Argentina’s Missing Bones is the first comprehensive English-language work of historical scholarship on the 1976–83 military dictatorship and Argentina’s notorious experience with state terrorism during the so-called dirty war. It examines this history in a single but crucial place: Córdoba, Argentina’s second largest city. A site of thunderous working-class and student protest prior to the dictatorship, it later became a place where state terrorism was particularly cruel. Considering the legacy of this violent period, James P. Brennan examines the role of the state in constructing a public memory of the violence and in holding those responsible accountable through the most extensive trials for crimes against humanity to take place anywhere in Latin America.
About the Author
James P. Brennan is Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside, where he teaches modern Latin American history.
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Apostles of the New Order
To combat day and night until annihilating these subversive criminals who want to subjugate the still standing Argentina to the bloody dictates of foreign regimes.
— GENERAL LUCIANO BENJAMÍN MENÉNDEZ
The military government that assumed power on March 24, 1976, did so with a determination to both transform the country and neutralize, indeed to annihilate, those who, so they believed, held radical agendas of their own that threatened Argentina's sovereignty and its national traditions, its cultural identity. A brutal dictatorship emerged in response to years of social mobilization and popular protest, but even more menacing, also of a Left confident of its ascendance within the working class, influential if not dominant in the new youth culture, and prepared to employ extreme measures to fashion a new society. Antonius Robben has characterized the military's violence and the state terrorism of these years as a "cultural war," a war on an ensemble of ideas, beliefs, and ideologies that the military, forged in its own culture of integralista Catholic nationalism, found repugnant and destructive. The dirty war was certainly partly a cultural war, but it was also much more. The threats operated on levels beyond the ideational and eventual, were immediate, visible, and present in multiple sites. The armed Left encroached on the military's monopoly of violence and therefore threatened its institutional integrity. The Catholic Church posed another threat, a Church wracked by internal rifts caused by the Left's ascendance and in its growing influence in social spaces formerly the sole preserve of the secular Left. Working-class militancy in the workplace and outside of it threatened powerful business interests and Argentine capitalism itself. A revolution of the kind the Left envisioned jeopardized Argentina's international alliances and the web of interests tied to those alliances, everything from its links to international financial institutions to those strictly related to hemispheric defense.
Political violence in Córdoba, even state-sanctioned terrorism, did not begin with the 1976 coup and the military government that followed. It had occurred periodically in the city since the establishment of the dictatorship of Gen. Juan Carlos Onganía in 1966, flaring up especially in moments of social protest and labor agitation, and became endemic in the final years of the 1973–76 Peronist government. Its perpetrators were the military, police, union thugs, and paramilitary organizations with shadowy links to the security forces, governments, and local business groups. The infamous right-wing death squads of Peronist government minister José López Rega, the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (AAA), independent of the army and targeting largely enemies within the Peronist movement, had less influence in Córdoba than a paramilitary organization, the Comando Libertadores de América, under the army's direct command and targeting the entire Left, Peronist and otherwise.
Violence, however, had not been a monopoly of the Right. The Left had practiced it as well, though violence of a different character and certainly with other objectives. Particularly after the 1969 Cordobazo, a massive social protest against the Onganía dictatorship, various leftist organizations had accepted violent tactics including armed struggle and targeted assassinations as legitimate responses to right-wing provocations as well as part of a broad revolutionary strategy. Virtually every leftist organization with a presence in Córdoba, with the exception of the Communist Party, had sanctioned it to some degree. Sympathy for violence as an appropriate, even necessary response to class inequalities, dictatorship, and censorship also flourished among the university students and within the youth culture generally. In Córdoba, perhaps as in nowhere else in Argentina given its large university student population, "la juventud" was a sociopolitical and cultural category, not simply a biological stage. To be young in these years meant much more than nonconformist, even rebellious behavior. It meant embracing a new ethic and assuming the cost of a new political activism, including the possibility of violent death, one's own and that of another.
Though the leftist influences in the city's youth culture were manifested in other sites, in working-class neighborhoods and in the factories among others, it was above all in the university where revolutionary ideas and the sanctioning of violence flourished. Córdoba's large public university, the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, was not only the country's oldest university but also the most politicized. Drawing on its history as the site of the historic 1918 university reform movement, the university had occupied a central place in Córdoba's civic life in subsequent decades. During the government of Juan Domingo Perón (1946–55), Córdoba's overwhelmingly Catholic and then largely middleclass student body had comprised a bulwark of opposition to the regime. After Perón's fall, the country's entire public university system experienced a thorough revamping. The first expression of such reform was the recovery of university autonomy, an academic independence greatly compromised during Perón's government. The purging of Peronist faculty and administrators was itself a highly political act and did not respond to purely academic criteria as claimed by the new public authorities, nor did the return of faculty forced to abandon the university during the Perón years always represent a triumph of academic qualifications over political sympathies. The ten years that followed witnessed large student mobilizations to protest university policies as well as a growing radicalization as the Cuban Revolution penetrated deep into student identity and reformist ideas ceded to revolutionary solutions.
The subsequent decade would prove tumultuous. Nationally, this new stage was inaugurated by an ominous event: the 1966 attack on university professors in Buenos Aires by police, an event known as the "Noche de los Bastones Largos." In Córdoba, university politics moved largely underground with the military's assumption of power that same year and the government's interdiction of the university that followed. Occasional acts of state violence became routine with the onset of the Juan Carlos Onganía dictatorship (1966–70). These mostly took the form of unlawful arrests and abusive police interrogations, excessive force by the military and police alike in suppressing strike actions by local unions and student protests, and a few violent deaths at the hands of security forces, such as the shooting of autoworker Máximo Mena, an event that triggered the 1969 Cordobazo, which marked a turning point in the escalation of violence in the city by public authorities. The mass arrest of protesters, the ignoring of writs of habeas corpus and lengthy prison sentences swiftly imposed by military tribunals, as well as accusations of police and army abuse of prisoners ushered in a decade of intimidation, terror, and torture. Army occupation of the Fiat factories in 1971, one of the largest industrial complexes in the city, was followed by a terror campaign against the deposed leadership of the clasista unions there. The frequent arrests of union leader Agustín Tosco and harsh treatment of student activists and protesters in these years formed part of an established pattern now of interpreting any acts of civil disobedience and legitimate protest as unlawful, to be met with a summary, decisive response and indifferent to due process and established legal procedures. The military government in power at the time of the Cordobazo ignored both the social underpinnings of the uprising and the reports on its causes by the local military commanders responsible for suppressing the protest, attributing it strictly to the work of "extremist organizations" and, what was soon to become a favorite characterization, "subversive groups," providing the military henceforth with its institutional interpretation of the events of May 1969 that would greatly influence its subsequent behavior.
Contemporary with its repressive policies, the military established the legislative scaffolding authorizing its tactics. In 1970 the military government decreed a law (ley 18.670) that made certain crimes exempt from appeal, and the following year penalties were increased for crimes that would have fallen under the vague rubric of "subversion" while establishing a new legal body, the Cámara Federal, with jurisdiction over such crimes. In June of that year, a revised version of the 1966 Ley de Defensa Nacional from the Onganía dictatorship authorized the executive to employ the armed forces to investigate, prevent, and combat subversion during declared states of siege, and the following year a newly decreed law actually passed jurisdiction for certain crimes to military courts. Onganía's Ley de Defensa Nacional would not be repealed until the Alfonsín presidency (1983–89) and other "antisubversive" legislation from the 1966–73 military governments, though briefly repealed with the return of Peronism to power in 1973, would in piecemeal fashion be resuscitated with Perón's 1974 assumption of the presidency and then under his widow and successor, Isabel Perón.
Such severe reactions deepened sympathy for equally violent responses. Following the Cordobazo, a marked shift took place toward political radicalism and a popular sanctioning of violence occurred, both sentiments particularly potent within the ranks of Córdoba's youth. Revolutionary organizations that supported armed struggle and had existed before the Cordobazo, such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR) and the Fuerzas Armadas Peronistas (FAP), redoubled their commitment to direct, violent confrontation with the government and with so-called counterrevolutionary forces, while new ones equally convinced of the legitimacy of violent tactics, such as the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) and the Montoneros, emerged in the wake of the Cordobazo. The onset of the 1973–76 Peronist government escalated the situation as Peronism experienced a rancorous and bloody internal struggle for control of the movement. By now violence had become a talisman, viewed as a legitimate and indeed ineluctable way of confronting adversaries now more than just the public authorities and security forces. The eruption of guerrilla violence following the Cordobazo in the form of the Montoneros and the ERP signaled a qualitative change in the political culture, nationally and locally. Nationally, the Peronist Left's rhetoric and actions invoked revolutionary war to both purge Peronism of traitorous elements from within its ranks in the form of union bureaucrats and fascistic nationalists and for an assault on state power. The Montoneros' public statements, broadsides, and publications are replete with a language exalting war, a popular army, military strategy, and martyrdom. A Montonero training manual from 1974, complete with illustrations, gave precise instructions on the use of firearms, bomb making, propaganda work, and how to organize a street demonstration, and detailed a Spartan code of expected comportment from the Montonero militant. The formation of a "Montonero army" and this army's "Montonero militias" were invoked as a legitimate use of violence, sanctioned, it was said, by Perón himself.
Born of the long history of fraudulent elections, the proscription of Peronism, as well as manifold intellectual and cultural influences, some domestic and others foreign in origin, the revolutionary Left of both Peronist and Marxist tendencies won recruits and in the beginning enjoyed considerable popular support. Its tactics in these and subsequent years ranged from kidnappings to targeted assassinations to urban and rural guerrilla warfare. The largest attempt at armed struggle was that of the ERP in the mountains of Tucumán province, where an estimated five hundred to six hundred erpistas launched a guerrilla war, heavily influenced by the Cuban example, in the final months of the restored Peronist government. With the restoration of civilian rule and ascension to power in 1973 of the FREJULI electoral alliance dominated by the Peronists, popular support for the Left's violent tactics flagged among some sectors but remained potent among others, especially university students and, to a lesser extent, working-class youth. The Cámpora government's May 1973 release from prison of Montonero, ERP, and other leftist militants, who in most cases immediately resumed their activism, in many ways marked the high point of their influence, though the amnesty also enraged the military, galvanized its resolve to purge the country of its various leftist factions and influences, and undoubtedly contributed to the extreme tactic of the death camps and disappearances that would follow the 1976 coup. It convinced the military that legal procedures and civilian government could not be entrusted with responsibility for neutralizing the "subversives."
Repression of the Left did not have to wait for military rule. With Perón's return to power in late 1973, the Peronist government undertook a sustained, brutal campaign against it, one that included the military, police, and a separately organized death squad, the AAA, run out of the offices of the Social Welfare Ministry. Both Perón and his successor to the presidency, his wife Isabel, passed a cluster of laws intended to legitimize harsh government measures, including broad powers to arrest, in the name of national security and extirpating subversion. In November 1974 the Peronist government declared a state of siege, greatly curtailing civil liberties and leading to an exponential growth in arrests and imprisonment, a state of siege that would continue under the military government and not be lifted until the restoration of democracy in 1983. A November 1975 proposed bill, supported by the country's major political parties, essentially ceded all control to the military in the "war against subversion" including powers to decree edicts that would circumvent the legislature and the establishment of military tribunals of the kind employed in the aftermath of the Cordobazo with broad powers that overrode those of the civil courts. Only procedural chaos in the final months of Isabel Perón's government prevented the bill from becoming law, but the draconian terms revealed the extent to which a full-scale assault on the Left had intensified under the Peronist government. By the time of the 1976 coup, the revolutionary Left had been gravely wounded, its ranks depleted, morale low, and much of the remaining leadership living clandestinely or in exile, though it retained some capacity for another year.
In Córdoba this story played out dramatically. The Left there had a most complicated history. Initially, the Montoneros and ERP both had replicated the militarization of their organizations and supported violent strategies, though they were at least as active in the city in other ways. Despite ample available targets among the leadership of the local Peronist ortodoxo union leadership, the Montoneros in Córdoba did not adopt the tactics of targeted assassinations of so-called union bureaucrats that were common in Buenos Aires. They did engage frequently in other violent acts such as bank robberies and kidnappings, and indeed the first public act by the Montoneros anywhere in the country took place outside the city in the small town of La Calera, the July 1970 abortive raid on a local police station and bank robbery, culminating in a shootout and the death of local Montonero leader Emilio Maza. La Calera was the first of many armed actions perpetrated by the Peronist Left in and around Córdoba, not just the Montoneros but also FAR and FAP. The ERP in Córdoba was even more prone to such tactics, and there were some notorious examples of assassinations of businessmen and military and police officers.
Yet the revolutionary threat represented by the Peronist and Marxist Left cannot be reduced simply to "redemptive and retributive" violence, as one anthropologist has described it. The militarization of the Left was a reality, but sole focus on its violent tactics simplifies and distorts its history, both as an actor and perceptions of it by the military. In Córdoba, as a new scholarship has demonstrated in the case of other urban areas, both the Peronist and Marxist Left expended greater efforts to recruit among university students, workers, and in the city's poorest neighborhood and employed strategies in the city that were more political than military in nature. The Montoneros' surface organization and political wing, the Juventud Peronista (JP) was especially active in the university and in the city's slums or villas miserias. Often working in tandem with activist priests drawn from the Third World Priests (Sacerdotes del Tercer Mundo) movement, rather than firefights with the army and police, they engaged in such unglamorous behavior as running literacy campaigns and soup kitchens. The ERP's political wing, the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT), also was active in the university and won a large following there, but concentrated more than the JP/Montoneros on political recruitment among the city's large working-class population, especially in its large automotive complexes. Other leftist groups (the Partido Comunista Revolucionario [PCR], Peronismo de Base [PB], Vanguardia Comunista [VC], Poder Obrero [Organización Comunista Poder Obrero or OCPO]), stronger in Córdoba than in other urban centers, also concentrated on gaining working-class followers. To reduce their activities to violence underestimates the complexity of their revolutionary praxis and also the perceived threat that their actions represented to the military. Therein lay part of the explanation why the state terrorism continued long after the Left's armed contingents had been defeated and its leadership dead or in exile.
Excerpted from "Argentina's Missing Bones"
Copyright © 2018 James P. Brennan.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 1. Threats: Apostles of the New Order 8 2. Dictatorship: Terrorizing Córdoba 19 3. Death Camp: La Perla 36 4. Institutional Dynamics: The Third Army Corps 51 5. Transnational Dynamics: The Cold War and the War against Subversion 62 6. Five Trials: Public Reckonings of a Violent Past 77 7. Remembering: Memories of Violence and Terror 89 8. Assigning Blame: Who Was Responsible for the Dirty War? 105 Epilogue 116 Appendix 1 119 Appendix 2 123 Appendix 3 149 Notes 155 Selected Bibliography 181