|Jorge Videla, left and Reinaldo Bignone|
Two former dictators of Argentina, along with six other ex-military figures have gone on trial this week accused of stealing up to 500 new born babies from political prisoners during the country’s violent military rule.
Jorge Videla, who ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1981 and Reinaldo Bignone, the county’s leader for the last year of military dictatorship before democracy’s return in 1983, appeared in court last Monday where charges covering 34 individual cases were read to them.
During the trial, officials for the prosecution will present evidence from around 370 people to outline the viciously cruel acts carried out by the regime during Argentina’s Dirty War – a period that Federal Prosecutor Federico Delgado called ‘one of the darkest episodes in Argentine history.’
Activist groups like La Asociación Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) say that the mothers of the children stolen were imprisoned in torture houses, where shortly after giving birth while blindfolded, they were executed and usually dropped from airplanes over the Atlantic or the River Plate. The babies were then given to families sympathetic to the military regime.
The 85-year-old Jorge Videla, who is already serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity after the amnesty he’d previously received was overturned in December last year, is widely regarded as the mastermind of Argentina’s Dirty War, which lasted seven brutal years from 1976 to 1983.
Videla's real rise to power came in 1975 when pressured by senior military figures and the wealthy rightist elite, President Isabel Perón appointed him Commander in Chief of the Argentine army after her government became increasingly threatened by a left-wing uprising. Videla immediately promoted the use of death squads, asserting that ‘as many as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.’ With his mitts firmly wrapped around power, a junta led a coup one year later.
|Videla in the 1970s|
The new regime, with Videla at its head, took on the task of ‘stabilising’ society.
It labelled itself ‘National Reorganisation Process’, and went about eradicating the country of so-called subversives, principally left-wing activists, trade unionists, Peronists, students, journalists and Marxists - a campaign that was known as Operation Condor.
Despite history, Videla still claims today that Argentine society at the time of his reign demanded strength to counter Marxist revolution.
The USA, a country petrified of communism, agreed, and so the Argentine military junta was allowed to carry on its brutal rule without an ounce of international objection from the north. In fact, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information act show that many high ranking US officials, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, gave their full support to the murderous regime and its Dirty War, and the US congress granted more than $US100,000,000 to assist the military dictatorship.
That astoundingly generous US donation was used to torture, kill and illegally arrest the regime’s enemies. Forced disappearances were the chosen method of disposal – no bodies meant wrongdoing was difficult to prove and the method was a popular one in many South American dictatorships.
All in all, the period was a dark and frightful time for Argentines. Many recall today how a halting late night train could leave you in terror at the sound of military boots marching down the aisles as soldiers checked order. While lending a fellow student (who then turned out to have Marxists tendencies), a textbook with your name in it, would more than likely see you join the growing list of the ‘disappeared’.
|Photographs of los desaparecidos|
It is estimated that 30,000 people went missing during the Dirty War. The majority remain unaccounted for but it is supposed they were tortured and murdered in concentration camps and their bodies dumped out at sea.
The case of the stolen children is particularly disturbing. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which is a group of mothers whose children disappeared, has identified 102 of the stolen babies to date. The grandson of the group's vice-president Rosa Roisinblit for example, was located in April, 2000. He'd been robbed from his mother after she gave birth to him in the concentration camp where she'd been imprisoned with her husband in 1978.
Jorge Videla and Reinaldo Bignone, who handed power over to the Social Democrat Raúl Alfonsín after Argentina was defeated during the military's last ditch effort to hold on to power with The Falklands War episode, are expected to be sentenced by the end of the year.