Argentina Conducts a “Dirty War” Against Leftists Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For three years, the Argentine military government fought a “dirty war” against left-wing terrorism, sweeping those suspected of “subversion” off the streets and out of their homes.

Summary of Event

From 1976 through 1979, the Argentine military government conducted a relentless campaign against left-wing guerrillas. The military believed that the only way to defeat communism was to wage a “dirty war” that severed the insurgents from the population and excised them from the nation. Military death squads roamed the streets, picking up suspects and whisking them off to secret military installations, where they were often beaten, tortured, and disposed of without a word, let alone a trial. The military junta kept no written records of the whereabouts of los desaparecidos (the disappeared), adding uncertainty to the culture of fear that gripped the nation. Argentina;dirty war (1976-1979) [kw]Argentina Conducts a “Dirty War” Against Leftists (1976-1979) [kw]"Dirty War" Against Leftists, Argentina Conducts a (1976-1979) [kw]War" Against Leftists, Argentina Conducts a “Dirty (1976-1979) [kw]Leftists, Argentina Conducts a ”Dirty War" Against (1976-1979) Argentina;dirty war (1976-1979) [g]South America;1976-1979: Argentina Conducts a “Dirty War” Against Leftists[02270] [g]Argentina;1976-1979: Argentina Conducts a “Dirty War” Against Leftists[02270] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;1976-1979: Argentina Conducts a “Dirty War” Against Leftists[02270] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1976-1979: Argentina Conducts a “Dirty War” Against Leftists[02270] Perón, Juan Timerman, Jacobo Alfonsín, Raúl

The roots of the “dirty war” can be traced to the dominant figure of twentieth century Argentina, Juan Perón. The populist Perón curried the favor of the nation’s working classes during his first nine-year stint as president (1946-1955). His ideology was ambiguous enough to appeal to different social classes. As long as the state-directed economy performed well, Perón was able to hold his seemingly contradictory coalition together, but when the nation’s economy soured during his second term, the increasingly dictatorial Perón made scapegoats of the Roman Catholic Church and the military. The strategy backfired, and he was ousted by a military coup in 1955.

Although Perón was forced to leave Argentina, his movement, Peronismo, was never really defeated. From exile in General Francisco Franco’s Spain, Perón plotted his return. Successive military regimes employed various strategies to destroy his movement, such as purging sympathizers from the bureaucracy, outlawing his Justicialist party, and permitting Peronist participation in national elections only to annul the results of the elections when the Peronists proved too successful. A new generation of Peronist youth challenged the establishment.

On occasion, the military responded by turning the government over to civilian politicians, and at times it staged coups and resorted to repression to quell unrest. Urban guerrillas opposed the seemingly endless succession of ineffectual regimes, targeting prominent politicians and influential businesspeople for kidnappings Kidnappings and ransom. Neither the military nor the civilian governments that governed during the unstable period from 1955 to 1973 proved capable of managing the Argentine economy, let alone establishing social peace.

Perón believed that for his movement to succeed, he had to mobilize the masses. He ambiguously gave his support from exile to both the young revolutionaries of the far left and the labor unions that remembered his populist regime fondly. There was a revolutionary left, led by elements both within the Peronist movement (for example, Los Montoneros) and outside it (most notably El Ejército Revolucionario Popular, or ERP). Although these groups did not share a common ideology, they were committed to traumatizing the nation by committing violent acts against those they had identified as oppressors: the military and the police, along with their collaborators, capitalist entrepreneurs.

The military leadership, steeped in the anticommunist ideology of the Cold War, saw these insurgents as a threat to national security. The guerrillas had helped create an atmosphere in which it was possible for the military leadership to insist that nothing short of a policy of extermination was sufficient to rid society of left-wing violence. The military responded by organizing and permitting the formation of right-wing death squads to retaliate against guerrilla groups. By 1973, the country was on the verge of anarchy. In a last-gasp measure, the military government permitted Juan Perón, now aging and infirm, to return from exile and participate in the upcoming elections.

Perón received an impressive 62 percent of the vote, a reflection of the electorate’s desire for a fresh approach to Argentina’s problems. Upon his return, Perón made it clear that he would not tolerate left-wing insurgency. He cracked down on the Marxist ERP and his own movement’s Montoneros. His conservative approach delighted the military and its constituency, but it alienated many members of the Peronist youth, who had viewed the Argentine president as a leader committed to meaningful reform. In July, 1974, Perón died, leaving the presidency in the hands of his third wife, former cabaret dancer Isabel Martínez de Perón, Perón, Isabel Martínez de known as Isabelita.

Soldiers ride along the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires after a military coup overthrew President Isabel Martínez de Perón.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Argentina slipped into chaos as the economy careened out of control. Inflation reached 700 percent by early 1976. Isabelita Perón’s spiritual adviser organized death squads, most notably the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA), against Montoneros, Jews, and suspected leftists. The guerrillas continued their deliberately provocative attacks, with an estimated ten thousand Argentineans actively involved with the insurgents. From bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom, the guerrillas had built a formidable war chest of approximately $150 million. During the last month of Isabelita Perón’s rule, the Buenos Aires daily newspaper La Opinión estimated that there was a political killing every five hours and a bomb attack every three. The military’s move to take power became just a matter of time.

Argentina’s best-predicted coup took place in March, 1976. The military junta gave itself sweeping powers. Congress was dismissed, the Supreme Court was replaced with military appointees, and the junta took command of the universities. Although the Argentine junta borrowed the tactic of “disappearances” from the Brazilian military, which had used it ruthlessly during the 1960’s, the Argentine generals refined the practice. Suspects were not placed under official arrest, and so no legal trail was left. Los desaparecidos were victims in a deliberate tactic designed to terrorize the country.

Suspects were taken from their homes and offices to detention centers, and their homes were ransacked and looted. Most of the disappeared lived the rest of their lives in the detention centers, blindfolded, forbidden to talk to one another, hungry, and living in filth. The military employed electric shock, rape, near drowning, and constant beatings, not only to discover information—for very few of those in custody had knowledge of left-wing activities—but also to break the prisoners psychologically and spiritually. Most of those who somehow survived the torture were killed. When disposal of the bodies presented a problem, the military simply buried the dead in mass unmarked graves or loaded the prisoners into military planes, flew them over the Atlantic, and threw them out. Some were drugged or killed beforehand, but others were alive and conscious when they left the planes.

The generals also implemented a war against certain ideas. The military sought to create an “appropriate” culture based on the fight against communism, simple patriotic values, the family, and Christianity. The regime resembled Nazi Germany in its persecution of journalists, its widespread blacklisting of individuals, and its use of terror to silence educators, artists, and writers.

At the University of Buenos Aires alone, more than fifteen hundred professors were replaced by supporters of the military. The generals contended that they were only redressing the imbalance in public education that had come about as university politics became dominated by left-wing ideologies that supported revolutionary activities. Curricula were altered. The disciplines of political science, sociology, and psychology were suspect because they were heavily dependent on foreign influences and had been much favored by left-wing students and academics.

Although John Wayne was a particular favorite of the junta, many American motion pictures were banned. The music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Beatles was forbidden on the airwaves. Books idealizing the Nazi regime in Germany went back into print in Buenos Aires. Mass public book burnings took place as the writings of Mao Zedong, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, and Che Guevara were singled out for immolation. Citizens burned their own books to eliminate anything that might get them into trouble. Sex education books were banned, reflecting the strong puritanical mores of the regime.

The military regime also felt an obligation to defeat communism internationally. To this end, it helped militaries in Peru, Chile, and Paraguay in their struggle against leftist movements. In addition, the Argentineans gave members of Antonio Somoza Debayle’s Nicaraguan National Guard sanctuary in their Managua, Nicaragua, embassy after the victory of the Sandinistas Sandinistas in July, 1979. They further aided the former National Guardsmen by setting up a training school to organize the first “contras,” or counterrevolutionaries, who opposed the Sandinista regime. Although the military campaign destroyed the guerrilla movement, it prompted outrage and resistance both within and outside Argentina. U.S. president Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy was an outspoken opponent of the Argentine military government, eventually cutting military and economic aid to the regime.

One source of resistance to the Argentine military sweeps was unexpected: A group of fourteen mothers who had lost their sons petitioned the military-controlled judiciary for writs of habeas corpus in 1977. Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo When their pleas fell on deaf ears, the mothers went to the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires, armed with only their identity cards, and directly challenged the military to return their loved ones. The mothers returned each Thursday to the square, and their protest movement grew and became a political statement on behalf of los desaparecidos. At first, the military ignored the protests, but when foreign reporters publicized the demonstrations, the government cracked down. The movement was infiltrated by the military, some organizers were harassed and arrested, others were driven off the streets, and finally twelve mothers were “disappeared.”

Another case that brought international attention to los desaparecidos was the Jacobo Timerman affair. Timerman had founded a prominent Buenos Aires newspaper, La Opinión, which expressed disapproval of the military regime, but in muted fashion, as Timerman was worried that publicity of any individual’s case might lead to that person’s death. Timerman was “disappeared” and taken to a detention center. The negative publicity generated by an international campaign probably saved Timerman’s life. He was released and sent into exile, where he penned a powerful account of his capture and treatment in the detention center.


The worst of the repression in Argentina ended by 1979. The guerrillas had been decimated and the regime was in complete control. If the military proved successful in quashing the insurrection, however, it did not prove as diligent in righting Argentina’s troubled economy. Rising indebtedness, hyperinflation, and a worldwide recession in 1980-1981 combined to shake national confidence in the military’s ability to rule the nation. A disastrous military decision to invade the Falkland Islands (or, as they are called in Argentina, Las Malvinas) in the spring of 1982 proved to be the final straw. In 1983, the military, now discredited, turned the government over to civilian politicians.

Elections were held in 1983, and Raúl Alfonsín won the presidency. Alfonsín was one of the few politicians who had spoken out publicly against the repression during the dirty war. During his campaign, he made two promises to the nation: He would investigate the disappearances, and he would prosecute those responsible. He appointed the Comisión Nacional Sobre la Desaparición de Personas (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons), National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons known as CONADEP, which had full powers to investigate and report.

The commission conclusively established the identities of 8,960 citizens who had disappeared. CONADEP stated that twenty thousand Argentineans were arrested during military rule, and many of them were tortured or raped. Two million had fled the country to escape the possibility of death or imprisonment. The great majority of the disappeared were young adults, usually educated and politically aware. CONADEP concluded that most of them were kidnapped during the first two years of the junta’s rule and then murdered in 1978, when the international call for information about los desaparecidos reached its height.

CONADEP’s report fulfilled Alfonsín’s first promise to investigate the tragedy. Next, a series of trials was held to prosecute past officials for criminal acts. For Alfonsín, the process was essential, not only for the sake of justice but also to vindicate the Argentine legal system. After so many illegal acts, Argentina, if it was to persevere as a nation, would have to come to terms with its past through the rule of law. Alfonsín ordered the arrest of all nine generals who formed the three ruling juntas from 1976 to 1983. The new government passed a comprehensive statute that dealt with the issue of criminal responsibility.

The nine commanders went on trial on April 22, 1985. The highly publicized proceedings lasted five months. Although capital punishment was permissible for these offenses, the government prosecutor asked for life imprisonment for five of the nine defendants and lesser sentences for the rest. Two of the generals were given life sentences—Jorge Rafael Videla Videla, Jorge Rafael and Emilio Massera, Massera, Emilio commanders of the army and navy, respectively. Four others were acquitted, although three of the four were later convicted by separate military tribunals and sentenced to prison.

Some citizens were outraged by the court’s decisions, and many wanted much tougher sentences for the commanders. The court’s policy of variable sentences was important for several reasons. It showed that the judiciary was politically independent of the government, which had called for heavier sentences. In other words, the trials were exercises in due process, not occasions for political vengeance. More important, the policy of variable sentences made it clear that there are degrees of guilt in crimes against humanity.

The trials of junior officers were more troublesome. Drawing the line between following orders and taking responsibility proved more difficult for the judiciary. Although five hundred other members of the military were formally charged, few were ever brought to trial. Political considerations weighed heavily on Alfonsín and his successor, Carlos Saúl Menem. Menem, Carlos Saúl An attack on the military was regarded in some quarters as divisive and politically unwise, given that the armed forces were needed to maintain the peace and to prop up the fledgling civilian government. A number of attempted coups during Alfonsín’s and Menem’s terms graphically demonstrated how tenuous democracy was in Argentina. In 1989, Menem passed a series of general pardons that in effect dismissed the charges pending against all those who were tried and sentenced under the Alfonsín regime for their participation in the dirty war. Argentina;dirty war (1976-1979)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Argentina Comisión Nacional Sobre la Desaparición de Personas. Nunca Más: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986. An abridged version, translated into English, of the CONADEP report that detailed the Argentine dirty war. The commission conducted thousands of interviews with eyewitnesses to produce this exhaustive analysis of the atrocities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Presents an analysis of life under this oppressive regime. Features descriptions of what prisoners had to endure in the concentration camps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Paul H. Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001. Balanced and exhaustive study of this period in Argentina’s history includes examination of the causes of the dirty war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rock, David. Argentina, 1516-1982: From Spanish Colonization to the Falklands War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Solid scholarly survey of Argentine history provides a thoughtful background to the dirty war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, John, and Jana Bennett. The Disappeared and the Mothers of the Plaza. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Hard-hitting journalistic account of the Argentine military government’s policies by two British Broadcasting Corporation reporters. Combines solid investigative reporting with obvious empathy for the victims of the military regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valenzuela, Luisa. Other Weapons. Hanover, N.H.: Ediciones del Norte, 1990. Collection of revealing short stories by one of Argentina’s most prominent writers addresses how Argentine society came to grips with the dirty war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Verbitsky, Horacio. The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior. Translated by Esther Allen. New York: New Press, 1996. Memoir by a participant in the dirty war.

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Categories: History