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Activists Fear the History of Argentina's Dirty War Is About to Be Rewritten

Argentina’s new right wing president, Mauricio Macri, dragged his feet over meeting iconic human rights activists and has appeared to question the accepted figure of 30,000 people killed or disappeared during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

by Remi Lehmann
Feb 29 2016, 7:30pm

Imagen por Marcos Adandia/EPA

Estela de Carlotto looked quietly — though by no means completely — satisfied when she answered questions after meeting with Argentina's new president, Mauricio Macri.

"The dialogue has opened," said De Carlotto, an iconic leader of the struggle to ensure the victims of the South American country's 1976-1983 military dictatorship are never forgotten. "The president received the message from us elderly ladies with all our history."

The meeting had not been easy to arrange, fuelling existing suspicions among activists that the new right wing president is gearing up to roll back the gains they had made during previous left wing administrations.

After his inauguration in December, President Marci had initially said he did not have time to meet with De Carlotto, who is one of the key members of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement focused on tracking down what happened to hundreds of babies born to activists while they were in captivity during the dictatorship.

'The president received the message from us elderly ladies with all our history'

The fact that Macri finally agreed to meet De Carlotto last week also seemed forced by the announcement that President Barack Obama will be in Argentina on the same day as the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the coup on March 24. Macri promised that Obama's visit would not interfere with the commemoration, but the government has not ruled out a visit by Obama to Dirty War monuments.

Fears that history is about to be rewritten have been further stoked by Macri's refusal to acknowledge the widely accepted figure of 30,000 people disappeared or killed in the Dirty War.

"What's the use of discussing numbers?" he told Radio France Internationale. "I am committed to making sure Argentina will never have to go through something like that again."

Furthermore, some say that even if that figure goes unchallenged, it is just one side of the story. They insist it is time to also seek justice for those who were killed by leftist guerrillas. With Macri now installed, their voices are getting louder.

Related: Grandmother Reunites With Grandson Stolen During Argentina's Dictatorship

It all adds up to a potentially major shift in the dominant language used to talk about crimes of the past in Argentina that was established during the administration of President Néstor Kirchner.

Kirchner was elected in 2003 in the wake of a deep political political crisis, and though he talked about human rights in his campaign he was viewed with some suspicion by human rights activists long used to a situation in which impunity for the crimes of the Dirty War had always ruled supreme.

"At the time, the [human rights] organizations weren't convinced that Kirchner really was something different," said Luciana Bertoia, a journalist specializing in human rights. Previous administrations had showed little interest in receiving the human rights organisations, and neither had Kirchner during his two terms as governor of Santa Cruz province.

Relations improved after Kirchner convinced Congress to nullify the amnesty laws that protected Dirty War criminals. To secure support of the judicial branch that thus far had been reluctant to cooperate, the president successfully renewed the Supreme Court, backing progressive nominees.

Then, on March 24 2004, Néstor Kirchner did what no other president had done before:

"I come to apologize for so many atrocities and 20 years of shameful silence during democracy," he said on the 27th anniversary of the military coup that kicked it all off. "Let's be clear, it is not vengeance nor hate that guides us. It's justice and the fight against impunity."

Since 2006 a total of 514 cases of crimes against humanity have been brought before the Argentine courts. A verdict was reached in 147 trials, some of them with multiple plaintiffs, with 622 people found guilty with some facing live sentences.

The impact was also felt outside the courthouses.

Kirchner and his successor, and wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner converted former torture and detention centers into memorials, and decreed March 24th a special holiday to commemorate the military coup. State television broadcasted a cartoon about the Dirty War.

'For the past 12 years, the Kirchner governments have glorified the armed struggle of the guerrillas.'

During public appearances, the presidential couple surrounded themselves with iconic human rights activists such as De Carlotto and other Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

But beneath the broad consensus that facing the country's dark past was the right thing to do, some began to insist that this came at the cost of turning a blind eye to the crimes of the leftist guerrillas in the 1970s. They had originally taken up arms after the banishing of their leader Juan Domingo Perón and the proscription of his political party.

"For the past twelve years, the Kirchner governments have glorified the armed struggle of the guerrillas," said Victoria Villarruel, a 40-year-old lawyer who is the best-known figure demanding justice for victims of the rebels.

Villarruel's grandfather was a historian who worked for the navy and who she says survived four guerrilla bombings. She now runs the Center for Legal Studies on Terrorism and its Victims (CELTYV), an NGO that aims to protect the rights of civil victims of the guerrilla. According to the organisation, 1094 civilians were killed by the leftist armed fighters between 1970 and 1979 either as victims of targeted assassinations and bombings, or as collateral damage.

Victoria Villarruel. (Photo by Remi Lehmann)

The Argentine judicial branch has refused to accept Villarruel's cases, because the crimes weren't committed by the state, are consequently not defined as human rights crimes, and have therefore passed their statutes of limitation.

"What they're basically saying is that one victim is worth more than the other," said a visibly angry Villarruel, who finds it hard to swallow that for her victims there has been no justice while former guerrillas have received official pardons and reparations by the Argentine state.

Villarruel says the guerrillas enjoy sympathy in Argentina because they were supposedly fighting the military dictatorship. The lawyer challenges that narrative, claiming that a majority of the rebel's victims actually come from the three years of democratic rule right before the military coup in 1976.

Related: Alberto Nisman Was Murdered, Says Argentine Prosecutor

The politically incorrect statements have led to accusations that she is a defender of the Dirty War, which she denies. "In Argentina, If you don't support the guerrillas, people assume you support the dictatorship," she counters.

Villarruel says she has received anonymous rape and death threats, and now works behind a reinforced door with bars on her windows, watches to make sure nobody is following her, and has to be very careful with dates.

"Everybody uses Tinder, but I can't," she says. "I am not saying I want to, but if I would want to use it, I couldn't. I always have to know who I am dealing with."

But after years of feeling shut out of the nation's history, Villaruel suddenly saw a door open in January when Macri's secretary of Human Rights agreed to meet her to discuss the rights of civilian victims of the guerrillas. Previous administrations had always rejected the idea.

'If they really wanted justice, the murderers who disappeared these people should have kept them alive.'

Lucía Bertoia views recent developments with caution. She agrees with Villarruel that civilian victims of the guerrilla need to be recognized as such, but doesn't think the crimes they were victims of should be treated in the same way as state terrorism.

"State crimes can't expire, because when they are committed by those in power it is usually impossible to bring them to justice," she pointed out. "Crimes committed by guerrillas could have been brought to justice at the time. Instead they opted for illegal detention, torture, and murder."

Pleas like those of Villarruel are viewed as scarcely veiled pro-military revisionism by H.I.J.O.S, an NGO that unites children of Dirty War victims.

"If they really wanted justice, the murderers who disappeared these people should've kept them alive," said activist Giselle Tepper.

Tepper works for the NGO's radio station, which is located at the former ESMA — the biggest clandestine torture center during the dictatorship — now converted into a memorial site. The very same place where Néstor Kirchner offered his apologies in 2004.

Two weeks ago President Macri made a surprise visit to the memorial and promised to continue the Dirty War trials and to let the judiciary act independently, but many activists still don't trust him. As well as his reluctance to meet them immediately after taking office, activists also say that as mayor of Buenos Aires he withdrew subsidies for the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, cut funding for memorial sites, and covertly vetoed the witness protection program.

Tepper is particularly concerned about the new president's plans to replace the current public prosecutor, who has played a pivotal role in the Dirty War trials. This, she says, could put a block on widening the trials to include business owners suspected of illegal enrichment and collaboration with the dictatorship — who she claims include Macri's own father. 

Tepper, however, says it will not be so easy to rewrite history.

"Democracy has flourished [in Argentina]," she said, "and people are not only committed to defending it, but also know how to do so."

Related: Argentina's New President Mauricio Macri Promises a 'New Era'

Follow Remi Lehmann on Twitter: @remilehmann

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Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo
dirty war
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