Beyond Punishment: Justice in the Wake of Massive Crimes in Argentina
Ocampo, Luis Moreno, Journal of International Affairs
"The history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder (including, it is true, some of the attempts to suppress them)."
In Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, thousands of people were secretly kidnapped and tortured in hundreds of detention centers throughout the country. More than 10,000 people were murdered by a military regime that took control with widespread national and international support.(2)
Argentina's military dictatorship came to power through a coup d'etat to combat leftist guerrillas and attempt to solve the nation's severe economic crisis. The military dictatorship lasted until 1983, when a renewed economic crisis and Argentina's defeat in the war against United Kingdom over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands initiated a transition to democracy.
Public trials were held in 1985 and 1986 to hold military officials responsible for the tortures and killings. In all, 481 military and police officers were indicted; 16 were tried--11 of whom were top-level officers--and 11 were convicted.
In 1990 President Carlos Menem ordered that these officers be pardoned and released, erasing the tentative gains for justice. In this article, I seek to address the relationship between mass crimes and prosecution and their impact on democratic systems. The absence of democratic institutions in Argentina allowed for these crimes to happen, and while the trials worked to strengthen Argentina's new-born democracy, they put that same democracy at risk.
While I believe the passage of the laws and the pardon which limited the reach of the prosecutions undermined the process of serving justice, I am convinced that no judge or system of justice can replace civil society's role in forging its own path toward justice. Punishment cannot be the only answer.
As a prosecutor in the trials of those responsible for state-sponsored "disappearances" and systemic torture, I realized the limits of using a criminal justice system to prosecute gross violations of human rights. Crimes like those committed in Argentina during the so-called "Dirty War" were more complex than regular crimes: instead of upholding laws, authorities ordered them violated; law enforcement agencies committed crimes instead of preventing them; criminals were not isolated by society, but rather were supported by its elite; and finally, groups that the regime deemed problematic were systemically eliminated with no respect for their human rights.
In 1983, I had great hopes that the trials and prosecutions would transform Argentina from a country where impunity reigned to one in which the rule of law was uniformly respected. I thought the legal system would provide the most comprehensive response, but it was only part of the solution. Civil society was strengthened as a result of the investigations and public trials, which increased the public's commitment to, and respect for, democracy and permitted--through the newly-created free press--a constructive public debate. Stories about kidnapped children, atrocious tortures and people being thrown from navy airplanes to their death at sea became household information. Knowledge about the violence employed by the military to fight "subversion" provoked a reevaluation of the past and the military's claim of victory in the fight against communism was supplanted by humanitarian and legal judgments. As society expressed its increased investment and commitment to democracy, the military lost much of its credibility and power.
Based on the example of Argentina, I propose that the information revealed about past crimes in public trials may be as important as the punishment. Punishment is just one part of the criminal justice system and its application does not guarantee the reformation of the society or its authorities. While I believe reconciliation is impossible, mere retribution is not productive.
Evaluating Argentina s experience in five chronological phases, this article will address the question of seeking justice in the wake of mass crimes against humanity, concluding with some general lessons that can be taken from the Argentine case.
INTERNATIONAL AND NATIONAL ROOTS: SETTING THE STAGE FOR THE CRIMES (1960-1976)
The atrocities of torture, murder and disappearance in Argentina were rooted in the politics of the Cold War. A confluence of forces within Argentine society and international policies led to seven years of heinous crimes executed by a military regime. Understanding both the national and international causes helps to explain how such a government came to power.
The Great Depression of the 1930s and the political crisis that followed led to Argentina's first military coup in the twentieth century. As the economic and political crisis deepened, coups became the habitual form of replacing governments.
Between 1930 and 1976, there were seven civilian-backed military coups, two elections marked by fraud, seven presidents appointed by the army and two terms of the contentious President Juan Peron.
Peron, whose first presidential term spanned from 1946 to 1952, garnered widespread support from workers. In 1952 he was reelected, but strong opposition from conservative sectors, the Catholic Church, large parts of the traditionally middle-class Radical Party as well as some liberal groups led to an early end of his term. In 1955, the military ousted him from power and banned his party from national politics. He continued to influence politics from abroad and eventually played a critical role in provoking the rise of Argentina's repressive military dictatorship.
When General Juan Carlos Ongania seized the presidency in a 1966 coup, he threatened to stay in power indefinitely. Soon after, guerrilla groups appeared in resistance to the dictatorship.(3) Groups trained or financed by Cuba were created to try and establish a socialist regime. Many of the guerrilla members were young Peronist militants who demanded the return of their exiled leader. They confronted the military government by kidnapping and killing military and police officers and bombing their barracks, as well as kidnapping businesspeople and murdering union leaders whom they considered traitors of the working class. Through their rejection of an authoritarian government, they gained widespread support within society.
Elections were called in 1973 and Juan Peron triumphed once again. With the reappearance of Peronism in mainstream politics, many guerrilla members abandoned their violent tactics while others continued to use violence as a political tool. However, Peron's revival was short-lived. Six months after winning the September 1973 elections, he died, unleashing the belligerent forces he had used to regain power. His second wife, Isabel, continued to rule until 1976, amidst a rapidly deteriorating economy and political chaos. The guerrilla groups, union leaders, and anticommunist death squads began attacking each other mercilessly in order to keep or access power, resulting in a widespread demand for accountability and public order. By the end of the 1970s, these guerrilla groups could claim 697 assassinations.(4)
In September 1975 the military establishment secretly debated and approved a plan to eradicate subversive communist movements once and for all.(5) They decided to implement an offensive strategy to staunch the guerrillas' attacks. Extra-judicial methods of kidnapping and torture were accepted as a means to break the sworn silence among guerrilla …
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Publication information: Article title: Beyond Punishment: Justice in the Wake of Massive Crimes in Argentina. Contributors: Ocampo, Luis Moreno - Author. Journal title: Journal of International Affairs. Volume: 52. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1999. Page number: 669. © 1997 Columbia University School of International Public Affairs. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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