Democracy Lab

The Stubborn Past

Thirty-five years after the "Dirty War," a trial in Argentina is still struggling to shed light on a bloody legacy.

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.)

But why bring up the past now? The answer, as one might expect, involves both politics and the persistence of demands for a proper reckoning. After democracy was restored in 1983, the government of President Raúl Alfonsín tried only the top members of the previous military regime for crimes against humanity, giving amnesty to the rest. When President Carlos Menem came to power in 1989, however, he adopted a policy of "forgive and forget." He pardoned all former officials (and the much smaller number of anti-government guerillas still around) and freed those serving prison sentences.

It was only in 2003 with the appearance on the scene of President Nestor Kirchner, who lost many friends in the "dirty war," that cases were re-opened against all ranks of the military. His widow and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has continued his policy of confronting the legacy of the military junta. Last year, when the current human rights trial finally opened in Bahía Blanca, it ended a long period of reticence about this dark chapter in the city's past. The trial is just one of 13 others currently under way around Argentina.

We often use the expression "to bury the past," but Argentina's experience suggests that this is much harder than it looks. Take, for example, the persistently recurring issue of the fate of the children who lost their parents in the state-sponsored violence. Some of the "disappeared" were young pregnant mothers who were kidnapped, detained until they gave birth, and then killed. Their babies were given up for adoption, in some cases to childless military families. Since DNA testing became widely available in the 1990s, the national victims groups H.I.J.O.S. and the Nobel-prize-winning Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo have linked various desaparecido children to their biological families. In at least one now-notorious case, a young woman discovered that the man she thought was her father was actually the officer who had tortured and killed her parents.

In some instances, these cases have grabbed national headlines, as when two young heirs to the Clarín media group fortune were suspected of being the biological children of desaparecidos. It's an issue that also haunts the tribunal in Bahía Blanca. Last November, 36-year old Adriana Metz took the stand to tell about the morning in December 1976, when government agents kidnapped her pregnant mother, Graciela Romero. Metz and her family have reason to believe that Romero subsequently gave birth to a boy during Romero's imprisonment in the La Escuelita prison, and has asked that government archives be opened so that they can learn the truth. When prosecutor Córdoba asked her what it meant to her to discover that she had a brother, she paused for a full minute before answering: "It meant that I don't have my mother anymore. That I don't have my father. And, now, that I don't have my brother."

Not everyone in Bahía Blanca, however, wants to listen. Argentines exult in their own garrulousness, so the silence I encountered whenever I broached the subject of the tribunal was all the more striking. One pleasant summer afternoon, I chatted poolside with a neighbor, a local landlord named Vicente. An amiable man with a sharp laugh and a round belly upon which he rested discarded peanut shells, his mood darkened when I mentioned the trial. "‘Human rights' is a business enterprise, nothing more," he said, explaining his view that the proceedings were just a political ploy to drum up financial and popular support for the president. He became irate when I asked whether the victims of the former military regime deserved justice: "There was fighting on both sides," he told me. "We shouldn't be crying about human rights, we should be thanking those generals that we're not like Cuba, that there's no Berlin Wall in Buenos Aires!"

The Cold War-era language of a "communist threat" that Vicente employed is still commonplace in the more conservative communities in Bahía Blanca. It finds its most regular expression in the editorial pages of La Nueva Provincia, which has repeatedly invoked Argentina's good fortune in "winning the war against the subversives."

Supporters of the tribunal argue that it is precisely this continuing undercurrent of support for the policies of the old regime that dictates the need for a public criminal proceeding. Graciela Cortazar, a lawyer in Bahía Blanca and a law professor at the university, articulated the need for a trial as a way of setting the record straight in the community. Referring to the local newspaper and its well-known sympathies for the military, Graciela told me: "La Nueva's level of denial about what happened is close to that of the Nazis in Germany. If we don't try these men in a legitimate court of justice, I fear what that paper and its loyal readers will be able to claim."

When I asked Walter Larrea, a prosecutor in the trial, about the skepticism that many people in the community felt towards the proceedings, he let out a dry laugh. "This city is one big bag of guilt," he said.

He told me that he sees the trial both as a means for making the perpetrators answer for their actions as well as a vital step toward confronting the city with its own complicity. Whether it was a neighbor who witnessed a kidnapping and then went back to bed, or a police officer who described a cold-blooded act of murder as an "altercation" in his report, Larrea explained, it took many cogs to make the military regime's mechanism of terror run smoothly. "There's a collective sense of shame that they do not want to confront," Larrea told me. "Now we are going to face it. Argentines have to learn that we can no longer hide from our past."

The trial in Bahía Blanca is complicated by the fact that it has two competing goals. It seeks to punish the individuals involved while at the same time shedding light on a period that has been cloaked in darkness for over three decades. It should come as little surprise that there is considerable debate about whether a formal legal proceeding can encompass the full scope of past crimes against humanity. "Sometimes we have to look for ‘absolute truth' instead of ‘absolute justice,'" chief prosecutor Abel Córdoba told me. "What might not cut it as legal proof still gets into the history books."

Yet Córdoba has hardly been shy about invoking his prosecutorial powers. Last year, testimony from one victim, a former leftist parliamentarian named Mario Edgardo Medina, implicated a long-time law professor at the university. Medina, who described how he was taken away in the trunk of a car after being abducted from his Bahía Blanca home in 1976, recalled that the future professor, Hugo Sierra, had sat by and taken notes during his subsequent interrogation. Medina was then dispatched to La Escuelita. He emerged from detention only four years later.

Following Medina's testimony, the federal tribunal ordered Sierra's immediate arrest, and hours later the grey-haired law professor was taken into custody. Though his arrest was highly publicized, Sierra was released the next day on insufficient evidence. Still, the allegations have made him a pariah in many quarters. The court's decision to arrest Sierra represented an aggressive interpretation of its mandate. Unlike the defendants, the professor never served in the military or the police force. Even if he acted as a tool of terror during the Dirty War, how could he be implicated in this particular trial? It remains unclear whether Córdoba genuinely expected to prosecute Sierra or merely intended to make a public statement about his role that would then become part of the historical record.

As the arrest of Sierra clearly shows, the prosecutors are looking far beyond the former military officers and policemen directly accused in the trial. Larrea's emphasis on a "collective sense of shame" is echoed in the courtroom nearly every day. The victims' testimonies rarely involve the men in the dock, and the prosecutors frequently ask the witnesses how other people -- priests, neighbors, colleagues, or even journalists at La Nueva Provincia -- might have contributed to their ordeals. After the trial ends next month, the prosecutor intends to launch a similar case this summer against the local navy unit, in part for its involvement in the infamous "Death Flights" of that era.

And that, in turn, raises another fundamental question about criminal investigations like Argentina's: How far should the circle of culpability extend? It seems obvious that everyone should condemn the soldier who pushed a pregnant woman, drugged but alive, out of an airplane -- but what about the air-traffic controller who guided the plane to its destination and back? It was the military regime that carried out the policies at the heart of the Dirty War, but those policies would have been impossible without the complicity of broad swathes of society.

Argentina's recent experience vividly demonstrates that countries emerging from authoritarian rule cannot expect quick or easy fixes to the problems of transitional justice. How can a country expect to bury its past when so many of its vanished victims never had graves? Katherine Sikkink, a leading scholar on transitional justice, argues that criminal trials can be inherently healing even when they don't reach a clear verdict. But based on my own experience of the tribunal in Bahía Blanca, I suspect that many of the victims of the Dirty War won't be satisfied merely by an act of public catharsis. Many of them say they want to see the killers of their loved ones punished with the full force of the law.

The undeniable need for this trial in Bahía Blanca, half a lifetime after the events it scrutinizes, suggests that other countries emerging from authoritarian rule will have little choice but to confront the horrors of the past. They must initiate this painful process even without the promise of closure. Even the best-dressed wound still leaves a scar.

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