With only a drawing and a name, human rights activists searched for a pregnant woman who disappeared in July 1977. The picture comes from the archive of the photographer Mónica Hasenberg. For a long time only the collections of human rights organizations were available to research the military dictatorship, but now the Argentine state runs its own remembrance archive. Today even US intelligence files are available online.
Argentine President Raúl Alfonsin has a serious expression on his face as he looks at the stack of papers handed to him by the writer Ernesto Sábato on 20 September 1984. The extensive report of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) documents for the first time in detail the systematic persecution that took place during the military dictatorship. Years later, comprehensive laws to compensate victims came into force in Argentina.
It was one of the first truth commissions in the world – although the 13 human rights activists, intellectuals and church representatives did not call it that at the time. It took them 280 days to reconstruct the “dirty war,” as the military called the fight against the internal enemy. The commission’s final report documented 50,000 pages of survivors’ testimonies on abductions, torture and executions.
According to the – not entirely flawless – report, at least 8,961 people disappeared in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. About 30 percent of them were women, and 200 children under 15 were also abducted. Many of the detainees ended up in one of 300 secret detention centers that the commission was able to identify through painstaking research. The report entitled “Never Again” (Nunca Más) became a bestseller in Argentina. The documents also formed the basis for the National Remembrance Archive founded in 2003.
At the time, the commission recommended granting economic aid to the relatives of the disappeared. But it took several more years before the corresponding laws came into force. In 1991, a first compensation law for former political prisoners was passed. According to Law No. 24.043, persons deprived of their liberty during the military dictatorship are entitled to one day's wages of public servants at the highest salary level for each day of detention served. House arrest and periods of probation also count as deprivation of liberty. In the case of deceased persons, the entitlement to compensation passes to their legal successors. Payment is made only if the applicant waives other claims for compensation for deprivation of liberty, arrest, death or injury.
This was followed in 1994 by Law No. 24.411, which provides compensation to the relatives of the disappeared and murdered. It is also extended to children who were given up for adoption after the death of their parents. According to the law, the compensation is one hundred times the monthly salary of an A-level public servant – the equivalent of about 220,000 US dollars. Legally, these are assets of the person concerned, which fall to the heirs or legal successors in the case of natural death. As proof of the disappearance, it suffices to send a complaint to the CONADEP Commission or its successor institution. A court decision following a criminal complaint can also be submitted.
Victims’ organizations have criticized the comparatively generous compensation regulations as being too sweeping. If they had had their way, the concrete problems of the persecuted and their relatives would have been examined first – as was done in Chile – in order to later decide on benefits tailored to specific needs. But it never came to that.
Political scientist Louis Bickford on the human rights archives in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay (registration required)
Website of the joint human rights archives Memoria Abierta (English/Spanish)
After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison
A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg
Instagram: After the dictatorship
With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
General Videla, standing taut, opens the agricultural exhibition in Buenos Aires in July 1976. Only a few months earlier, the Argentine army had carried out a coup and made him president. In 1985, a court sentenced him to life in prison for kidnapping, torturing and murdering numerous opposition activists. After passing some 1000 additional sentences, Argentina became a pioneer in the criminal prosecution of dictatorships.
When the military putsch took place on 24 March 1976, the military enjoyed strong public support in Argentina. With inflation at 300 percent and the execution of several brutal attacks, carried out mostly by left-wing terrorists, many hoped for an end to the country’s deep crisis. A personal profile from the CIA in 1980 is also full of praise for Videla. It describes him as deeply religious, highly moral and extremely patriotic. Under his rule, inflation was significantly reduced and terrorism virtually eliminated. "Despite Videla’s successes, however, the hardliner members of the armed forces are unhappy with his moderate, cautious approach to government,” states the declassified document on the junta chief.
The Court of Appeal’s judgement of 9 December 1985 reads quite differently. In the more than 300-page document, the then 60-year-old is accused of 19 counts of aggravated homicide, 194 counts of aggravated unlawful deprivation of liberty, 171 counts of torture, as well as robbery, child abduction, extortion and more. The judgement states: “It has been proven that despite the fact that they had all the legal instruments and means to carry out the repression in a lawful manner and without compromising its effectiveness, the commanders of the armed forces who took power on 24 March 1976 chose to carry out clandestine and illegal procedures within their respective commands on the basis of orders from the accused (...).
It has been established that, on the basis of these orders, acts were committed to the detriment of a large number of persons, both those who belonged to subversive organizations and those who did not; and that these acts consisted in the forcible arrest, secret detention, interrogation under torture and, in many cases, the physical elimination of the victims, accompanied in most cases by the looting of their homes.”
Click here to read the verdict on General Jorge Rafael Videla (Spanish).
Website of the Archive of the Center for Legal and Social Studies CELS (Spanish/English)
Internet Archive of Declassified US Secret Service Documents (Spanish/English)