A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
We were glad to be back in Buenos Aires, the world class capital city of Argentina, but there was a shadow over the bright spring and summer of our return.
Even after 41 years away, Norma and I were troubled by memories of horrific violence in the nation when we were living here, marrying and starting our family. Those were very special times for us.
So we decided to visit Memory Park, a vast grassy area that was created to honor all of “the disappeared” -- the citizens who were killed from 1969-83 by the armed forces, police and government-tolerated, right-wing “death squads” in Argentina.
It was a sobering experience to walk around the 34-acre park on the banks of the River Plate, the broad estuary bordering the city. We saw more than a dozen sculptures dedicated to victims of state-sponsored terrorism.
Equally striking were four long cement walls. Engraved on them were the names of about 9,000 people who had died and been identified.
There was space for 21,000 more.
We had already heard about ongoing efforts to find more bodies at clandestine burial grounds. We took a newspaper, Página 12, which was almost daily printing small memorials with photos of victims. Families posted those on anniversaries of a death or seizure, with brief details and tender recollections.
Seeing and hearing so much about all of the violence was a fresh reminder that those years were terrible for so many people.
Did we know what was going on? Yes, and no. We were certainly aware of the terrorism, but did not realize its dimensions and it never touched us personally.
At the time, I was a correspondent for United Press International (UPI). In September, 1973, I had been assigned to Buenos Aires to cover Argentina’s presidential election set for that month.
Almost immediately, I found myself writing about violent incidents.
The landslide winner was Juan Peron, a former president who had been in exile for 18 years. His margin of victory sparked a moment of national euphoria, with expectations of change after a long run of repressive military government.
But divisions were soon visible.
Peron wanted to unite his diverse collection of followers. They ranged from right-wing union bosses seeking more power to young leftists who included kidnapping and killing in their vision for reform of society.
Just two days after the election, assassins killed Jose Rucci. He was head of the General Labor Federation, a bulwark of Peron’s right-wing support. He was shot by a group known as the “Montoneros,” young followers of Peron, who wanted to push his government to the left.
Rucci's murder was followed by numerous others, with victims on both the left and right. The pace was so fast that we reporters could not keep up with the statistics. As one week folded into another, it was hard to remember many incidents and where they fit into the death toll. A bright young Argentine on our staff created a pad, called “El Book,” where we described events and kept a tally of casualties.
A secretive group -- the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (Triple-A for short) -- began to claim credit when leading leftists died. Witnesses reported that murderers showed up in green Ford Falcons while police blocked off the streets where victims were seized.
There were unconfirmed rumors that the killers operated from the basement of the government’s Social Welfare Ministry. The man in charge there, Jose Lopez Rega, was close to Peron and his wife, Isabel, then the vice-president
Other groups, such as the People's Revolutionary Army, added to the violence. The members were Marxist-Leninists inspired by Fidel Castro in Cuba and aiming to overthrow the Peron regime.
Gradually, it became apparent that conditions were getting out of hand and Juan Peron’s health was failing. He died nine months after taking office – the same day Norma and I had our marriage scheduled at the Civil Registry Office.
With her husband gone, Isabel Peron quietly took charge, and leaders of the armed forces pledged their support for her government.
That period also was transitional for Norma and me. Our first child, Carlos, was born and we moved from a downtown apartment to a rented house in the seemingly safe suburb of Olivos. We were only half a block from the well-guarded presidential residence, and Carlos was fascinated by the sight of government helicopters coming and going.
As time passed, we were aware of continuing attacks elsewhere – with Leftists on one side and what looked like government-sponsored death squads operating with cooperation of the army and police.
I was writing about them every day. Yet, there was little I could report about government complicity in the killings. The army and the police issued terse communiques describing the slaying of “terrorist criminals” in armed clashes, but I suspected many “gun battles” were more likely executions.
A combination of government pressure and self-censorship kept the local news people from doing much questioning of the communiques. Our own staff in Buenos Aires was not much help, either, and I didn’t have sources in the government or military.
The guerrillas continued to strike. They killed two chiefs of federal police and their wives. One couple died when a bomb exploded under their bed. The other chief and his wife were killed by a blast that destroyed their powerboat as they were cruising on the river.
Isabel Peron proved unable to curb the violence or inflation that was undermining the national economy. She issued decrees giving armed forces more power to fight guerrillas, but her political party increasingly needed, and lacked, somebody capable of leading.
With the ongoing vacuum of power, I began to expect leaders of the armed forces to attempt a takeover. A few times, we heard rumors that a coup was about to occur and nothing happened.
But on March 24, 1976 – less than 21 months after Isabel Peron took office – my boss and I sensed that military action was imminent. So we went to a downtown hotel for the night.
We soon heard that troops were on the move., and we headed for the government palace known as Casa Rosada a few blocks away. As we walked on a narrow cobblestone street, an army tank clanked by and the crew paid no attention to us.
But no tanks were needed for this coup. The presidential guard was part of the operation. Isabel Peron left her office, boarded an air force helicopter and went to a prison far to the south.
There were no signs of a mass uprising to support the unpopular president. Civilian government was finished, once again.
The commander of the armed forces, Gen. Jorge Videla, took power as head of a military junta. He announced that extrajudicial killings would end. In fact, the armed forces secretly took over the killing and the death toll increased tremendously.
The army, navy and air force showed that they were shockingly efficient at seizing, jailing, torturing and killing thousands of citizens. They not only pursued armed terrorists, but went after civilians who were suspected of being sympathizers, such as labor leaders, journalists, actors and others who had raised a voice of protest.
No trials were held. Suspects were grabbed in secret raids, then were killed or were held in clandestine detention centers to be tortured and executed.
Many corpses were buried in mass graves.
Some prisoners, dozens at a time, were drugged and shoved out of airplanes over the ocean so that their bodies would never be found.
All was done to spread terror and to leave no trace of crimes.
Human rights groups estimated that as many as 30,000 Argentines “disappeared” in this campaign.
Neither I nor any of my American colleagues were targeted by the authorities, but we worried. One Associated Press reporter and his wife told us they had an escape route if an armed squad came looking for them at their apartment. That seemed pointless for Norma and me, living in a two-story cottage with a small backyard. It would have been easy to surround us and cut off any escape path.
We did have a scare one night because I absent-mindedly got on the wrong commuter train after work. I didn’t realize it until I had gone past my station. I got home about two hours later than usual and found out Norma was frantically calling my office to ask about me.
The acts of state terrorism by Argentine military leaders started in 1976. They called it the “Dirty War” and we were there to see it until 1978, when I was reassigned.
Only years later did we find out that U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were complicit in government action there as well as in Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Argentine military junta finally ceded power to civilians in 1983, after staging an ill-fated invasion of the British-held Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. When the British forces prevailed, Argentine generals ducked their responsibility and scheduled elections to end military rule.
Civilian governments eventually ordered trials. Survivors got to tell horrifying stories, and some military officers such as Jorge Videla, who led the military government from 1976-81, were given long prison sentences.
Marty McReynolds was a foreign correspondent and an editor at the Miami Herald newspaper for many years.
Argentine citizens were taken in covert raids and murdered, or held in secret centers to be tortured and then executed. Human rights organizations estimated as many as 30,000 “disappeared” over the years -- victims of terrorism.