Jorge Rafael Videla

Background

At the start of the 20th Century, Argentina is the richest nation in Latin America and one of world's 10 wealthiest countries. Conservative forces dominate the parliament until 1916, when the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), popularly known as the Radical Party, wins a majority. The increasingly dysfunctional UCR is removed from power on 6 September 1930 in the country's first military coup d'état against a constitutional government.

Juan Domingo Perón is elected president of Argentina in 1946. His increasingly dictatorial government remains in power until 16 September 1955 when it too is ousted by the military. Perón goes into exile. The following decades are ones of confusion. Short-lived military and civilian administrations follow in quick succession. Social problems mount as the country's economy slows. Out on the streets, the level of violence grows, with leftists, Peronistas, and rightists all engaging in terrorism. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 2 August 1925 in Mercedes, Argentina. He is the son of an army colonel. Videla's family is staunchly Roman Catholic, and Videla remains a devout Catholic throughout his life.

Videla follows his father into the military. He graduates from the National Military College in 1944. Over his long career, Videla serves as military attaché at the Argentine embassy in Washington, becomes head of the Military College, is appointed as army chief-of-staff, and rises to the rank of lieutenant-general. In 1975 he is made commander-in-chief of the Argentine Army.

Videla marries Alicia Raquel Hartridge in 1948. The couple have seven children, two daughters and five sons. One of the sons dies in 1971.

1973 - In June, Juan Perón returns to Argentina after 18 years in exile. Three months later, he is reelected as president. His third wife, Maria Estela Isabel Martinez de Perón, serves as his vice president.

Perón's time in office lasts less than six months. On 1 July 1974, he dies from a heart attack. He is succeeded in the presidency by his wife. Argentina's already unstable and violent political environment quickly goes from bad to worse.

Isabel Perón sets the armed forces onto leftist guerrilla groups, ordering the "annihilation" of subversion and terrorism.

Among the guerrilla groups caught up in the violence are the Montoneros (the left's youth arm), the leftist People's Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo), and the rightist Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina).

1975 - Acts of terrorism by leftists and rightists escalate, claiming the lives of more than 700 people. Inflation jumps to over 300%. Strikes and demonstrations by students and workers are widespread and continuous.

Videla leads an army campaign against the People's Revolutionary Army in the country's northern Tucumán province. Hundreds of the leftist guerrillas are killed.

"As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure," Videla states during the year.

The intelligence services of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay launch Operation Condor, an information gathering and sharing alliance designed to eliminate Marxist terrorist activities in South America.

1976 - On 24 March the military, led by Videla, stage a coup d'état and seize power. A junta composed of the commanders of the army, navy and air force is formed. It will rule the country until December 1983 and employ the most repressive measures ever used in Argentina to assert its control.

Videla heads the junta and acts as president of the military government. He claims that the coup was necessary to end "misrule, corruption and the scourge of subversion". The military's rule will be "imbued with a profound national spirit and will only respond to the most sacred interests of the nation and of its inhabitants", he says.

Along with Videla, the members of this first junta are Brigadier-general Orlando Ramón Agosti, commander of the air force, and Admiral Emilio E. Massera, commander of the navy.

Massera is later replaced as commander-in-chief of the navy by Admiral Armando Lambruschini, who is in turn replaced by Admiral Jorge I. Anaya.

Agosti is succeeded as commander-in-chief of the air force by Brigadier-general Omar D. Graffigna, who is in turn succeeded by Brigadier-general Basilio A.I. Lami Dozo.

Under the so-called Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (Process of National Reorganisation) the junta imposes brutal and often indiscriminate measures to bring the country under control in what it considers is a counter-revolutionary war. The junta believes that the "subversivos" (subversives) number 25,000 recruits, of whom 15,000 are "technically able and ideologically trained to kill".

According to Videla, "A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilisation." He also states that "the aim of the Process (of National Reorganisation) is the profound transformation of consciousness".

The junta dissolves the parliament, proclaims martial law, places all legislative power in a nine-member military commission, fills all important government posts with military personnel, and begins to rule by decree. The civil courts are closed, political parties are outlawed, and the right to form trade unions is suspended. Strikes are banned, and union leaders and their supporters labelled subversivos.

During the so-called Dirty War, between 10,000 and 30,000 people identified as opponents of the regime are hunted down by the armed forces or the police and murdered or "disappeared". About 500,000 flee into exile.

A cable sent to the headquarters of Chile's secret police from Buenos Aires in July 1978 says that according to the records of Argentina's Army Intelligence Battalion 601 "the tally of those killed and disappeared from 1975 up to date is 22,000".

In 2001, the Argentine Government publicly acknowledges that 15,000 people had "disappeared" during the Dirty War.

Suspected terrorists, especially from the People's Revolutionary Army and the Montoneros, and their sympathisers (also labelled subversivos) become the junta's prime targets, although the net quickly widens to include unionists, students, professionals, teachers, housewives, nonconformist members of the military and security forces, journalists, academics, actors, nuns and priests, the friends of the subversivos, and the friends of their friends.

Thousands are illegally abducted then subjected to weeks or months of torture in one of about 340 secret prisons scattered throughout the country before they "disappear". One of the most notorious secret detention centres is the Naval Mechanics School (Escuela Mechanica de la Armada - ESMA) on Avenida Libertador in the centre of Buenos Aires.

Those who vanish without a trace come to be known as the "desaparecidos" (disappeared ones). After being executed their bodies are burnt then buried in mass graves. Others are thrown (sometimes while still alive) from aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean during so-called "vuelos de la muerte" (flights of death). No trace or record is left of their fate.

The disappearances prompt the formation of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), a group of women who begin protesting outside the presidential palace every Thursday, demanding information about their missing children.

"Dónde están? (Where are they?)," the mothers ask. In a television interview Videla eventually answers, "They are neither alive or dead. They are disappeared."

Many of the mothers in turn also disappear.

The United States provides the junta with tacit and direct support. In April 1976, the US Congress approves a grant of US$50 million in military aid to the junta. On 7 October, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tells Argentine Foreign Minister Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti that the US Government would like the junta to succeed.

"I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported," Kissinger says. "What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context."

"The quicker you succeed the better. ... The human rights problem is a growing one. ... We want a stable situation. We won't cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help."

1979 - While the Dirty War has effectively been won and the terrorist threat removed, the junta has had little success in alleviating Argentina's ongoing economic problems. The budget deficit soars as the country is flooded with foreign imports. When the value of the peso collapses the economy goes into depression.

Charges of corruption further undermine the junta's position. One scam involves the use of forged documents to appropriate the businesses and property of the disappeared. A more sinister practice is the abduction of as many as 500 babies borne to women detained in the junta's secret prisons. The babies are fostered out to senior officers in the military and security forces or sent to orphanages. Their mothers are executed.

1981 - Videla retires as leader of the junta. On 29 March the "soft-liner" General Roberto Eduardo Viola takes charge of a new military government but has even less success in reviving the economy, despite trying to introduce greater civilian input. Viola also has to deal with a resurgence in demonstrations and strikes.

In May, General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, a "hard-liner", becomes commander-in-chief of the army.

Meanwhile, Viola falls ill. Major-general Horacio Tomás Liendo replaces him on 21 November.

On 21 December, Galtieri stages a palace coup and takes over as president. Rocked by internal conflicts between the soft and hard liners and between senior and junior officers, the junta is in its final throes.

1982 - Protests against the junta spill into the streets in late March. Attempting to deflect attention away from the renewed opposition, Galtieri authorises the seizing of the disputed Falklands Islands (Islas Malvinas), which Britain has occupied since 1833. Argentine troops take possession of the islands on 2 April.

However, the plan backfires when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatches a large military and naval force to recapture the islands. The turning point of the Falklands War comes on 2 May when the British submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoes and sinks the Argentine battleship General Belgrano, killing 323 Argentine sailors.

The Argentine occupation force on the Falklands surrenders unconditionally to the British on 14 June. Argentina's humiliation during the 10-week conflict is the final nail in the junta's coffin. Galtieri resigns on 17 June.

General Alfredo Oscar Saint Jean takes interim control of the government. He is soon replaced by General Reynaldo Benito Bignone, who announces that elections will be held. Bans on political parties are lifted and basic political liberties are restored, including the right to form trade unions.

The junta acts to cover itself. The military destroys its records of the detained and disappeared. The Law of National Pacification is introduced. The law grants the military and police immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during the Dirty War.

1983 - The junta steps down. Democracy is restored on 30 October when Raúl Alfonsín of the Radical Party is elected president with 52% of the vote. Alfonsín is inaugurated on 10 December, formally ending the military's rule.

The new president quickly issues an executive decree ordering the arrest of the members of the first three juntas for crimes committed under the laws in place during their rule. The Law of National Pacification is repealed in December, allowing the prosecutions to proceed.

Meanwhile, a National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP) is established to examine the fate of the desaparecidos.

The commission officially documents 8,960 cases of disappearance. A further 2,000 to 3,000 disappearances are reported to the ministry of the interior after the commission concludes.

The commission's report, titled 'Nunca Mas' (Never Again), finds that "the armed forces responded to the terrorists' crimes with a terrorism far worse than the one they were combating, and after 24 March 1976 they could count on the power and impunity of an absolute state, which they misused to abduct, torture and kill thousands of human beings. ...

"After collecting several thousand statements and testimonies, verifying or establishing the existence of hundreds of secret detention centres, and compiling over 50,000 pages of documentation, we are convinced that the recent military dictatorship brought about the greatest and most savage tragedy in the history of Argentina. ...

"This went far beyond what might be considered criminal offences, and takes us into the shadowy realm of crimes against humanity. Through the technique of disappearance and its consequences, all the ethical principles which the great religions and the noblest philosophies have evolved through centuries of suffering and calamity have been trampled underfoot, barbarously ignored."

The report finds that the secret detention centres "were under the command of high-ranking officers in the military and security services. The prisoners were kept in inhuman conditions and subjected to all kinds of torture and humiliation."

"Some of the methods used have no precedent elsewhere in the world. Some depositions referred to the torture of children and old people in front of their families to obtain information," the report states.

"We can state categorically - contrary to what the executors of this sinister plan maintain - that they did not pursue only the members of political organisations who carried out acts of terrorism. Among the victims are thousands who never had any links with such activity but were nevertheless subjected to horrific torture because they opposed the military dictatorship, took part in union or student activities, were well-known intellectuals who questioned state terrorism, or simply because they were relatives, friends, or names included in the address book of someone considered subversive. ...

"Certain terrorist organisations were wiped out, but in their stead a system of institutionalised terror was implemented which undermined the most basic human, ethical and moral principles and was backed by a doctrine which was also foreign to our national identity."

1985 - The trial of the junta leaders begins on 22 April. On 9 December the leaders are convicted and sentenced to jail. Due to pressure from the military and the threat of more violence, they are all released before serving their full terms.

  • Orlando Ramón Agosti is sentenced to 4 ½ years in jail. He is released before serving his full sentence.
  • Jorge I. Anaya is acquitted.
  • Reynaldo Benito Bignone is sentenced to jail but receives early release.
  • Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri is acquitted on charges of committing crimes against the Argentine people. In 1986 he is convicted on charges relating to the Falklands War and sentenced to 12 years jail. He receives early release. Galtieri dies on 12 January 2003.
  • Omar D. Graffigna is acquitted.
  • Armando Lambruschini is sentenced to eight years in prison but released after four.
  • Basilio A.I. Lami Dozo is acquitted.
  • Emilio E. Massera is convicted of multiple cases of homicide, aggravated false arrests, torture, torture resulting in death, and robbery. He is sentenced to life imprisonment but is released after serving only four years.
  • Jorge Rafael Videla is convicted of multiple cases of homicide, aggravated false arrests, torture, torture resulting in death, and robbery. He is sentenced to life imprisonment at the military prison of Magdalena but is released after serving only four years.
  • Roberto Eduardo Viola is sentenced to 17 years in prison but released after serving only four years.

1986 - In December the El Punto Final (The Final Point, or Full Stop) law is introduced. The law sets a 60-day deadline for victims of the Dirty War to file complaints against members of the military and police suspected of human rights abuses.

The Obediencia Debida (Due Obedience) law is introduced in 1987. The law grants automatic immunity from prosecution to all members of the military ranked lower than colonel on the principle that they were just following orders. Up to 2,000 military officials are subsequently spared from prosecution, although the law does expressly exclude the crimes of rape, illegal appropriation of minors, and the falsification of civil status and appropriation of real estate by extortion.

1990 - On 29 December the recently elected president of Argentina, Carlos Saúl Menem, grants amnesty to the leaders of the junta convicted and jailed at the end of 1985.

Videla, Massera, Agosti, Viola, Bignone, Galtieri, Lambruschini and Viola are all set free.

1998 - On 9 June, in a case brought by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Videla is arrested for permitting and concealing the abduction of five babies born to women held in the secret detention centres during the Dirty War. After being held in the Caseros prison for serious offenders he is placed under house arrest.

Emilio Massera is arrested and placed under house arrest on similar charges.

Over the years, the charges against Videla and the other former junta leaders continue to pile up.

In 2001, Videla is indicted for his involvement Operation Condor. In 2012 he is convicted for the abduction of 34 babies born to women held in detention during the Dirty War and sentenced to 50 years jail. Reynaldo Bignone is convicted on the same charges and sentenced to 15 years jail.

In 2016 the former commander-in-chief of the air force, Omar Graffigna, is found guilty of the abduction and disappearance of two activists during the Dirty War and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

2003 - The Final Point and Due Obedience laws are repealed, clearing the way for as many as 2,400 former military officers to be tried on charges of torture and murder.

Argentine judges reopen human rights cases against about 80 former military officers on 1 September. The same day the newspaper 'Pagina 12' publishes an interview with Reynaldo Bignone in which the former junta leader admits that 8,000 people were abducted and killed during the Dirty War.

According to Bignone, French instructors schooled the Argentine military in torture techniques, while leaders of the Roman Catholic Church gave blessing to its use "as long as the man speaks while in his right mind".

2007 - On 25 April a federal court finds that the pardons granted to Videla and Emilio Massera in 1990 were unconstitutional and rules that the life sentences originally handed down to the pair must be reinstated. The ruling is largely symbolic as both men are already under house arrest and Massera is said to be mentally unfit after suffering a stroke in 2002. He dies of a heart attack on 8 November 2010.

2009 - Reynaldo Bignone is brought to trial on charges of kidnapping, torture and murder of 56 people at detention centres in the Campo de Mayo army base on the outskirts of Buenos Aires from 1976 to 1978. He is found guilty on 20 April 2010 and sentenced to 25 years in jail. A year later, in a second trial concerning Campo de Mayo, Bignone is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

An estimated 5,000 people were held at the Campo de Mayo detention complex. According to the Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetting and Silence, less than 50 survived.

In 2012, Bignone is convicted for setting up a secret torture centre inside the Posadas de Haedo hospital in Buenos Aires province during the 1976 coup. He is sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Bignone receives a second life sentence in 2013, this time for the illegal arrests, kidnapping, robbery, torture and murder of 23 detainees in the Campo de Mayo military base.

In 2016, Bignone is sentenced to a further 20 years in prison for his involvement in the Operation Condor conspiracy. He dies in a military hospital on 7 March 2018.

2010 - At the start of May, Videla is charged with an extra 49 counts of kidnapping, torture and murder.

He goes to trial on 2 July, facing murder charges for the deaths of 31 political prisoners shot soon after the 1976 coup.

"I accept the responsibility as the highest military authority during the internal war," Videla tells the court. "My subordinates followed my orders."

On 21 December Videla gives a lengthy deposition at his trial, saying that it was the government of Isabel Perón which had called for the "annihilation" of subversive groups and that this call had been unopposed by the parliament and supported by the majority of citizens.

"It was precisely the Argentine society that was the main protagonist," he says.

"Much of what took place in the 1970s has been distorted, and perverse facts about the war have been concealed. ...

"Argentina had to confront directly a violent internal conflict, irregular in its form, of revolutionary character, with deep ideological roots and supported from outside the country. ...

"We have to admit that in our country there was an internal war, initiated by terrorist organisations. Some describe it as a dirty war. I refuse to accept this label. ...

"In this war we used force against an enemy who was trying to alter Argentine society's way of life. It (the war) was also backed by a majority of the population, who felt relieved by our actions. ...

"I ask myself, when did it really end? I ask myself if even today we can assure ourselves that, beyond military operations, this war using nonviolent methods has really ended?

"We had won the war in the military arena and unfortunately we didn't think of securing our victory in the political arena. ...

"Yesterday's defeated enemies have achieved their goal: Today they govern our country and put themselves on pedestals as champions of human rights. They're now in power and from there they are attempting to install a Marxist regime ... taking captive the institutions of the republic."

Videla says he considers himself a political prisoner and doesn't recognise the authority of the court. However, he would accept his sentence "as my contribution to the national harmony, to offer one more act of service to the Lord our Father and to the country".

The next day, Videla is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, to be served in a civilian jail.

2012 - On 14 April Reuters newsagency reports that Videla has admitted that the junta killed 7,000 or 8,000 people, "disappeared" opponents and took children.

"Let's say there were 7,000 or 8,000 people who needed to die to win the war against subversion," the newsagency quotes Videla as saying.

"There was no other solution. We were agreed that was the price to win the war against subversion and that we needed it not to be evident so that society didn't notice.

"For that reason, to avoid provoking protests inside and outside the country, it was decided that those people disappear. Each disappearance can certainly be understood as the cover-up of a death. ...

"In every war people are crippled, killed and disappeared, their whereabouts unknown, that is a fact.

"How many there were can be debated, but the problem does not lie in the number but in the fact - a fact which occurs in every war - that we allowed the pejorative term of disappeared to ... remain as a term to cover up something dark that was wanted to be kept secret, and that is what is weighing - that there was something dark which has not been sufficiently cleared up.

"The error was using and abusing disappeared like a mystery. And that's not the case, it is the unfortunate result of a war. ...

"I am the first to admit ... at this time children were taken, some with the best intention that the child would go to a good, unknown home. But it was not a systematic plan."

2013 - Videla dies in his prison cell on 17 May. It is reported that he died quietly in his sleep from a heart attack caused by injuries sustained after a fall in the prison shower five days earlier.

Comment

There can be few comments more revealing of the depravity of the Argentine military regime than those attributed to the killers themselves:

"In a dirty war the innocent pay for the guilty" - General Reynaldo Benito Bignone.

"First, we must kill all subversives, then their sympathisers; then those who are indifferent; and finally, we must kill all those who are timid" - General Ibérico Saint Jean.

"One becomes a terrorist not only by killing with a weapon or setting a bomb but also by encouraging others through ideas that go against our Western and Christian civilisation" - Lieutenant-general Jorge Rafael Videla, 1977.

"We waged this war with our doctrine in our hands, with the written orders of each high command" - General Santiago Omar Riveros, 24 January 1980.

"It's easier to find a green dog than an honest Jew" - Colonel Mohamed Alí Seineldín, 1988.

"The continuous weeping, the very odour of adrenaline that comes from those who can feel their end coming, their desperate cries begging us that if we were really Christians we would swear we weren't going to kill them, was the most pathetic, agonising and saddest thing I ever felt in my life and I will never forget it" - Lieutenant-colonel Guillermo Bruno Laborda writing in May 2004 of his experiences with political detainees during the Dirty War.