A few months ago I watched, from the twentieth row of a university auditorium, as Pablo del Río, a soft-spoken man in his early thirties with an ill-kept beard, gave testimony to a panel of judges. In a halting voice, his eyes fixed on the floor, he described events early on the morning of August 17, 1976, when his father was beaten and kidnapped by a group of plainclothes thugs acting on behalf of Argentina's military dictatorship. The next night the elder del Río was shot dead as he lay in his hospital bed. His offense: membership in a leftist political group.
The younger del Río clearly found it excruciating to testify in public about his father's murder. From time to time his swivel chair creaked as he turned to face the elderly defendants seated in the two front rows:
"You don't kill people," he told them, his voice trembling with rage. "You just don't kill people."
Del Río could just as easily have been addressing the broader public beyond the courtroom. Today, 35 years after the fall of the most brutal dictatorship in the country's history, Argentina is still grappling with the legacy of violence it left behind. In the provincial Argentine university city of Bahía Blanca, 17 former soldiers and police officers are standing trial on more than a hundred counts of murder, kidnapping, and torture. But the proceedings have much broader implications than a conventional criminal case. The white-haired men in the dock stand for the members of an implied community -- families, friends, and neighbors -- who have never really acknowledged their links to the horrors of that era. The trial, which has already lasted for almost a year, is due to end next month.
Located seven hours south of Buenos Aires by car and nestled between the South Atlantic coast and the dry plains of Patagonia, Bahía Blanca offers a fitting microcosm of Argentina's divided soul. It is a medium-sized, affluent city that includes both bastions of progressive politics and a sizable contingent of staunch conservatives. It is home to a prestigious and politically liberal university, the Universidad Nacional del Sur (UNS). But it also has a significant military presence and hosts the largest naval base in Argentina. Its main newspaper, La Nueva Provincia, is one of the most conservative in the country.
In what later came to be known as the "Dirty War," the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 sent as many as 30,000 political protesters, students, and labor activists to their deaths in clandestine detention centers. Though armed leftist groups did mount a challenge to the government at first, soon the only enemies of the state that remained were young men and women, often guilty of little more than attending the wrong rally or owning the wrong book. Nearly 5,000 people died in Argentina's largest clandestine detention center, the Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires (commonly known as "La Escuela," or "the School"). In Bahía Blanca, the local army unit set up its own perversely named torture center, "La Escuelita" ("the Little School"), in an abandoned building just beyond the city limits. (Last month, Alicia Partnoy, one of the survivors of La Escuelita, testified at the Bahia Blanca trial, repeating an account she has also described in a remarkable memoir of her experiences.) Even today, signs of those years of terror are hidden in plain sight around the city -- like a small plaque in the university hallway commemorating the spot where two uniformed men shot a student dead after he was caught passing out political leaflets. The bullet holes have been plastered over, but the ensuing decades have failed to heal the country's wounds. (The photo above shows María Graciela Izurieta, who disappeared in Bahía Blanca in 1976 and has never been seen again.)