Will Argentina Deny Justice to Its 'Disappeared?'

Will Argentina Deny Justice to Its 'Disappeared?'

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – In recent years, Argentina has been recognized for its work bringing to justice perpetrators of state crimes, including mass murder, during the right wing military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. But now Argentines are beginning to worry that progress toward justice for these crimes is under threat.

Ana Maria Careaga is one torture survivor who is not willing to forgive and forget the terror she lived through during the dictatorship. Careaga was 16 years old and four months pregnant in June 1977 when armed men captured her and put a black hood over her head. They took her to a building in Buenos Aires that looked like a warehouse and was manned by the army. Like her fellow prisoners, she was charged with anti-government sympathies, and was blindfolded around the clock, hung from her arms and legs, and shocked in her private parts with an electric cattle prod.

While Careaga was being tortured, her mother, Esther Ballestrino Careaga, whose two sons had been “disappeared” the previous year, searched for her daughter. Esther was a co-founder the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women looking for their kidnapped children.

Esther Ballestrino held a doctorate in chemistry and worked in a Buenos Aires laboratory where she supervised a young chemical assistant who would later become a Jesuit priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis. Francis would later call Esther a “great woman” who taught him “the seriousness of hard work” and showed him that Marxists could be “good people.”

Ana Maria was eventually released, and the family fled to Sweden where her healthy boy was born, but her mother Esther returned to Argentina to continue to pressure the government to return the missing children.

In the week before Christmas 1977, armed men captured a dozen women – Esther, other members of the Mothers of the Disappeared, and two French nuns working with them – and took them to the naval mechanics’ school known as ESMA, which also functioned as one of the government’s largest torture centers. A few days later Esther and others were injected with a soporific and taken to a helicopter in which they were flown over the wide River Plate and dropped to their deaths.

Today the ESMA, where Esther Careaga and some 5,000 others were held, is a bulwark against forgetting – a public memorial to the disappeared, its spaces carefully preserved with descriptions of what happened in each.

One of the most chilling spaces is a plain, small room with pale walls where pregnant prisoners were taken in their seventh month of pregnancy and given a glass of milk and piece of fruit every day, in addition to the gruel given to the other prisoners. When the women in the small room gave birth, attended by doctors and nurses, the babies were given to officers and their friends and the new mothers were killed.

For years the Mothers of the Disappeared, and an offshoot commonly called the Abuelas, the Grandmothers of the Disappeared, have fought to find some 500 babies born in that room and ones like it. In late April, Argentine papers announced that the 122nd missing “grandchild” was “recovered” and reunited with members of his family.

“What has happened has generational effects," says Ana Maria Careaga. The children born to the murdered mothers and given over for adoption, she says, have lived their lives “in a mistaken genealogy.”

Reports and human rights advocates have long put the number killed during the dictatorship at approximately 30,000. In recent years more than 700 people, mostly individuals who had been part of the military, have been convicted and sentenced to prison. Today about 500 people remain in prison, including Alfredo Astiz, a notorious torturer known as the Blond Angel of Death who was implicated in the capture of Ana Maria’s mother Esther Ballestrino, and medics who assisted in the birthing room of the ESMA torture center.

But when a May 3 Supreme Court ruling opened the door for early release of those convicted of crimes against humanity, demonstrators erupted in protest.

Thousands of Argentines marched in the central Plaza de Mayo on May 10 to send a message to the country’s judges. “Trial and Punishment – No Genocide Perpetrators Free!” read some signs. “To Judges: Never Again!” read others. Many carried 1970s-era photos of the disappeared, young people smiling as in images taken from school yearbooks.

With exceptional speed, the Argentine Congress passed legislation that forbade the law used by the Supreme Court to be used in cases of crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, some fear that the Supreme Court decision, although it was overturned in light of public protest, indicates that the nation’s government is capable of shifting course and denying its past.

The decision came in the wake of comments made last year by President Mauricio Macri that he “didn't know” how many died in the paroxysm of state violence. He claimed the number may be as low as 9,000. Earlier, Buenos Aires City Culture Minister Darío Lopérfido stirred controversy when he said the “real” number was close to 8,000. Juan Gomez Centurion, a former soldier nominated by Macri to be head of Argentine Customs, also spoke of the murders saying “8,000 truths are not the same thing as 22,000 lies. There was no systematic plan for the disappearance of people.”

Such comments and the court decision have Argentine activists and relatives of the disappeared concerned that denial about the horrific period is officially taking root.

The Argentine Church, whose hierarchy notably supported the military during the violence, is now calling for “reconciliation.” For some, the call supports impunity.

“I was glad to be in a country emblematic for human rights,” 77-year-old former nurse Gladys Cuero told the Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12 after the Supreme Court decision. During the dictatorship, Cuero was subjected to waterboarding, burned with cigarettes, and forced to experience “other things that no normal person could imagine.”

Cuero says she felt that the nation had been on the right track, “but now I am going to get my guard up again.”

The violence of the dictatorship remains an open wound to thousands who survived torture or lost loved ones.

“You cannot forget by decree,” Ana Maria Careaga says.


Mary Jo McConahay’s book, Tango War: The Struggle Between the Axis and the Allies for the Hearts, Minds and Resources of Latin America, 1933-1945, will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2018.