From the Archive: As Argentina’s Dirty War killed some 30,000 people, including 150 Catholic priests, dictator Jorge Rafael Videla kept up good relations with Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who admits the Church should have done more given the horrors, as described by Marta Gurvich in 1998.
By Marta Gurvich (Originally published Aug. 19, 1998)
Former Argentine president Jorge Rafael Videla, the dapper dictator who launched the so-called Dirty War in 1976, was arrested on June 9, 1998, for a particularly bizarre crime of state, one that rips at the heart of human relations.
Videla, known for his English-tailored suits and his ruthless counterinsurgency theories, stands accused of permitting — and concealing — a scheme to harvest infants from pregnant women who were kept alive in military prisons only long enough to give birth.
According to the charges, the babies were taken from the new mothers, sometimes by late-night Caesarean sections, and then distributed to military families or shipped to orphanages. After the babies were pulled away, the mothers were removed to another site for their executions.
Yet, after Videla’s arrest in 1998, Argentina was engulfed in a legal debate over whether Videla could be judged a second time for these grotesque kidnappings. After democracy was restored in Argentina, Videla was among the generals convicted of human rights crimes, including “disappearances,” tortures, murders and kidnappings.
In 1985, Videla was sentenced to life imprisonment at the military prison of Magdalena. But, on Dec. 29, 1990, amid rumblings of another possible military coup, President Carlos Menem pardoned Videla and other convicted generals. Many politicians considered the pardons a pragmatic decision of national reconciliation that sought to shut the door on the dark history of the so-called Dirty War when the military slaughtered as many as 30,000 Argentineans.
Relatives of the victims, however, continued to uncover evidence that children taken from their mothers’ wombs sometimes were being raised as the adopted children of their mothers’ murderers. For 15 years, a group called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo demanded the return of these kidnapped children, estimated to number as many as 500.
After years of detective work, the Grandmothers documented the identities of 256 missing babies. Of those, however, only 56 children were ever located and seven of them had died. Aided by breakthroughs in genetic testing, the Grandmothers succeeded in returning 31 children to their biological families. Thirteen were raised jointly by their adoptive and biological families and the remaining cases bogged down in court custody battles.
The Baby Harvest
But the baby kidnappings gained a new focus in 1997 with developments in the case of Silvia Quintela, a leftist doctor who attended to the sick in shanty towns around Buenos Aires. On Jan. 17, 1977, Quintela was abducted off a Buenos Aires street by military authorities because of her political leanings. At the time, Quintela and her agronomist husband Abel Madariaga were expecting their first child.
According to witnesses who later testified before a government truth commission, Quintela was held at a military base called Campo de Mayo, where she gave birth to a baby boy. As in similar cases, the infant then was separated from the mother. What happened to the boy is still not clear, but Quintela reportedly was transferred to a nearby airfield.
There, victims were stripped naked, shackled in groups and dragged aboard military planes. The planes then flew out over the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean, where soldiers pushed the victims out of the planes and into the water to drown.
After democracy was restored in 1983, Madariaga, who had fled into exile in Sweden, returned to Argentina and searched for his wife. He learned about her death and the birth of his son. Madariaga came to suspect that a military doctor, Norberto Atilio Bianco, had kidnapped the boy. Bianco had overseen Caesarean sections performed on captured women, according to witnesses. He then allegedly drove the new mothers to the airport.
In 1987, Madariaga demanded DNA testing of Bianco’s two children, a boy named Pablo and a girl named Carolina, both of whom were suspected children of disappeared women. Madariaga thought Pablo might be his son. But Bianco and his wife, Susana Wehrli, fled Argentina to Paraguay, where they resettled with the two children. Argentine judge Roberto Marquevich sought the Biancos’ extradition, but Paraguay balked for 10 years.
Finally, faced with demands from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Paraguay relented. Bianco and Wehrli were returned to face kidnapping charges. But the two children — now young adults with small children of their own — refused to return to Argentina or submit to DNA testing.
Though realizing they were adopted, Pablo and Carolina did not want to know about the fate of their real mothers and did not want to jeopardize the middle-class lives they had enjoyed in the Bianco household. [For more details about this case, see “Baby-Snatching: Argentina’s Dirty War Secret.”]
As an offshoot of the Bianco case, Judge Marquevich ordered the arrest of Videla. The judge accused the former dictator of facilitating the snatching of Pablo and Carolina as well as four other children. Marquevich found that Videla was aware of the kidnappings and took part in a cover-up of the crimes. The aging general was placed under house arrest.
In a related case, another judge, Alfredo Bagnasco, began investigating whether the baby-snatching was part of an organized operation and thus a premeditated crime of state. According to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Argentine military viewed the kidnappings as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy.
“The anguish generated in the rest of the surviving family because of the absence of the disappeared would develop, after a few years, into a new generation of subversive or potentially subversive elements, thereby not permitting an effective end to the Dirty War,” the commission said in describing the army’s reasoning for kidnapping the infants of murdered women.
The kidnapping strategy conformed with the “science” of the Argentine counterinsurgency operations. The Dirty War’s clinical anti-communist practitioners refined torture techniques, sponsored cross-border assassinations and collaborated with organized-crime elements.
According to government investigations, the military’s intelligence officers advanced Nazi-like methods of torture by testing the limits of how much pain a human being could endure before dying. The torture methods included experiments with electric shocks, drowning, asphyxiation and sexual perversions, such as forcing mice into a woman’s vagina. Some of the implicated military officers had trained at the U.S.-run School of the Americas.
Behind this Dirty War and its excesses stood the slight, well-dressed, gentlemanly figure of Gen. Videla. Called “bone” or the “pink panther” because of his slim build, Videla emerged as a leading theorist for international anti-communist strategies in the mid-1970s.
Videla’s tactics were emulated throughout Latin America and were defended by prominent American right-wing politicians, including Ronald Reagan. [Regarding Reagan’s personal embrace of “dirty war” tactics, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Reagan Promoted Genocide.”]
Videla rose to power amid Argentina’s political and economic unrest in the early-to-mid 1970s. “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure,” he declared in 1975 in support of a “death squad” known as the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance. [See A Lexicon of Terror by Marguerite Feitlowitz.]
On March 24, 1976, Videla led the military coup which ousted the ineffective president, Isabel Peron. Though armed leftist groups had been shattered by the time of the coup, the generals still organized a counterinsurgency campaign to eradicate any remnants of what they judged political subversion.
Videla called this “the process of national reorganization,” intended to reestablish order while inculcating a permanent animosity toward leftist thought. “The aim of the Process is the profound transformation of consciousness,” Videla announced.
Along with selective terror, Videla employed sophisticated public relations methods. He was fascinated with techniques for using language to manage popular perceptions of reality. The general hosted international conferences on P.R. and awarded a $1 million contract to the giant U.S. firm of Burson Marsteller. Following the Burson Marsteller blueprint, the Videla government put special emphasis on cultivating American reporters from elite publications.
“Terrorism is not the only news from Argentina, nor is it the major news,” went the optimistic P.R. message.
Since the jailings and executions of dissidents were rarely acknowledged, Videla felt he could deny government involvement. He often suggested that the missing Argentines were not dead, but had slipped away to live comfortably in other countries.
“I emphatically deny that there are concentration camps in Argentina, or military establishments in which people are held longer than is absolutely necessary in this … fight against subversion,” he told British journalists in 1977. [See A Lexicon of Terror.]
In a grander context, Videla and the other generals saw their mission as a crusade to defend Western Civilization against international communism. They worked closely with the Asian-based World Anti-Communist League and its Latin American affiliate, the Confederacion Anticomunista Latinoamericana [CAL].
Latin American militaries collaborated on projects such as the cross-border assassinations of political dissidents. Under one project, called Operation Condor, anti-government political leaders — centrist and leftist alike — were shot or bombed in Buenos Aires, Rome, Madrid, Santiago and Washington. Operation Condor often employed CIA-trained Cuban exiles as assassins.
In 1980, four years after the coup, the Argentine military exported its terror tactics into neighboring Bolivia. There, Argentine intelligence operatives helped Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and major drug lords mount a brutal putsch, known as the Cocaine Coup.
The bloody operation turned Bolivia into the first modern drug state and expanded cocaine smuggling into the United States. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Videla’s anything-goes anti-communism struck a responsive chord with the Reagan administration which came to power in 1981. President Reagan quickly reversed President Jimmy Carter’s condemnation of the Argentine junta’s record on human rights. Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick even hosted the urbane Argentine generals at an elegant state dinner.
More substantively, Reagan authorized CIA collaboration with the Argentine intelligence service for training and arming the Nicaraguan Contras. The Contras were soon implicated in human rights atrocities and drug smuggling of their own. But the Contras benefitted from the Reagan administration’s own “perception management” operation which portrayed them as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” [For details, see Parry’s Lost History.]
In 1982, however, the Argentine military went a step too far. Possibly deluded by its new coziness with Washington, the army invaded the British-controlled Falkland Islands. Given the even-closer Washington-London alliance, the Reagan administration sided with Margaret Thatcher’s government, which crushed the Argentine invaders in a brief war.
The humiliated generals relinquished power in 1983. Then, after democratic elections, the new president Raul Alfonsin created a truth commission to collect evidence about the Dirty War crimes. The grisly details shocked Argentines and the world.
Some Argentine analysts believe that repercussions from that violent era continued for decades, with organized crime rampant and corruption reaching into the highest levels of the government, especially during the administration of President Menem, who pardoned Videla and other practitioners of the Dirty War.
Menem’s sister-in-law, Amira Yoma, reportedly was under investigation in Spain for money-laundering. A reporter investigating mob ties was burned alive. Relatives of a prosecutor examining gold smuggling were tortured by having their faces mutilated. Jewish targets have been bombed.
Michael Levine, a former star agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who served in Argentina, was not surprised by this violent carryover into the 1990s. “The same militaries and police officers that committed human rights crimes during the coup are holding positions in the same forces,” Levine said.
Elsewhere, foreign governments whose citizens were victims of the Dirty War also pressed individual cases against Videla and other former military leaders. These countries included Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Honduras.
Yet, in Argentina, Menem’s pardon protected Videla and the others from facing any significant punishment for their acts, at least for a time. Menem refused to extradite the former military leaders to other countries. He also dragged his heels on purging the armed forces of thousands of officers implicated in Dirty War offenses.
So, the lingering case implicating Videla in harvesting babies from doomed women represented one of the last chances for Argentina to hold the dictator accountable — and to come to grips with the terrible crimes of its recent past.
Marta Gurvich is an Argentine journalist who has written about political and social issues in Latin America.
Editor’s Update: In 1998, Videla was found guilty of kidnapping in the case of Silvia Quintela and other “disappeared.” He spent 38 days in prison before being transferred to house arrest due to health concerns. However, after the election of President Nestor Kirchner in 2003, another effort was made to hold the Dirty War leaders accountable.
On Dec. 22, 2010, Videla was sentenced to life in a civilian prison for the deaths of 31 prisoners, killed after his 1976 coup. Then, on July 5, 2012, Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the systematic kidnapping of children during his tenure.
The precise role of Cardinal Bergoglio in the Dirty War remains something of a mystery. His defenders claim he privately appealed to Videla to spare the lives of two ex-Jesuit priests who had been abducted and tortured, while his critics claim that his dismissal of the two priests made them easy targets for the military. [See Christopher Dickey’s account at The Daily Beast.]
In October 2012, Bergoglio issued a collective apology for the behavior of Argentina’s Catholic Church during the Dirty War, but blamed both the military and leftists for the carnage, angering some Argentines because the overwhelming majority of human rights crimes were committed by the military against unarmed political dissidents.
During the Dirty War, much of the Catholic hierarchy actively supported the military junta and opposed public resistance to the security forces as they “disappeared” alleged leftists off the streets. Some Catholic leaders who did speak out against the repression were themselves targeted for death.
At the time, Bergoglio was one of the Church’s rising stars who chose the politically (and physically) safe posture of maintaining silence, lodging no public protest, staying on good terms with the junta and now asserting that he undertook a few private efforts to save lives.
Yet, after the Dirty War, amid efforts to exact some accountability for the political slaughter, Bergoglio resisted cooperation with human right trials and, when he finally testified in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman told the Associated Press.
Regarding the practice of harvesting babies from doomed women and then farming them out to military families, Bergoglio has insisted that he didn’t know of the practice until well after the Dirty War was over.
However, Estela de la Cuadra family contradicted Bergoglio’s claim of ignorance in citing a 1977 case in which Jesuits in Rome urged Bergoglio to intervene regarding the kidnapping of Estela’s sister Elena, who was five months’ pregnant. The police reported back that the woman was a communist and thus was killed but her baby girl was first delivered and then given to an “important” family.
“Bergoglio has a very cowardly attitude when it comes to something so terrible as the theft of babies,” Estela de la Cuadra told the AP. “The question is how to save his name, save himself. But he can’t keep these allegations from reaching the public. The people know how he is.”