19 former Argentine military officers convicted for crimes during dictatorship

During over seven years of military dictatorship, Argentine security forces kidnapped, tortured and disappeared over 30,000 people suspected of being left-wing activists

July 11, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Victims’ relatives and members of human rights organizations such as Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who attended the reading of the court’s decision, celebrated the verdict. Photo: Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo/Twitter

The Federal Oral Court 1 of San Martín, Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, July 6, sentenced 19 former members of the Army, Gendarmerie, Navy and Police forces to between four years in prison and life imprisonment for crimes committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Ten of the defendants received life imprisonment and nine others, sentences of between four and 22 years in prison.

They were found guilty of homicide, kidnapping, torture and rape, in a trial known as the “Campo de Mayo mega-case,” a court process that brought together multiple trials and that was named after the military base turned clandestine detention centre where the crimes took place. The trial began on April 29, 2019, and was mostly held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It consisted of 13 cases, where initially 22 defendants, accused of crimes against humanity, were tried. Three of them died during the proceedings, most had already been convicted in other trials for grave human rights violations. During the past three years of the mega-trial, more than 300 witnesses testified.

Among those who received the maximum sentence were Santiago Omar Riveros, the head of the Campo de Mayo military garrison; Luis del Valle Arce, the intelligence chief; Carlos Javier Tamini, the counterintelligence chief; Luis Sadi Pepa, head of Area 420 (San Isidro); Eugenio Guañabens Perelló, head of Area 470 (General Sarmiento); Miguel Ángel Conde and Carlos Eduardo José Somoza, the interrogators of Battalion 601; Mario Rubén Domínguez, a member of the intelligence area, Francisco Rolando Agostino, head of Area 400 (Zárate, Campana and Escobar); and Luis Pacífico Britos, the Personnel chief.

A large number of victims were union leaders and workers, kidnapped en masse, from companies such as Dálmine Siderca, Mercedes Benz, Ford, Cattáneo ceramics, among others,  located in an industrial zone in the north of the capital Buenos Aires. Among the 323 victims of the crimes at the Campo de Mayo were 14 pregnant women whose children were stolen after birth as war trophies by the security officials and handed over to military families, sold or abandoned in state institutions. According to the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights organization, during the country’s last dictatorship, around 500 babies, who were detained with their militant parents or born in captivity, were illegally stolen and given to other people. Only about one-third of them have so far discovered the identity of their original family.

Human rights organizations celebrated the verdict

Victims’ relatives and members of human rights organizations such as Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo that have been at the forefront of the struggle demanding justice for and truth about their disappeared loved ones, who attended the reading of the court’s decision, celebrated the verdict.

“Each piece of data that we have been collecting over these 45 years has helped us to understand and measure the magnitude of the machinery of death that operated in Campo de Mayo. We have mapped the place, promoted inspections, aerial surveys, and managed to establish the tedious bureaucracy behind the thousands of disappearances perpetrated there…From the point of view of truth, the evaluation is satisfactory. Various aspects of the horror were clarified at the trial. The kidnapped men and women arrived hooded. They were assigned a number and subjected to torture: prod, waterboarding, dog attacks, beatings, rape. And finally it was time for the “transfer”. Anesthetized, they were put on planes bound for the high seas, or were shot in fake confrontations, or buried right there,” said the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in a statement.

“It is true that many murderers in Campo de Mayo continue to go unpunished, as do their accomplices: businessmen, church chaplains, judicial officials. We will continue to demand that they be judged. The convictions obtained in this mega-case have been exemplary and this is something to celebrate. From the movement, we will also continue looking for the granddaughters and grandsons born in that epicenter of the genocide, ‘the most colossal extermination site in Argentine history,’ as prosecutor Gabriel Sosti defined it in her allegation,” added the organization.

During the trial, prosecutor Sosti said that nearly 6,000 detainees passed through Campo de Mayo and that 99% of them are classified as disappeared.

Argentina’s bloodiest dictatorship

On March 24, 1976, a US-backed civic-military coup overthrew the government of President Isabel Martínez de Perón in Argentina and installed the bloodiest dictatorship in the history of the country, led by General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramón Agosti (March 1976-December 1983). The dictatorship period was marked by state terrorism and grave human rights violations.

During over seven years of dictatorship, Argentine security forces, along with right-wing death squads such as Triple A, hunted down anyone believed to be associated with socialism, left-wing Peronism, or the Montoneros movement. It is estimated that over 30,000 students, activists, trade unionists, writers, journalists, artists and any citizens suspected of being left-wing activists were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared. The military junta silenced any political or ideological dissidents, even those seen as antithetical to its neoliberal economic policies.

In the years following the return of democracy, government authorities took steps to guarantee justice and reparation. In 2004, the laws that granted amnesty for crimes committed during the dictatorship were annulled. Since then, 278 sentences had been handed down for crimes against humanity across the country, with 1,070 security officials convicted, many of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment.