Justice at Last for Argentina’s Stolen Children
LONDON — Jorge Rafael Videla was the tall, thin one in the triumvirate of senior officers that seized power in Argentina’s 1976 military coup. El Flaco, they used to call him – “the skinny one.”
El Flaco, his trademark black moustache now turned a whiskery grey, was jailed for 50 years in Buenos Aires on Thursday for masterminding a plan to steal new-born babies. Other former leaders of the military regime received sentences from 15 to 40 years.
There is something particularly nightmarish about the crime, even by the lamentable standards of the world’s dictators. It involved taking babies born to the regime’s opponents and handing them over to be raised by suitable military families after killing their mothers.
Many of those “adopted” only discovered their real origins decades later.
General Videla took power as head of a junta of the three armed services that had ousted President Isabel Martinez de Peron. Their promise to put an end to political chaos and urban guerrilla violence was initially welcomed by many weary Argentines.
Argentina was on the front line of a world war against godless communism, the generals said, and that was a battle that required sacrifices.
Tens of thousands of leftists, or other presumed enemies of the state, were rounded up to be tortured and murdered in secret jails.
The secret police used to roam city streets in Ford Falcon cars. You could always tell them because they had no registration plates. If the plainclothes squads stopped to snatch a victim in broad daylight, bystanders would wisely look the other way.
Many were hauled off to the Naval Mechanical School that was run by Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, Videla’s bumptious naval colleague. Everyone in the country knew what was going on there, but no one spoke about it, at least not in public.
Some who disappeared were thrown out of helicopters over the River Plate. But the bodies started washing up on its banks. So the military took to slitting open their stomachs beforehand, so that the corpses would fill with water and sink.
It was a way to try to hide what was going on, both from the people and from those foreign powers that looked kindly on a restoration of law and order in a troubled land. The U.S. ambassador, Robert C. Hill, had greeted the military takeover in March, 1976 as “The best executed and most civilized coup in Argentine History.”
But on the ground, Argentines were aware of the nature of the regime, if not the full extent of its iniquity. That was enough to cow the people and silence the press.
There were honorable exceptions. The so-called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo risked jail or worse to demand to know what had happened to their disappeared children.
A small, English-language newspaper, the Buenos Aires Herald, pushed the boundaries of censorship and common sense to expose what it could of the human rights violations.
Its editor at the time, Robert Cox, was a witness at Videla’s trial. Mr. Cox this week described the quiet-spoken general as a self-professed religious man, who once said “God held my hand” throughout the so-called “dirty war.”
“There was always a Nazi element in what the military did,” Mr. Cox said, describing how officers stressed the patriotic self-sacrifice involved in the unspeakable crimes they felt obliged to commit on behalf of the nation.
Some 500 babies born in jail were taken by the military. “They try to make it sound as if they were being humane in saving the kids,” said Mr. Cox. “But the kidnapping of babies is the one thing that even the most rightwing fascist-minded supporters of the dictatorship condemn.”
Former Argentine dictators found guilty of baby thefts
Two former Argentine dictators, Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, were handed heavy prison sentences for overseeing the systematic kidnapping of babies from leftist activists killed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
Jorge Videla, 86, was de facto president of Argentina from 1976 to 1981. He is already serving a life sentence for human rights abuses that occurred under his rule.
Videla was found guilty by a criminal court of the “theft and kidnapping” of 20 babies.
Reynaldo Bignone, 84, Argentina’s last dictator before the country’s return to democracy in 1983, was sentenced to 15 years for the same offence.
He, too, is already serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity – including the establishment of a torture centre in a hospital during the coup that brought the military to power.
Jorge Acosta, known as ‘The Tiger’, received a 30-year sentence and Antonio Vañek was condemned to 40 years.
They headed the military’s largest clandestine detention centre during its Dirty War against left-wing subversion.
In total, 11 men were found guilty by the court and given prison sentences.
During the case, Videla denied he had given orders to steal the babies. He has repeatedly been accused of remorselessness by human rights groups.
The trial, which began in February 2011, sought to establish the true identities of around 400 infants stolen by the regime.
It proved that 35 babies were stolen. Some were born in captivity while others were kidnapped at a very young age together with their parents. The infants were often raised by families linked to the dictatorship.
Twenty-six people were able to recuperate their identities.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the court in Buenos Aires to celebrate.
“It’s a historic day,” said Taty Almeyda of the Mothers of the Plaza de Maya, a human rights group formed by women who had their children ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship.
“It’s important that we’ve shown the crimes were systematic. But we won’t stop here.”
An estimated 30,000 people were killed during the Dirty War.
Juan García, the son of a desaparecido – the name in Spanish for those people taken by the state and murdered without their whereabouts ever being revealed – was dumped in an orphanage in 1976 after his father, a member of the Montoneros guerrilla group, was murdered.
“We’ll continue this fight for justice,” he told The Daily Telegraph.