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Remembering Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’

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Seven years between 1976 and 1983, known as ‘La Guerra Sucia’ (‘The Dirty War’), have a lasting effect on the people of Argentina. Labelled “the most savage tragedy in the history of Argentina” by renowned novelist Ernesto Sábato, these years were characterised by unthinkably gruesome methods of torture and murder, draconian oppression and continued violation of human rights, all at the hands of the state. 

In 1976, Isabel Perón, known as ‘Evita’ by many, was overthrown by Argentine Army General Jorge Rafael Videla in a right-wing coup d’état. It was this act of military rebellion that ignited ‘La Guerra Sucia’, giving complete control to a military junta who called themselves ‘El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional’ (‘The Process of National Reorganisation’) and made Videla the new leader of Argentina. However, ‘La Guerra Sucia’ in Argentina was just one part of something much bigger taking place in South America know as Operation Condor.  Supposedly backed by the United States, Operation Condor was a parastatal “anti-Communist crusade” in the form of coordinated state terrorism that sought to eradicate any potential left-wing subversion throughout Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil. It is difficult to accurately calculate how many people lost their lives in Argentina alone, but estimations from human rights organisations put the figure at around 30,000. A US document that has now been unclassified gives insight into the kidnappings and methods of torture and murder that took place during this time. In a section that refers to an Amnesty International report from 1979, methods of torture used to intimidate and extract information included “cigarette burns…sexual abuse, rape…removing teeth, fingernails and eyes…burning with boiling water, oil and acid: and even castration”. There are even reports about ‘los vuelos de la muerte’ (‘death flights’) in which innocent people were kidnapped, tortured, and then disposed of, being dropped from aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean. 

In 1984, the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) published a report called ‘Nunca Más’, shedding light on the location of over 300 secret detention centres, detailing personal accounts of torture and giving evidence of mass burial sites and endless murder cases. Since then, governmental efforts to bring about justice have wavered. During the presidency of Raul Alfonsín, for example, many crimes and criminals alike went unpunished. However, the Kirchnerite era (2003-2015) featured a strong human rights policy that “set a propitious stage for advancing the trials against humanity” (Buenos Aires Times). 

But what is the current situation? And what is the current president, Alberto Fernández, doing to ensure this gory past is not forgotten? 24th March marked 45 years since the coup and Argentina remembered the atrocity of ‘La Guerra Sucia’ with a public holiday established in 2002: ‘Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (“National day of Memory for Truth and Justice”). Despite the absence of any large-scale public events of remembrance, due to COVID-19, it would appear that the current President is dedicated to maintaining a strong relationship between the state and human rights organisations. Fernández, in a small event in the run up to the public holiday, labelled the coup of 1977 “un quiebre moral” (“a moral breakdown”), stressing the necessity to pause and reflect. He said at the event, “nunca debemos olvidar y nunca debemos dejar de repudiar”

“We must never forget, and we must never stop condemning”.

In a separate event on the eve of the 24th of March he also lauded the efforts of three human rights groups: ‘Familiares de Desaparecidos y Detenidos por Razones Políticas’, ‘Madres de La Plaza de Mayo’ and ‘Abuelas de La Plaza de Mayo’. In recognition of their efforts to shed light on the horrors of ‘La Guerra Sucia’ and their courage to continually strive for truth and justice, they were awarded the “Juana Azurduay” prize. Fernández has also been photographed participating in the ‘Plantamos Memoria’ campaign, launched by rights groups including the ‘Madres de la Plaza de Mayo’, which aims to plant 30,000 trees in memory of the 30,000 who disappeared during the dictatorship. In addition to this, the Foreign Ministry is set to launch an international campaign that aims to promote the search for those affected by the dictatorship who now reside abroad and may be unaware of their true identity. Above all, somewhat miraculously, Boca Juniors and River Plate football clubs have agreed to come together to launch a project that aims to give help to families who suffered at the hands of the military dictatorship. 

It seems, therefore, that Fernández has concretised a culture of remembrance and justice, even harmonising one of the fiercest rivalries in football. It is reassuring to see that for the time being all Argentinians, regardless of their footballing allegiance, are willing to unite in the name of justice. Despite COVID-19’s efforts to dampen the 45th anniversary of the coup, no stone is being left unturned in order to remember the pain of those ‘dirty’ seven years, and to honour those who showed and continue to show the courage to condemn the barbarity of the Videla’s military dictatorship. 

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