"What was the objective behind the torture and the disappearances? Where did the perpetrators of torture and genocide come from? Where did it come from? It came from the world's so-called leader in democracy, the United States. The United States trained more than 80,000 personnel in the School of the Americas and [other] military academies."

- Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was imprisoned and tortured for 14 months in Argentina.

Carla Rutila Artes was nine months old in August 1976 when she and her mother Graciela were taken by Argentine Federal Police to a detention centre in Buenos Aires. There, Graciela was beaten and tortured by Eduardo Ruffo, right-hand man of Otto Paladino, chief of the State Intelligence Agency (SIDE). Like his superior, Ruffo was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and had been a member of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA), an ultra-violent right-wing death squad staffed by the military and police. After she was tortured, Graciela was killed and Ruffo "adopted" Carla.

Carla's first memories of the Ruffo family were those of being beaten and whipped with a belt, a broom, a stick, or whatever was available. "They were tremendously violent towards me," she told 60 Minutes in a recent interview. Before she died, Graciela scrawled her daughter's name in blood on the prison wall. Carla's grandmother, Matilda, was informed about this by a prisoner who survived. It took Matilda nine years to find Carla. She carried a photograph of her granddaughter around the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, where hundreds of grandmothers demonstrate for the return of their stolen grandchildren every week. One day, eight-year-old Carla saw her grandmother with her photo on television and recognized herself. When she asked Ruffo about this, she was beaten. Two years later, Ruffo was arrested and Carla was reunited with her grandmother. Both were still hounded by Ruffo's AAA thugs, so they had to move to Spain.

Five hundred babies were stolen from their parents by the military junta which overthrew an elected government in March 1976 and ruled until 1983. Only 66 of these children have been found. The armed forces were responsible for the genocide of over 30,000 people during the reign of terror they called the Dirty War. Many were tortured to death in 340 secret camps, shot and buried in mass graves, or thrown alive from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean. Nine of the top officers responsible were jailed in 1985, but pardoned in 1990 by then President Carlos Menem. His amnesty, however, did not cover kidnapping babies, and for this 11 military leaders have been arrested during the last two years. They include the two most notorious dictators: Army General Jorge Rafael Videla and Navy Admiral Emilio Massera, both sentenced to life imprisonment in 1985 for murder, torture, robbery and extortion.

The baby-snatching was systematic and planned at the highest levels. "There was a whole structure in the armed forces to appropriate the children of leftists and place them in ideologically well-constituted families," General Omar Riveros testified. As war trophies, the children would be removed from what the junta considered "sick, Marxist, subversive" environments and given to childless military families for a "Christian upbringing." However, some babies were considered already "contaminated by subversion" and were therefore killed. One political prisoner was forced to watch his 20-day-old baby being tortured with electric cattle prods in an effort to make the prisoner talk. The babies were also sold on the black market.

"All the mothers were killed after birth," said Jose Luis D'Andres Mohr, an Army captain who quit during the repression. Blindfolded and chained to their beds, the women were subjected to caesarian deliveries and then had their babies snatched from their breasts. Patricia Roisinblit, a 26-year-old medical student, said she was "happy and radiant" after giving birth in 1978 in the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) in Buenos Aires, the most infamous torture and killing centre during the repression. According to her friend and fellow prisoner Miriam Lewin, "he was a beautiful and healthy baby boy" whom Patricia named Rodolfo. At that moment, Patricia and Miriam did not think that the new mother would soon be murdered. "It was something too awful to conceive. My imagination had limits," Miriam explained. To be pregnant was an automatic death sentence. Of the five thousand prisoners held at ESMA, only 150 got out alive. Rodolfo is one of the babies that Admiral Massera has been charged with kidnapping. Rosa, Rodolfo's grandmother, has been looking for him for the last 15 years.

Dirty War?

The Argentine junta justified its coup and genocide by citing the need to combat a vast army of left-wing guerrillas on the verge of engulfing the country. But according to Martin Edwin Andersen, author of "Dossier Secreto," a highly regarded history of the repression, there was no "dirty war." Andersen writes that the military intelligence services fabricated the left-wing threat as "a pretext for seizing power and terrorizing the civilian population." Mario Firmenich, the leader of the Montoneros, the largest guerrilla group, had been an agent of Army Intelligence Battalion 601 (which played a central role in the killing) since 1973. The other main guerrilla force, People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), was also infiltrated. Firmenich's role was to take credit for a series of murders actually committed by government security forces and their death squads. In this way, an omnipresent leftwing terrorist threat was concocted by the generals to justify their coup and the resulting extreme measures. The military reported hundreds of fake terrorist acts including battles with already dead "guerrillas." Many supposedly happened at night in outlying districts. Those "killed" in these incidents had been kidnapped unarmed from their homes or workplaces.

The Montoneros and ERP together totalled no more than 2,000 people, of whom only about 400 had access to arms. Among these, few were capable of fighting. As such, these groups were never a threat to the state and amounted to no more than a police problem. By March 1976, when the military junta took over, whatever military potential the guerrillas possessed had been destroyed. What followed was not a war, but a massacre of innocents.

The Business of Anti-Communism

The main reason for the military coup and mass murder was economic: to turn what was becoming an industrialized, middle class society into a low-wage haven for multinational corporations by breaking the growing strength of the unions and salaried sectors. As David Rockefeller (whose loans to the junta helped finance the repression) put it, "I have the impression that finally Argentina has a regime which understands the private enterprise system." Under populist President Juan Domingo Peron, who governed from 1946-1955 and from 1973-1974, the power of the organized working and middle classes had grown rapidly as he forged political alliances with them. This threatened the position of the military and landed elite which preferred to rule in collaboration with foreign capital. Such tensions had caused the armed forces to overthrow six governments since 1930.

Juan Alemann, the junta's treasury secretary, admitted that economics was the driving force behind the repression. He stated: "With this policy we seek to weaken the enormous power of the unions which was one of the country's biggest problems. Argentina's unions were too strong.... Now with a fluid labour market ... we've weakened the unions' power and this is the basis for any political solution in Argentina." Jose Martinez de Hoz, the junta's economics minister, was a businessman with close connections to U.S. financial interests and implemented an economic policy favourable to foreign investment and trade. Prices were liberated and wages tightly controlled so that their purchasing power fell by 50 percent. Tariffs were slashed, opening up the market to a wide range of imports and speculative foreign financial capital. Most local industry shut down or had to leave the country, while middle class living standards deteriorated sharply. These policies transformed the economic structure of Argentine society, enriching a few while impoverishing most.

The creation of enormous inequality required massive and wide-ranging repression. Those killed included workers, students, teachers, activists, priests, doctors, journalists and anyone else whose activities and thoughts were deemed subversive. The largest number of victims were workers and trade union leaders; about 5,000 were jailed. The military grew rich on the slaughter, taking over public posts as well as managerial positions in multinational corporations. Within six months of the coup, greed had become the main motivation for many of the dirty warriors. Information, passports, clues and clemency were sold to relatives of those who disappeared on the orders of the officers. Military men set up stores to sell goods looted from the homes of those they had killed and filled up Swiss bank accounts with what they called war booty.

Army Intelligence Battalion 601, which formed the core of the repressive effort, engaged in drug and arms trafficking, extortion, and money laundering.
One of the Battalion's commanders, General Carlos Suarez Mason, head of the First Army Corps, ran an extortion/kidnapping ring that abducted businessmen and bankers. Suarez Mason was also a partner with major cocaine traffickers in the Bolivian army who overthrew their government in 1980 with the Argentine military's help. The Argentines received a portion of the drug profits from the Bolivian generals. The money was used for military operations in Central America. For this purpose, Battalion 601 set up a special intelligence unit, the Extraterritorial Task Force (GTE) in 1978 in Florida. Authorized by the CIA, the GTE helped train the Nicaraguan Contras for the U.S. and carried out drug and arms trafficking as well as money laundering.

Kissinger's Killers

The junta's repression was approved by the U.S. and fuelled by its counter-insurgency doctrines. Trained, armed and financed by Washington, the Argentine military carried out the murderous instructions it had been given in Pentagon schools. In June 1976, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met Admiral Cesar Guzetti, the junta's foreign minister, at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Santiago, Chile. According to Robert Hill, U.S. Ambassador in Argentina at the time, "Kissinger asked how long it would take ... to clean up the [terrorist] problem. Guzetti replied that it would be done by the end of the year. Kissinger approved." In other words, as Hill explained, "Kissinger gave the Argentines the green light ... The Secretary wanted Argentina to finish its terrorist plan before year end." This isn't surprising, since Kissinger had instigated General Pinochet's bloody coup against the socialist Allende government in Chile three years earlier.

U.S. intelligence officials knew about the phoney nature of the Argentine dirty war and the extent to which guerrilla groups had been penetrated by the military.

From 1950 to 1975, 2,766 members of the Argentine military attended U.S. military schools with more than 600 going to the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), which specialized in counter-insurgency. Here the Argentines were taught to fight a total war of extermination against all social sectors using murder, torture, extortion, blackmail, kidnapping, sabotage and bribery. Two of Argentina's junta leaders, Army Generals Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, were SOA graduates.

Many inmates of secret camps during the repression have spoken of being tortured by SOA alumni. One of these SOA graduates was Sergeant Elpidio Rosario Tejeda, known as "Texas." In her book A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, Marguerite Feitlowitz describes Texas as "a ferocious torturer who delivered his blows with an appalling micro-exactitude" to ensure "maximum pain." Texas was based at the La Perla camp in Cordoba, which held 2,500 prisoners. Graciela Geuna testified: "Once after he [Texas] had beaten me, I managed to steal a razor blade from the desk. All I wanted was to kill myself, it was the only way to escape the horror. Texas confiscated it, saying `You're not going to be able to die, little girl, until we want you to. We are God here.'"

U.S. President Jimmy Carter reduced military aid to the junta and publicly pressured it to improve its human rights record, but his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Patricia Derian, complained about "a double message." In early 1980, Derian announced her resignation, denouncing "a move to normalize our relations and to end our official criticism of the [Argentine military] regime." Derian had learned that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies were commending the Argentine armed forces for the repression. "Through these agencies," Derian warned, "the U.S. government is sending a dangerous and double message. If this continues, it will subvert our entire human rights policy."

Such ambiguity was removed by the Reagan administration, which embraced the junta, praised it for the elimination of the "Marxist threat" and called General Galtieri, "majestic." Reagan not only encouraged the slaughter in Argentina but used Argentine officers to spread it to Central America where under U.S. command, the junta helped train the Contras who killed 40,000 Nicaraguans. Here, both Battalion 601 and the CIA became involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.

Dirty Peace

The failure to punish the perpetrators of genocide has institutionalized impunity, corruption and repression in Argentina today. President Menem pardoned 300 enforcers of the mass murder and praised the junta leaders. Even their conviction for baby kidnapping 18 years later will leave the other 289 killers untouched. Survivors have met their torturers in their apartment buildings, on the street and in the subway. Domingo Cavallo, President Menem's Minister of Finance, called Menem's inner circle of advisors "a Mafiosi regime" based on "corruption, drug [money] laundering and political thuggery."

Gangsters from the dictatorship largely run Argentina's military and police. Between January and September 1997, there were 116 violent incidents or threats against journalists, including the grisly murder of photographer Jose Luis Cabezas. Police are the main suspects. On May 16, 2000 judge Maria Servini de Cubria, who is investigating the baby thefts, called for protection after a series of threats, including a break-in at her legal secretary's home where a knife was left imbedded in the closet.

"The military destroyed two generations of Argentines," Antonio Savone told me in Toronto recently. "That is why we have no leaders left." Antonio was tortured and beaten for two and a half years during the dictatorship before he escaped to Canada. By killing one generation and stealing the other, the junta robbed Argentina of the future that both represented - one of social justice, compassion and equality.


The CIA Connection

According to journalist Bob Woodward, "the [Buenos Aires] CIA station had extremely close relations with the Argentine generals." Army Battalion 601 was linked to the CIA and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. In the late 1960s, the CIA brought together Argentine, Brazilian and Uruguayan military and police officers for training in wiretapping and other intelligence methods and for "supplies of explosives and untraceable guns." Latin American military and police were taught to build home-made bombs. These graduates returned to Argentina to blow up offices of lawyers who represented political prisoners, as well as media outlets and labour organizations.

The CIA's promotion of greater coordination between South American security services led to Operation Condor, a transnational program set up by Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia to hunt down and kill political dissidents, not only in Latin America, but in the U.S. and Europe. Those murdered in Condor operations included Orlando Letelier, the Chilean Ambassador to Washington under the Allende government and General Carlos Prats, head of the Chilean Army under Allende. Prats was killed in exile in Buenos Aires in 1974.

On May 14, 2000, Argentine judge Maria Servini de Cubria, who is probing the Prats murder and the baby kidnappings, announced that her investigation "leads to Pinochet, Argentine intelligence and the CIA."

Published in:

Briarpatch, September 2000

CCPA Monitor, September 2000

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