De por vida: historia de una búsqueda: las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo y los niños desaparecidos
Buenos Aires: Grijalbo Mondadori 2000
Translation: Horacio Pons
Note from Estelle Disch: The preface in Spanish is available in the book. The content of the chapters below might vary slightly from the book.
English Preface to the Spanish edition
It is now more than two years since Searching for Life went to press in the United States and much has happened since then that is relevant to this book. After spending two months in Buenos Aires in early 2000 I returned to the United States convinced that human rights are again at the center of public life in Argentina. Hardly a day went by without an article in the newspapers covering some topic about the detained-disappeared. Many legal and political developments have taken place which opened new possibilities and scenarios regarding the human rights abuses committed by the 1976-1983 regime that I will summarize briefly below. In these last two years, the work of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo has attracted much interest. I have added an Afterword 2000 to this edition where I specifically discuss some of the challenges and successes of the Grandmothers’ Association during this period.
One of these developments is a renewed attention to the topic of impunity. Impunity and its consequences for the creation of a truly democratic society is at the center of much of the discussion in the human rights and legal communities in Argentina. Not surprisingly, the idea of annulment of the laws of Punto Final and Obediencia Debida is once again being debated. The arguments for the annulment of these laws are far-reaching and stand on solid ground. They range from their inconstitutionality because of their conflict with article 29 of the Constitution, to the breach of the international treaties that Argentina has signed which oblige participant countries to “juzgar o extraditar” in cases of crimes against humanity, like genocide, torture and forced disappearances. Legal experts have also pointed out that there is precedent for the annulment of laws passed during the repression since the Law of National Pacification (ley de autoamnistía) passed by the military in September of 1983 was declared nul a few months afterwards, when president Alfonsín came to power.
In early 1998 six members of the House of Representatives presented a project to annul Punto Final and Obediencia Debida. After much debate and political posturing, the laws were repealed but not annulled. ( A repeal stops a law from being applied in the future, while an annulment applies retroactively). Although the human rights organizations were disappointed, several expressed their unwavering commitment to continue to press for the annulment of these laws as a necessary step for the end of impunity in Argentina.
Another important development was that the relatives’ search for the truth regarding the fate of their loved ones received important legislative and judicial support. In the city of La Plata, in 1998, the Cámara Federal, spurred by the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos, launched the Trial for the Truth (El Juicio por la Verdad) to find out what happened to the more than 2000 individuals who disappeared in that city during the repression. The trial has now entered its third year. The right to the truth, strongly supported by international legislation, has now been effectively recognized by the state, though prosecution and punishment for the crimes cannot take place because of the amnesty laws and presidential pardons. However, recent developments may change this. Justices in two Cámaras Federales -La Plata and Buenos Aires- have invoked the principle of “universal justice” and stated that crimes against humanity are not exempt and they have also questioned the automatic application of the amnesty laws. Similar trials are going on in Bahía Blanca, Rosario and Córdoba.
Arrests and trial of members of the repression were another significant development. In May 1998 Alfredo Astiz was indicted for “apología del delito”. In an interview with journalist Gabriela Cerrutti for the magazine 3 Puntos, Astiz had defined himself as “el hombre mejor preparado técnicamente en este país para matar a un político o a un periodista”. Shortly afterwards he was fired from the Navy by president Menem and lost the pension he had as a retired Navy officer. His trial, which took place in March 2000, earned him his first conviction in Argentina: a suspended sentence of three months in jail.
But surely the crowning jewel were the arrests of ex-commanders Jorge Rafael Videla and Emilio Eduardo Massera , also in 1998, for their involvement in the kidnapping of the children of the “subversives.” (This will be more fully discussed in the Afterword 2000 that relates specifically to the Grandmothers’ work) Soon, a chain of arrests of prominent members of the repression followed: Reynaldo Bignone, Cristino Nicolaides, Eduardo Acosta, and Rubén Franco in 1998; Antonio Vañek, Héctor Antonio Febres and José Suppicich in 1999; and Juan Bautista Sasiaiñ in early 2000.
In the international scence, in 1999, the investigations that were being carried out in other countries against the repressors gained new momentum. In Germany, a trial against 41 Argentine military accused of human rights violations was launched; among the accused are the ex-commanders Videla and Galtieri. In Italy, after a long investigation that lasted more than 16 years, a trial for the disappearance and murder of 8 Italo-Argentine citizens was finally reactivated. Among the victims in this case are Laura Estela Carlotto and Guido Carlotto, the daughter and the grandson of Estela Carlotto, current president of the Grandmothers. The 7 men accused include ex-generals Guillermo Suárez Mason and Omar Riveros. In March 2000 the Primer Tribunal Penal de Roma rejected the requests for annulment that the lawyers of the accused had made claiming that their cases were “cosa juzgada” in Argentina. The prosecutor has announced that he will ask for life imprisonment for the accused. And France, where Astiz has already been condemned to life imprisonment for the disappearance of two French nuns ( see chapter 1), has reopened the trial for the murder of a French priest, Gabriel Longueville, a close collaborator of bishop Angelelli, in La Rioja.
Baltasar Garzón, whose work led to the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Great Britain, indicted 98 military and police officers in 1999, including a dozen junta members, accusing them of genocide, torture, and terrorism and ordered the arrest of 48 of them. The indictment stems from his 3-year-old investigation of the “dirty war”. Currently, the state of Israel is considering the possibility of collaborating with judge Garzón regarding the persecution of Jews during the military regime. And CO.SO.FAM, (Comité de Solidaridad con Familiares), Barcelona, presented to Garzón a 200 page report on “La violación de los derechos humanos de argentinos judíos bajo el régime militar (1976-1983)”. The report presents evidence for the crime of genocide against the Jewish population.
Judge Garzón is also investigating Operation Cóndor, the clandestine network of security forces between Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil that allowed for the transfer between countries and the execution of opponents of the various regimes. It is well known that several of the cases of theft of children relied on this network for the transfer of the children between countries.
In December 1999 a new president was elected in Argentina, Fernando de La Rúa, from the Alianza party. De La Rúa has claimed that the independence of the judiciary system will be one of the pillars of his administration, but to many observers of the political scene, he seems a bit too friendly to the military establishment to truly accomplish this. He backed the recent promotion of military officers who were part of the repressive regime in the face of protests of the human rights organizations and is reputedly supportive of an expanded role for the military in the war against drug-trafficking. This may open the door, once again, to increased involvement of the military in Argentina’s political scene. We will have to wait and see how his position evolves on human rights issues.
Lastly, in a historical decision, in May 2000, 183 of the 190 members of the House of Representatives voted to declare Antonio Domingo Bussi unfit to be a member of the national legislature because of his participation in the kidnapping, torture and murder of almost 700 people in Tucumán. This rejection deprives Bussi of parliamentary immunity and opens the door to his being investigated by the judicial system for the many crimes he committed during the time he was governor of that province.
Throughout all these years, the escraches, public denunciations of the repressors in front of their homes organized by HIJOS and other groups, effectively reminded the citizenry of the many criminals “living among us.” The escraches introduced a new and refreshing way to put the unresolved issues of Argentina’s recent past back into the conscience of the citizenship. At Astiz’s trial in 2000 HIJOS orchestrated an escrache inside Tribunales.
It is my hope that the resurgence of interest in Argentine society in human rights and memory will blossom and that soon the work against impunity will bear fruit. I am heartened by the developments mentioned above and the activism of the young. It seems that there is a sense, 17 years after the fall of the dictatorship, that many “accounts” that had seemed closed forever will be reopened. I look forward to the day when truth and justice in Argentina, previously unthinkable, become a reality.