BUENOS AIRES — The horrors of the last military dictatorship in Argentina are etched onto its collective psyche: people dragged off the streets or kidnapped from their homes, tortured in secret concentration camps, buried in unmarked graves or sedated before they were hurled from planes into the waters below.
The state terrorism carried out by the military junta between 1976 to 1983 against so-called “subversives” went far beyond crushing leftist guerrillas. It swept up and eliminated a wide swath of people, from students, activists, factory workers, and union campaigners to the clergy, journalists, and others who voiced dissent. What is known is as chilling as what is still unknown: almost four decades later families are searching for scores of “disappeared” people and for their stolen children, who were born in captivity and then given to families who supported the military.
But a battle over “the truth” of that period is being waged by a small yet increasingly vocal number of deniers - Argentines who reject the collective understanding of the country’s dark past and claim that the number of victims was much lower. In response, some legislators want to silence those denials with prison time or fines.
After the dictatorship came a search for justice and remembrance that is renowned around the world and set an example in Latin America. More than 1,000 former military commanders, soldiers and police officers have been sentenced for crimes committed during that period. The meticulous reconstruction of the past continues to this day: 22 people are standing trial now, accused of crimes against humanity against 323 prisoners of clandestine detention centers on the Campo de Mayo military base in Buenos Aires.
Every year on March 24, Argentines commemorate the disappeared, but this year a former presidential candidate tweeted a photo standing with young political supporters and a sweatshirt he sells that says “Ni Fueron 30,000, Ni Fueron Inocentes” , which means “It wasn’t 30,000, and they weren’t innocent.” Juan José Gómez Centurión, a retired military officer, was citing the number of forcibly disappeared and murdered people that human rights organizations and the government use as the official estimate. His merchandise amplifies the view repeated by deniers, that the military was acting against “terrorists.”
They prefer another figure - the 8,960 tally produced by a truth commission immediately after the fall of the dictatorship, a figure which the commission itself said was not exhaustive.
That effort to minimize the repression has moved from a fringe view to the country’s conservative political elite. Former President Mauricio Macri publicly voiced doubt about the figure in 2016, saying in a broadcast interview that he did not know if the dead and disappeared amounted to 9,000 or 30,000 people.
“There is an imposition in our country, to create a narrative around 30,000, to invent a number that is not real,” said Ulises Chaparro, the 22-year-old president of a new right-wing organization called Jóvenes Republicanos, or Young Republicans, echoing the challenge to historical evidence. “This does not justify what happened - the disappeared, the state terrorism, none of us are justifying that. But, for me, in particular from the youth sector, I’m interested in telling history the way it really occurred.”
Denial of the dictatorship’s crimes has been around since the regime fell. Argentine historian Mario Ranalletti has written about a small group he describes as negationists, who frame the state terrorism of 1976 to 1983 as a “war” against “Marxist subversion” and “in defense of Christian and Occidental civilization”. They call for a “complete memory” of the country’s past that includes the violence committed by urban guerrilla groups who took up arms in pursuit of revolutionary change.
Victoria Villaruel, founder of the Center for Legal Studies on Terrorism and its Victims, argues that a date should be set aside to acknowledge the guerrillas´ victims and demand justice. One estimate from the dictatorship stated that at least 687 people — mostly from the security forces— were killed by guerrillas between 1969 and 1979, although a court questioned the military’s numbers, arguing that not all the attacks may have been carried out by guerrillas.
Argentine courts have drawn a difference between guerrilla attacks and the violence unleashed by the state, ruling that only the military’s crimes amounted to crimes against humanity.
“Those who deny the 30,000 figure are in reality denying the existence of the disappeared,” said Patricia Mounier, a legislator from the province of Santa Fe. “Denying is, I think, in some sense, defending what the military did.”
She is among a group of legislators from the ruling Frente de Todos coalition who have introduced three separate proposals to punish the denial, apology, minimization or justification of the state terrorism committed by the dictatorship. They have modeled their bills after laws in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland against Holocaust deniers.
The Argentine proposals would impose penalties as severe as three years in jail or fines of nearly $3 million. Those who violate the law would be suspended from seeking public office for a period of time.
One bill explicitly seeks to sanction those who don’t use the 30,000 figure, which is an estimation based on various sources, including statements by the military at the time, the hundreds of clandestine detention centers, and the thousands of people detained in the largest camps. Secret cables declassified by the U.S. government show that Argentine military officials in 1978 had already counted 22,000 dead or disappeared between 1975 and July 1978.
“Symbolically the number is very important… It allows us to establish how serious state terrorism was in Argentina,” said legislator Marcelo Koenig, who introduced one of the proposed laws. “There were 30 thousand disappeared, but suppose there were not. It is still a genocidal dictatorship.”
Koenig says he was spurred into action by a stunt staged by Jovenes Republicanos outside the presidential palace in February. The group dumped fake body bags they said were intended to represent the deaths caused by people who had allegedly jumped the vaccine queue. But the images raised haunting memories. Among those the young right-wingers accused of special vaccine treatment was Estela De Carlotto, the 90-year old leader of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a renowned group of women searching for their stolen grandchildren. (She said she had waited her turn for a shot.)
“It seems like many of our young people don’t understand very well,” President Alberto Fernández said at a subsequent event with De Carlotto. “They were born in democracy, and they don’t understand the sinister, perverse, overwhelming violence of that dictatorship.”
Chaparro said the political left invented a connection between the vaccine protest and the dictatorship.
“If you don’t agree with them, they mark you as a fascist,” he said. “We have to fight that, with statistics, and truth. And not allow them to continue with the indoctrination in primary and secondary schools,” he said.
Verónica Torras, the director of Memoria Abierta, a coalition of human rights groups, shares the concerns of the proposed laws’ backers. Latin America as a whole has seen a rise in discourse that denies, or justifies, the role that dictatorships played in the region, and it is accompanied by hate speech, said Torras.
But she doubts that prohibiting speech is an effective tool, and worries that a ban would generate a “false illusion of solving the problem.”
Torras is also uncomfortable with how the legislation addresses the 30,000 figure.
It’s one thing for human rights organizations to use that number, she said. It’s another for the state to try to impose it as a way of closing the debate, “when in reality it is the state itself that is responsible for having been unable, until now, to reconstruct the precise number of the disappeared detainees.”
For Fernando Haber and Ofelia Agorio, punishing denial is exactly what should be done.
“It is essential that words and what they mean be examined by a society that has suffered genocide,” said Agorio, who was 13 years old when her older brother Nelson was disappeared and murdered by the dictatorship.
Haber, a labor lawyer, was a student and activist in poor neighborhoods when he was arrested and tortured inside a clandestine detention center before being held in a prison for six years until 1981.
“We were successful in finding out what happened to an important percentage of people, but not to others,” he said. “I have been with very poor families, in the interior of the country, and it was very hard for the family to approach authorities to file a report out of fear,” he said.
“This is what they want — to twist the truth,” he added of those who deny the scope of the crimes. “The same thing happened with the Jews in the Holocaust - it was six million, and they would say it was one million. The same thing happened. And will keep on happening.”