Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Argentine “Dirty War” (1969–1983)

Argentine “Dirty War” (1969–1983)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: The Argentine government and
military junta vs. all political rivals, principally left-wing



MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Control of the Argentine

OUTCOME: Although the leftists were defeated, the
extreme right-wing junta ultimately lost control, and
on October 30, 1983, democratic elections were held.

Government forces, 154,000 (plus thousands of rightwing
terrorists); guerrilla forces, about 3,000

CASUALTIES: About 18,000 killed or “disappeared,” mostly


The so-called Dirty War was fought by a variety of guerrilla
groups against the ruling military dictatorship of
Argentina. Among the welter of organizations involved,
the two main guerrilla armies were the Montoneros, a leftist
group favoring the return of populist leader Juan Perón
(1895–1974), and the People’s Revolutionary Army
(ERP), a radical Marxist group, established on July 28,
1970, which had the goal of leading a mass uprising.
As its name suggests, the war was not fought in set
battles by regular armies but was a long sequence of guerrilla
and terrorist acts, the first of which was the abduction,
on June 1, 1969, and execution of former president
Pedro Aramburu (c. 1903–70), a leading anti-Perónist, by
the Montoneros. This was followed by low-level terrorist
warfare, which included the August 15, 1972, escape of 25
ERP political prisoners in Patagonia. A handful hijacked
an airplane and escaped, but 16 were captured and summarily
machine-gunned to death. This act gave the Marxists
martyrs, around whom they rallied, and on June 20,
1973, an airport celebration to welcome Juan Perón from
18 years of Spanish exile erupted into a gun battle in
which 30 died and 300 were wounded.
Shortly after his return to Argentina, Perón again
became president of Argentina, with his second wife,
Isabel (b. 1931), as vice president. This temporarily
quelled national violence, but that was renewed as Perón
leaned increasingly toward the right. His death on July 1,
1974, brought Isabel Perón into office and reignited violence
on a large scale. The ERP and the Montoneros consisted
of at most a few thousand troops, whereas the
Argentine government commanded a military of 85,000
soldiers, 33,000 sailors and marines, 17,000 airmen, and
19,000 paramilitary police troops. In addition, right-wing
militias consisted of several thousands.
As the general violence escalated, the ERP was reinforced
by guerrilla exiles from Chile, Bolivia, and Uruguay.
These groups incited rebellion in rural districts, while the
Montoneros focused on the cities. The Argentine army
launched a sweeping offensive against the ERP in Tucuman
during February–April 1975. The government forces,
8,000 strong, reported killing some 350 guerrillas, and
within the first eight months of 1975 that toll had risen to
800. However, rebels launched several attacks directly on
the military, including a December 23, 1975, assault on the
arsenal at Monte Chingolo, a suburb of Buenos Aires.
Simultaneously with this attack, some 170 guerrillas struck
military and police targets in the city proper. Government
forces repulsed all the attacks. A total of 85 guerrillas died,
as did seven government soldiers and 10 civilians.
The chronic violence, compounded by the widespread
corruption of the Isabel Perón regime, prompted the military
to mount a coup, which ousted Perón on March 24,
1976. A military junta under General Jorge Rafael Videla
(b. 1925) took draconian measures against the leftists.
Between March 1976 and March 1977 1,700 guerrillas and
leftist “sympathizers” were killed at the cost of 124 deaths
among military forces.
The Argentine military actively recruited the assistance
of right-wing terror squads, which initiated a campaign
against some 25,000 political exiles living in Argentina. The
most prominent of these was the former leftist president of
Bolivia, Juan José Torres (1947–76), murdered by rightists
in June 1976.
Despite the forces mounted against them, leftist guerrillas
continued to strike back. In June 1976 the Montoneros
assassinated federal police chief General Cesareo
Cardozo and the next month detonated a bomb in the dining
room of the Superintendency of Federal Security,
killing 43 officers and wounding 100. In October Videla
was the target of a bomb planted under a reviewing stand;
he narrowly escaped death. But the July 1976 assassination
of General Omar Carlos Actis by the guerrillas triggered
massive retaliation from rightist terror squads,
which assassinated some 50 prominent leftists, including
the top members of the ERP.
The year 1976 was the bloodiest of the period of
rightist repression, with a death toll of 1,480. In 1977, 677
died, and by 1978 the leftist guerrillas had been badly
sapped, down to a few hundred hard-liners. By the end of
the decade the guerrilla movement had been effectively
crushed. About 9,000 leftists had lost their lives since
1970, and another 7,000 had simply vanished—disappeared—
after arrest by the junta. The junta reported a
total of 2,050 civilians killed by terrorists of the left as well
as right during the period 1973–79. More objective
observers attribute only about 700 deaths to leftist terrorism.
The military government of Argentina also killed
political refugees from neighboring nations. Pursuant to
secret agreements with other right-wing South American
dictatorships, “Operation Condor” killed 118 Uruguayan
exiles, 57 Paraguayans, 49 Chileans, and nine Brazilians.
Between April 2 and June 14, 1982, the Argentine military
was embroiled in war with Great Britain over control
of the Falkland Islands (see FALKLAND ISLANDSWAR). After
Argentina’s initial success in overpowering the 84-man
Royal Marine garrison at Port Stanley, the military leadership
was discredited, and by June 14 the military governor
of the Falklands, General Mario Benjamín Menéndez
(active 1970s–80s), surrendered to British major general
Jeremy Moore (b. 1933). Three days later President Leopoldo
Galtieri (1926–2003) resigned and was succeeded by
Major General Reynaldo Bignone, who reconstituted the
junta and began taking steps toward reinstating civilian
rule. On October 30, 1983, Raúl Alfonsín (b. 1926) was
elected president. Inaugurated on December 10, the new
president quickly stated his intention to arrest the members
of the military junta who had conducted the “dirty
war” since 1976. He prosecuted members of the armed
forces for human rights abuses, and a number of highranking
government officials were tried, convicted, and
sentenced to life imprisonment. Under pressure from the
military, which threatened a new coup, Alfonsín pardoned
most of those convicted before he left office in 1989.

Further reading: Iain Guest, Behind the Disappearances:
Argentina’s Dirty War Against Human Rights and the
United Nations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 2000); Daniel K. Lewis, The History of Argentina
(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

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