Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations

The trial of the Argentine commanders in chief accused of human rights violations documented a program of state terrorism and demonstrated national determination to punish the perpetrators of such crimes.

Summary of Event

In December, 1985, five commanders in chief of the Argentine military who had led the nation as members of governing military juntas from 1976 to 1983 were convicted of human rights violations under the Argentine Penal Code. The defendants’ claim that they had been engaged in a war against subversion reflected an extreme reaction to the nature of Peronist politics in Argentine history. Human rights abuses;Argentina
Argentina;human rights abuses
[kw]Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations (Dec. 9, 1985)
[kw]Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations, Argentine (Dec. 9, 1985)
[kw]Convicted of Human Rights Violations, Argentine Leaders Are (Dec. 9, 1985)
[kw]Human Rights Violations, Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of (Dec. 9, 1985)
[kw]Rights Violations, Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human (Dec. 9, 1985)
[kw]Violations, Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights (Dec. 9, 1985)
Human rights abuses;Argentina
Argentina;human rights abuses
[g]South America;Dec. 9, 1985: Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations[05880]
[g]Argentina;Dec. 9, 1985: Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations[05880]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Dec. 9, 1985: Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations[05880]
[c]Human rights;Dec. 9, 1985: Argentine Leaders Are Convicted of Human Rights Violations[05880]
Perón, Juan
Videla, Jorge Rafael
Viola, Roberto Eduardo
Galtieri, Leopoldo
Alfonsín, Raúl

In June, 1973, former Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón returned from exile and four months later was again elected president. Perón’s return unleashed a political maelstrom in Argentina. From his ascension to power in 1943, Perón had positioned himself as a champion of the working and lower classes, which he referred to as the descamisados, the “shirtless ones.” Perón nationalized basic industry, provided jobs and social programs for the working classes, and institutionalized his political following into the Peronist Party.

In opposition to Perón’s populist politics, the Argentine armed forces, backed by the Roman Catholic Church, overthrew Perón and sent him into exile in 1955. Over the next eighteen years, the military and civilian politicians practiced an exclusionary policy designed to proscribe Peronism. For the average Argentine, however, Peronism meant good wages, job security, and government support for labor. Consequently, the Peronist Party remained vibrant and an essential element for any electoral and legislative success. Over time, the mystique of Peronism broadened and took on confusing and even contradictory interpretations.

In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution (1959), some followers proclaimed Peronism a revolutionary movement of national liberation, and various guerrilla groups began campaigns of kidnapping Kidnappings and terrorism to bring revolutionary change to Argentina. The two most significant of these groups were the Montoneros, founded in 1969, and the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario Popular, or ERP), founded in 1970. The Montoneros gained the attention of the nation with the kidnapping and execution of General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, the head of the military coup of 1955. The ERP declared the province of Tucumán a “liberated zone” and attacked military garrisons in various provinces. Perón cultivated all interpretations of his politics so that by the time of his return, Peronism, in its different guises, drew support from disparate sources. Perón resumed the office of president in October, 1973.

The average Argentine decried the social instability of the revolutionary violence, and upon his return, Perón also condemned the radical Left. With this encouragement, the secret right-wing Argentine Anticommunist Alliance Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) began its own terrorist campaign against suspected leftists. In July, 1974, Perón died, and the presidency passed to his wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón. Perón, Isabel Martínez de The new president declared a state of siege and authorized the armed forces to annihilate the subversion. The armed forces planned not only an antiterrorist campaign but also the overthrow of the government. On March 24, 1976, a junta of representatives of each of the armed forces, led by army commander Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, seized the government.

The military elite had concluded that Argentina was the key battlefield in a worldwide confrontation. The enemy was left-wing terrorism. From 1976 to 1983, four consecutive juntas implemented a dictatorship that professor of sociology Juan E. Corradi has described as “the most radical of all military experiments in Argentine history. It was determined to become more impersonal, autonomous, permanent, repressive, and deeply ’structural’ than anything before.”

Argentines were accustomed to military coups serving to bring order for the next round of civilian governments, but what they experienced in this period was a tragic deviation from the norm. From 1976 through 1982, 340 secret detention camps were established, and anywhere from nine thousand to thirty thousand civilians disappeared as the armed forces attacked not only the guerrilla movements but any potential or even imaginary opposition. Autonomous task forces raided homes and kidnapped, murdered, and tortured suspects with impunity. Normal security forces were prohibited from interfering with these actions, and there was a systematic denial from all levels of the state of any knowledge of the suspects.

Leopoldo Galtieri.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Testimony elicited later, during the trial of the various junta leaders, revealed terrifying personal experiences. One woman described being forced to give birth in the back of a police car on the way to her next torture chamber. In one of the most disturbing episodes, during the “night of the pencils” in September, 1976, seven secondary students who had supported a campaign favoring subsidies for school bus fares were kidnapped from their homes and tortured for “subversion in the classroom”; only three survived. University curricula were purged of such disciplines as oceanography, folklore, and psychology, and even Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) was banned as subversive literature. As defined by Videla, “A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilization.”

In 1975, many prominent political and religious leaders organized Argentina’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (Argentina) and began to investigate more than two thousand cases of the “disappeared.” In 1977, mothers and other relatives of the disappeared began regular protest marches in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires. Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

In April, 1982, the armed forces tried to draw attention away from domestic problems by invading the Falkland Islands. Falkland Islands War (1982) In the short war with England, the Argentine forces were defeated and the military government was undermined. Military leaders were charged by critics at home and abroad with human rights abuses and faced an increasingly united civilian political opposition. Moderates in the military created a transitional junta in June of 1982 and prepared the way for national elections and a return to civilian rule.

In October, 1983, Raúl Alfonsín, candidate of the Radical Party, won the election for president. Upon assuming office, Alfonsín decreed that all members of the first three military juntas must be brought to trial. He also created 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 was ordered to investigate the disappearances and report to the government. CONADEP’s findings were published in 1984 under the title Nunca Más
Nunca Más (CONADEP) (never again). The report cataloged 8,960 disappearances, identified 340 clandestine detention centers, and concluded that state machinery had been used to violate human rights in a systematic way.

On December 18, 1983, the members of the three military juntas were brought to trial, charged by State Prosecutor Julio Strassera Strassera, Julio with violations of the Argentine Penal Code in that they served as “indirect perpetrators” in the criminal exercise of power using clandestine methods of repression beyond the borders of legality.

The first stage of the trial was held before the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In April, 1985, the proceedings were transferred to the Buenos Aires Federal Court of Criminal Appeals. Strassera introduced 711 charges against nine defendants, including Videla, Roberto Eduardo Viola (leader of the second junta), and Leopoldo Galtieri (leader of the third junta). A twenty-thousand-page report including three thousand statements and the presentation of more than eight hundred witnesses attested to incidents of torture, rape, robbery, murder, and illegal detention. The prosecution charged the junta members with shared collective responsibility as indirect perpetrators of an organized power apparatus of state terrorism. Strassera emphasized that the proceedings did not constitute a political trial. The accused were not being tried for having organized a coup or for overthrowing the constitution but rather for criminal violations of the Argentine Penal Code, which remained in force throughout the years of the juntas.

The defense counsel argued that the armed forces had been engaged in a legitimate war against armed subversives and that the commanders in chief were acting in due obedience to orders of the former civilian government to annihilate the enemy. If excesses occurred, the defense stated, the persons criminally responsible for the deeds should be on trial, and not the junta members. Ultimately, the defense argued that the trial was illegal.

On December 8, 1985, the federal court rendered its verdict. The court rejected the principle of collective responsibility and concluded that liability should be assessed individually. Five of the nine defendants were found guilty, and two, including Videla, received life sentences. Viola received a sentence of seventeen years in prison, and Galtieri was acquitted. All of those found guilty were disqualified in perpetuity from holding public office, stripped of all rank, discharged from the armed forces, denied all entitlements, and ordered to pay court costs. In response to an appeal by the defense, the Argentine Supreme Court upheld the verdicts with only slight reductions of the sentences.


In both political and legal terms, the significance of the trial of the Argentine commanders in chief was wide ranging. As noted by the Amnesty International report on the trial, it was unique in modern Latin American history as the only case of leading government figures who had presided over a period of gross violations of human rights being brought before a court of law to account for their misdeeds. In legal terms, the trial was unusual in the Latin American tradition of jurisprudence not only for the massive documentation and unprecedented nature of evidence presented but also for the variety of independent civil and military jurisdictions that had to be acknowledged and harmonized.

More significant in terms of human rights, the trial demonstrated that leading members of repressive regimes, without having been deposed by force, may be brought to justice before civilian courts for human rights violations within the context of national codes of criminal law. The court’s decision to set aside the principle of collective responsibility and assign individual responsibility under the provision of “indirect perpetrators” served notice that those who violate human rights by design, if not by direct participation, are by no means certain to escape legal prosecution.

Internationally, the trial of the Argentine commanders was viewed as a dangerous precedent by supporters of repressive governments in Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. Following a return to civilian rule in Chile in 1990, President Patricio Aylwin Azócar Aylwin Azócar, Patricio formed the Truth and Reconciliation Committee Truth and Reconciliation Committee (Argentina) to investigate human rights abuses that occurred during the years of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte’s dictatorship (1973-1990).

In the four years following the sentencing of the Argentine commanders, Argentine politics remained focused on this event. The average citizen combined the joy of a return to a civilian government with shame and horror as the trial exposed the atrocities of the generals. Some citizens pressed forward in their efforts to find the disappeared. Others chose silence. Many politicians sought some institutional reconciliation. In 1986 and 1987, the Argentine congress passed laws ending the introduction of any new prosecutions and exempting from trial all military subordinates below the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1989 and 1990, President Carlos Saúl Menem Menem, Carlos Saúl granted controversial pardons to those who had been convicted. Public opinion polls demonstrated that more than 80 percent of Argentines opposed the pardons, and former president Alfonsín labeled the day of the pardons the saddest day in Argentine history. Despite President Menem’s conciliatory gestures, the “dirty war,” the “disappeared,” and the trial of the generals remained continuing foci of political and personal debate in Argentina. Human rights abuses;Argentina
Argentina;human rights abuses

Further Reading

  • Amnesty International. Argentina: The Military Juntas and Human Rights—Report of the Trial of the Former Junta Members. London: Author, 1987. Provides an in-depth review of the background and proceedings of the trial as well as the verdicts and sentencing.
  • 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.
  • Guest, Iain. Behind the Disappearances: Argentina’s Dirty War Against Human Rights and the United Nations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Examination of specific cases of human rights abuses and international reaction, with focus on the forum of the United Nations.
  • Hodges, Donald. Argentina’s “Dirty War”: An Intellectual Biography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Intellectual history tracing the foundation of ideological conflicts in Argentine society which led to the “dirty war.” Comprehensive and balanced.
  • 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.
  • Niño, Carlos Santiago. Radical Evil on Trial. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Examines why some human rights violations are prosecuted and some are not, using the experience of Argentina during the 1980’s as a case study.
  • Rock, David. Argentina, 1516-1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsín. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Excellent general history of Argentina is useful for placing the events of the 1980’s in historical perspective.

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