young woman, but after her marriage she devoted herself completely to her family. Her energy and charisma became sources of inspiration for the other mothers. They started meeting in her home to draft petitions, gather information, and plant the, seeds of their future organization. It was Azucena's idea to go to the ; Plaza de Mayo and to ask for an audience with President Videla to find
answers to their questions about the disappearances. On April 30, 1977, fourteen mothers gathered at the Plaza de Mayo, ; traditionally the heart of Argentine civic life. By meeting there, the Mothers placed themselves in the public eye in a desperate attempt to bring attention to their families' plight. Labeled Las Locas de Plaza de Mayo {the crazies of the Plaza de Mayo), they broke the conspiracy of silence that had permeated the country and found a way to channel their despair and frustration into action. After that day, they and Argentina would never be the same.

The Mothers' marches became a weekly event, taking place every Thursday at 3:30 P.M. Forced to walk because of the regime's orders prohibiting public gatherings, they would walk slowly for half an hour. When the police tried to intimidate them and make them leave, they resisted and affirmed their right to demonstrate on behalf of their disappeared children. Slowly their numbers started to grow, and they began wearing white handkerchiefs and carrying pictures of their missing children. The women asked their husbands not to join them in their weekly gatherings, afraid that the presence of the men would make the situation worse. Maria Adela Antokoletz remembers: "We endured pushing, insults, attacks by the army, our clothes were ripped, detentions. ., .But the men, they would not have been able to stand such things without reacting, there would have been incidents; they would have been arrested for disrupting the public order and, most likely, we would not have seen them ever again."13 The minister of the interior, General Albano Harguindeguy, finally agreed to meet with three of the mothers. He tried to convince them that their children had left the country of their own free will, and warned them to stop their demonstrations. It was the first time that a high-ranking official had received the relatives. But the Mothers responded that they would continue their marches until they knew with certainty of their children's fate.

Placing advertisements in newspapers to publicize the names of the disappeared was one of the Mothers' main outreach activities. The newspapers requested hefty fees for these ads and demanded the certified addresses of ten of the signers, addresses that they subsequently gave to the police. On December 8, 1977, at a meeting held in the Church of Santa Cruz to raise money for an ad, an ESMA Task Force broke in and kidnapped nine people. Among them was Sister Alice Domon, a French nun who had worked with peasants in some of the poorest regions of Argentina and who was a supporter of the Mothers. In Buenos Aires, Sister Domon had taught catechism to children with Down's syndrome, the son of General Videla among them.16 Another supporter of the group was kidnapped from his home. And two days later-on December 10, Human Rights Day-Azucena Villaflor de DeVincenti and Leonie Duquet {another French nun) were abducted and joined the ranks of the disappeared. Survivors from the ESMA testified to having seen these twelve people at the camp, where they were brutally tortured.

The kidnapping of the two French nuns would eventually become a rallying point of international protest, which continues to this day. The government, which tried to blame the Montoneros for the kidnapping, showed pictures of the nuns under a fake Montonero sign. Sister Domon was forced to write a letter stating that she was in the "hands of an armed group" opposed to the government. In fact, Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz, a twenty-six-year-old sailor, had infiltrated the Mothers group, claiming to be the brother of a disappeared. Blue-eyed, young, and innocent looking, he had gained the trust of Azucena and Sister Domon. Showing up at the gathering at the Santa Cruz church, Astiz alerted the ESMA Task Force as the meeting was drawing to an end. Azucena's disappearance failed to deter the group. "It was a hard time for us, but we weren't broken. They thought there was only one Azucena, but there wasn't just one. There were hundreds of us," said Aida de Suarez, one of the Mothers. Azucena herself, in a premonitory mood a few days before her abduction, had said: "If something happens to me, you continue. Do not forget it."

Thanks to their determination, courage, and intelligence, the Mothers began to attract international recognition and to receive support from governments and organizations concerned about human rights. Foreign journalists often covered their weekly marches; and on the occasion of the World Cup soccer championship in Buenos Aires in 1978, they focused on the Mothers, providing them with instant inter- national exposure. The Mothers became the moral conscience of the country and gained a space in the political arena, challenging the notion of women as powerless and subservient to family and state.
Among the Mothers' weekly gatherings at the Plaza de Mayo were also women whose grandchildren were missing. In October 1977 tWelve Mothers established the Association of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and organized around one specific demand: that the children who had been kidnapped as a method of political repression be returned to their legitimate families. The Association grew quickly as dozens of grandmothers joined the group.

During the dictatorship, nine human rights organizations were active throughout Argentina. Some of the groups-such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared for Political Reasons-were started by relatives of the disappeared who were pressing the government for information about their family members. Others-Like the League for the Rights of Man, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), and the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS)- collected and reported evidence of human rights violations and did a considerable amount of legal work. Religious human rights groups also arose, such as the Peace and Justice Service {SERPAJ), the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights {MEDH), and the Jewish Movement for Human Rights {Movimiento Judfo por los Derechos Humanos). These last groups, respectively, incorporated members of the Catholic clergy who were critical of the church hierarchy, Protestant ministers, and Jews. All of the organizations were committed to a broad vision of social justice, and each responded to different pressures and particular histories of the community from which it emerged. They often helped each other and formed various alliances in response to the regime's multiple abuses}


As news of the disappearances continued to spread abroad, foreign governments and international organizations began paying closer attention to the situation in Argentina. In 1978 the Organization of American States (OAS), through its Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), asked to visit Argentina to investigate the reports of the disappearances flooding their Washington office. The Argentine government turned down the request. U.S. Vice President Walter Mon- dale, at a meeting in Rome for the papal coronation of John Paul II, pressured General Videla to accept the IACHR fact-finding mission. As .a trade-off, Mondale offered to approve loans that the United States had been blocking because of the human rights violations in Argentina. Videla accepted the deal, tolerating the visit in exchange for the loans.

In September 1979 the IACHR went to Argentina. People stood in a line five blocks long to present their testimonies. The IACHR interviewed government officials; church leaders; representatives of human rights organizations, political parties, professional associations, labor unions, industry and commerce, university associations, and the Jewish community; and individuals prominent in various fields. The commission received a total of 5,580 denunciations.

During the IACHR visit, the junta tried to "sanitize" its image. Prisoners at the ESMA were hidden in other centers or killed. The generals launched a campaign with the slogan Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos (We Argentines are upright and humane), as the ubiquitous motto appeared in shops, on bumper stickers, and on billboards. In spite of these efforts, the commission produced a devastating book- length document confirming the reported human rights violations and asserting unambiguously that the rights to life, liberty, security, personal integrity, justice, due process, and freedom of expression had been violated. It further stated that the "security" forces had killed thousands of people, noted the high number of NN graves in Argentine cemeteries, and urged the investigation, trial, and punishment of those responsible.

However, the IACHR had to submit its final draft to the Argentine government for its consideration. As a result, the published version did not contain important information, including some testimonies of the victims and the list of names of the security agents involved in the repression. In spite of these changes the junta banned the report from Argentina. Emilio Mignone, who was in the United States when it was released, managed to bring five hundred copies into the country. The OAS report, which was a severe blow to the credibility of the junta, helped boost the morale of the families of the disappeared.

The United Nations also received thousands of complaints from the victims' relatives. When Theo van Boven, director of the UN Center for Human Rights, repeatedly inquired about the fate of the disappeared, the Argentine government simply ignored his requests. Foreign governments, too, began to ask about what happened to their citizens who had disappeared in Argentina. France wanted to know the fate of Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, the two French nuns abducted in December 1977. In a 1978 meeting between Admiral Massera and French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Massera admitted that the two nuns were dead but claimed that they had been killed by the First Army Corps. The Swedish government kept inquiring about Dagmar Hagelin, a seventeen-year-old Argentine-Swedish woman who had been kidnapped and shot by Alfredo Astiz and his henchmen in what looked like a case of mistaken identity.

In 1977 Patricia Derian, President Carter's assistant secretary of state for human rights, made several official visits to Argentina to inquire about the disappeared. Argentines living in exile, some of whom were survivors from the camps, provided the international organizations and foreign governments with firsthand information about the regime's atrocities. A 1979 New York Times Magazine article coauthored by an Argentine scientist living in the United States and a U.S. journalist first broke the silence about Argentina in the international press. Then, in Paris in October of that same year, three women who had been in the ESMA for two years held a press conference in the building of the French senate detailing the tortures they had suffered and the brutal acts they had witnessed.-' The Amnesty International report on secret detention camps in 1980 alerted the human rights community to the existence of the concentration camps. As the international pressure continued to mount, and realizing how badly Argentina's international reputation had been damaged, the junta hired a Madison Avenue public relations firm, Burston Marsteller, to clean up its image.

Foreign support for the human rights organizations kept growing. In 1980, socialist members of the European Parliament nominated the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo for the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was eventually awarded to Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an architect who was the Latin American coordinator of the SERPAJ, one of the human rights organizations active in Argentina. This was another blow to the inter- national image of the junta. Perez Esquivel had been imprisoned for fourteen months, and for eighteen months after his release he was under police surveillance. When the junta accused him of being involved in terrorist activities, such as the kidnappings and murders of business leaders and the military, there was an international outcry. Norwegian Chancellor Knut Frydenlund proclaimed the award "an inspiration to all those that fight to protect human rights"; the vice president of the Norwegian Labor Party, Gro Harlem Brundtland, stated that Perez Esquivel occupied a key role in the contemporary non- violent movement; and Patricia Oerian characterized the award as a "warning to all the nations that still practice repression." Perez Esquivel, a friend of the Mothers, announced that he would donate TO percent of his $212,000 Nobel Prize money to them, highlighting both the importance of the Mothers' work and the respect with which they were regarded by other prominent human rights activists.


In the fall of 1979, in an attempt to erase the results of its terrorist activities, the junta passed Law No. 2.2.068, the law of "presumption of death." Its intent was to redefine the disappeared as officially dead despite the absence of any explanation about the circumstances surrounding their demise. Another law providing economic reparations to the families of the "dead" was also passed. These laws were designed to end discussion on the issue of the disappearances and to silence the victims' relatives, but the families of the disappeared and human rights groups swiftly rejected them.

It became increasingly difficult for the regime to ignore the demands of the human rights organizations and the pressures from abroad. A sign of the changing times was an ad that appeared in Clarin, one of the main Buenos Aires daily newspapers, in August 1980. Demanding information on the disappeared, it was signed by 175 prominent personalities; they included Jorge Luis Borges, who had previously expressed support for the coup, and Cesar Luis Menotti, head coach of the national soccer team and a hero in the eyes of millions of Argentines. Just a few months before, this action would have been unthinkable.

But it was the economic crisis and the defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands war that finally spelled doom for the junta regime. Government spending, particularly for the military, had caused foreign debt to bal- loon from $19 billion at the beginning of 1980 to $39 billion in 1982. Unemployment was rampant and real wages fell dramatically. State companies borrowed money from foreign banks, and speculation on international markets caused huge sums of money to leave the country. The military itself, through Fabricaciones Militares, was the nation's largest single employer, producing $2.2. billion in goods (about 2.5 percent of the gross national product). It directly and fully participated in the financial manipulations that were ruining the country.

Old divisions and rivalries between the various branches of the military intensified. In 1979 General Luciano Benjamin Menendez, commander of the powerful Third Army Corps, had staged a revolt in Cordoba to protest the government's decision to free Jacobo Timerman, as ordered by the Supreme Court.39 Although the revolt was squelched, it was a sign that factions within the military were once again fighting for control. A rift had developed between Admiral Massera and General Videla, and the government was losing its grip on the country. As Massera secretly plotted to launch his own political party and become a "second Peron," he developed a plan by which Montoneros detained in the ESMA worked on his behalf, while he established contacts with guerrilla leaders in exile. The second junta that came to power in March 1981 lasted only eight months; its president, General Roberto Viola, was continually undermined by General Leopoldo Galtieri, who became the next president.

In July 1981, five political parties (Peronists, Radicals, Intransigents, Christian Democrats, and members of the Movement for Integration and Development) joined forces and created the Multipartidaria to negotiate the return to civilian power. The group met with a delegation from the Mothers and other human rights organizations and listened sympathetically to their demands that the issue of the disappeared not be overlooked in the transition to democracy.
On March 30, 1982, the CGT Brazil (one of the two factions of the General Confederation of Labor, the country's umbrella labor association), headed by Saul Ubaldini, organized a strike and a demonstration attended by thousands of people. For several hours, the demonstrators battled the police to protest the harsh economic situation and to demand that the authorities reveal the fate of the disappeared. Earlier, the CGT had been conspicuously silent, even though workers had been one of the prime targets of the repression. Only a year before, Ubaldini had refused to sign a document that the Mothers were circulating. Nora de Cortiiias recalls:

In 1981, I went to ask Saul Ubaldini to sign a petition. They were all together, the leadership of the CGT Brazil, and he told me: "Yes, I understand, but I cannot sign in behalf of the CGT." So I asked him: "Mr. Ubaldini, why don't you sign as an individual" And he said, no, I can't do that. Then I asked all the other union leaders to sign the petition. but nobody did.

The final blow to the regime was the Malvinas/Falkland Islands war fiasco. For over 150 years the British had ruled over the islands, while Argentine children at school drew maps with the islands as part of the national territory and learned that Las Malvinas Son Argentinas. On April 2, 1982, in a move designed to gain popular support and distract attention from the economic crisis, Argentina invaded the islands. In thinking that the British would not bother to send troops from across the world and that his cozy relationship with the Reagan administration would guarantee U.S. support, General Galtieri had gravely miscalculated. Although Galtieri had been instrumental in arranging for the Argentine military to train the Nicaraguan contras in Honduras, President Reagan stood by his friend Margaret Thatcher, imposed economic sanctions against Argentina, and provided the British with the technology necessary to detect the movement of Argentine troops on the islands and ensure Thatcher's victory.

On June 14, two and a half months after the invasion-the first "real" war that the Argentine military had fought in a century- Argentina surrendered. One thousand Argentine and 250 British lives were lost in this last adventure of the generals. Shortly afterward, General Galtieri resigned, a fourth junta took over, and General Reynaldo Benito Bignone became provisional president. The pressures for the return to a civilian government started to bear fruit. In July the ban on political activity was lifted and parties were allowed to hold public gatherings. In October 1982 the human rights organizations organized a national march with strong participation from political, labor, and religious leaders. In spite of the government's prohibition, "The March for Life" attracted more than 10,000 people; the government soon announced that elections would take place in October 1983.

In April 1983 the military, realizing that the end was in sight, released the "Final Document of the Military Junta on the War against Subversion and Terrorism," defending its genocidal acts and distorting the history of the previous seven years. The document caused national and international outrage. Italian President Sandro Pertini, a longtime friend of the Mothers, sent a telegram to the government condemning the report's "chilling cynicism. ..beyond human civility." Pope John Paul II criticized the document, expressing solidarity with the families of the disappeared. Practically the only group that defended it was the executive committee of the CEA-the Bishop's Conference-which praised it as a step toward "reconciliation." In June human rights organizations called for a march to protest the "Final Document," and 50,000 demonstrators participated. In September the government passed the Law of National Pacification to provide amnesty for the past nine years' worth of crimes committed by the armed forces.

As elections approached, the political parties included in their plat- forms an explicit rejection of the Doctrine of National Security. Raul Alfonsfn, the candidate of the Radical Party, declared that if elected, he would not compromise on the topic of human rights and he would annul the Law of National Pacification.


Running on a strong human rights platform, Alfonsin won comfortably with 52 percent of the vote. His government was inaugurated on December 10, 1983, the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Shortly after being elected, President Alfonsin sent Congress a bill declaring null and void the Law of National Pacification; at the same time, he created the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP). CONADEP's charge was to investigate the disappearances and provide the information necessary to prosecute those responsible. Human rights groups had lobbied for a parliamentary commission that would have the power to subpoena witnesses; CONADEP lacked such authority to force people to testify. The armed forces, and even some judges, refused to cooperate with it. The Mothers, and especially Hebe Bonafini, strongly criticized CONADEP and its chair, well-known writer Ernesto Sabato, whose opinion of General Videla had once been positive. Other human rights activists, such as Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Emilio Mignone, who had been asked to become members of CONADEP refused.

After nine months of research and interviews with thousands of wit- nesses, CONADEP presented President Alfonsin with 50,000 pages of testimony. A 500-page book, Nunca Mas (Never Again), documented the methods used to terrorize the population; both it and a companion volume, listing the names of 8,961 disappeared, were published in 1984. According to the report, 70 percent of the disappeared were male and 30 percent were female; 3 percent were pregnant women. The great majority (81 percent) were young, between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five; students and blue- and white-collar workers made up 70 percent of the disappeared. CONADEP acknowledged that the number of disappeared far exceeded the number of cases investigated. Graciela Fernandez Meijide, the CONADEP secretary, reported that the com- mission processed only 30 percent of the material received during its nine-month tenure.49 The total figure was highly contested. The APDH estimated it as .12,2.61, a count that combined "definitive disappearances," acknowledged deaths, and survivors or official prisoners who were later freed. Emilio Mignone, from CELS, investigated cases in which it was possible to know the identity of the disappeared and found that only half had been reported, because of fear, ignorance, isolation, lack of resources, or hopelessness. His own estimate was 20,000, and he believed that the 30,000 figure, frequently put forward by some human rights groups, could be explained by including people who disappeared and later reappeared.51 A new list of 290 disappeared who had not been reported to CONADEP was released by the government in 1995, and another list with 300 names is in the process of verification.-' More than 200,000 copies of Nunca Mas were sold in the first weeks after its publication. Regrettably, Nunca Mas did not include the names of the repressors, but a list with 1,351 names was given to President Alfonsin and subsequently published by the magazine El Periodista de Buenos Aires in November 1984.53 In spite of its limitations, Nunca Mas was a powerful public indictment of the military and the doctrine of national security. The members of CONADEP became the targets of attacks, and some had their homes or offices bombed. On the topic of the disappeared children, Nunca Mas stated:

When a child is forcibly removed from its legitimate family to be put in another, according to some ideological precept of what's "best for the child's welfare," then this constitutes a perfidious usurpation of duty. The repressors who took the disappeared children from their homes, or who seized mothers on the point of giving birth, were making decisions about people's lives in the same cold-blooded way that booty is distributed in war. Deprived of their identity and taken away from their parents, the disappeared children constitute, and will continue to constitute, a deep blemish on our society. In their case, the blows were aimed at the defenseless, the vulnerable and the innocent, and a new type of torment was conceived.

A few days after becoming president, Alfonsfn announced that the nine members of the first three juntas, whom he considered the most responsible for the repression, would be tried by the military courts. The human rights organizations were dismayed. They did not trust the military to judge their peers; more important, they wanted the military tried by the civilian justice system in order to assert the principle of equality under the law. At the same time, President Alfonsin sent to trial seven members of two guerrilla groups, ERP and Montoneros, who were accused of "terrorist activities. "

Alfonsin was putting forward a theme that he would continue to harp on for the next few years: the theory of the "two devils. " On this account, the guerrilleros and the military were equally responsible for criminal acts, and both deserved to be punished. Human rights activists pointed out that the theory of the two devils opened the door to justifying all kinds of abuses by the state. They argued that the state should act only within the limits of law and moral principles; moreover, they emphasized that when the state commits crimes, the victims find them- selves totally defenseless, with no recourse.

The trial of the military by their peers, as the human rights group had foreseen, quickly turned into a farce. After months of procrastination, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces refused to judge the juntas and even tried to justify their actions. Alfonsin and his advisers admitted that they had committed a "historical error" in expecting that the military cadres would be willing to punish their own colleagues. The trial was then assigned to a civilian court.

The civil trial of the members of the three juntas officially started in April 1985. For five months, the proceedings of what in Argentina came to be known as "the trial of the century" electrified the country. During this time bombings, threats, and hostile statements by the military created an atmosphere of tension and political uncertainty. The public prosecutor, Dr. Julio Cesar Strassera, and his assistant, Dr. Luis Moreno Ocampo, brought 711 charges against the generals for murder, illegal detention, torture, rape, and robbery. The court heard the testimony of over 800 individuals, including survivors of the detention camps, relatives of the disappeared, former members of the Peronista government, union leaders, military officers, human rights activists, members of international organizations, scientific experts, and representatives of foreign governments.

Strassera characterized the actions against the guerrilla organizations as "ferocious, clandestine, and cowardly." He pointed out that by renouncing ethical principles, the state had created its own brand of terrorism, reproducing in itself the evils that it was trying to combat: "What did the state do to combat the guerrillas? Kidnap, torture, and kill on an infinitely bigger scale." And he asked, "How many victims of the repression were guilty of illegal activities? How many were innocent? We will never know, and it is not the victims' fault." In one of the most dramatic moments of the trial, the lawyer of one of the generals asked Magdalena Ruiz Guinazu, a well-known radio journalist and a member of CONADEP, if she knew of any innocent people who had been persecuted. In her two and a half hours on the witness stand, she brought to the court's attention the disappearances of children; a profound silence followed her testimony.

Moreno Ocampo brought out the contradictions that had pervaded the junta's defense. The ex-commanders denied the actions of which they were accused, while at the same time trying to justify them as acts of war: "So, they deny that torture and murder have taken place, but at the same time they speak of the horrors of war and the need for that war." He concluded that either there had been no war, in which case the generals were common criminals, or there had been a war, in which case they were war criminals.

Strassera closed with the phrase, now famous in Argentina: "Your Honours, I shall renounce any pretensions to originality, by using an expression which is not mine, but which belongs to the Argentine people. Your Honours: Never Again." His words elicited such applause and cheering that the courtroom was emptied and public access to the hearings was barred. Five generals were condemned to sentences ranging from four and a half years to life imprisonment, and four generals were found innocent. All nine were absolved of the charges of theft of children and substitution of identity, thus freeing them of any responsibility for the disappearance of hundreds of children.

The trial's result did not satisfy the human rights organizations, which considered the punishment insufficient and indeed dangerous, for it could help lay the foundation for a culture of impunity. The military, in contrast, demanded the exoneration of all the accused, depicting them as martyrs and participants in a "holy war." However, the trial clearly established the responsibility of the military for the count- less human rights violations that had taken place, and it signaled a new political climate: it was the first time in Argentina that members of the military had been brought to trial and condemned.


After the trial of the junta members, hundreds of armed forces members charged with "following orders" were due to be brought to trial. Threats to the government continued. President Alfonsin, in an effort to pacify the military, sent Congress a law setting a sixty-day deadline for initiating new prosecutions. The law, passed on December 24, 1986, became known as the Punto Final or Full Stop Law. The only cases excluded from this law, in what looked like a concession to the Grand- mothers of the Plaza de Mayo's demands, were those concerning rape, theft, and the abduction and concealment of minors. The Grandmothers reacted by pointing out the absurdity of separating the kidnapping of the parents from the disappearance of the children:

But what about the children; did they appear spontaneously in the police stations. in the secret detention camps? How can the change of identity of the children be separated from the kidnapping of the parents? ...We cannot fight for the recovery of those children and forget the suffering of their mothers. our daughters. We cannot close the book on the tortures that they suffered. on all that we know about giving birth. handcuffed and blindfolded, lonely and terrorized. ...We want to recover the kidnapped children. But we will continue demanding. as on the first day. truth and justice for them and for their parents.

The Grandmothers' swift response was typical: they consistently refused to be singled out and separated from the other human rights organizations. They called the law an "abomination" and issued a call for "collective memory," stressing that they were searching for two generations.

The Punto Final caused a flurry of activity among victims and human rights groups, who tried to file new charges during the sixty days allotted. By the end of the deadline, it appeared that more than a hundred officers would be brought to trial. One of the officers accused of crimes in Cordoba province, Major Ernesto Barreiro, refused to appear in court, and his regiment backed him. This ignited the military in Buenos Aires, and, led by Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico, it rose in arms against the government, demanding an amnesty law. The rebels, who became known as the carapintadas (because they painted their faces black), quickly emerged as an unrelenting source of hostility toward President Alfonsin. The government called for support from the citizenship. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for the democratically elected government, and nearly 50,000 showed up at the military barracks where the rebels had established their headquarters. On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1987, President Alfonsln announced that he had met with the rebels and that they had agreed to put down their arms.

Soon thereafter, President Alfonsln sent Congress another law, which granted immunity to a large number of potential defendants; it covered almost all the crimes committed during the dirty war. The new law, the Obediencia Debida or Law of Due Obedience, exempted from amnesty only three types of crimes: rape, theft, and falsification of civil status. But even Alfonsln's two amnesty laws were not enough for the military. Two more uprisings by the carapintadas took place in 1988, resulting in more negotiations and compromises. In January, Aldo Rico again rebelled, but the majority of the military remained faithful to the government, and the insurgency fizzled out. In December, Rico and another officer, Colonel Mohamed All Seineldln {who had just been passed up for promotion to general), once again defied the government. They demanded increased pay for the military and recognition that the acts of the juntas in the "fight against subversion" were legitimate. This last uprising was put down through the combined efforts of civilians, the police, and loyalist forces. However, President Alfonsin did increase funding for the army and give a pay raise to the military.

In .January 1989 fifty members of a small left-wing group, Movimiento Todos por la Patria {MTP, All for the Country), attacked army barracks at La Tablada in Buenos Aires. It was a bloody confrontation on both sides: nine soldiers and two members of the provincial police as well as twenty-eight of the attackers were killed. Eighteen of the assailants were taken prisoner. Some were killed after surrendering, while others disappeared, raising anew the specter of human rights violations by the military. There was wide speculation that the MTP had been infiltrated by the military's intelligence services that, under the guise of preventing another carapintada uprising, led the group into a suicide attack. The episode resulted in President Alfonsin increasing the armed forces' power in matters of internal security and drafting a law limiting freedom of expression."


Hyperinflation, food riots, and a general sense of hopelessness about the country's economy forced President Alfonsin to relinquish the presidency five months ahead of schedule. For the first time in sixty years, two constitutionally elected governments followed each other. The new president, Carlos Saul Menem, was a member of the Peronista Party; he went even further than Alfonsfn in his attempts to appease the military. In October 1989 he pardoned high-ranking officers who had not been covered by the previous laws, preempting any further investigations or convictions. He also pardoned the carapintada officers who had masterminded the uprisings against Alfonsin. And in December 1990 he issued a pardon for all the members of the juntas tried in 1985 and still serving their sentences. To make his actions toward the military more palatable, Mario Firmenich, a Montonero leader who had been sentenced to thirty years in prison, was pardoned as well.

President Menem's rationale was that it was time to unify the country and move toward reconciliation. But 80 percent of the population was against the pardons. Human rights groups, political leaders, and trade union organizations all protested the president's action, with the human rights organizations calling for peaceful demonstrations. On December 30, at the worst possible time of the year and with practically no time to organize, 80,000 people attended a rally in Buenos Aires protesting President Menem's decision. The pardoned military officers not only expressed no regret about their actions but saw the pardons as a step toward full vindication. Barely twenty-four hours after leaving prison, General Videla demanded an apology and full recognition from society for his work on behalf of "democracy."

The amnesty laws and the presidential pardons made moot the legal redress of most human rights violations. But because the Punto Final and the Obediencia Debida laws do not cover the crimes of abduction and concealment of children, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo can still achieve some measure of justice. Their work to find the missing children forces the country to continue to face the consequences of the state terrorism that had dominated Argentina. Defying the stereotypes of sex and age, the Grandmothers show the world that persistence, love, and commitment to truth and justice are an unbeatable combination in the struggle for human rights.