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Death of a dictator

Marc Koch / gbMay 18, 2013

Former Argentine strongman, Jorge Rafael Videla, died Friday in a Buenos Aires prison at the age of 87. During his rule, between 1975 and 1981, an estimated 30,000 people disappeared or were killed.

Former Argentina's President Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla (ddp images/AP Photo/Eduardo Di Baia)
Image: AP

Videla's regime was best known for its ruthless purge of opposition figures, a dirty, domestic war aimed at leftists, trade unionists, university professors, theologians and anyone else who dared to question his authority.

Videla was said to have died peacefully in his sleep Friday morning in his jail cell in the Argentine capital, where he was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity.

His opponents were much less fortunate. Many were tortured, maimed, summarily executed, or tossed, bound and gagged, from airplanes into the chilly waters of the South Atlantic.

No regrets

Up to the very end, Videla never expressed any remorse for the thousands of people sent to their deaths. Videla left the fate of prisoners to a specially appointed commission to decide: release, prison, or 'disposición final' – elimination and disposal.

Argentina's former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla attends his trial in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday Feb. 28, 2011. Videla is among those who face life sentences if convicted on charges of implementing a systematic plan to steal the babies of political prisoners during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Also charged are six other former military and police officials. (ddp images/AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Videla, at a trial in 2011, expressed no remorseImage: dapd

"That was a military term for the discharge of useless material," Videla explained in an interview published in 2012.

His choice of words reflected his lack of regret. What he and his generals did had to be done, he said again and again over the years.

Videla insisted that his 1976 coup was meant to discipline an "anarchic society," to get away from the "populist demagoguery" and establish a liberal market economy. 'Proceso de reorganización nacional' is what he called it – a process of national reorganization. Some 30,000 people fell victim to this process.

The 'dirty war'

Many Argentines welcomed the military intervention in 1976. For many years before, extremist left-wing guerillas – Montoneros – had terrorized the country. After Videla's coup, many hoped for calm and peace – until the dictator banned political parties and shut down parliament. By then, it was too late to turn back. The 'dirty war' of the dictatorship had already begun against its own people.

A human rights activist attending the sentence against former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in front of the courthouse in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 5th, 2012. The Argentine Justice condemned Videla to 50 years in prison for the systematic plan of illegal appropriation of minors during the last dictatorship (1976-1983), July 5th, 2012. Photo: Sergio Goya/dpa/jg
Argentineans are still trying to uncover the fate of the missingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

When the dictatorship finally ended in 1981, Videla was sentenced to life in prison. In 1990, then-president Carlos Menem pardoned Videla, but the country's Supreme Court annulled the amnesty in 2010.

Since then, there have been numerous trials against the old man for crimes against humanity, organized human trafficking of children, murder and kidnapping. The cases ended in long prison terms – the last one, 50 years for child-snatching. Videla never appeared visibly moved by the sentences.

He always saw himself as a political prisoner. In his unshakeable belief in his own mission there was no room for deeper insight, or desire for forgiveness. "We had to eliminate a large number of people," he would repeatedly say.

Confronting the past

Today, surviving victims and the families and friends of those who died are still painstakingly fighting for justice and some sort of satisfaction for their suffering under Videla.

Argentinische Gefangene sitzen unbekleidet und gefesselt im Freien in einem Gefängnis aus Maschendraht. Aufnahme von 1986. Das argentinische Militär hat nach Angaben der Regierung auch lange nach dem Ende der Diktatur unter General Videla (1976-1983) noch ein Folterzentrum betrieben. Die auf Fotos dokumentierten Folterszenarien sollen 1986, während der Regierungszeit des demokratischen Präsidenten Alfonsin, in einer Kaserne in der Provinz Cordoba stattgefunden haben, teilte das Verteidigungsministerium am 15. Januar 2004 mit. Täter und Opfer seien Militärs gewesen, die zum größten Teil bereits identifiziert seien. Das Folterlager habe von 1965 an bis zum Ende der Wehrpflicht 1994 existiert, berichteten die argentinischen Medien. Präsident Kirchner habe eine strenge Untersuchung angeordnet. Die argentinischen Militärs waren während der Diktatur für besonders grausame Foltermethoden berüchtigt. Nach Schätzungen von Menschenrechtsorganisationen töteten sie bis 1983 etwa 30000 ihrer Opfer.
Even after Videla was gone, Argentina's military used torture, rights groups sayImage: picture-alliance / dpa

"He was a bad person. He never came to apologize for his actions," said Estela de Carlotto, president of the human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which searches for those victims still missing and unaccounted for.

Thanks to their efforts and those of former president Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), the history of Argentina's last dictatorship is now being confronted, pieced together and evaluated. Videla himself contributed nothing.